Conceptualizing the African Diaspora: Complications with time, space, class and gender.
The term “Diaspora” simply means a dispersion of a people, language or culture that was formerly concentrated in one place. But adding “Africa” to the term makes it complicated and difficult to define because of the way the African diaspora occurred and controversies among scholars in defining who an African is. This complexity raises questions such as is an African solely a black person, or is it someone who traces his descent to the continent and the ultimate question of whether Africans see themselves as one people or align themselves to their respective ethnic groups and to some extent their countries. The complications is further heightened by how various authors conceptualize the African Diaspora. The Atlantic model which dominates the African Diaspora popularized by Paul Gilroy tries to shift focus and attention on the forced migration of West Africans from 16th Century to the 19th Century as slaves to the new world. Scholars such as Zeleza therefore argues that there is the need to “de-Atlanticize and de-Americanize the histories of African diasporas” and identifies three main sets of African Diaspora namely the trans-Indian Ocean diasporas, trans-Mediterranean diasporas, and trans-Atlantic diasporas. These sets of African Diaspora have their own histories and their differences and similarities between them making it more difficult to conceptualize the African Diaspora as referring to one event. This essay therefore seeks to explain how the complications in conceptualizing the African Diaspora stretches across time, space, class and gender.
The first question that scholars encounter in conceptualizing the African Diaspora is “how far back we can push certain diaspora identities?” Since the beginning of time, people of African origin have been moving from place to place internally and externally for various reason. The periodization of the African Diaspora has led to its division into pre-modern diaspora and modern African Diaspora. The pre-modern diaspora starts from the movement of people from Africa during the great exodus, then mass Bantu movement from parts of Nigeria and Cameroon to place in Southern, Central and Eastern Africa and beyond the Indian Ocean in about 3000 BC. Then this pre-modern Diaspora ends with the 5th Century BC movement of people from Africa to parts Asia, Middle East and parts of Europe as traders, artisans, soldiers and slaves. The modern African Diaspora which include the Atlantic model (16th Century to mid-19th Century), the East African-Indian Ocean-Asia model (7th Century- 16th Century) and the Neo-diaspora (which is the voluntary movement of Africans to other parts of the world which is ongoing). This proves that “there have been variations in the periodization, size, and formation of African diasporas in different parts of the world”. The existence of different diasporas with different starting times makes it difficult to point to the exact period African diaspora begun. The complications with the both pre-modern and modern era is that, aside the neo-diaspora it is difficult to explain the African consciousness of those involved in those diasporas. People from the great exodus up to the Atlantic model did not constitute on people but were different people with diverse history, culture and experiences. This makes it difficult to fix a specific time as the beginning time for the African Diaspora.
Spatial complications in conceptualization the African Diaspora has drawn the attention of scholars to study different African Diaspora independent of others. The nationalities within the African continent are western inventions during the scramble for and partitioning of the continent. This raises the question “what is Africa and who is an African”. The Atlantic model in trying to conceptualize African diaspora limits Africa to sub-Saharan Africa. Even if the Atlantic model is neglected and Africa is viewed as the entire continent, the questions that pops up is, do Africans in the diaspora consider themselves as one people? “Whatever Africans share, we did not have a common traditional culture, common language, common religious or conceptual vocabulary”. There is the need therefore to refer to the various diasporas as Yoruba Diaspora, Asante Diaspora or more recently Nigerian Diaspora, Kenyan Diaspora or Uganda Diaspora. The diversity in destinations of Africans in the diaspora means that a difference in diasporic conditions and experiences thereby making African Diaspora lack a common diasporic consciousness.
Aside the spatial complications in the issue of class complications in conceptualizing the African diaspora. Class relations in African Diaspora studies tries to study and understand whether Africans in the diaspora constitute a particular class of people based on their race, history, experiences and economic activity. But complications arise in this area because Africans moved of out the continent to different places under different conditions which means there will be different experiences. This limits the importance of race and color in African diaspora studies. For instance, in Asian societies, there is the complexity of color and race because “there are many Asians who are as dark as many sub-Saharan Africans and as light as many North Africans. Color, in this case "blackness," therefore, is not always a reliable indicator of "African ness." There is also the issue of different assimilation policies pursued by the different regions Africans found themselves. Also, Africans who moved to Islam dominant areas had better assimilation policies available so that in such society there could be two Africans belonging to different social class such as aristocracy and slaves. This sharp difference in African Diasporic experiences has contributed to the difference in Diasporic consciousness in different parts of the world among Africans. So, whilst Afro-Americans may feel bound together because of the common experience of slavery and segregation, Afro-Asians or Arabs will lack that common experience as a result of better assimilation policies available.
There is also the difficulty in exploring the gender roles played by Africans in the diaspora in their new areas of settlement. This problem is more complex due to lack of research and documents on the gender roles in African Diaspora studies. Also, different destinations and backgrounds of Africans in the Diaspora means that gender roles differed in among African communities in the Diaspora and that of the home continent. For instance, whilst Afro-Arab women are less assertive and have limited rights as compared to their male counterparts, African women in North America and Europe enjoy equal rights and are assertive of their rights leading some to promote the ideas of feminism.
In conclusion, the complications in the conceptualization of the African diaspora does not mean studying the dispersal people of African descent is irrelevant but prompts for a better way to study the African diaspora. One of such better ways is studying the different African diasporas independent of the others while noting down difference and similarities between those African diasporas.
1. Appiah, K. 'Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?', Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, (2001).
2. Byfield Judith, “Introduction: Rethinking the African Diaspora”, African Studies Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Special Issue on the Diaspora (Apr., 2000), pp. 1-9.
3. Palmer, C, “The African Diaspora”, The Black Scholar, Vol. 30, No. ¾ (2000), pp. 56-59.
4. Violet M. Showers Johnson, "What, Then, Is the African American?" African and Afro-Caribbean Identities in Black America”, Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 28, No. 1, Racial Divides (Fall 2008), pp.77-103.
5. Zeleza, P T.., “African Diasporas: Toward a Global History”, African Studies Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, (April 2010).
 Paul Zeleza, “African Diasporas: Toward a Global History”, African Studies Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, (April 2010), pp.6
 Ibid., pp. 5
 Ibid., pp. 15
 Ibid., pp. 9
 Colin Palmer, “The African Diaspora”, The Black Scholar, Vol. 30, No. ¾, (2000), pp. 57.
 Ibid., pp. 58.
 Zeleza, 10
 Kwame Appiah, 'Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?', Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, (2001), pp. 9
 Paul Zeleza, “The African Diasporas…”, pp. 12.