The Origins, Purpose, and Proliferation of Pan-Africanism

W. E. B. DuBois wearing glasses, seated at a table, looking at paperwork

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Pan-Africanism was initially an anti-slavery and anti-colonial movement amongst Black people of Africa and the diaspora in the late 19th century. Its aims have evolved through the ensuing decades.

Pan-Africanism has covered calls for African unity (both as a continent and as a people), nationalism, independence, political and economic cooperation, and historical and cultural awareness (especially for Afrocentric versus Eurocentric interpretations).

History of Pan-Africanism

Some claim that Pan-Africanism goes back to the writings of formerly enslaved people such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano. Pan-Africanism here relates to the ending of the trading of enslaved people and the need to rebut the "scientific" claims of African inferiority.

For Pan-Africanists, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, part of the call for African unity was to return the diaspora to Africa, whereas others, such as Frederick Douglass, called for rights in their adopted countries.

Blyden and James Africanus Beale Horton, working in Africa, are seen as the true fathers of Pan-Africanism, writing about the potential for African nationalism and self-government amidst growing European colonialism. They, in turn, inspired a new generation of Pan-Africanists at the turn of the twentieth century, including JE Casely Hayford, and Martin Robinson Delany (who coined the phrase "Africa for Africans" later picked up by Marcus Garvey).

African Association and Pan-African Congresses

Pan-Africanism gained legitimacy with the founding of the African Association in London in 1897, and the first Pan-African conference held, again in London, in 1900. Henry Sylvester Williams, the power behind the African Association, and his colleagues were interested in uniting the whole of the African diaspora and gaining political rights for those of African descent.

Others were more concerned with the struggle against colonialism and Imperial rule in Africa and the Caribbean. Dusé Mohamed Ali, for example, believed that change could only come through economic development. Marcus Garvey combined the two paths, calling for political and economic gains as well as a return to Africa, either physically or through a return to an Africanized ideology.

Between the World Wars, Pan-Africanism was influenced by communism and trade unionism, especially through the writings of George Padmore, Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Paul Robeson, CLR James, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Walter Rodney.

Significantly, Pan-Africanism had expanded out beyond the continent into Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. W.E.B. Du Bois organized a series of Pan-African Congresses in London, Paris, and New York in the first half of the twentieth century. International awareness of Africa was also heightened by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.

Also between the two World Wars, Africa's two main colonial powers, France and Britain, attracted a younger group of Pan-Africanists: Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Ladipo Solanke. As student activists, they gave rise to Africanist philosophies such as "Négritude."

International Pan-Africanism had probably reached its zenith by the end of World War II when W.E.B Du Bois held the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945.

African Independence

After World War II, Pan-Africanist interests once more returned to the African continent, with a particular focus on African unity and liberation. A number of leading Pan-Africanists, particularly George Padmore and W.E.B. Du Bois, emphasized their commitment to Africa by emigrating (in both cases to Ghana) and becoming African citizens. Across the continent, a new group of Pan-Africanists arose amongst the nationalists—Kwame Nkrumah, Sékou Ahmed Touré, Ahmed Ben Bella, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Amilcar Cabral, and Patrice Lumumba.

In 1963, the Organization of African Unity was formed to advance cooperation and solidarity between newly independent African countries and fight against colonialism. In an attempt to revamp the organization, and move away from it being seen as an alliance of African dictators, it was re-imagined in July 2002 as the African Union.

Modern Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism today is seen much more as a cultural and social philosophy than the politically driven movement of the past. People, such as Molefi Kete Asante, hold to the importance of ancient Egyptian and Nubian cultures being part of a Black African heritage and seek a re-evaluation of Africa's place, and the diaspora, in the world.


  • Adi, Hakim and Sherwood, Marika. Pan-African History: Political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787. Routledge. 2003.
  • Ali, A. Mazrui. and Currey, James. General History of Africa: VIII Africa Since 1935. 1999.
  • Reid, Richard J. A History of Modern Africa. Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.
  • Rothermund, Dietmar. The Routledge Companion to Decolonization. Routledge. 2006.
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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Origins, Purpose, and Proliferation of Pan-Africanism." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 16). The Origins, Purpose, and Proliferation of Pan-Africanism. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Origins, Purpose, and Proliferation of Pan-Africanism." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).