Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora

Article excerpt

Colin A. Palmer [*]

The 1999 annual meeting of the American Historical Association will have as its theme "Diasporas and Migrations in History." This has been welcomed by those scholars whose scholarly interest and research focus on what has come to be called the African diaspora. As a field of study, the African diaspora has gathered momentum in recent times and this is reflected in the proliferating conferences, courses, Ph.D. programs, faculty positions, book prizes, and the number of scholars who define themselves as specialists. But, as far as I know, no one has really attempted a systematic and comprehensive definition of the term "African diaspora," although the concept has been around since the nineteenth century and the term has been used since the 1960s if not earlier. Does it refer simply to Africans abroad, that is to say the peoples of African descent who live outside of their ancestral continent? Is Africa a part of the diaspora? Is the term synonymous with what is now being called the Black Atlantic? [1]

The concept of a diaspora is not confined to the peoples of African descent. Historians are familiar with the migration of Asians that resulted in the peopling of the Americas. Sometime between ten and twenty thousand years ago, these Asian peoples crossed the Bering Strait and settled in North and South America and the Caribbean islands. The Jewish diaspora, perhaps the most widely studied, also has very ancient roots, beginning about 5,000 years ago. Starting in the eighth century, Muslim peoples brought their religion and culture to various parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, creating communities in the process. European peoples began their penetration of the African continent in the fifteenth century, a process that in time resulted in their dispersal in many other parts of the world. Obviously, these diasporic streams, or movements of specific peoples, were not the same either in their timing, impetus, direction, or nature.

The study of the African diaspora, as I mentioned at the outset, represents a growth industry today. But, as I shall suggest, albeit briefly, there is no single diasporic movement or monolithic diasporic community to be studied. For the limited purposes of this discussion, I shall identify five major African diasporic streams that occurred at different times and for different reasons. The first African diaspora was a consequence of the great movement within and outside of Africa that began about 100,000 years ago. This early movement, the contours of which are still quite controversial, constitutes a necessary starting point for any study of the dispersal and settlement of African peoples. To study early humankind is, in effect, to study this diaspora. Some scholars may argue, with considerable merit, that this early African exodus is so different in character from later movements and settlements that it should not be seen as constituting a phase of the diasporic process. This issue ought to be a subject for healthy and vigorous debate among scholars. [2]

The second major diasporic stream began about 3,000 B.C.E. with the movement of the Bantu-speaking peoples from what is now roughly the contemporary nations of Nigeria and Cameroon to other parts of the continent and to the Indian Ocean. The third major stream, which I shall characterize loosely as a trading diaspora, involved the movement of traders, merchants, slaves, soldiers, and others to parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia beginning around the fifth century B.C.E. Its pace was markedly uneven, and its texture and energy varied. Thus the brisk slave trade conducted by the Muslims to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries starting after the seventh century was not a new development but its scope and intensity were certainly unprecedented. This prolonged third diasporic stream resulted in the creation of communities of various sizes comprised of peoples of African descent in India, Portugal, Sprain, the Italian city states, and elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia long before Chris topher Columbus undertook his voyages across the Atlantic. …

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