The Long History of Pan-African Intellectual Activism. More Than a Centenary, 1919-2019

The Long History of Pan-African Intellectual Activism. More Than a Centenary, 1919-2019

Institut für Afrikawissenschaften der Universität Wien
Institut für Afrikawissenschaften, Uni Campus Hof 5
Vom - Bis
16.05.2019 - 17.05.2019
Sonderegger, Arno

The Long History of Pan-African Intellectual Activism: More Than a Centenary, 1919-2019

International Conference, Department of African Studies, University of Vienna/ Austria
Thursday to Friday, 16th to 17th May 2019
Organiser: Arno Sonderegger

In 1919, parallel to the peace negotiations at Versailles and St. Germain near Paris, African American historian and political activist W.E.B. DuBois launched the 1st Pan-African Congress in order to confront Western racism and call into question European colonial rule. It was followed by another three Congress meetings until 1927 and an epoch making 5th Pan-African Congress in 1945. The year 2019 thus marks the centenary of the Pan-African movement, which, in various forms and disguises, with varying success, survived into the present. It is a welcome opportunity to look back on this crucial part of Africa`s political intellectual history.

As is often the case with historical dating, clear-cut dates are rarely available. That is the case with Pan-Africanism too. The actual history of Pan-Africanism starts well before the Congress movement got underway. Almost twenty years earlier, in 1900 Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams organised what he named the 1st Pan-African Conference in London; however, no follow-up conference came about, and although DuBois had attended it, nothing came from it in terms of effective organisation. Moreover, the name Pan-Africanism, inspired by DuBois` 1897 phrasing of “Pan-Negroism”, was already available long before Pan-Africanism emerged as a politically effective movement in the wake of World War One. Historical research has followed the trails of Pan-Africanism and its historical roots avant la lettre even further back in time.

Though 1919 was a watershed, it was not the beginning. Likewise, Pan-Africanism experienced many twists and turns since the 1920s. Only to mention some of the more important ones:

- Around the times of World War Two, Pan-African leadership had relocated firmly to continental intellectuals and activists who led their people in the struggle for political independence.
- Of great relevance were the great progresses in establishing effective networks and lines of communication between the various colonial territories and the metropoles in the interwar period. Anti-imperialism and radical anti-colonialism linked more and more closely with visions of Pan-Africanism. This development increased dramatically in the wake of Italy`s military invasion and occupation of Ethiopia since the mid-1930s. London, where the International Friends of Abyssinia gathered in 1935, was one of the hotspots of new Pan-African organisational work, while in Paris a more culturally inclined Négritude movement was emerging among students from the colonies.
- The anti-colonialist movements in various African territories highly active from the 1940s onwards were not only firmly nationalist but, more often than not, explicitly Pan-Africanist in outlook and rhetoric as well. The overall political history of Africa was then, as it is now, determinedly marked by the ambivalences, antagonisms and potential contradictions between the three different kinds of nationalism ubiquitous on the continent – micro-level nationalism (tribalism), meso-level nationalism or nation-statism (nation state), and macro-level nationalism (Pan-Africanism). Problems arising from the unresolved relationship between society and the state, the missing emotional links between the mass of the people and the ruling elite, which lie at the bottom of postcolonial and contemporary African miseries, were perhaps never as clearly seen and critically analysed by African politicians and thinkers as in the 1950s and 60s. And it was in those two decades that unifying Africa seemed more than just a dream but a real option.
- When the era of decolonization closed in the mid-1970s, continental Pan-Africanism was undoubtedly in severe crises, as almost all of those in power in the postcolonial states of Africa had disbanded the unifying and integrationist ideals of Pan-Africanism. Nevertheless, at the same time as Pan-Africanism seemed to be dead at the level of African governments, lively networks and institutions of Pan-African research such as CODESRIA were launched, and popular African artists, like Miriam Makeba, Fela Ransome Kuti and others discovered Pan-Africanism, ironically by way of their diasporic entanglements much more than through continental roots. And like Youssou N`Dour or Angelique Kidjo in more recent years, these artists began spreading it among a younger generation of African people.
- Again parallel to the distribution of popular forms of Pan-Africanism as youth culture during the 1990s, political discourse reinvented Pan-Africanism as the likes of South African president Thabo Mbeki and Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi spoke of African Renaissance leading to the reformation of the OAU and its transformation into the AU in 2002. This supported reinvigorated interest both in the history and practical use of Pan-Africanism – exemplified, for instance, by Ngugi wa`Thiongo`s recent book on what he calls “the decolonization of modernity”, “Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance”, or by Mahmood Mamdani`s book on the Darfur crisis, “Saviors and Survivors”.
On many levels, then, Pan-Africanism is alive. Moreover, it is on the agenda lists of many engaged in African affairs again. To put these current interests and recent developments in proper contexts is a timely task for historians and intellectual history.

The conference welcomes contributions to the long history of Pan-African intellectual activism in the 20th and 21st century. In particular, papers that approach this topic through (auto-) biography and close readings of Pan-African traditions and narratives are called for.

Contributors shall hand in a significant abstract (300 to 400 words) and a short CV (not exceeding 1 page) by Sunday, 6th January 2019.
Please save ABSTRACT and CV in one single WORD file and ATTACH it to your mail. Please name the subject heading “Pan-African Intellectual Activism” and send it to



Arno Sonderegger

Institut für Afrikawissenschaften
Uni Campus Hof 5, Spitalgasse 2-4, A-1090 Wien