Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global
edited by Leith Mullings,
New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, 334 pps., paperback.
City University of New York Graduate Center professor, Leith Mullings,
has put together a unique work. Although published in 2009,
I just recently read it and it was more than timely. With
2011 having been declared by the United Nations to be the
Year of the Afro Descendant, New Social Movements in
the African Diaspora could not have come out at a more
introduces the reader, through this marvelous collection
of articles, to what one might think of as the pan Africanism
of the 21st century, or at least a major slice of it. The
articles provide both historical background as well as contemporary
analysis of the African Diaspora and particularly the social
movements that have emerged within it over the last twenty
or so years.
scope of the book is quite broad. One of the most interesting
sections, and something about which I had known nearly nothing
until reading this book, concerns Africans on the islands
of the Indian Ocean. While we often
hear about locales such as Diego Garcia, we may know about
the US military bases
there. But the issue of land loss by Africans is something
that is never discussed in mainstream media, let alone the
demand by the African population for the right to return.
of the challenges for the African Diaspora concerns the
nature of the struggles in which we engage. In light of
the fact that, by definition, we are not native to the lands
where we were transported, yet at the same time have been
residents of those lands and contributors to their development
in many case for centuries, is our struggle for land? For
equal rights? For some other formulation of social justice?
For all of the preceding?
issue is one confronting Afro-Latinos at this very moment.
Take, for instance, Venezuela. The administration
of socialist President Hugo Chavez led a constitutional
change in order to directly address the grievances and demands
of the long oppressed and marginalized indigenous populations.
While the Chavez administration has also been attempting
to address demands of Afro-Venezuelans, the situation is
far more complicated. Among other things, Latin
America has a tremendous history of denial of its African
heritage. Yet the denial is a complicated one. In a visit
to Venezuela in 2004, I ran right into racial denial,
including among otherwise radical activists. This denial
took an interesting form that would seem paradoxical, at
least from the point of view of an African American (USA).
I and my delegation would be told that there were no racial
problems in Venezuela.
At the same time, we would often be told that “…we [Venezuelans]
all have some African in us…”
from a white person in the USA,
a statement such as the one we heard in Venezuela
would be close to a revolutionary proclamation, but in a
Latin American context it actually had a different implication.
In essence it suggested that there was no particular racial/ethnic
issue when it came to Afro-Latinos. They were simply part
of the stew. This might have been pleasant for some to hear,
except that when one goes up the economic ladder in Latin
America, those at each rung tend to be lighter and lighter.
Unless one wishes to argue genetics, there is a structural
problem of white supremacy in existence, but one that looks
quite different than one might find in the USA. Compounding this is that there are geographical
sections of Venezuela,
and for that matter other Latin American countries, which
are overwhelmingly Afro-Latino. Should such sections have
some sort of territorial autonomy as a means of addressing
the oppression that they have received over the centuries?
Or does such a demand miss the mark entirely?
New Social Movements in the African Diaspora helps to provide the context and
analysis to better understand the challenges facing the
Diaspora, such as those just described in Latin
America. Yet the importance of the book goes beyond this
one point. Mullings and her authors help the reader to understand
that the actual natures of struggles, whether in Europe,
the Indian Ocean, Latin America, the Caribbean or the USA,
are each quite different and must be analyzed with an emphasis
on these particularities. At the same time, there are transferable
and generalizable lessons.
of the lessons is the importance of understanding racism
and racist oppression as systems of both suppression and
social control. In each segment of the Diaspora, race has
been used as a method of both exploiting the labor power
of the African population and dividing up the laboring classes.
looks different in each setting. In the USA,
for instance, the settler-colonial elite had no interest
in the development of a mulatto or mixed population for
purposes of social control and instead saw to it that all
those with an ounce of African blood were classified as
black and enslaved. In Latin America,
on the other hand, the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists
spent an inordinate amount of time dividing up the entire
population by gradations of skin color, thereby creating
a system of what one might call ‘multiple suppressions.’
This system ensured a racial classification for all with
so-called pure European being at the top and so-called pure
African and Indigenous, of course, being at the bottom.
second lesson is that there remains a critical importance
to race consciousness. In part as a consequence of
the nature of racist oppression and racism as a system,
a progressive, if not, radical interpretation of race consciousness
is critical. Part of this centers around reestablishing
one’s humanity but it also concerns a matter addressed by
several authors in New Social Movements in the African
Diaspora, i.e., the tendency for the anti-racist struggle
to be subordinated by and to other social movements.
third lesson is the question of coalition or bloc-building.
This is an issue that I wished New Social Movements in
the African Diaspora had spent greater time addressing,
in part since it relates to the issue just mentioned. While
the book focuses on the movements of African peoples, the
question that confronts each such movement is its relationship
to other social movements in the fight for power. Some years
ago, while serving as president of TransAfrica Forum, I
had the opportunity to meet with various Afro-Colombian
activists visiting the USA.
What struck me is that in most cases there was an ambivalence
on their part towards relating to other social movements
and political forces in Colombia. While this
was understandable in light of the tendency of many Colombian
groups to ignore the Afro-Colombian condition, it nevertheless
raised the question of the actual objectives of the Afro-Colombian
movement and how they tied into, or were divorced from,
larger issues of social transformation in Colombia.
Social Movements in the African Diaspora needs a broad audience. This is
not a book to be restricted to academia. The issues it addresses
and the scope of the book make it an important tool in thinking
through the nature of the struggle for global justice and,
specifically, what that should mean when seen through the
eyes of the children of Africa.
Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president
ofTransAfricaForum and co-author of,
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice(University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized
labor in the USA. Click here
to contact Mr. Fletcher.