A Transnational History of Pan-Africanism: Robin J. Hayes Details Liberation Struggles Across the Atlantic

Activists on both sides of the Atlantic collaborated to build global anti-racist movements, laying the foundations for future racial justice movements.

By Derek Charles Catsam

Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power, and a Diaspora Underground, by Robin J. Hayes. Washington, 2021. 252p, 9780295749051 $99.00, 9780295749075 $30.00, 9780295749068

Book cover of "Love for Liberation"

In 1968, American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who had helped push the fight for Black equality in a more radical direction and was self-exiled in West Africa, married South African musician Miriam Makeba, who had been exiled from South Africa for her anti-apartheid politics. Their transnational pairing seemed like the logical apogee of global Pan-African politics: Black Power intersecting with the South African struggle against apartheid to embody global anti-racist movements. For myriad reasons the marriage was a struggle. Carmichael, who soon changed his name to Kwame Ture, increasingly alienated many inside and outside the movement, and Makeba ultimately found herself exiled from both the United States and her native land.

Hayes, a filmmaker who received her PhD in political science and African American studies from Yale University, only mentions the Carmichael-Makeba coupling in passing in this important book, but their marriage came to this reviewer’s mind when reading this account of the idealism and realities of transnational Black struggles for equality and liberation. Hayes pays particular attention to how the African diaspora—especially African Americans—engaged with Africa and Africans during and after their own independence campaigns. The bulk of the book focuses on the period from Ghana’s independence in 1957 through the 1970s—essentially the era of African independence movements against colonial powers and their subsequent struggles for self-determination against the backdrop of entrenched colonial legacies and a Cold War geopolitical context that made independence a fraught prospect. Much of the book is informed by and sheds light on continuing struggles for justice, equality, and self-determination in the wake of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other social movements. 

The book largely steers away from the global and transnational anti-apartheid campaign—it has a rich and growing historiography, and there is still much more to be told about that movement and the international networks it created. Hayes instead concentrates on the rest of the continent, a focus that will help scholars, students, and other readers discover or rediscover the rich connections between American activists and African individuals and organizations. This Pan-Africanism is easily overlooked in histories that emphasize the nation-state as the central focus of analysis—a problem that especially plagues Americanists who largely reject American exceptionalism in their scholarship even while building an exceptionalist edifice within the discipline of history. In a sense, South Africanists have done the same thing within African history, and thus even the Pan-African transnationalist narrative has become United States-and-South Africa dominant. Hayes’s approach thus provides an essential course shift. 

Hayes uses a series of case studies of African independence and Black Power organizations ‘to build the original theory of a diaspora underground, which articulates the motivations, methods, and impact of transnational engagement between Black social movements.’ (p. 5)

Hayes elegantly defines diaspora as “an international community of millions of people who have African ancestors and ‘contend with the everyday realities of anti-Black racism’” (p. 3). This creates a phenomenon whereby “home for diasporans becomes the gap (or décalage) between now and then, homeland and hostland, how a community sees itself and how dominant elites see that same community” (pp. 4–5). “[E]xplor[ing] how and why passionate idealists came together and fought for self-determination between 1957 and 1974,” Hayes uses a series of case studies of African independence and Black Power organizations “to build the original theory of a diaspora underground, which articulates the motivations, methods, and impact of transnational engagement between Black social movements” (p. 5). What she calls a theory most historians would simply call an argument, but beyond semantics she accomplishes her goals admirably.

In Africa, Hayes focuses on organizations from Ghana, Guinea, Algeria, Congo, and Tanzania. Crossing the Atlantic, she emphasizes what she identifies as Black Power—as distinct from civil rights—organizations, including the Black Panthers, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and, interestingly, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). For her, the distinguishing feature of Black Power organizations is their radicalism, though her inclusion of the SNCC is a reminder that civil rights and Black Power were much more fluid than a simple (and false) radical/non-radical dichotomy would imply—after all, the radical SNCC of Stokely Carmichael was previously the SNCC of John Lewis, who embodied the civil rights ideal. It should also be noted that even the most mainstream civil rights organizations could be pretty radical in their time. There was nothing timid, after all, about the Freedom Rides or the Selma to Montgomery march.

Hayes does not hide her political commitments, noting early on her “commitment to giving voice to underrepresented communities and cultivating the existing archive for new insights into the political praxis of African diaspora” (p. 7). Her work is clearly informed by BLM. Because of this, some may accuse the author of presentism—letting current concerns dictate and manipulate historical interpretation—but this is nonsense. Historians have always written from their current perspectives, and in fact being informed by the places to which history has brought us is crucial to historical inquiry. Rather, this work represents how the continuums of history and historiography work together. The question then should not be whether BLM and related matters inform Hayes’s scholarship—how could they not inform any work exploring race, racism, white supremacy, and movements against white supremacy? The question should be how well she furthers her goal, and on this account Hayes succeeds commendably. Her work is truly transnational, crossing many borders, and interdisciplinary, grounded in history, sociology, and politics.

The interconnected stories of each finely written chapter together create a comprehensive narrative, though each could stand on its own, with some context, in an advanced seminar. The book will also be a mainstay on PhD comprehensive exams for students pursuing transnational work connected to Africa and the United States.

Chapter 2 begins with Ghana’s independence in March 1957, tracing the transnational networks it spawned. Americans drew inspiration as their own struggles for freedom and justice seemed at times fruitless. The following chapter considers Algeria—immediately skirting the standard North Africa-sub-Saharan-Africa divide that treats these different halves of the same continent as separated but also separate—and Hayes shows how the ruthless fight against French dominance had a similar mobilizing effect for transnationally inclined American activists.

Pan-Africanism takes center stage in chapter 4, with Patrice Lumumba’s work in the Congo inspiring, and in turn inspired by, the All-African People’s Congress in Accra. On the negative side of transnationalism, Lumumba’s assassination represented the perils of Cold War nonalignment as a dangerous mirage. Nonetheless, Lumumba’s life and death drew the attention and admiration of Malcolm X and other fast-radicalizing Black Americans. Chapter 5 shows how Malcolm, having founded the Pan-African Organization of African Unity, fortified these ties by traveling to Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana in May 1964, where he met American expatriates and even Nkrumah himself.

“The picture of Africa painted by the press and American officials was at best incomplete and in general woefully misleading.”

Chapter 6 crosses back over the Atlantic to provide a Pan-African perspective on Mississippi’s Freedom Summer (1964). A who’s-who delegation from the SNCC visited Guinea at the behest of President Ahmed Sékou Touré and the urging of entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. They learned, among other things, that the picture of Africa painted by the press and American officials was at best incomplete and in general woefully misleading. This reaffirmed American activists’ commitment to a larger perspective both domestically and internationally. However, as chapter 7 details, some American organizations struggled, facing internal and external pressures, and in Africa coups, internal rivalries, and megalomaniacal leadership began chipping away at these transnational networks’ ability to have their hoped-for impact.

Nevertheless, the radicals persevered. The SNCC grew increasingly aggressive in ways that opened new horizons but also fractured the organization, leading to new alliances with the Black Panthers. As the Panthers tried to operate within an urban milieu that proved the fallacy of a less racist North, a number of members and allies fled into exile in Africa, perhaps most notably the aforementioned Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), who fled to Guinea and worked with a range of influential African intellectuals and leaders, including Nkrumah and Touré. In Conakry, Ture helped form the All-African People’s Party (it was also at this time that he met and married Makeba in an ill-fated union). Ture was not the only Black American radical in exile—after a deadly ambush in Oakland, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria, as recounted in chapter 8. Chapter 9 looks at the exiles who were drawn to, or pushed toward, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, which in 1974 hosted the sixth Pan-African Congress, focusing on the struggles in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and the ruthlessly governed Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

Hayes generally keeps a handle on these complex storylines and, importantly, does not romanticize her subjects, though she always treats them as subjects rather than objects. She sees their shortcomings: how some seemed to become the exact types of leaders they had fought against without even recognizing it. She also acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable geopolitical contexts: the Cold War was as limiting for African independence as colonialism, offering a series of Hobson’s choices for state leaders and governments. Crackdowns in the United States showed that civil rights had hardly overcome all that white supremacy had erected, especially in the northern cities where white supremacy was as pernicious but less defined than the de jure segregation that had made for an easy moral target in the South during the Jim Crow era.

In her epilogue, subtitled “Black Lives Matter,” Hayes encapsulates her mission, assessing the legacies of these transnational African liberation and Black Power movements. She sees hope for those legacies today, most concretely in BLM and what she hopes it can create, or, perhaps, revive. Indeed, the bulk of Love for Liberation is surprisingly optimistic, if cautiously so—a cri de coeur that embodies the impetus behind this bold, clever, creative, and impassioned book. Although this reviewer certainly hopes that Hayes is right, looking at the United States at the end of 2022, one wonders if there is much cause for hope.

Summing Up: Highly Recommended. General readers and advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – Africa

Derek Charles Catsam is Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Permian Basin, where he teaches in the history department. His work focuses on race, politics, and sports in the US and southern Africa. His next book, Don’t Stick to Sports: The American Athlete’s Fight Against Injustice, will be published in October 2023.