Diaspora is a term used to describe communities of people, often taken away from their homelands by force, who now live away from their country and culture of origin. Since the 1950s, the term has been used to describe the worldwide presence of Africans. As they moved—or were moved—to other countries, Africans brought with them their religious views and practices. This entry briefly describes the history of the concept, looks in more detail at the African diaspora, and discusses its impact on religion.
Background of the Concept
Diaspora derives from the Greek verb speiro (to sow) and the preposition dia (over) and was first applied by ancient Greeks to signify expansion, migration, and settler colonization. Earlier conceptions of diaspora have changed to acquire new definitions and meanings, partly representing a collective trauma, forced exile with myths of home and return. The biblical exile of the Jews represents one classical notion of diaspora. In recent times, diverse ethnic-national groups living outside their local communities and countries of origin who maintain collective identities have often engaged in self-description as diaspora. One unifying thread of diasporic communities is their settlement, temporary or permanent, outside their imagined old-home, natal territories.
African diaspora was employed from the mid-1950s and 1960s when the discourse on the historical phenomenon of dispersion and settlement of Africans abroad began to lay claim to diaspora as a descriptive label. The African diaspora assumes a dynamic character of an ongoing, complex process located across space-time. It embodies the voluntary and forced dispersion of Africans, their descendants, and their cultures at different historical phases and into diverse directions (such as the Americas, Europe, Asia, Mediterranean, Arab worlds, and the cross-migration within Africa). In recent years, African diaspora is transforming to include a rising influx of voluntary as well as forced emigrants, refuge-seekers, and refugees within and beyond the continent. African diaspora is one theoretical construct to describe this global dispersal of indigenous African populations at different phases of world history.
The transcultural encounter between Africa and the rest of the world is not a recent phenomenon. Contacts between Europe and Africa in particular were constant throughout Europe's Antiquity, Middle Ages, and the so-called Modern Age. European presence and interest in Africa through these periods is split along the contours of commerce, politics, and religion. The imperial expansionist agenda generated new situations and posed as a catalyst toward diaspora formation. One inherent consequence was in creating situations that brought Africans at varied times to Europe and the New World.
The emergence of diaspora communities is linked to different waves of emigration. The earliest included virile Africans collected in human trafficking and moved involuntarily to various metropolises in Europe and the Americas. Prior to the transatlantic African diaspora, Africans had prolonged encounters of slave trade and forced migration during the Islamic hegemony of the 7th and 8th centuries, in which slaves were trafficked across the Sahara, up the Nile Valley and the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and India. Survivors of these ordeals constituted the first African diaspora enclaves.
The historical African diaspora in the New World generated a number of myths about its origins. Their most important notions of the homeland were imbricated in “Ethiopia,” with biblical credence to Psalms 68:31: “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” This connection was more of a concept of “blackness” and “Africanity,” rather than any geographical connection with the country. In the 1930s, Ethiopianism became the precursor to Rastafarianism in Jamaica.
The initiative to reinvigorate black consciousness, restore self-esteem and human dignity among African Americans, and revamp Africa from an image condemned to poverty, enslavement, denigration, and inferiority brought some populist leaders of the African diaspora such as Marcus Garvey, W E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. into the limelight. Their ideas and activities launched the early movements of Black Consciousness (Garveyism), the Pan-African Movement, Négritude, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Impact on Religion
Physical contact between Africa and the West increased in frequency in the 19th century. An upsurge in the demography of African migrants into Europe, North America, and elsewhere heralds a new phase in the history of African diaspora. Religion is a constant identity variable within African diaspora communities, where many Africans carry traits of their religiocultural identity. Sojourn in new contexts enlivens them to identify and reconstruct their religion for themselves and their host societies.
African migrants of diverse origins largely retained their religious symbolisms and world-views. Contact with religions of the Americas from the 16th century resulted in a complex synthesis that produced African-derived religions, such as Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voodoo, Orisha, and Ifa traditions. Some of them have transcended ethnic precincts, while increasingly turning proselytizing religions. For instance, Ifa priests and devotees now include Yoruba, Africans, and non-Africans alike. Umbanda, the Afro-Brazilian religion, was a synthesis of religious elements from West Africa, South America, and Western Europe. The proliferation of these new religions evokes nostalgia, with people of African descent charting new paths toward rediscovering their ancestral African homelands.
The African American community has been integral to the reshaping of the American religious mosaic. In the context of slavery and racial discrimination in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, America gave birth to African American Christian denominations from the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian backgrounds. The modern Pentecostal movement in the United States began in 1906 with William J. Seymour, a black holiness preacher. Although the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition fueled the quest of the Pentecostal movement prior to 1901, its origin is mostly traced to the Topeka, Kansas, religious revival. The earliest groups included the predominantly African American Church of God in Christ (1897), the Pentecostal Holiness Church (1898), and the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee (1906).
There were also enslaved Muslims from parts of Africa who brought their religion to parts of North America. Two religious groups that emerged to challenge segregation in America and colonialism in Africa were the Moorish Science (Timothy Drew) and the Nation of Islam (Wallace Fard, later known as Farrad Mohammed).
The last 3 decades, characterized by significant demographic shifts of African immigrants, have witnessed the further proliferation of varieties of African religions in diaspora. African indigenous, Islamic, and Christian religions in diaspora are remapping the old religious landscapes and widening their clientele base, as well as playing increasing visible civic roles within the diaspora.
- African diaspora
- pentecostal movements
- African religions
- Cohen, R. (1997). Global Diasporas: An Introduction. London: University College London Press.
- Gilroy, R (1993). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Boston: Harvard.
- Harris, J. E. (1982). Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. Washington, DC: Howard.