(Editor’s note: This blog is the first in a series on the contemporary significance of the African diaspora. This series will explore how the African diaspora is changing the face of Europe, the U.S., and Africa politically, socially, economically, and artistically.)
Understanding the African diaspora begins with the recognition of World War I (WWI) as a crucial and evolutionary moment. WWI marks a period that reflected tension and confusion, as well as assertions of connectivity and empowerment within the diaspora, that persist today.
About a century ago, hundreds of thousands of African, African-American, and Caribbean soldiers simultaneously experienced the harsh contradictions of Western democracy. As soldiers fought and died for democratic values while experiencing brutal subjugation by those they fought for, international and national struggles for equality arose. This period helped initiate a century of revolutionary social and political movements, powerful artistic expressions, and opportunities for broader understanding of the connectivity of blacks around the world.
For example, Lamine Senghor, a Senegalese soldier who fought in WWI, became the dominant figure of a black liberation organization in France, Comité de Défense de la race Nègre (CDRN) during the interwar years. Senghor supported an international struggle leading to the liberation of all colonies, combined with a domestic movement advocating equal rights for blacks in France. Senghor declared, “Young Negroes are beginning to see things clearly. We know and ascertain that we are French when they need us, to let us be killed or make us labor. But when it comes to giving us rights, we are no longer Frenchmen, but Negroes.” Senghor was influenced by Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and African-American activists and organizations seeking to internationalize the black struggle in the wake of the end of the war, as well as the landmark 1919 Pan-African Congress held in Paris.
At the same time, curiosities and misunderstandings between blacks of different backgrounds during the war illustrate gulfs in understanding and communication.
Recounted in Floyd Gibbons’s And They Thought We Wouldn’t Fight (1918):
“Two … American Negroes, walking up the main street of St. Nazaire, saw on the other side of the thoroughfare a brother of color wearing the lighter blue uniform of a French soldier. This French Negro was a colonial black from the north of Africa … one of the American Negroes crossed the street and accosted him.
‘Looka here, boy,’ he inquired good-naturedly, ‘what can you all tell me about this here wah?’
‘Comment, monsieur?’ responded the non-understanding French black, and followed the rejoinder with a torrent of excited French.
The American Negro’s mouth fell open. For a minute he looked startled, and then he bulged one large round eye suspiciously at the French black while he inwardly debated on the possibility that he had become color-blind. Having reassured himself, however, that his vision was not at fault, he made a sudden decision and started on a new tack.
‘Now, never mind that high-faluting language’ he said, ‘you all just tell me what you know about this here wah and quit you’ putting on aihs.’
The puzzled French Negro could only reply with another explosion of French interrogations, coupled with vigorous gesticulations. The American Negro tried to talk at the same time and both of them endeavoring to make the other understand, increased the volumes of their tones until they were standing there waving their arms and shouting into one another’s faces.”
A century later, these examples of collective international empowerment and suspicious misunderstanding still resonate as opportunities and challenges for the African diaspora. Questions about black political power and identity in Europe, as well as how Africans and African-Americans relate, remain relevant to contemporary ideas of African diaspora and will be discussed in this series.
Dena Montague, Ph.D. is the co-rounder of EnergieRich. EnergieRich is a social enterprise introducing solar solutions to rural areas of West Africa. EnergieRich actively integrates members of the African diaspora into the process of developing ideas and products for sustainable energy development.