In the introduction to the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (ABC-CLIO, 2008), we identify the African Diaspora as created by the dispersal of African people from the continent of Africa by (a) voluntary; (b) forced; (c) economic; and (d) induced means.   ‘Diaspora’ literally means dispersal and therefore has come to mean the dispersal of a people from their homeland. Thus, it is common now to hear descriptions of different diaspora.  What is critical in understanding African diaspora, though, is that it is one of the oldest constituted diaspora and carried in its movement the relationships of home and exile but also re-creation in a new place.  The African Union therefore refers to the African Diaspora as follows:

The African Diaspora consists of peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union.

The directions of this dispersal have been studied by some of the leading scholars and divided in various ways in terms of historical time period.  One convenient approach is to identify three large phases.  The pre-Atlantic phase: to the Indian Ocean from the 5th century but also in the area now defined as the Mediterranean via the trans-Saharan passage and the opening up of the circum-Indian Ocean geography.  This is now referred to as TADIA - The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean.

Pre-Columbian exploratory journeys to the Americas during the 13th and 14th centuries and the larger trans-Atlantic enslavement via the Middle Passage to the Americas from the 15th century onwards moved between eleven and nineteen million people to create the “New World.”  This is the second phase.

Finally, more recent 20th and 21st century migrations have created a third movement of people from a variety of locations to the larger metropolitan areas in the United States, Canada and Europe often for economic reasons.

The result of all these processes of free and forced migration was the appearance of Africans in the Americas, in Europe and in Asia and the simultaneous re-creation of socio-cultural practices in these various locations, making them essentially a global people. A series of identifiable communities and countries now constitute the African Diaspora, and some even see developments like the appearance of Rastafari in Africa or African-Americans living in Ghana as another diasporic movement to the continent itself.

This relocation of African peoples to different geographical locations often meant subordination or dispossession, though in the Indian Ocean Diaspora, some Africans like Malik Amber became members of the ruling classes; the masses of Afro-Indians still live very submerged lives.   Other groups of diasporic Africans lived experiences of racism and colonialism which left them consistently debased in their new locations until various anti-colonial and civil rights movements challenged and changed the conditions of these African diaspora peoples.  The United States is perhaps the best example of this in which Civil Rights and Black Power movements created the conditions for the election of the first Black president in 2008.

Moving beyond mere dispersal though, African peoples in the diaspora, have created cultures based on the socio-cultural and political realities that they faced in the various new geographical locations.  Festivals like carnivals have been Africanized as have musical forms, dance patterns, hairstyles, clothing, and culinary expressions are also recognizable.  People of the African diaspora also speak a variety of languages which come from their various forms of colonialism (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab and Asian), but also a range of combinations which are referred to as ‘nation language” or creoles or patois by scholars and even Black English in the United States.

All of this makes the study and understanding of the African Diaspora one of the most exciting developments in recent times. Organizations and conferences have devoted time to studying this as a new field of inquiry. The revelation of the existence of different communities of African descended peoples across the Americas for example has been a rich addition to our knowledge base as is understanding the nature of the African communities in India. Beyond the popularly-known communities of African peoples in locations like Brixton, London or Brooklyn, New York, or Salvador-Bahia, Brazil, one can also add Karnataka in India and even Rastafari communities in Shashamane (Oromo) Ethiopia.

Carole Boyce Davies
Professor of Africana Studies, Cornell University
General Editor, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora