The first Africans to come to the New World were not slaves, but were probably crewmen aboard Columbus’s ships. From the 15th till the early 19th century, however, most of the human traffic across the Atlantic from Africa was 12 million men and women taken into captivity to be sold like livestock. Severed from their roots (despite idealistic projects to send freed slaves back to a semi-colonial life in Africa) people by force settled in North America and the Caribbean created a thriving culture and a powerful sense of survival. Over the past few generations the end of colonialism in Africa, the civil rights movement in the United States and other historic developments have signified a new reality. Africa is no longer the “dark continent”.
One of the signs of the emergence of African people and the primacy of African institutions is that traffic out of Africa is heavier than ever. In the past twenty years the number of people who have come to North America from Africa of their own free will outnumbers those who were forced to make the voyage during four centuries of slave trade. In part this is because there is simply more population today, but it also reflects people’s quest for a better life and full exercise of their human talents. The result is an African diaspora of a kind that hardly existed before: often prosperous, well-educated and linked to the “old country” in a pattern typical of emigrant communities but abetted by modern technology.
One of the most through studies of this social, economic, political and cultural phenomenon is “The New African Diaspora”, a 530-page anthology of more than two dozen scholarly papers presented at a 2006 symposium by the Africana Studies Department of Binghamton University. It is an exhaustive look at what is gained and what is lost when a diverse population becomes even more dispersed. A principal theme is the political instability and underdevelopment that drives many of the best educated people from their homelands. There are now more African engineers in the United States than in all of Africa. At the same time, as sociologist John A. Arthur writes, “Coming from countries where their blackness was not considered a major issue, some of the immigrants are faced with the denigration and marginalization of peoples of black African ancestry in the U.S.”
“The New African Diaspora” was edited by Isidore Okpewho, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Binghamton University and Nkiru Nzegwu, professor and chair of Africana Studies at BU. Dr. Okpewho is an authority on the oral literature of Africa and author of three novels, most recently “Call Me By My Rightful Name”, in which a young African-American man is drawn by seemingly supernatural forces to return to the Yoruba territory of his ancestors. Dr. Nzegwu is one of the founders of the website www.africaresource.com whose goals include “allowing a new wave of scholars and knowledge activists to give and gain a deeper sense of histories, cultures and societies.”