Perspectives on Old and New Diaspora: Before, During and After COVID-19.

By Bob Wekesa

Covid-19 was and is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. It is therefore a marker of many other social, political, and cultural phenomena. One such phenomenon is the African diaspora. The African diaspora is a macro category given its spatial-temporal dimensions which, themselves, intersect in multiple ways. Let’s consider the temporal dimension in the form of old and new diaspora, or what scholar Joseph E. Harris labeled as “historical diaspora” and “modern diaspora”, which can be considered contemporary diaspora.

Over the past couple of years, there have been many projects grappling with the idea of old and new diaspora. About the old diaspora, one can probably go so far back in time that the notion begins to fade into some sort of oblivion. Migration is at the heart of the old diaspora. It is a story that has a long arc. It begins with the long-held belief that first humans left Africa some 60,000 to 90,000 years ago. The common human ancestry implies that every human being in the world today is an African diaspora by dint of the common ancestry. This ancient form of diaspora formation appears to have been voluntary. Arab-Muslim-slavery-driven migration followed. It is said to have started in the seventh century and continued until abolishment in Mauritania as recently as 2007. African slaves are known to have been present in places like Portugal in the 13th century.  Between the 14th and 18th centuries, European powers, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Dutch, and France ramped up forced migration in what is known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This abbreviated summary speaks to the notion of old or historical diaspora.

The story of Olaudah Equiano, an emancipated slave originally from present-day Southern Nigeria, who wrote an autobiography entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself in 1789, a good example of early old diaspora scholarship. It is what Ali Mazrui referred to as the diaspora of enslavement.

Borrowing from Isidore Okupewho, the new diaspora is largely seen as that of “voluntary movements and relocations of Africans and peoples of African descent between the home continent and various parts of the western Atlantic”. But this definition is limiting and limited as it cuts out forced migrations that are ongoing which begin to mirror the forced migration of slavery. Okupewho’s distinction of the new diaspora as that which occurred in the postcolonial period in contrast to the old diaspora that occurred in the pre-colonial period is more germane. It is what Mazrui referred to as the diaspora of imperialism. Historian, Nemata Blyden, her 2019 book, African Americans and Africans, points out that new diaspora started arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth century, providing as an example, the prominent Ghanaian scholar James Kwegyir Aggrey from Ghana.

The “old and new diaspora” distinctions are at the center of a diaspora project we have been undertaking at the African Centre for the Study of the United States in partnership with the Center for African Studies at Howard University. One of the products of this work was the publication of thought leadership articles entitled African Diaspora- before and after COVID-19. A review of the publication reveals interesting perspectives.

Although the old and new diaspora is often analyzed more from an Africa-United States viewpoint, there is a great yearning to incorporate perspectives from other regions. After a call for the thought leadership articles, we received contributions dealing with migrations internal to Africa, suggesting that the old and new diaspora phenomenon is very much part of the African diaspora and African studies phenomena. The question to be posed is, what do migrations, say from Malawi to South Africa, differ between the apartheid and post-apartheid era? One of the contributors for instance points to neglected African migrations to Eastern Europe. Two point out the crisis of immigration from Africa to Europe the racial problems facing African youth in the UK and linkages with the Black Lives Matter movements in the US. Yet another discusses the Israel/Jew-African diaspora dimension.

Reference to Black Lives Matter indeed introduces another iteration of the old and new diaspora. For instance, one of the founders, Opal Tometi, is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the United States. It had indeed been observed that the children of African immigrants to the United States show a split identity between the old and new diaspora categories. In this category falls former US President Barack Obama whose father was a Kenyan immigrant to the US and who has family members in Kenya. Many of the diasporan who straddle the old and new divide also circulate between the continent and the US, defying fine-cut categorization. It has also been pointed out that new generations of Africans born to African migrant parents have closer affinities with the old diaspora.

The Covid-19 struck at a time when the back-to-Africa idea was rebounding in Africa. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 the year of the return, commemorating 400 years since the arrival of a ship carrying African slaves on the eastern coast of the US. popularised by Marcus Garvey – under the banner of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the early 20th century – This built on waves of back-to-Africa migrations that started in the eighteenth century with Liberia and Sierra Leone as destinations. These emigrations were not extremely popular, with many of the old diasporans electing to remain in the US and some circulating between the US and African countries. The latter trends seem to continue today as many old diaspora emigrants maintain links with the US and many new diasporans maintain links with their African ancestry. Thus, we can start talking of a hybrid diaspora rather than a clean cut old and new diaspora.  

In both the United States and Africa, Covid-19 had devastating effects born of inequalities – domestic and global. In the US, the murder of George Floyd galvanized social justice movements that reverberated in African diasporas and on the continent. Anecdotal evidence pinpoints the intense stereotyping that came with Covid-19 as one of the factors that led them to emigrate. Yet not much has been written on this. It is a research gap worth investigating.