The African diaspora is the worldwide collection of communities descended from native Africans or people from Africa, predominantly in the Americas. The term is most commonly refers to the descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, with their largest populations in Brazil, the United States and Haiti. Some scholars identify “four circulatory phases” of this migration out of Africa. The phrase African diaspora gradually entered common usage at the turn of the 21st century. The term diaspora originates from the Greek διασπορά (diaspora, literally “scattering”) which gained popularity in English in reference to the Jewish diaspora before being more broadly applied to other populations.
Less commonly, the term has been used in scholarship to refer to more recent emigration from sub-Saharan Africa. The African Union (AU) defines the African diaspora as consisting: “of people of native African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union”. Its constitutive act declares that it shall “invite and encourage the full participation of the African diaspora as an important part of our continent, in the building of the African Union”
Populations and estimated distribution
African diaspora populations include but are not limited to:
| United States
||44,989,671 not including mixed people
||14,517,961 not mixed people
||4,944,400 including mixed people
||Approximately 3.3–5.5 million
| Saudi Arabia
| United Kingdom
||1,191,378, 79% being North African
||1,159,290, 59% being North African
| Dominican Republic
| Trinidad and Tobago
| Puerto Rico
||395,444 (est. 2020)
||50,000 (est. 2009)
Dispersal through slave trade
Much of the African diaspora became dispersed throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia during the Atlantic, Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. Beginning in the 8th century, Arabs took African slaves from the central and eastern portions of the African continent (where they were known as the Zanj) and sold them into markets in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Far East. Beginning in the 15th century, Europeans captured or bought African slaves from West Africa and brought them to the Americas and to Europe. The Atlantic slave trade ended in the 19th century. The dispersal through slave trading represents the largest forced migrations in human history. The economic effect on the African continent proved devastating, as generations of young people were taken from their communities and societies were disrupted. Some communities formed by descendants of African slaves in the Americas, Europe, and Asia have survived to the present day. In other cases, native Africans intermarried with non-native Africans, and their descendants blended into the local population.
In the Americas, the confluence of multiple ethnic groups from around the world contributed to multi-ethnic societies. In Central and South America, most people are descended from European, Amerindian, and African ancestry. In Brazil, where in 1888 nearly half the population descended from African slaves, the variation of physical characteristics extends across a broad range. In the United States, there was historically a greater European colonial population in relation to African slaves, especially in the Northern Tier. There was considerable racial intermarriage in colonial Virginia, and other forms of racial mixing during the slavery and post-Civil War years. Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws passed after the 1863–1877 Reconstruction era in the South in the late-19th century, plus waves of vastly increased immigration from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, maintained much distinction between racial groups. In the early-20th century, to institutionalize racial segregation, most southern states adopted the “one drop rule“, which defined and recorded anyone with any discernible African ancestry as “black”, even those of obvious majority native European or of majority-Native-American ancestry. One of the results of this implementation was the loss of records of Native-identified groups, who were classified only as black because of being mixed-race.
Dispersal through voluntary migration
From the very onset of Spanish exploration and colonial activities in the Americas, Africans participated both as voluntary expeditionaries and as slave laborers. Juan Garrido was such an African conquistador. He crossed the Atlantic as a freedman in the 1510s and participated in the siege of Tenochtitlan. Africans had been present in Asia and Europe long before Columbus’s travels. Beginning in the late 20th century, Africans began to emigrate to Europe and the Americas in increasing numbers, constituting new African diaspora communities not directly connected with the slave trade.
Concepts and definitions
The African Union defined the African diaspora as “[consisting] of people of native African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.” Its constitutive act declares that it shall “invite and encourage the full participation of the African diaspora as an important part of our continent, in the building of the African Union.” The AU considers the African diaspora as its sixth region.
Between 1500 and 1900, approximately four million enslaved Africans were transported to island plantations in the Indian Ocean, about eight million were shipped to Mediterranean-area countries, and about eleven million survived the Middle Passage to the New World. Their descendants are now found around the globe, but because of intermarriage they are not necessarily readily identifiable.
Social and political
Many scholars have challenged conventional views of the African diaspora as a mere dispersion of black people. For them, it is a movement of liberation that opposes the implications of racialization. Their position assumes that Africans and their descendants abroad struggle to reclaim power over their lives through voluntary migration, cultural production and political conceptions and practices. It also implies the presence of cultures of resistance with similar objectives throughout the global diaspora. Thinkers like W. E. B. Dubois and more recently Robin Kelley, for example, have argued that black politics of survival reveal more about the meaning of the African diaspora than labels of ethnicity and race, and degrees of skin hue. From this view, the daily struggle against what they call the “world-historical processes” of racial colonization, capitalism, and Western domination defines blacks’ links to Africa.
African diaspora and modernity
In the last decades, studies on the African diaspora have shown an interest in the roles that Africans played in bringing about modernity. This trend also opposes the traditional eurocentric perspective that has dominated history books showing Africans and its diasporans as primitive victims of slavery, and without historical agency. According to historian Patrick Manning, blacks toiled at the center of forces that created the modern world. Paul Gilroy describes the suppression of blackness due to imagined and created ideals of nations as “cultural insiderism.” Cultural insiderism is used by nations to separate deserving and undeserving groups and requires a “sense of ethnic difference” as mentioned in his book The Black Atlantic. Recognizing their contributions offers a comprehensive appreciation of global history.
Richard Iton’s view of diaspora
Cultural and political theorist Richard Iton suggested that diaspora be understood as a “culture of dislocation.” For Iton, the traditional approach to the African diaspora focuses on the ruptures associated with the Atlantic slave trade and Middle Passage, notions of dispersal, and “the cycle of retaining, redeeming, refusing, and retrieving ‘Africa. This conventional framework for analyzing the diaspora is dangerous, according to Iton, because it presumes that diaspora exists outside of Africa, thus simultaneously disowning and desiring Africa. Further, Iton suggests a new starting principle for the use of diaspora: “the impossibility of settlement that correlates throughout the modern period with the cluster of disturbances that trouble not only the physically dispersed but those moved without traveling. Iton adds that this impossibility of settlement—this “modern matrix of strange spaces—outside the state but within the empire,”—renders notions of black citizenship fanciful, and in fact, “undesirable.” Iton argues that we citizenship, a state of statelessness thereby deconstructing colonial sites and narratives in an effort to “de-link geography and power,” putting “all space into play” (emphasis added) For Iton, diaspora’s potential is represented by a “rediscursive albeit agonistic field of play that might denaturalize the hegemonic representations of modernity as unencumbered and self-generating and bring into clear view its repressed, colonial subscript”
In the eighth chapter of her book Rihanna Barbados World-Gurl in Global Popular Culture Heather Russell describes diasporic citizenship as an identity where you “simultaneously negotiate the entailments of civic responsibility, public discourse, nostalgia, nationhood, belonging and migration, transnational cultural affiliations and shifting/fluid subject positionalities across material and symbolic boundaries” Musical artists are prime figures to be appraised with this theory due to their acclaim bringing them public discourse and their music bringing cultural affiliations. As such, for musicians who reach this level of transnational stardom and music production, they have to balance their relationship to their identity and their home with the transnational populations they engage with through their music, performance and public image.
Robyn Rihanna Fenty is a global superstar whose music transcends national borders and as such is a perfect case for the diaspora citizen framework. She is one of the few Afro-Caribbean women to achieve this level of global success and gain diasporic citizenship that forces her to balance her identities with her relationship to her diverse viewership. While Rihanna is by no means the first artist, or even the first black female artist to reach this level of stardom, unlike her peers her diasporic citizenship is characterized by her Caribbean identity. In her book, Russel further describes Rihanna’s diasporic citizenship by saying:
“Rihanna must navigate inevitably conflicting, contesting and reinforcing sites of national and transnational belongings. In other words, she is a Barbadian citizen shining in a US-global sphere within which most citizens can hardly find Barbados on the map. She is a hugely commercially successful artist operating in a popular-cultural market dictated by US global musical tastes. At the same time, Rihanna is Barbados’s honorary ambassador of youth and culture and has signed a multi-year deal to promote Barbados for the Barbados Tourism Authority. Moreover, local discussions surrounding Barbadian national pride, Victorian notions of female propriety and Christian ideas about decency which Rihanna’s emergence and ascendancy have provoked, continue to capture the Barbadian public’s imaginations and dominate the opinions expressed in their newspaper columns and call-in programmes”
The diaspora citizen theory allows us to better understand the complexities associated with stars like Rihanna whose cultural influence has transcended national borders and created a complex relationship between the artist and the various cultural regions they are associated with.
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