The argument of this book has grown out of an attempt to formulate what it means to be Black in the twentieth century. W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that ‘the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line’; that race and its variously linear parameters (borders, passages, journeys; traditions and origins; demarcations and discriminations) are still politically central at the end of the century serves as a reminder that the urgency of this message has in no sense diminished. Situating the politics of race and racism as the problem that haunts and constructs the discourses of modernity, the subjectivities we inhabit and the times in which we live, makes dramatically apparent the ways in which ‘race’ has become the founding illusion of our identities.
DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk on the threshold of the twentieth century, and his declaration on its future had its roots in the events, the dreams and the thoughts of the century that had just closed. What he meant by ‘Negro’ identity cannot be exactly mapped onto the ideologies, the debates and the times out of which Black identities are understood and enacted today. However, the differential and highly contextualised meanings of Blackness (and of Whiteness) are still closely and significantly bound to the histories inhabited and analysed by DuBois, and cannot be adequately interrogated without those histories.
Throughout this book, I locate Black identity in relation to Africa and the African Diaspora, in order to discover how histories connected with the domination, the imagination and the interpretation of Africa are and have been constructive of a range of political and theoretical parameters around race. This book will pay detailed attention to not only the various histories that inform and inspire ideas of Africa and African identities, but also the connections between these diverse discourses, disciplines and times. Revisiting debates within ethnography, historical inquiry, autobiography and literary text, the argument examines how these various textualities interconnect, continue, re-interpret or contradict each other. Through such divergent disciplines and genres the political meanings of Black Africa and its Diaspora are explored.