Civilised Negros: Pan-African Petitions to the League of Nations
Posted: 25 Jun 2007
Date Written: April 20, 2007
Between 1919 and 1928, two Pan-African organisations sent petitions to the League of Nations requesting, inter alia, seats on the Permanent Mandates Commission and, later, control over the mandate of South West Africa. The petitions formed part of the dynamic and complex international discourse of Pan-Africanism, a diasporic movement that constitutes an important antecedent of contemporary Third World engagements with the discipline of international law. This paper argues that similar to other examples or expressions of the Third World tradition in international law, the international discourse of the Pan-African Movement was characterised by a double consciousness, a term that refers to an ambivalent state of mind that desires and strives for seemingly conflicting or contradictory ideals and outcomes.
The double consciousness of Pan-Africanism manifested itself in impulses and strategies which alternated between radicalism and conservatism, revolution and reform, rejection and accommodation, autonomy and assimilation, rebellion and conformity, and idealism and pragmatism. On the one hand, Pan-Africanists attempted to change the world through radical and revolutionary means. Alienated, rejected and denied the opportunity to fully integrate into European and American societies, they turned their gaze towards Africa, refuted theories of racial superiority, demanded democracy, equality, cultural validation, and economic justice for people of African descent all over the world, and pursued a nationalistic politics that sought to attain self-government and independence for African colonies. On the other hand, however, Pan-Africanists desired assimilation into the world as it was and sought belonging, acceptance and recognition on the terms of that world. The desire to belong, be the same and, most importantly, be recognised as such was most apparent in the Pan-African Movement's use of the phrase "the civilised Negro". The "civilised Negro" was the basis of a variety of equality and sameness claims, including representation on the Permanent Mandates Commission, and reflected the extent to which Pan-Africanists had internalised the ideology of the civilising mission and desired acceptance as equal partners in the imperial project. To this end, they fought to convince the colonial powers of their qualification to function alongside them as bearers of civilisation.
The paper also argues that the discourse of the "civilised Negro" was born out of an ambivalence, which not only characterised the feelings of Pan-Africanists towards Europe and America but also featured in their relationship with Africa and Africans. Pan-Africanists prioritised Africa, idealised it as their spiritual homeland, and viewed it as an opportunity to resolve the internal conflict between their African and Western identities, escape persecution, gain economic opportunity and, most importantly, achieve and prove their capacity for self-government. At the same time, however, they embraced the evangelical civilising impulse of their day and with it many Eurocentric, paternalistic, imperialist attitudes towards colonised peoples. Believing Africa to be backward and themselves to be suitable agents of change, they pursued an alternative (albeit modified or reconfigured) civilisation mission, one that was to be led by civilised members of the African diaspora rather than Europeans.
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