African Americans, Pan African policy matters, and the development of the Black foreign policy constituency for Africa and the African Diaspora, 1930-1998.

Author:Williams, Zachery R.


Throughout the 20th century, African-American involvement in Foreign Affairs often paralleled domestic civil rights participation. In many cases, the domestic fight for civil rights found an extended ally in the effort to articulate a foreign policy voice for African-Americans. In this effort to construct a voice, a constituency (although amorphous at times) has served as a vehicle for the articulation of various policy concerns. The issues and arenas of this particular constituency have primarily focused on the African continent as well as on many countries of the Caribbean. Members of this constituency have consisted of civil rights leaders and organizations as well as those and individuals functioning in the State Department as ambassadors, diplomats, and field workers. Oftentimes, the existence of such a constituency was evidenced as leaders and groups rallied in support of a particular issue. Historian Brenda Plummer argues that the major issues of this constituency have historically centered around the Italo-Ethiopian war, petitions emanating from the development of the United Nations, and the Vietnam war among others. In our day, genocide in Darfur and in other African nations garners much of the current foci of the Black foreign policy constituency for Africa and the African Diaspora. With the fiftieth anniversary of Ghana's independence in 2007, as well as the July 2008 African Union summit in Accra, focusing on the continued maturation of the Union and a revival of Nkrumah's United States of Africa, such a discussion of a Black foreign policy constituency for Africa and the African Diaspora is essential (1)

With the end of the Cold War, various groups, many whose roots are found in prior generation leaders and organizations, have emerged or re-emerged to represent a segment of the African-American voice with respect to Africa and peoples of African descent in the Caribbean. Groups consisting of influential African-American representation, such as TransAfrica, the African-American Institute, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Constituency for Africa, NEPAD(New Partnership for Africa) to name a few, exist to construct policy alternatives for Africa. The problem remains however that there are numerous groups but very little in the way of a sustained institutionalized framework or constituency outside of the efforts of the Constituency for Africa and the National Summit on Africa. This assessment begs the poignant question: Is there a need to form a more viable coalition of pro-African constituency groups and leaders? Furthermore, how can such a coalition, which involves active African American participation along with African and Caribbean immigrants, come into being so as to provide a collective policy voice for the African continent and African peoples, especially in the Caribbean? In my attempt to address these questions, I trace a brief history of African-American involvement in Foreign Affairs and participation in the State Department as well as the evolution of an overall Black Foreign Policy Constituency. The end goal of such a strategy is to assess the continuity and change between past and present efforts and prescribe possible policy recommendations to promote future collaborations. (2)

So far, no institutionalized constituency framework has ever been put in place-which deals with organizing and mobilizing a specific black foreign policy agenda on matters dealing with Africa and the African Diaspora. Although effective, the temporary and amorphous assemblages were left vulnerable as McCarthy red baiters and other critics took advantage of the lack of a permanent structural safeguard with which to develop a continuous and sustainable Africa policy focus and intervention method. Another challenge, found with respect to many major civil rights organizations, evidenced itself as there was apparently no bridge linking the 1960s and 70s domestic civil rights and black power generation struggles to generations of the 1980s and 90s actively seeking to end apartheid in South Africa. As a result, such a gulf continues to encourage more pervasive fracturing among groups interested in Africa and Caribbean foreign policy issues. This continued fracturing, competition for resources to promote policy alternatives, and inadequate amounts of substantial collaboration have elicited unsustained influence on Capital Hill in terms of a collective engine to advocate long-term policy recommendations.

Historical Background

African-American involvement in foreign affairs has spanned from the late 19th century to the present. Within this context, African-American participants have functioned in numerous roles, the most known of which include those of ambassadors, diplomats, civil and human rights leaders among others. Their participation has often been influenced by two different points of view.

One perspective, reflective of Pan-African sentiments, believed that ties among continental Africans and those of African descent in the African Diaspora, especially in the Western hemisphere, needed to be nurtured and strengthened. (3) Advocates of this view linked domestic and global struggles via imagined and real cultural ties. Pan-African sentiments at home and abroad were espoused through the efforts of figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and the Pan-African Congresses; the efforts of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, and organizations such as the Council on African Affairs. Adherents of this view "sought to unify peoples of African descent as a way of mobilizing the vast human and material resources of Africa in order to fulfill its potential as a world power." (4)

The other viewpoint stressed the idea that as citizens, African-Americans had a right to participate in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy. Adherents saw African-American involvement in Africa and International Affairs as the logical outgrowth of domestic strivings for civil rights and social activism. Although highly cognizant of the cultural connections to Africa and the Diaspora, this position emphasized less attention on global Pan-Africanism and focused more on securing the rights of African Americans in the U.S. This approach was used as a springboard to influence U.S. foreign policy abroad but placed priority on influencing the global through mainstream participation in the national. The group that most epitomized this point of view was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, active in global matters throughout much of its early existence, began a policy of retrenchment after World War II, which highlighted the domestic civil rights front as a priority. This retrenchment occurred as threats came in lieu of the McCarthy Red Scare, prompting the adjoining fear that the federal government would rescind support for the growing civil rights movement at home. (5)

Both methods of involvement in International affairs have garnered the efforts and voices of prominent African American civil rights leaders and organizations. In addition to black foreign service officers like Edward Dudley and Theodore Brown, prominent figures, such as Ralph J. Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, Rayford Logan, and Mary Church Terrell lent their energies to global issues such as decolonization and the role of the United Nations in world affairs.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, led by Walter White, Mary Church Terrell and Roy Wilkins, joined forces with groups such as Max Yergen and Paul Robeson's Council on African Affairs to create a collective voice, clamoring for connections between domestic civil rights and the global manifestations of those rights abroad. Furthermore, historically black colleges and universities (HBCU's) joined this growing constituency for African American participation in U.S. foreign Affairs; represented primarily by the pioneering efforts of Howard and Fisk Universities, HBCUs played an important role in promoting the scholarship, activism, and public policy recommendations of African Studies as a discipline.

Scholars, at these respective institutions, advanced African Studies by convening conferences and symposia on pressing international issues such as colonialism, international organization, and intergroup relations. In this way, international service created postwar opportunities for both an expansion of professional opportunities for black academic intellectuals and activists. (6) Unfortunately, intellectual-activists have been unable to develop a specific method of connecting the study of Africana studies to the construction, implementation, and evaluation of public policy towards Africa and the African Diaspora. What is needed, in our time to remedy such an academic and policy void, is the development and articulation of an Africana Cultures and Policy Studies paradigm. (7)

African-American involvement in the State Department is another area where attention has been placed on influencing U.S. foreign policy abroad, especially on the African continent and in the Caribbean. Some blacks have sought to establish...

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