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The politics of knowing the difference between reparations and repatriation

By different, amorphous names, African repatriation has been the bedrock of the origin and evolution of Pan Africanism in the Western Hemisphere, and this includes the idea of reparations. African repatriation in the 18th (and most prominently in the 19th centuries), meant ‘going home’ or ‘getting back to Africa,’ however one could pull that off. The touch-stone for this effort in the U.S. occurred during the Amistad Affair of 1839-1842, in which captured Africans successfully sued for their freedom in open court in the U.S., ably assisted by former USA president, John Quincy Adams (captured in the movie, “Amistad” ). Then in 1811, and 1815, at his own expense, ship builder Paul Cuffe, a successful free Black man in Boston, outfitted two full voyages of African Americans to Sierra Leone on Africa’s West coast. Their intent was to permanently relocate back to Africa. Those early efforts led to the founding of the independent African country of Liberia.

Although a physical return to the continent was not always the prime objective, the West Indian and North American inventors of early Pan Africanism (Delany, Blyden, McNeil Turner, W.E.B.Dubois, and others) did emphasize a necessary re-connectedness of heritage, history, traditional values and remembrance of an African homebase in these fourth and fifth generation Africans in America and in the Caribbean.

In 1920, in Harlem, NY, during the Hon. Marcus M. Garvey’s massive UNIA-ACL Convention of more than 20,000 delegates and visitors, he exhorted the attendees to agree to a commitment to repatriation, training and preparation to build capacity and an African national infrastructure first inside the USA and then on the African continent itself. Garvey’s vision included a deep belief in returning to, redeeming and resurrecting a land-based African foundation that would serve as the strength and leverage to demand respect and equal recognition with other nations of the world. African descendants deserved and had earned such a change in status and prestige, Mr. Garvey was convinced, so they had the obligation to seize and develop it.

In that 1920 advocacy, repatriation was still a relatively uncomplicated re-connectedness—either a skilled, disciplined physical return, or a cultural renaissance within remembered African traditions.  Citizenship was not yet the issue, given the fact that Liberia, Garvey’s logical choice for the emigration of prepared African descendants, already had in its constitution a clause which awarded virtually instant citizenship to descendants of slaves who arrived on its shores. The issue then was land acquisition—and legal citizenship would be part of the later, but necessary, follow-through activities.  

Through the dynamic, sometimes horrifying, sometimes satisfying history of African-Americans and Western African descendants since then, particularly after WWII, the idea of repatriation formally evolved into the quest for dual citizenship. The latter includes rights, privileges, land ownership, access to employment, loyalty and relaxation of travel restrictions, among other expectations. Beyond just re-connectedness, it seeks legal status and an extended homeland.

Within this context, the current struggle for Diaspora dual citizenship or dual nationality can be conceptualized. On the one hand, the post-independence growth of successful African nation-building strategies has necessarily included how to incorporate the talents, assets and loyalties of continentals who left, acquired citizenship in European, American and other societies, and who still submitted regular remittances to family and institutions in their home countries. Should these Diasporans be allowed to vote, own property, run for office, and otherwise participate in their home countries in spite of holding European and American passports? Are they yet Africans? 

Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Lesotho, among others, have already passed legislation answering those questions, with restrictions, in the affirmative, while Uganda, Swaziland, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa have said no. Liberia, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and several others are in the process of making a decision in 2010 or soon thereafter. Along with acquiring and implementing a common currency, this issue remains a very big challenge for the African Regional Economic Communities (groupings of 7-13 states from specific regions of Africa) trying to move gradually towards an all-African unification. Besides being a very emotional and exasperating issue, however, it also contains a large portion of the current definition of the African Diaspora accepted by the African Union and others—the African Diaspora is mainly continental Africans living abroad who still maintain family and financial ties to their home countries.

On the other hand, the African Diaspora represented by African descendants 10 or more generations removed from the continent, born and raised as citizens of American, European, Caribbean, Canadian, New Zealand and other countries, yet who still strongly desire repatriation/re-connectedness with Africa, seek a broadened more inclusive definition of the African Diaspora. Many of them also seek a clarified legal status, which includes citizenship. 

 Although the USA’s citizenship oath for naturalization commits its adherents to give up any other citizenship but this country’s ( “I hereby declare on oath that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”),  as do many other sovereign states, within the last 30 years or so, the USA’s State Department and Immigration Services have gradually relaxed enforcement of that provision. Currently, unless it is a country the USA does not particularly care about (e.g., Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc.),  the USA will generally recognize dual citizenship among its residents. Thus, it is possible and probable to simultaneously be a US citizen and a citizen of Sierra Leone, or Ghana, or France, or Israel.

Being naturally born in the USA bestows automatic citizenship and does not require an oath, just as it does in most other countries. Unless USA citizens formally renounce their citizenship, sometimes by voluntarily taking a naturalization oath in another country which requires such exclusivity, it is very difficult to lose it. A rash of supreme court cases have set substantial precedent on that issue.

That being said, should African-Americans vigorously seek out African countries which are willing to allow dual citizenship status? Certainly, most Black Americans are not going to rush out to their travel agents for help in permanently relocating to Africa, at present. 

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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Tags: local, David L. Horne, Marcus Garvey