When I agreed in 1990 to write a history of the African diaspora, I found it an exciting but frightening task—exciting as a chance to link the work I had done in African history and in world history; frightening because it meant taking positions on important but contentious issues. The story of Africa and its diaspora must address debates on the sources of black culture, the magnitude of slave trade, the explanation of racism, the power of imperialism, and interpretations of capitalism and slavery, black nationalism, Christianity and Islam, corruption, black gender politics, and the balance of tradition and modernity.
I had to define “diaspora” in detail, since many people are unfamiliar with the term. Basically, it’s the settlement and community that arises as a result of migration. Africa’s diaspora in the Americas and Eurasia arose from the greatest forced migration of all time. I chose to trace this diaspora over a wide area and a long period of time—all of Africa and the regions in which Africans settled from 1400 to the present. Further, I chose to break this vast topic down not by region but into five periods, addressing African interconnections, the struggle to survive expanding enslavement, the long campaign for emancipation, the achievement of citizenship, and today’s struggle for equality.
Further, I wrote a “history through culture.” That is, I emphasize both continuity and innovation in African and diaspora culture. Within that theme, I emphasize two basic points. First, black people’s works in material and expressive culture have given consistent voice to their interpretations of the world. Second, blacks gained broader leadership in twentieth-century popular culture through their creative response to enslavement and emancipation.
In my search for parallels and connections across the African continent and diaspora, I found a remarkable set of cross-continental patterns. I learned that while black people rose to political office in North and South America with emancipation, they lost political office everywhere in the world with the rise of racism and imperialism; only with decolonization and civil rights did black people regain political office in Africa and the Americas. I found remarkable commonalities in the lives of black people in Christian and Muslim lands of Europe and Asia. But I learned of the unheralded importance of the Old World’s Near Diaspora—the many blacks in North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and Madagascar. And I documented innovations in black expressive culture worldwide at the turn of the twentieth century, despite the contemporary peak in racial discrimination. Jazz is not alone—new genres in popular culture arose at the start of the twentieth century all over Latin America, Africa, and Europe, perhaps in celebration of emancipation.
The book explores, if it does not resolve, such issues as female family leadership, the traumatic heritage of enslavement, the slow pace of change in racial ideology, the dramatic advances in black education and scholarship in the twentieth century, and the continuing dilemma of economic inequality. I became fascinated with the fundamental importance of mixing—racial and other—in human society.
My editor encouraged me to address the issue of “modernity” in the black diaspora. I was reluctant, since stories of transition from traditional life to modern society commonly demean black people. I found that all the major books on modernity leave out the experience of black people, except in footnotes about slavery, empire, and poverty. But I persisted and realized that viewing “modernity” through the African diaspora provides a way to get past the top-down, imperial views that narrow that concept. The transition to modernity arose from the sweat of laborers, the nurture of mothers, the tinkering of artisans, the insights of migrants, and the images of poets, as well as the innovations of bankers and emperors.
I wrote in starts and stops, partly because of dissatisfaction with my initial publisher. When Columbia University Press accepted the manuscript, things began to go better. Still, I needed commentary and critique. Robin W. Kilson, a brilliant black scholar whose career was complicated by multiple sclerosis, met with me for the last three years of the book’s preparation and helped me develop the big questions and responses for the concluding chapter: Why did slavery grow? Will racism end? What will be the future of black identity? She passed away just as the book appeared, and I dedicated it to her with appreciation and affection.