Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora.

Author:Palmer, Colin A.
 
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Colin A. Palmer (photo at the left) has taught at Oakland University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (chair, African and Afro-American Studies, History), the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (Distinguished Professor of History), and Princeton University, where he was Dodge Professor of History. His numerous publications include: Inward Hunger: The Education of Prime Minister [editor] (1972); Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650 (1976); Human Cargoes (1981); Modern Caribbean (1989); The First Passage: Blacks in the Americas 1502-1617 (1995); The African Diaspora (1996); Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America (1998); The Education of History for Twenty-First Century (2003); Beyond Black and Red: African-Native Relations in Colonial Latin America (2005); editor, six-volume Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History (2005); Eric Williams & The Making of The Modern Caribbean (2006); Ideology, Identity and Assumptions (2007); Cultural Life (2007); Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana's Struggle for Independence (2010); Freedom's Children: The 1983 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica. (2014); and Inward Yearnings: Jamaica's Journey to Nationhood (2016). He is a graduate of the University College of West Indies, and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The AHA's 1999 annual meeting will have as its theme "Diasporas and Migrations in History." (1) This has been welcomed by those whose scholarly interest and research focus on what has come to be called the African Diaspora. As a field of study, the African Diaspora has gathered momentum in recent times. This is reflected in the proliferating conferences, courses, PhD programs, faculty positions, book prizes, and the number of scholars who define themselves as specialists. But, as far as I know, no one has really attempted a systematic and comprehensive definition of the term "African Diaspora," although the concept has been around since the 19th century and the term has been used since the 1960s, if not earlier. Does it refer simply to Africans abroad, that is to say the peoples of African descent who live outside their ancestral continent? Is Africa a part of the Diaspora? Is the term synonymous with what is now being called the Black Atlantic?

The concept of a Diaspora is not confined to the peoples of African descent. For example, historians are familiar with the migration of Asians that resulted in the peopling of the Americas. Sometime between 10 and 20 thousand years ago, these Asian peoples crossed the Bering Strait and settled in North and South America and the Caribbean islands. The Jewish Diaspora, perhaps the most widely studied, also has very ancient roots, beginning about two thousand years ago. Starting in the eighth century, Muslim peoples brought their religion and culture to various parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, creating communities in the process. European peoples began their penetration of the African continent in the 15th century; a process that in time resulted in their dispersal in many other parts of the world, including the Americas. Obviously, these Diasporic streams, or movements of specific peoples, were not the same in their timing, impetus, direction, or nature.

The study of the African Diaspora, as mentioned at the outset, represents a growth industry today. But, there is no single Diasporic movement or monolithic Diasporic community to be studied. For the limited purposes of this discussion, I identify five major African Diasporic streams that occurred at different times and for different reasons. The first African Diaspora was a consequence of the great movement within and outside of Africa that began about 100,000 years ago. This early movement, the contours of which are still quite controversial, constitutes a necessary starting point for any study of the dispersal and settlement of African peoples. To study early humankind is, in effect, to study this Diaspora. Some scholars may argue, with considerable merit, that this early African exodus is so...

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