Women, Gender Politics, and Pan-Africanism


Keisha N. Blain

(Image Credit: Chioke A. Ianson)

In a recent interview on AAIHS, Kathryn Vaggalis, the managing editor of Women, Gender and Families interviewed me about the special journal issue I recently edited with Asia Leeds and Ula Y. Taylor. This Fall 2016 issue on “Women, Gender Politics, and Pan-Africanism” examines the gendered contours of Pan-Africanism and centralizes black women as key figures in shaping, refining, and redefining Pan-Africanist thought and praxis during the twentieth century. The special issue includes an introduction from the guest-editors and features essays written by Erik S. McDuffie, Minkah Makalani, Ashley D. Farmer, Courtney Desiree Morris, Belinda Deneen Wallace, and Jeffrey Parker. The issue is now available in hardcopy and online through ProjectMuse and JSTOR. Readers can download the introduction here.

Left column: Una Marson (top) and Audley Moore, Claudia Jones (center), Dionne Brand (top right), Louise and Earl Little (Malcolm X’s parents)

Left column: Una Marson (top) and Audley Moore, Claudia Jones (center), Dionne Brand (top right), Louise and Earl Little (Malcolm X’s parents)

Kathryn Vaggalis: Tell us about Pan-Africanism, for those for whom the concept is new. How did women and gender contribute to the making of this global politic?

Keisha N. Blain: In the broadest sense, Pan-Africanism refers to a movement and ideology centered on the belief that peoples of African descent throughout the continent and in the diaspora share a common past and destiny. This shared understanding of the past and future informs how people of African descent mobilize against racial discrimination, colonialism, and economic, political, social, and cultural oppression. Throughout history, Pan-Africanism has taken on various meanings and manifestations. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, Ethiopianism (race redemption ideas derived from a biblical conception of Ethiopia) and Garveyism (the political teachings of the charismatic Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey). Perhaps the most well-known manifestation of Pan-Africanism is the series of Pan-African congresses of the twentieth century (1900-1945), led primarily–but not exclusively–by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Much of the scholarship on Pan-Africanism tends to emphasize the ideas and activities of men. This is not all that surprising and is reflective of larger trends in the broader literature on black internationalism. Despite their marginalization in the literature, however, black women played (and continue to play) central roles in shaping Pan-Africanist movements and discourses. They not only established and led an array of Pan-Africanist organizations but they used their writings and speeches to challenge the masculinist framing of Pan-Africanism, calling instead for the inclusion of women’s voices and concerns. This special issue foregrounds the ideas and activism of a cadre of black women whose stories have been largely marginalized in the scholarship. Significantly, the issue not only highlights women’s contributions to Pan-Africanism but grapples with how gender informs these movements. To that end, it demonstrates how ideas about Pan-Africanism and the dynamics of these movements were very much shaped by social relations between men and women and particular ideas about gendered divisions of labor. Oftentimes, these ideas were in flux and certainly in tension. [Full Interview]