- Conflicts of InterestThe 1919 Pan-African Congress and the Wilsonian Moment
For a brief period in 1919, Paris became the capital of the world. World leaders gathered in conference to forge the terms of the peace. The Allied-led Peace Conference is probably best remembered for the treaty signed in July1919, detailing the terms of Germany’s defeat. The greatest task, however, lay not in defining Germany’s penance but in designing a new world. This not only involved the construction of new geo-political borders and the redistribution of colonies but also the creation of a new international order. Politicians, intellectuals, and activists as diverse as J. C. Smuts, Vladimir Lenin, H. G. Wells, and Ho Chi Minh had penned competing proposals of this reconstruction in the years before the armistice. The vision that proved the most influential was that offered by the United States President Woodrow Wilson in a speech delivered to the American Congress in 1918, and thereafter known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points. His plan, with its emphasis on self-determination and national rights, seemed to suggest the beginning of a world order free from European imperialism. Wilson’s inspiring rhetoric gave rise to powerful expectations, particularly amongst those who stood to gain the most from a disruption of the status quo. Within the United States, disenfranchised groups believed that this was their opportunity to have their suffering addressed by a global audience. The African American community was no exception and activist groups as varied as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the National Urban League lobbied to participate in the Peace Conference or to join Wilson’s advisory board.
As historian Erez Manela has observed, the literature on the Paris Peace Conference focuses primarily on great power leaders or specifically upon the conference’s failure to realize the promise of Wilson’s rhetoric (123). Seminal scholarship, such as Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, has focused on the reactions of the great powers to the requests of oppressed peoples rather than upon the requests themselves.1 More recent works, such as Glenda Sluga’s Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism and The Nation, Psychology and International Politics, 1870–1919 have recovered new dimensions of the process by examining the Peace Conference through the participation of marginalized groups instead of through the actions of the key powerbrokers. Manela himself has filled many gaps in the literature on anti-colonial nationalist movements, examining the ways local movements of Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, and Koreans were intricately entwined with Wilson’s international rhetoric (12). My intention is to build upon this scholarship by focusing upon the Pan-African Congress of February 1919 that occurred in this “Wilsonian moment” and the resulting petition to the Paris Peace Conference. In so doing, I will resituate a pivotal moment in African diasporic history within [End Page 133] the context of contemporaneous debates around access to rights and national belonging.
The 1919 Pan-African Congress tends to be characterized in the scholarship as the American precedent to the later, anti-colonial Pan-Africanism of the post-World War II era. It is dismissed as a failed beginning to a broader, more radical movement and relegated to the lengthy list of W. E. B. Du Bois’s contributions to black activist thought.2 In this respect, it has usually been contextualized in terms of the American black freedom struggle rather than the discussions around self-determination and national belonging that were occurring amongst the black diaspora, particularly between African American and Francophone black elites. Clarence G. Contee’s article on the Congress, written in 1972, remains the most comprehensive treatment of the subject.3 However, Contee pushes the Peace Conference to the periphery of his analysis, framing his study in terms of its significance in W. E. B. Du Bois’s rise to national leadership in the African American community. He also marginalizes the involvement of other participating scholars and activists. In this paper, I seek to broaden this focus beyond Du Bois’s personal trajectory by framing a close study of the actual content of the discussions at the congress in the larger...