African Diasporas: Toward a Global History

By Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe | African Studies Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

African Diasporas: Toward a Global History


Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe, African Studies Review


Abstract:

This article interrogates the development of African diaspora studies. Based a global research project that seeks to map out the dispersals of African peoples in all the major regions of the world, compare the processes of diasporization, and examine the patterns of diaspora engagements, it offers a vigorous critique of the hegemonous Afro-Atlantic model in African diaspora studies. It focuses on two critical challenges that students of African diasporas must confront: the terms of analysis that are adopted, and the problems of historical mapping.

Editors' note: The following article is a slightly revised version of the Presidential Address delivered at the fifty-second Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in New Orleans in 2009.

Over the past five years, I have traveled to different parts of the world in search of African diasporas for a project entitled "Africa and Its Diasporas: Dispersals and Linkages," which was generously funded by the Ford Foundation. The project took me to sixteen countries: four in continental South and North America (Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada); four in the Caribbean (Trinidad, Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas); four in Europe (Germany, Britain, France, and Spain); and four in Asia (India, Qatar, Dubai, and Oman). This is what I would like to share with you in this presentation: my search for peoples of African descent and their histories, trying to decipher the threads that tie them together and distinguish them from one another.

As with most of our intellectual projects, this research venture was inspired by my personal and professional biographies, my paradigmatic and political quests, my family's migratory and diasporic histories, my disciplinary and interdisciplinary proclivities, and my pan-African and internationalist passions. The spark came in 2002 when I met my dear friend Tade Aina in Nairobi. He was then working for the Ford Foundation, which had sponsored a visit to East Africa of Afro-Indians, the Sidis, and we discussed how wonderful it would be to do a project comparing the African diasporas of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. I was intrigued. Three years later, I was ready to embark on the project.

I sought to do three things: to map out the dispersals of African peoples in Asia, Europe, and the Americas; compare the processes of diaspora formation within and among these regions; and examine the ebbs and flows of linkages and exchanges - demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographie - between these diasporas and Africa. Following the global departures, dispersals, and destinations of African peoples has meant tracing their material and discursive journeys; that is, simultaneously unraveling the complex and messy historical processes behind their movements and formations, unpacking the analytical frameworks that inform our analyses, and identifying the political interests that undergird our research projects on this subject.

As a student of the history of ideas and knowledge production, I was only too aware that the field of African diaspora studies is not only framed by our respective disciplinary and interdisciplinary locations as researchers, not to mention our indelible social inscriptions, but like all fields of intellectual inquiry, it is also mediated and marked by the unyielding demands of historical geography and the hegemonies and hierarchies in the international division of intellectual production. This is one reason I sought to visit the different countries and regions that constitute the African diaspora world - to learn of the regional, national, and local histories and discourses. It is indeed a world of bewildering diversity, but there are complex threads of connections, convergences, and commonalities.

Our challenge, it seems to me, is to resist both the tyranny of hegemonic models and the romance of the local, and to develop analytical models that are historically grounded and theoretically suggestive - that are sensitive to local experiences without losing sight of the global forces that structure them, and of the multilayered intersections between African history and world history. …

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