Book Club: Pan-African Activism and the Global Color Line

Emancipation without Equality: Pan-African Activism and the Global Color Line cover/Thomas E. Smith
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How did Pan Africanism and campaigns for civil rights feed into and shape one another, and with what consequences? In the latest edition of our popular Book Club series, Thomas E. Smith reflects on the key lessons from his important work Emancipation Without Equality: Pan-African Activism and the Global Color Line.

My new book, Emancipation without Equality, draws on holistic understandings of Pan-Africanism to help frame a discussion of protest against the global color line that occurred from roughly the 1884-85 Conference of Berlin to the 1911 Universal Races Congress. This understanding sees Pan-Africanism as a broad cultural and political awareness that seeks to articulate and improve the position of African peoples and offers the opportunity to connect a wide array of themes and practices, from protests against the slave trade to contemporary political policy in twenty-first century Africa.

During the period covered in my study, Pan-Africanism mixed the moral ethos of abolitionism with appeals for secular participation in society for post-emancipated subjects and citizens. These claims on citizenship were strengthened by imperialism’s normative ‘standard of civilization,’ which articulated a language of social equality and political rights. Yet, Euro-American nation-states involved in the imperial pursuit failed to consider the possibility, due, in large part, to theories of scientific racism, that people of African descent could meet the requisite level of ‘preparedness’ for equality and rights. This practice only invigorated Pan-African protest. While Pan-Africanists continued to give evidence of the progress made by peoples of African descent and put forth conceptions of racial destiny, they advanced a form of cultural pluralism that fundamentally denounced the view that skin color could be the basis for the denial of equality and rights.

Pan-Africanists also saw the marginalized position of people of African descent as a phenomenon transcending nation-state boundaries and they consistently sought international forums to air grievances. In doing so, they collapsed distinctions between domestic and international politics, which worked to obviate full recognition of the global nature of the color line. While nation-states promoted the standard of civilization at world’s fairs and other global conferences, they consistently sought to minimize international censure of practices that violated the standard. Pan-Africanism always recognized that nation-states consistently transgressed the standard of civilization, both in practices that violated fair treatment of colonized people and in their refusal to recognize progress and grant full rights.

By the 1911 Universal Races Congress, Pan-Africanists scrutinized how white-led societies were deploying the standard of civilization. Pan-Africanists condemned how, at the same time that the standard was championed as inclusive and progressive, white-led societies violated its meaning by using it as a tool of exclusion and oppression. Others too were questioning the standard. At the Universal Races Congress, anthropologist Franz Boas presented ideas of cultural relativism that questioned the superiority of Euro-American standards, including those that produced schemas of racialized hierarchies. These ideas, in turn, supported Pan-Africanist interpretations of African history and cultures independent of Euro-American standards of civilization. These changes in Pan-African thought prefigured a turn toward anti-colonialism as the response and solution to the problem of the global color line.

Pan-Africanists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were forced to navigate Euro-American standards of progress that were inherent in the construction of the global color line articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois at the first Pan-African Conference of 1900. Modern Pan-Africanism continues to critically evaluate external prescriptions for progress. Africa and its nation-states actively participate in the global marketplace and Pan-African organizations see the need to have integrated strategies to protect African interests. The actors in my study provided a vocal counter-narrative to imperialism, but, of course, did not overturn the imperial project. While Pan-Africanism has significant formal institutional strength today, taking control of transnational forces for the betterment of the continent and its peoples remains a challenging task. Chronicling Africa and peoples of African descent within the history of modern globalization helps us to understand the continent’s current navigation of transnational forces.

The change from a critique of imperial practices alone to a protest against imperialism by the 1911 Universal Races Congress did not weaken the Pan-Africanist belief in the empowerment conferred by citizenship. This focus remained evident throughout the twentieth century. Protests that centered on modern political participation were central to decolonization, the civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid struggle, and have not left the landscape of twenty-first century African politics.

Pan-African activists in my study concentrated primarily on the realization of political rights; however, it is clear that they saw citizenship as full participation in society. Drawing on the arguments of T.H. Marshall, my work delineates the view that the goal of full participation signified the accumulation of civil, political and social and economic rights. While Marshall’s model has been criticized as overly ideal, human rights theorists have argued that an emphasis on the “interdependence and indivisibility” of the rights enumerated by Marshall is central to the pursuit of modern human rights.

Historically, the achievement of political rights often has not automatically given rise to social and economic rights, even in democratic settings. The lack of accumulation of citizenship rights is not only part of history, but remains a pressing issue in present-day Africa. One example is post-apartheid South Africa, where citizens are making demands for the furthering of social and economic rights. Having a sense of the successes and failings connected to the historical search for meaningful, full citizenship can help us to see that current calls for justice are part of a longer continuum of struggle.

My study documents the often difficult path of Pan-African activism. Understanding this historical path sheds light on present-day Pan-African mediation of external forces on the continent and the ongoing pursuit of citizenship and rights for the people of Africa and the diaspora. Further, my work also complements calls for the understanding of Africa and the history of human rights.


Thomas E. Smith associate professor of history at Chadron State College.

One thought on “Book Club: Pan-African Activism and the Global Color Line

  1. “Having a sense of the successes and failings connected to the historical search for meaningful, full citizenship can help us to see that current calls for justice are part of a longer continuum of struggle.” The trouble is, unless we can clearly articulate what we mean by Pan Africanism, it is difficult to see how the above may ever be achieved. It is precisely for the want of a clear definition, that I argue in my latest blogpost, ‘Bloody Independence – we wuz robbed! – Part 1[2019 Edition],’ that we, the Africans, do not understand ‘the complex relationship between freedom, the rule of law, and democracy.’ A problem well stated is a problem half solved; we need a definition of what we mean by ‘Pan Africanism’ – else we shall for ever be condemned to grope around in the dark…

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