Prominent historian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies Professor Sir Hilary Beckles believes it’s time for a new discourse on Africa, arguing that the language used in the quest for African unity is “outdated” and has lost meaning.
And for these reasons, the Barbadian historian has called for an African summit to rethink the strategy and plan a new way of communicating the message of African liberation.
“We need a new language, and we need to situate the global reparatory movement within the context of that new language,” Sir Hilary said at last night’s opening of the inaugural Pan African Colloquium at the Roy Marshall Teaching Complex of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill Campus.
“The language of the 20th century is not appropriate for the early 21st century. It has run the race and it is time to move on.
“To strengthen the African liberation movement and make sense of the new permutations in North America and Europe and North Africa, to bring all of that into a politic that’s realistic and meaningful requires a new conception. African intellectuals, all of us who are here, we need to get together very shortly and have a global African summit . . . to think this through, to work this through because there is going to be a lot of work to be done in this very long 21st century.
“We need new tools, new intellectual weapons, new perspectives and new concepts.”
The January 12-15 conference provides a platform for the exploration of a number of issues and questions related to the viability of Africanist movements, according to the UWI’s Department of History and Philosophy, the main organizer of the event. The issues being explored by the scholars, researchers, activists and policymakers include imperialism, emancipation, racism, violation of human rights and inequality of economic opportunity that face African nations and people of African heritage.
Citing examples of successful slave revolts due to compromise with slavers, as well as those that failed because of inflexibility, the author of books such as, ‘Natural Rebels’ and ‘Britain’s Black Debt’, called on those involved in the movement to practice “pragmatic politics” .
He spoke of Jamaican Maroon leader Cudjoe’s 1738 deal with slavery administrators for sovereignty within the Blue Mountains – a success story that sees the Maroon society still in existence; and pointed to the 1763 Berbice rebellion in Guyana where its deputy leader, Atta, disagreed with the acclaimed King Cuffy over a proposed exclusivity deal with the slavers. It resulted in civil war between followers of the men and the planters retaking the society to re-establish slavery over the entire colony.
He also mentioned similarities in Haiti under Toussaint L’Ouverture and the stubbornness of Dessalines following the 1791 revolution.
“The significance of that mid-18th century experience for the 21st century is critical and I believe we have to stream them together,” he told the audience that included representatives from the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, North America and Europe.
“We have to understand the circumstances leading to the reality of pragmatic politics along the Pan African journey. There is no need for idealism in the world.”
The university professor advised against continued use of the term, Diaspora, arguing that it had outlived its usefulness.
He contended that the notion of Diaspora had been destabilized “as the geographical space in which a
Pan African vision is emerging” and that every nation had its own Diaspora, posing a problem for the African struggle.
“It’s utility has expired simply because circumstances have overtaken it. Everyone now has a Diaspora; even the Diasporas have Diasporas. Time has caught up with this concept and we need to look at it very critically as academics.
“If you go into South Florida you will be in the Jamaican Diaspora. If you go into Brooklyn then you will go into the Barbadian Diaspora. Diasporas have spawned Diasporas and those Diasporas are spawning Diasporas,” he observed.
Nigerian General Ishola Williams of the Pan African Strategy Policy Research Group supported Sir Hilary’s call for a summit, saying the time had come for something to be done about building a “global Africa”.
He also challenged the notion of an African Diaspora.
“The word Diaspora doesn’t sound nice to us; we all are Africans. There are some Africans who are staying in the continent, resident there, and there are some who have accepted that they are descendants of Africans and Africans too, a part and parcel of Africa. They are non-resident Africans . . . there is the commonality.
“If you continue to disappear into the Diaspora, where are you Diasporing to?
“We need to find a word that is not common, that is only relevant to us, that is appropriate to us. So we in Pan Africa don’t believe in Diaspora anymore,” Williams said.
Minister of Culture Stephen Lashley spoke of his ministry’s programmes and of the need to realize the “full creativity, innovation, and empowerment of our people” by being self-assured and confident.
“This approach understands that we can only be confident and build our self-esteem by reinforcing and celebrating our African identify. This is the key to our holistic development and our prosperity as a people.
“Identity drives confidence, confidence will unleash creativity to solve our own problems, innovation to create our own industries from the arts to the sciences. And creativity to construct ourselves, our communities, our nation in our own image,” the minister said.
Meantime, Sir Hilary revealed that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has agreed to fund a project documenting the history of Africa that includes Africans living outside the continent.
The UWI Vice-Chancellor said he made the recommendation to the UN body after discovering that eight volumes of the general history of Africa funded by UNESCO, omitted slave societies outside the continent.
He said having reviewed the completed work with the objective of devising strategy for the ninth volume, he congratulated his African colleagues who undertook the project for “doing a magnificent work”, but informed them that it was not the complete history of Africa.
He also informed the UNESCO committee that the concept of a Global Africa was required for the ninth volume, “that includes the African peoples in China, Japan, Asia, the Americas, Europe, wherever
He said based on this suggestion UNESCO agreed to “abandon the [old] concept, and to fund instead the next three volumes of Global Africa 1, 2 and 3”.
To emphasize the point, Sir Hilary gave a brief insight into the demographics of slaves brought into Barbados, saying the numbers showed the island was a “site of genocide” and a large burial chamber.
“If you look at the demographics, you can say it is a tomb. In that regard, 600,000 Africans were brought to this island, and at the end of slavery there were 83,000 remaining. So it is also a site of genocide,” he explained.
“This the first African majority society in this hemisphere. If you accept the concept of a slave society where the entire social and economic structure and political governance model are formulated on the basis of the use of slave labour, then Barbados was the first slave society in this hemisphere
“As the first slave society and first majority African society in this hemisphere, Barbados became the model for all of what transpired across this continent.”
He added that despite the evidence and suffering outside of the continent, they got no mention in the UNESCO-funded 20-year project.
“But unless you are living on the African continent you are not part of that history. The eight volumes do not recognize Africans anywhere else but on the continent.
“So all of those millions of Africans scattered across the world are not a part of that project,” he stated as he gave reasons for his recommendation to UNESCO.
Sir Hilary also revealed that when the Brazilian government became aware of the new concept of African history it volunteered to take over funding of the entire project on behalf of UNESCO.