The African Diaspora and the Modern World was the theme of the international conference I organized with the collaboration of anthropologist and museum specialist Dr. Deborah Mack in 1996 at the University of Texas at Austin when I was Director of the Center for African and African American Studies.I invited to participate in the conference more than sixty people from more than twenty countries in Africa, Europe, South and North America and the Caribbean. They were both prominent scholars and major Afrodescendent leaders and artists whom I had met during my research and participation in intellectual and cultural activities around the world. I was pleased to assemble so many of the people from whom I had learned about this Diaspora so that together we could share our knowledge to create an accurate vision of who, what and where the African Diaspora was and is. We also discussed what this Diaspora contributed and continues contributing to the Americas and the Modern World.
Other academics, community members and leaders, and teachers and school children from Austin, TX also attended the conference. It included a photo exhibit, a concert, and a party featuring African and African Diasporan musics. Several hundred people benefited from the event.
The conference, with trilingual simultaneous translation (English, Portuguese, Spanish), was co-sponsored by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as the only event held in the United States for the United Nations International Year for Tolerance. As both of the special guests representing international and national institutions said in their introductory remarks at the official opening ceremony, my receiving UNESCO support for the conference was especially noteworthy because the United States had withdrawn its membership from the global cultural organization.
Unable to be present himself, it was especially meaningful, given the United States’ withdrawal from the organization, that Mr. Mayor sent to represent him one of his special advisors. Ghanaian Ambassador Yaw Bamful Turkson had been part of the team that initiated Ghana’s diplomatic representation in the United States and at the United Nations when in 1957 his nation became independent of its former colonizer, Great Britain. Ambassador Turkson spoke of the focus on the African Diaspora as an evolution of the concept of Pan-Africanism.
The Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus of the United States House of Representatives, the Honorable Donald Payne, in addition to highlighting the importance of such a conference for the Black Caucus, spoke of the impact of the Caucus on United States foreign policy with respect to countries in Africa and the African Diaspora. He also showed his knowledge of history by sharing information about African Diasporans in the Americas and Europe, such as the fact that Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, was an Afrodescendant. He also revealed how Haiti had two centuries earlier helped the United States become independent from Great Britain that later colonized Ghana, as well as how Haiti influenced the geographic, economic, and political configuration of the United States as we know it today.
To inaugurate and set the tone for the conference, I invited Dr. Charles H. Long, my graduate school mentor, to give the keynote address. I expected him to be informative and provocative and to put us on the right path with the right attitude. He was, and he did. In his inimitable style, Dr. Long emphasized the diversity of the African Diaspora, challenged the hegemonic attitude U.S. African Americans tend to have vis à vis the larger Diaspora, and asserted the importance of understanding the African Diaspora as key to knowing the Americas.
My “Welcome” in the conference program booklet said that in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois had deplored the fact that the millions of Africans who survived the horrible Middle Passage to the Americas had not been acknowledged for their essential roles in the creation of the Atlantic and Modern Worlds. Recognizing that six decades later there was evidence of progress in researching and sharing information about what Du Bois characterized as the “Gifts of Black Folks” to the Western Hemisphere and the larger world, the Welcome stated that the conference was designed to further that progress.
It asserted that the prevailing Eurocentric vision of the Americas ignores the integral roles in their creation played by the millions of Africans who survived the brutal ocean crossing during the almost four centuries of the racialized commerce in human lives known as the ‘transatlantic slave trade.’ And it noted that their now more than 200 million descendants constitute the African Diaspora throughout the hemisphere from Argentina to Canada.
The Welcome stated that we would explore essential roles that this Diaspora played and continues to play in the Americas and the Atlantic world, as well as its continuing impact on global society and culture. Saying that the African presence is reflected in technology, economics, politics, spirituality, language, gastronomy, and popular and national cultures, it also indicated that although most apparent among populations of visible African descent, current research also focuses on the African presence in the “mainstream” of national cultures in the Americas.
Thus, a major theme of the conference was the extent to which, and myriad ways in which Africans and their descendants, although enslaved, contributed in expected and unexpected ways and places to the creation and development of the Americas and the Atlantic and Modern Worlds. Much of the information shared at the conference was also conveyed in participants’ articles in my edited volume, African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, and was told by them in the quadrilingual documentary, Scattered Africa: Faces and Voices of the African Diaspora that complements the book.
I had thought, or at least hoped, that much of the knowledge shared at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries at the conference and in the resultant book and documentary, which was widely distributed and shown in many places—at colleges and universities, professional conferences, African and African Diasporan film festivals, the World Bank, the United Nations—would, by the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, have become more widely known by more people interested in and concerned by the topic. But that information and those perspectives remain both strikingly unknown and more relevant than ever more than a quarter of a century later.
When I told educator and out-of-the-box thinker Dr. Jean Marie Robbins that I imagined that by now this information would be common knowledge, her response was, “Where would people learn these things? How could they know?”
Characterizing as “worldview-shifting” the knowledge she gained in Scattered Africa, she said, “If you don’t tell people, again and again and in a variety of ways, they will never know. You’ve got to tell people how and how much Africans shaped the Americas.”
Because much of the conference was filmed by Exhibit Media, I was able to revisit it. Dr. Robbins’ reaction to Scattered Africa inspired me to view again, after so many years, the interviews with and presentations by conference participants, excerpts from which had structured the documentary.
I realized how much more rich information the interviews and presentations contained, information that needed to be shared with the public rather than being hidden on videotapes and hard drives stored in closets. Although it was impossible to interview all the participants, the selection made by colleagues gives a sense of their diversity and provides an introduction to the experiences and perspectives of representatives of several African and African Diasporan communities.
Senior scholars from the United States in their interviews and presentations offered broad, research-based historical, geographical, demographic and conceptual perspectives that established a firm foundation for the conference.
Historian Dr. Joseph E. Harris has been characterized as the “Father of African Diaspora Studies” because of his pioneering research and sharing of information about African Descendent communities beyond the Atlantic World. His groundbreaking studies began with his looking into the voluntary as well as involuntary Diaspora east of the African continent to places like Turkey and especially to India, where there are three separate Afro-Indian, or Siddi, communities. In some regions of India, African descendants controlled maritime traffic, built monumental structures, and even became rulers.
Howard Dodson, then director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, the world’s major repository of information about Africans and populations of African origin around the world, reveals the demographic composition of the modern Americas. Africans and their descendants were the majority of the population during the first three hundred of the last five hundred years. That fundamental fact, Dodson insists, means that the story of the African presence in the Americas and of the Americas in general must be rewritten to include the contributions of this overwhelming majority of the people who created the foundations of what we know as North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
In this wide-ranging interview, Dr. Charles H. Long begins by saying that it is crucial to discuss the African Diaspora in the Americas precisely because the foundational importance of the African and Afrodescendent presence has been ignored. He affirms that it is impossible to talk about the Modern World without talking about Africans in the Modern World. A major contradiction in the concept of “modernity,” he says, is that American nations that characterize themselves as modern and democratic, and as promoting human rights, are based on the systematic enslavement of Africans and post-enslavement oppression of people of African descent.
Knowledge presented at the conference is especially pertinent today when so much information is finally being revealed to the general public. Both print and visual media now regularly inform the public about the inhumane system of racialized slavery that was the economic, social, political and cultural foundation of the Atlantic World. They also discuss the traumatic nature of so much of the systemic, structural racism experienced by African Americans in the United States and by other African descendants throughout the Americas.
In this context it seems especially urgent to share with a broad public the information contained in interviews with and presentations by conference participants from Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal in Africa and Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay in South America, as well as from the United States. Others were from Angola, Benin, Cuba, Egypt, Mexico, Nigeria, Trinidad, and Venezuela, most of whom are represented by their articles in African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas.
Whereas Scattered Africa is organized around sound bites, some of which also appear as clips on the Documentaries page of this site, full interviews and presentations provide much more context and foster greater understanding. They highlight similarities and differences in the personal and collective experiences and perspectives of people from a variety of African and African Diasporan communities. It becomes apparent, for example, that several people from nations distant from each other independently insisted that the story of the Americas must be rewritten to be more inclusive and therefore more accurate. The words of the various participants echo, complement, and reinforce each other, sometimes offering concrete examples of issues to which others have alluded as theory.
The conference occurred at and represents the thinking of a specific point in time, the final decade of the twentieth century. Because it occurred twenty-six years ago, participants are now older, some have become ancestors, and most have advanced professionally and/or changed or retired from whatever their employment or organizational affiliation was at that time.
Because knowledge has evolved as more research has been done by ourselves and others, some information we thought true at the time we no longer consider accurate. My interview, for example, indicated that Lucy, or Dinkenesh in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, was an early ancestors of ours, but we now know that she was not a modern human. And Afro-Paraguayans, although bilingual in Guarani and Spanish, do not sing Candombe, a Bantu term, in the Indigenous language. So in addition to correcting old information with new, our evolving analyses have broadened, deepened, and become more critical and complex.
Some terminology and concepts that were not problematic then are shocking now, such as: referring to human beings as “slaves,” rather than as enslaved people, enslaved Africans, etc., dehumanizing them by reifying their condition rather than acknowledging it as just that, a condition; using “man” as a generic term for human beings that includes women; and talking about “race” as a biological fact rather than as a social construct. Plus Christopher Colombus’ “discovery” of a land discovered millennia earlier by its millions of inhabitants, whose massive demise resulted from his initiating a violent European invasion, tends to be referenced more critically.
Additionally, societies have evolved, often with the intellectual and other contributions of conference participants as significant parts of the process. Therefore, it is important to consider the time lapse when noting what has and has not changed, and contemplating why it has or has not changed.
Mosquera habla de las contribuciones históricas y contemporáneas de los afrocolombiananos al desarrollo de la cultura nacional colombiana y de cómo dichas contribuciones quedan desconocidas tanto por los afrocolombianos como por los otros. Lamenta el hecho de que los afrosudamericanos no conocen su historia de participación en la creación de las naciones de las Américas e insiste que es necesario que la conozcan para poder definirse por sí mismos en vez de dejarse definir, de manera desempoderadora, por otros.
Artista internacionalmente conocida y ganadora de un premio Grammy, la cantante Susana Baca habla de sus investigaciones en diferentes regiones del Perú para conocer la cultura y la música afroperuana. Nos comenta también de semejanzas culturales, sobre todo musicales, que ella ha descubierto en sus viajes a otras comunidades de la Diáspora Africana en las Américas.
Argentina es el país americano que más niega la presencia africana histórica y presente. Como resultado, Lucia Molina creció sin tener una comunidad culturalmente afrodescendiente. Como presidenta de la Casa de la Cultura Indo-Afro-Americana Mario Luis López, ella está descubriendo su historia y su cultura y enseñando lo que está aprendiendo—sobre todo a otros afroargentinos.
Tomás Olivera Chirimini es investigador de la historia y cultura afrouruguaya y director artístico del Conjunto Bantú, un grupo de músicos y bailarines que tocan y bailan música afrouruguaya. Una parte importante de los espectáculos del Conjunto Bantú es la recreación de escenas de músicas y bailes de las “naciones africanas” que existían en Montevideo en el siglo XIX—sobre todo las fiestas y procesiones de la Nación Congo que existía hasta el principio del siglo XX.
Militante importante do Movimento Negro afro-brasileiro a partir das suas origens no final dos anos setenta e inicio dos anos oitenta, Gilberto Leal é uma das pessoas mais conhecidas pelas suas atividades que visam fazer valer os direitos políticos, econômicos, educacionais e sociais dos afro-brasileiros. Leal enfatiza a necessidade dos povos negros de se organizarem e aprenderem a sua história para avançar. Referindo-se ao fenômeno da diáspora, ressalta que é importante o reconhecimento das semelhanças culturais e das condições de vida dos povos negros, bem como o apreço às diferenças, para poder criar uma solidariedade fundamentada nesta diversidade.
O Professor Doutor de Tavares, antropólogo e professor na Universidade Federal Fluminense do Rio de Janeiro, fala da diáspora africana no contexto da globalização e da transnacionalização, identificadas por ele como as dinâmicas fundamentais do presente. Por esta razão, a cidadania na diáspora ultrapassa as fronteiras das nações. Além de ser um cidadão/uma cidadã de um país, uma pessoa pode se considerar também como um cidadão/uma cidadã da diáspora africana global. Assim, para compreender a diáspora africana, de fato, é preciso pensá-la globalmente e compreender a vida de uma maneira mais abrangente.
A ideia da diáspora africana apresentada pela Professora Doutora Rodrigué oferece uma imagem visual muito forte que descreve bem a situação do povo afrodescendente na dimensão temporal. Ela concebe o passado do comercio europeu de africanos que escravizaram como “uma saída [do continente africano] dos povos africanos, sem saber aonde vão.” Quanto ao presente, destaca que, espalhados em lugares diversos do mundo, os descendentes daqueles africanos estão tentando se encontrar de novo para se organizarem coletivamente de novas e relevantes formas.
Babacar Fall, qui enseigne l’histoire africaine à l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop à Dakar, voit la Diaspora Africaine comme l’ensemble des peuples africains éparpillés à travers la terre par le système esclavagiste européen. Ils forment une communauté globale, quoique dispersée, qui s’identifie comme telle du fait de ses origines et de ses cultures semblables. Il trouve qu’il est important que la Diaspora se mobilise pour aider l’Afrique à occuper la place qu’elle mérite dans le monde.
From Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo in northeast South America, Nadia Ravales found her path as an educator and development specialist among the Maroon populations of Suriname’s interior. The Maroons are descendants of people who several hundred years ago escaped from Dutch enslavement and created autonomous societies up rivers in the rain forest. They have maintained some of the most African traditions in the Americas and have created new cultural phenomena based on their interactions with other populations they encountered.
Anthropologist and socio-linguist Dr. Keith Baird discusses language as an instrument of power that can be used to define and manipulate human groups and control their identities, feelings of belonging or not, and sense of entitlement. He asserts the importance for populations of African origin to identify with their geographical and cultural origins and to reclaim a unifying cultural heritage. Using the example of spirituality, he addresses the problems of the imposition of alien spiritual systems and the joy and other benefits of returning to one’s ancestral beliefs and practices.
Dr. Singleton, an anthropologist and archeologist, discusses the importance of using archeological techniques for research on communities of the African Diaspora. She has used them to study the historical evolution of the everyday lives of African Americans in the southeast of the United States, including seeing how material remains can provide information about, for example, spiritual practices. She contends that the necessary multidisciplinarity of a focus on the African Diaspora also offers enhanced possibilities for understanding African Americans in the United States.
Radio and television talent, announcer, producer, Georges Collinet is known as the voice of Afropop Worldwide. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the diversity both of Africa and of the African Diaspora and, not surprisingly, sees music as fundamental to the cultures of both. He describes music as a communications system, a way of recording history and conveying and discussing current events, and a tool for teaching and enforcing morality for the purpose of maintaining societal equilibrium. Music in Africa and the Diaspora is much more than entertainment.
Dr. Guthrie did field research among South Carolina Gullah Geechee people, the United States population that has retained the most Africanity. Noting that it is now known that all modern human beings are of African origin, in talking about the African Diaspora she focuses on those people who identify as such, and emphasizes the importance, especially for people in the United States, of understanding the common history of the African Diaspora throughout the Americas. She characterizes the knowledge shared at the conference as empowering and affirms that many positive effects and events will result from it.
Dr. Daniel discusses ways in which Africans and Afrodescendants in the Americas have used dance as a creative mode of encoding, living, and transmitting knowledge of nature and human life through enjoyable ritual bodily practice. Based on her field research on dance and spirituality in Haiti, Brazil and Cuba, she uses the Cuban manifestation of the Yoruba Orisha Oya as an example of what she characterizes as “dancing wisdom,” through songs, praise poems, and explanations of the dance gestures she performs.
An important aspect of a conference already unprecedented for bringing together scholars with community leaders and artists in an academic event, was that we scheduled in an evaluation session, facilitated by professional evaluators, to help us look critically at what we had done and to propose future steps. The resulting document was, “Where Do We Go From Here? Final Report and Future Directions.”
There was consensus that we needed more similar events to allow us to come together and generate and share more of the kind of groundbreaking knowledge that the conference had represented. Participants also agreed that we should share broadly the knowledge gained, especially with the non-academic Afrodescendent communities in all our countries, and that we should try to get this knowledge into school curricula on all levels everywhere.
Several Spanish-speaking participants proposed that there be more interaction around themes addressed at the conference among themselves as well as with scholars, researchers and activists from the United States and elsewhere. They wanted more research on the African Diaspora in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas, more information available in accessible forms such as videos, and more information in Spanish, including translations of materials written in English. We subtitled the conference documentary Scattered Africa as África Esparcida: Caras y Voces de la Diáspora Africana in Spanish as well as in English and French.
After the conference, journalist and photographer Wilma Jean Randle, who developed the questions and did the interviews, also interviewed me.
I, like other participants, felt enriched by learning so much about the African Diaspora and its foundational roles in creating the world we know today. Ms. Randle also asked me a wonderful question about what had most surprised me at the conference. My response was that I was shocked to learn the demographics of the origins of the modern Americas and the essential roles that Africans and their descendants had played in their creation. I was also irate that I had not been taught such fundamental information about the Americas during my long and presumably excellent education, but had only learned it at a conference that I organized myself.
In my interview I alluded to Afrodescendent communities, using Paraguay and Bolivia as examples, that had not been represented at the conference because I didn’t know anyone from them at the time. And my last line in Scattered Africa was, “We’ve got to do it again, folks!”
I wanted to be able to tell a more complete story of the African Diaspora in the Americas and of the Americas in general by including more Afrodescendant communities. That desire fueled a continuity between the conference as a platform and my subsequent activities building toward another plateau. Looking back at the suggestions made in the evaluation session, I was pleased to see the extent to which I had contributed to fulfilling them.
I was especially pleased to find a way to “do it again” in a style that was more community oriented than academic, and that brought people together and trained them to provide information, in Spanish, based on in-depth insider research about their own African Diasporan communities in South America.
As a Distinguished (previously Cosby) Visiting Professor at Spelman College, an African American women’s college, I received a grant from the United Negro College Fund Global Center to create a project to develop curriculum materials about Afro-Latin Americans. Because I could not imagine doing a project about Afro-Latin Americans as opposed to with them, I invited Afro-Venezuelan researcher and diplomat Jesus Chucho Garcia to collaborate with me in designing it. Bothered by the term “Latin,” a dead European language, we adopted the geographic designation of Afro-South Americans.
We realized that there was no way to develop valid curriculum materials without more accurate knowledge than existed about Spanish-speaking Afrodescendent communities. We also thought it important that this knowledge reflect Afro-South Americans’ own perceptions about themselves rather than the perspectives of others who diminished their contributions and distorted their realities, and in some cases even denied their existence.
Garcia and I developed fundamental themes for understanding the African Diaspora in the Americas and invited Afrodescendent community leaders from the nine Spanish-speaking South American countries to a meeting in the Afrodescendent Barlovento region of Venezuela. There, discussing with the group the themes he and I had developed, we all became aware of both our knowledge as well as our ignorance about ourselves and each other.
We also became convinced of the importance of viewing the Afrodescendent communities of the Americas from a comparative perspective as a way of promoting greater understanding. That was the beginning of what I called the Grupo Barlovento/the Barlovento Group. I characterized our task as “generar conocimiento desde adentro/to generate knowledge from the inside.”
The members of the Barlovento Group learned to become researchers as they began, with our guidance, to learn about their communities and to write about them from their own perspectives that often contradicted ways in which national narratives (mis)represented them.
They became committed to taking advantage of this unique opportunity to tell their stories to the world. Each person wrote the results of his/her research, which we discussed and refined as I gave extensive feedback. I will not pretend that this was easy for me in a language I had studied for a year in a previous century. But the results were gratifying.
I organized a second gathering by inviting the Barlovento Group to participate in what I proclaimed as the “Spelman College Year of the African Diaspora.” The goal was to “Celebrate the historical and contemporary contributions of Africans and their Descendants to the Americas.” During “Afro-Latin Week” Barlovento Group members shared their research about their communities with faculty and students from Spelman’s African Diaspora and the World Program.
The SANKOFA, on the Spelman Year poster, an Adinkra symbol from the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast, means: One should not be ashamed to claim something left behind that enables one to move forward.”
I sought additional funds from the Inter-American Foundation to hold subsequent meetings of the Barlovento Group in Ecuador and Bolivia. Our intention was to have members of the group discuss their research and writing with each other. The process became increasingly dynamic and stimulating as they learned more about themselves and each other and sharpened their analytical skills. We also visited Afrodescendent communities and participated in cultural events, as well as making presentations about Barlovento Group members’ research in both university and community environments.
The resultant book that I edited, Conocimiento desde adentro: Los afrosudamericanos hablan de sus pueblos y sus historias, composed of chapters about each country by Barlovento Group authors, was initially published in Bolivia (2010), then republished by the University of Cauca press in Colombia (2012). It was then translated into Portuguese and published by the Afro-Brazilian Editora Kitabu (Kitabu meaning book in Swahili) as Conhecimento desde dentro: Os afro-sul-americanos falam de seus povos e suas histórias (2018). We did book launchings accompanied by my lectures in major cities in Brazil, and the book was very well received. It is currently being translated into English as Knowledge from the Inside: Afro-South Americans Speak of their Communities and their Stories.
Members of the Barlovento Group from little-known communities in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay shared their cultural expressions in my latest documentary, Familiar Faces / Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora. Also giving visibility to unexpected Afrodescendent communities elsewhere in the world, such as Turkey, India and the Indian Ocean, as well as in the Americas, it is spoken in Turkish and Mauritian Creole in addition to the four languages in which it is subtitled: Spanish, Portuguese, French, English.
Because Barlovento Group activities, evolution and intellectual production responded so clearly to desired follow-ups to the African Diaspora and the Modern World conference, the two experiences seemed like bookends of an Afrodiasporic journey of discovery and sharing of essential worldview-shifting knowledge.
Updated versions of Conocimiento / Conhecimento / Knowledge are scheduled for 2022 because so much has changed in Afro-South American communities in the last decade as a result of Afrodescendent initiatives. These changes have often involved Barlovento Group members, some of whom indicated that they were provoked to action by their participation in and learning from our collaboration.
Several members of the group also published their own books about their communities.