W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Pan-Africanism in Liberia, 1919-1924

By M'bayo, Tamba E. | The Historian, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Pan-Africanism in Liberia, 1919-1924


M'bayo, Tamba E., The Historian


PAN-AFRICANISM--the perceived need to mobilize all peoples of African descent against racism and colonialism--was perhaps one of the most enduring responses to the legacy of European slavery and imperialism. Although a project centered around the notion of Africa, however, Pan-Africanism was in fact heavily influenced by Western discourses on Africa and Africans. It was this Western understanding that profoundly affected the thinking of Africans in diaspora, and that in turn sometimes engendered conflicting thoughts and attitudes toward issues of race, identity, and nationality. (1) Pan-Africanism sought to unite all people of African descent and thereby demonstrate the mutual bond believed to exist among blacks regardless of geographic location. In reality, African American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists often adopted contradictory positions that belied their universalist Pan-Africanist aspirations. Indeed, despite its rhetoric and noble ideals, inconsistencies between Pan-African theory and practice have been integral parts of the movement's long and checkered history. This study analyzes these inconsistencies and indeed the larger paradoxes and problems of Pan-Africanism. It does so by analyzing the separate encounters of U.S.-born William E. Burghardt Du Bois and the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey with the West African republic of Liberia between 1919 and 1924, as each black leader attempted to launch his own particular strand of Pan-Africanism in Africa. (2)

Du Bois and Garvey were two of the most significant Pan-Africanist figures in the early twentieth century. As a result, their separate engagements with Liberia represent a litmus test for the practicality of Pan-Africanism. By showing how both Du Bois and Garvey adopted ambivalent and contradictory positions in their different dealings with Liberia, this article illustrates the difficulty of putting Pan-Africanism into practice. Their experiences prove that in spite of some common understanding about its essence, Pan-Africanism has over the course of its existence signified a variety of ideas with different political and social connotations for different groups of blacks. More harshly, Pan-Africanism, as manifested in Liberia by both Du Bois and Garvey, was a flawed and impractical project laden with Western cultural hierarchies. Consequently, the task of implementing it proved to be a botched project mainly because, as an ideological construct, Pan-Africanism underestimated the complexity of human situations when the politics of race, identity, and nationality all blended on a single stage.

Conventional approaches to historicizing Pan-Africanism tend to privilege its achievements, rhetorical flourishes, and universal claims, even to the extent of downplaying or ignoring its shortcomings. (3) Pan-African constructs have often been misappropriated in scholarly discourses, with the result that the complexity and diversity of both continental African and black diasporan experiences have been obscured. By contrast, this study subjects the common interests, aspirations, and cultural affinity presumed among all blacks in the received wisdom of Pan-Africanism to careful scrutiny. In so doing, it complements the current revisionism in the historiography on Pan-Africanism and the black diaspora by analyzing the discourse on Pan-Africanism and the varying political and social contexts in which it evolved in order both to illuminate the conditions that have limited its practicality over time, and to reassess the movement's uneven history. (4)

While the precise definition of Pan-Africanism tends to be elusive, however, most scholars and activists concede that Pan-Africanism encapsulates the conscious attempts of blacks, "at home and abroad," to forge a united front aimed at combating the dehumanizing effects of slavery, racism, colonialism, and oppression of various sorts against all peoples of African descent. (5) This consciousness has been expressed over time in multiple ways, encompassing cultural, economic, political, and religious approaches. …

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