The African Diaspora and the 'Black Atlantic': An African American Perspective

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the late 1800s, the term "African Diaspora" has been applied to the forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans into Europe, the Americas, and Asia that occurred between 1441 and the abolition of slavery in Brazil on May 13, 1888.(1) As such, the African Diaspora is a fact of history central to the complex process of creating the "modern" world. But what does the Diaspora mean today, particularly to Africans and persons of African descent? If Africa is an enormous, metaphorical "tree" and the Diaspora represents its many "branches," no consensus -- popular or scholarly -- exists as to whether the relationship between the "tree" and its "branches" or between the various "branches" themselves is historically and contemporaneously significant or merely coincidental. Beyond historical considerations. the presumption of a common culture transmitted across generations and shared by persons of African descent is even more hotly and bitterly contested.(2)

Scholars of European descent, who would describe the creation of modernity as "their" story and "their" triumph reject such historical constructs out of hand. The more conservative scholars of African descent are faced with a similar dilemma and are often disinclined, often unconsciously, to consider that Africans and those of African descent could possibly be their "close cousins." At the opposite extreme, contemporary cultural nationalists -- Afrocentrists -- assume the existence of invariant cultural traditions that link the glories of the African past to the achievements of the diasporic present. Still, by generally avoiding in-depth study of the period during which the Diaspora occurred and the "Black Atlantic" was forged, Afrocentrists have overlooked the proof of many of their most fundamental assumptions, which ironically, lies outside the framework of their research.

Beyond these perspectives, the intellectual tradition of Pan-Africanism, as reflected in the works of its most representative scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, draws more faithfully on the historical, cultural, and political implications of the African Diaspora. Because of the association of this perspective with both national and international racial and social justice movements, Pan-Africanism usually is considered too "political" to be academic, too radical for the conservatives, and insufficiently Afrocentric for the cultural nationalists.

Enslaved Africans brought both their bodies and their cultures to the Americas. At issue is what happened to those bodies; what they remembered of Africa; what changed, persisted, or was lost to successive generations of their descendants who were born into slavery in the Americas. Simply put, establishing the Diaspora as a fact of history is a necessary precondition, but the historicity of the Diaspora is not sufficient in and of itself to support the "Black Atlantic" construct. Rather, this construct must stand or fall based on the answers to several fundamental. related, and often contingent questions. Was the cultural connection to Africa lost, completely or partially, through the horrors and dislocation of slave trade and slavery? For instance, did Africans of the Diaspora become "Negroes," people without a country, a culture, and a past? If African culture survived, were these survivals sufficiently numerous and widespread to be significant? Were these cultural forms passed from generation to generation, and how? If so, did cultural forms remain fixed or did they evolve? If African culture "survived" and was transmitted across generations, what cultural similarities, if any, exist between in various branches of the Diaspora. Are the similarities at least as important as the differences?

This brief multidisciplinary overview, presented at the Fourth Annual Humanities Festival held at Cave Hill Campus, University of the West Indies, Barbados, March 1997, tests the validity of the Black Atlantic" construct by exploring the historical and cultural dimensions of the African Diaspora through 1800 -- placing special emphasis on the African American experience in relation to the larger historical framework. …