When Then Is Now: A Meditation on Social Justice, Activism and Political Change   UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI`I
February 10-11, 2011

Keynote Address

Kim D. Butler Kim D. Butler, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

A mere fifty years ago, the phrase 'African diaspora' would have been an awkward anachronism; today it describes an important field of study that has helped reshape our understanding of community formation in world history. By examining the global movements of African peoples through the lens of diaspora, scholars unmoored a concept linked with specific communities and showed how its basic components could apply universally. In the past few decades, new scholarship has increasingly detailed the contours of an African diaspora that spans historical eras, physical geographies, and multiple identities. The diversity of global African experience has refined our understanding of the diaspora concept. Over time, the African diaspora has generated smaller diasporas of its own, both directly from specific nations on the continent as well as through secondary migrations from nations and regions where Africans had arrived long before. Each of these communities is connected both to ancestral homelands and the nations in which they reside; individual relationships are often even more complex.

As we learn more about the African diaspora, it becomes ever more apparent that the simplistic model of a historic dispersal from a single homeland does not suffice for African experience nor, for that matter, even those ancient communities considered to be diaspora’s prototype. As the field of African diaspora studies matures, scholars now are challenged to grapple with the complexities of a multifaceted set of interlinking communities, appreciating both their uniqueness and their relationship to a larger whole. We are also challenged to think about why we invoke diaspora, the politics of transnationalism, and the relationships between the global and the local. For African peoples, these questions are firmly rooted in a tradition of struggles against overt racism and the depredations of colonialism. The ideology of pan-Africanism that emerged from those struggles informs our notion of diaspora today. Yet even as pan-Africanism emerged as a common cause for Africans and African descendants around the globe, distinct communities within the African diaspora faced their own specific local concerns. Today’s vision of diaspora, with its vantage points around the globe, and from many perspectives of experience, is helping re-map a global African community in its all dynamic reality.