(Re)Configuring a Continent: Contested Identities and Territoriality in the Thinking of Independence Era Pan-Africanists

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:10 PM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Leslie James, University of Cambridge
In 1945 the South African novelist Peter Abrahams concluded his introduction to the Fifth Pan-African Congress with the call for a ‘Socialist United States of Africa!’  The concept of a fraternal unity of the African continent, with a potential manifestation in some future form of ‘United States of Africa’ had existed for decades.  It was largely founded and kept alive, as W.E.B. Du Bois noted at the Congress, by those of African descent in the United States and the West Indies. 

These transnational alliances between black activists, and indeed their own experiences of migration within their lifetime, cultivated a belief in numerous solidarities of race, class, and colonial citizenship transcending geographical borders.  Yet the transnational perspective of these diasporic individuals became increasingly difficult to reconcile with the territorial nationalism cultivated by the demands for independence made by African leaders, many of whom simultaneously held links to the Pan-African movement.  As African colonies sought their independence, the politics of borders became ineluctably acute. 

This paper will interrogate these issues through the writing and actions of one of Pan-Africanism’s most influential theorists of the time, George Padmore.  It will highlight the debates Padmore had with colleagues and with African newspaper readers about the independence of Sudan and the federation of Nigeria.  These debates produced, in some cases, particularly harsh disagreements about who belonged in society and how nations should be constituted.  It will explore Padmore’s ambiguous ideas about a ‘United States of Africa’ and his involvement in Kwame Nkrumah’s efforts to build Pan-African initiatives after Ghana became independent in 1957.  Finally, it will question Padmore’s own complicity in Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah’s deportation of rivals in the late 1950s in order to highlight the profound contradictions the uncertainty about borders and belonging embodied in the early years of African decolonization.