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Africa Today 49.3 (2002) 134-136

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Okpewho, Isidore, Carole Boyce Davies, and Ali A. Mazrui. 1999. The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 566 pp.

A collection of thirty-three papers presented at a conference whose subject is as vast and complex as the African diaspora is bound to be uneven. Comprising a selection of the presentations made at the April 1996 conference at the State University of New York, Binghamton, this book is both intriguing and puzzling. For whom is it intended? An academic public? A black academic public? Africanists?

Most academics who follow the subject would already know that in the Western Hemisphere--the territory covered by the book--there are people of African descent living outside the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil. But the existence of communities of people of African descent in Uruguay, Peru, and Ecuador is not widely known, particularly in the United States.

Isidore Okpewho's introduction does a good job of setting out the aims of the conference, which he says grew out of the considerable scholarly debate over "the centrality of Africa in the identity of Blacks in Western society" (p. xi). The basic aim was to encourage discussion about how the [End Page 134] notion of the African diaspora developed, how its members perceive themselves today, and whether and how they use their links to Africa.

Taking up the book is somewhat like encountering a massive buffet dinner: it's not really possible to try a bit of everything, but how to know what is good? Conference participants were probably faced with a similar dilemma--so many panels, and so little time. Which ones have the most enticing titles?

The book is organized into five sections: The Diaspora: Orientations and Determinations; Addressing the Constraints; Race, Gender, and Image; Creativity, Spirituality, and Identity; Reconnecting with Africa. For this nonacademic reviewer, the most interesting were the first and the last sections because they seemed most successfully to cover the major themes: Afrocentricity, the nature of the diaspora, and its significance today in the lives of people of African descent.

In his contribution, "An African Diaspora: The Ontological Project," Michael J. C. Echeruo writes that the point of the book Roots and the TV series based on it is "not that a particular location on the map has been identified, but that a claim can be made to such a location. . . . The power of the idea lies in the principle of it: that a return is possible forever, whenever, if ever" (p. 14). From this realization, the process of "regaining Africanity" can evolve, provided that "transatlantic postmodernists" don't dismiss it as "essentialism" or try to dissolve the effort in pluralism or multiculturalism.

Jamaican reggae singer Peter Tosh sang, "It doesn't matter where you come from; if you're a black man, you're an African." If it were that simple, there wouldn't have been much point in the conference or the book. Elliott P. Skinner alludes to the problem of race and color as identity in his discussion of how Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, "two important actors in the African diaspora, [who] while equally concerned about advancing the causes of African peoples, were not overly interested in African culture" (p. 36). To the "Afrocentricity" promoted by some as the paradigm with which to examine the nature of the African diaspora, Skinner proposes instead "Africanity." This paradigm would shift the focus away from Europe and even the notion of "Black Athena," toward the experience of African peoples as they fashioned themselves, often unconsciously, into a diaspora.

The book's final section deals with how communities in the African diaspora have or have not reconnected with Africa. Laura J. Pires-Hester's contribution on how Cape Verdean-Americans--whose immigration to the United States was voluntary, although compelled by harsh living conditions on the barren Atlantic islands controlled by Portugal until 1975--have reestablished a relationship with their homeland is one of the most interesting in the collection. The Cape Verdean experience underscores...


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