Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dimensions of the African Diaspora

A little while back, I wrote as blog post about Africa reaching out to its Diaspora. Although this outreach could be more robust, it does exist. But what about the Diaspora’s outreach to its own disparate parts? We generally know very little about who the other members of the African Diaspora are or where they live today.

As African Americans, we consider ourselves the preeminent sector of the African Diaspora. However, in terms of size, we are only number two. Brazil has nearly 86 million people of African descent who comprise 45% of that country’s population. African descendants comprise about 13% of the American population and about 38 million people. Of course, the African liberation and civil rights movements in America have enabled Diasporans living here to flex their political muscles and impact the continent far more than black Brazilians have been able to do.

In Brazil, people we would consider to be Diasporans are divided into pretos (blacks) and pardos (mixed race or brown). Centuries of racial mixtures means that many Brazilians have African ancestry that is not easily recognizable, thus the invention of the term moreno (tanned or of olive complexion). The result of Brazil’s ethnic history is that many Brazilians don’t really consider themselves to be African descendants; they are as likely to describe themselves as Brazilian descendants.

This was only the case with a smaller portion of American Diasporans – those who were quadroon (one-quarter black) and octoroon (one-eighth black) back in the 1800s when those were distinct racial categories. When those classifications were nullified by U.S. law that declared anyone with one drop of black blood to be black, many of the lighter ones passed as whites to avoid the bitter discrimination faced by those more easily identified as black. Over time, they intermarried with whites and are the ones surprised to find they have African heritage when they take the DNA tests.

We know about the Diasporans who live in the Caribbean. Countries such as Haiti (8.7 million), the Dominican Republic (nearly 8 million) and Jamaica (2.7 million) have large Diasporan populations who we see in America. They are very obviously black, and we associate those countries with being largely black. Yet there are other countries in this hemisphere with significant black populations: Columbia (11.7 million). Venezuela (2.6 million) and Ecuador (680 thousand). Most of the islands of the Caribbean are, of course, majority black countries: Saint Kitts and Nevis (98%), Antigua and Barbuda (95%) and Grenada (91%).

But did you know that the Cayman Islands, the noted destination for offshore funds, is 60% black? French Guiana is 66% black, and Suriname is 47% black. Have you ever met a black person from one of these countries? Perhaps you did, but didn’t know where they were from, or you thought they were a small minority in their country of origin.

Europe is only 1.2% black, but France has 3 million Diasporans, and the United Kingdom has 2 million. The Netherlands has 507 thousand Diasporans, and Germany has 500 thousand. People from Africa and the Caribbean are playing increasingly visible and important roles in these countries. Famous black people from Europe include NBA player Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium, and former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, who was born in the United Kingdom. They are but two of the many Diasporans born and raised in Europe.

We may know about the 200 thousand Diasporans (mostly from Ethiopia) who live in Israel because of the famous airlift of Jewish Africans, but what about the other black populations in the Middle East? Egypt and the rest of North Africa, which are considered part of the Middle East, is African, of course, but there are significant, identifiable black populations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman.

I used the term identifiable because while they may look black, many Afro-Arabs do not identify themselves as African descendants. Being African is akin to being identified as slaves. That remains a persistent issue in countries such as Sudan today. Nevertheless, Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are believed to have their origin in Ethiopia, which at one time in history controlled territory on both sides of the Red Sea. Swahili, the widely popular east African language, contains much Arabic and was once the language used by traders in the region.

Although many scholars doubt the claims of African ancestry among people in the Pacific, it is quite clear that Melanesians and many other Pacific Islanders have strong African features. There are the Australian aboriginal people, the Semang people of the Malay peninsula, the Aeta people of Luzon and the Ati of Panay. Again, these people have little connection to Africa today and likely do not identify themselves as members of the African Diaspora.

The dimensions of the African Diaspora are broad, but the linkages in practice are tenuous. We may look alike, but we don’t all identify ourselves as having the same ethnic origin. So while some members of the African Diaspora are reaching back to a connection with Africa, many others don’t for many reasons. Still, they are our brothers and sisters whether they know it or accept it or not. What becomes of that truth remains to be seen.


  1. The concept of stratified outreach is a very interesting one. Furthermore, I think it would be very interesting to trace the migration of Africans to other parts of the world. We talk about the slave trade, the competition between the USSR and US, the airlift. I would love to learn about other migration catalysts.

  2. Great blog I like it,
    Citizenship after the message is full citizenship irrevocable life.