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Why ‘pan-‘? The appeal and limits of Pan-Africanism in the struggle to remake the interwar world

Authors: Jake Hodder*, University of Nottingham
Topics: Historical Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: pan-movements, pan-africanism, internationalism, geopolitics
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


2019 marks the centenary of the first Pan-African Congress which was held in Paris at the end of the First World War. The Congress convened several more times in the decade which followed in London, Brussels and Paris in 1921, London and Lisbon in 1923 and New York City in 1927. Using a range of archival materials, this paper critically re-examines the Congress. Specifically, it asks why pan-nationalism had the appeal it did for this diverse group of activists given the myriad of other political frameworks available in the immediate post-war years. I argue that Pan-Africanism allowed for the conceptualization of race as a global geographical category–one which reworked cultural, historical and biological ideas–with two significant benefits. First, it allowed for a productive ambiguity about the exact geopolitical contours of the movement thereby holding together an unlikely coalition of supporters. Secondly, a global category was essential to securing the Congress’s immediate political objective of establishing race relations as an international issue. The new forms of international law and governance which emerged in the 1920s were greeted with great optimism by marginalised groups, not least because the limits of their jurisdiction remained subject to debate. A pan-African framework was critical to arguing that race relations–whether in the British Empire, the United States or elsewhere–should be under international oversight and protection.

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