by Prof. Ali A. Mazrui
Never has the Black population in the United States been as diverse as it is today.
If Global Africa means people of African ancestry all over the world, the Black population of the United States is a microcosm of Global Africa. Today, this Black population includes people from literally every Black country in the world: from every member of the African Union, Organisation of American States and from other parts of the Black world as well.
Black population in the United States has been diversified as a result of several factors. First, the immigration policies of the United States were liberalised in the second half of the 20th century as compared with the first half, thus admitting more Black immigrants. Secondly, the racial situation within the United States has been desegregated enough to make the country more attractive to middle-class Blacks from other lands.
Finally, post-colonial problems in Africa and the Caribbean have created an emigration flow to the Northern hemisphere, including the United States. Haiti has experienced the exodus not just of the intelligentsia, but also of members of the poorest sectors of society. For a while, the problem of apartheid in South Africa also created a steady trickle of refugees to Europe and North America.
Partly because of the stimulus of new immigrants, the religious landscape of Black America has also become more diverse. Haitians have not only strengthened Catholicism, some of them have arrived with residual ‘voodoo’ culture. More ancestral traditional religions from Africa have become more legitimate in some African-American circles. Yoruba religious culture has been particularly influential. Religion, too, has its Diasporas.
Within the Protestant tradition, there is also more diversity now in Black America than there was in the first half of the 20th century. Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean have enriched Protestant diversity in the country, ranging from Anglicans from Nigeria to followers of Simon Kimbangu from the DRC. In addition, African versions of the Eastern Orthodox tradition are now better represented in the United States. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church now have stronger leadership in the United States.
The Rastafarian movement from the Caribbean has also become a force in the American scene since the second half of the 20th century. It is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a religious one.
The term Diaspora originated with the Jews. Black Jews are not a new phenomenon in the US. Sometimes these are basically Old Testament Christians who have become more and more Abrahamic. African-American Jews have sometimes had difficulty being recognised by Israel under the Law of Return.
The Black Jews of Ethiopia, the so-called Falasha, were also slow in gaining full recognition in Israel, but most of the
Ethiopian Jews were at last moved to Israel in the 1980s under Operation Moses and subsequent transfers. A few Ethiopian Jews have migrated to the United States and become Americans.
There are now virtually as many Muslims as Jews in the US, but the Muslims are less visible and much less influential than are the mainstream US Jews. Islam provides some direct African-American linkages with both Africa and the Middle East. But there are also areas of contrast between African-Americans and West Indians in relation to both Islam and indigenous African religion.
Among Diaspora Africans of the Western hemisphere there are two routes toward re-Africanisation. One route is through Pan-Islam, the transition chosen by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The other is the route directly through Pan-Africanism, the transition chosen by Marcus Garvey and the Rastafari Movement.
Curious questions still arise: why has Islam made more progress among North American Blacks than among Blacks in the West Indian Diaspora? Second, why do beliefs rooted in sacred Africanity, sometimes appear to be more visible in the Caribbean than among Africans of North America?
Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New Yorkamazrui@binghamton.edu