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African American Diaspora

For hundreds of years, the African diaspora has taken individuals out of Africa and dispersed them around the world. In the United States, the African diaspora has resulted in a large African American population that has helped to shape the country’s culture and literature. However, literature from the African diaspora also includes authors who have arrived in the United States more recently, including Nigerian American, Liberian American, and Ghanaian American writers.

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African American Diaspora

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For hundreds of years, the African diaspora has taken individuals out of Africa and dispersed them around the world. In the United States, the African diaspora has resulted in a large African American population that has helped to shape the country’s culture and literature. However, literature from the African diaspora also includes authors who have arrived in the United States more recently, including Nigerian American, Liberian American, and Ghanaian American writers.

Definition of African American Diaspora

In general, diaspora refers to a group of people who have been dispersed or displaced but remain united by retaining their homeland's beliefs, values, and cultural identity and practice. The African diaspora is a particularly complex and diverse diaspora that includes individuals dispersed from many different countries for many reasons. Like many African Americans, some have been living outside Africa for generations. Others members of the African diaspora, such as refugees from countries like Sudan, Uganda, and the Congo, may have left Africa much more recently.

African American diaspora, map of Africa, StudySmarterThe African diaspora has had a profound effect on societies around the world.

In Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine, Colin Palmer offers this definition of the African diaspora:

The modern African diaspora, at its core, consists of the millions of peoples of African descent living in various societies who are united by a past based significantly but not exclusively upon “racial” oppression and the struggles against it; and who, despite the cultural variations and political and other divisions among them, share an emotional bond with one another and with their ancestral continent; and who also, regardless of their location, face broadly similar problems in constructing and realizing themselves.” -Colin Palmer1

Technically speaking, all African Americans are part of the African diaspora. However, in terms of literature, many African American writers, particularly contemporary ones, don’t feature as many diasporic themes in their work.

Causes of the African American Diaspora

The modern African diaspora is primarily made up of two separate migratory events. The first started with the forced dispersal of African people through the transatlantic slave trade beginning in the 16th century. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, estimates claim that anywhere between 5 and 100 million Africans were sold into slavery and later dispersed worldwide, primarily to the Americas.2

The second wave of the modern African diaspora occurred following the abolition of slavery in the Americas and the subsequent movement of freed individuals of African descent. The African diaspora also includes the forced and voluntary migration of African people today due to conflicts and social issues in various African countries.

Characteristics of African American Diaspora Literature

African American diaspora literature has the same fundamental characteristics as diaspora literature more broadly. These include a strong connection to the homeland, in this case, Africa, details of a journey that takes the displaced person away from the homeland, and contrasting the new place of residence with the homeland.

African American diaspora literature also explores further issues, such as the legacy of slavery and issues of racism that are specific to the United States.

Additionally, modern-day African diaspora writers working in the United States often offer critiques of contemporary US society and contrast the experience of African immigrants with that of African Americans.

Depiction of the Homeland

Diaspora communities are unique in that they maintain a strong connection to their home country and culture even if they live in a different place; they retain the feeling that their country of origin is their true home. Many African American writers explore Africa’s significance for individuals outside of the continent.

African American diaspora, purple flower, StudySmarterAlice Walker's The Color Purple is an example of African American diaspora literature.

Alice Walker’s classic novel, The Color Purple (1982), tells the story of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, living in rural Georgia at the start of the 20th century. Nettie becomes a missionary and travels back to Africa, where she describes learning about the continent to her sister:

Did you know there were great cities in Africa, greater than Milledgeville or even Atlanta, thousands of years ago? That the Egyptians who built the pyramids and enslaved the Israelites were colored? That Egypt is in Africa? That the Ethiopia we read about in the Bible meant all of Africa?

Well, I read and I read until I thought my eyes would fall out. I read where the Africans sold us because they loved money more than their own sisters and brothers. How we came to America in ships. How we were made to work.

I hadn’t realized I was so ignorant, Celie. The little I knew about my own self wouldn’t have filled a thimble!” -The Color Purple (Letter 54)

Celie and Nettie have not maintained a connection to Africa, and much of their ancestral knowledge was lost to the oppression they experienced. Celie states at one point that she “don’t know where Africa at” (Letter 50). However, as Nettie learns more about Africa, she immediately feels connected to the continent. She feels that learning about Africa helps her learn more about herself.

A Difficult Journey

A prime example of African diaspora literature in the United States is the slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of these narratives described the enslaved person’s voyage from Africa to the Americas.

After all the business was ended on the coast of Africa, the ship sailed from thence to Barbadoes. After an ordinary passage, except great mortality from small pox, which broke out on board, we arrived at the island of Barbadoes: but when we reached it, there were found out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, not more than two hundred alive. These were all sold, except for myself and three more, to the planters there.” - A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, but Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself (Chapter Two)

This example comes from one of the United States’ best-known slave narratives, Venture Smith’s A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, but Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America (1798). In his account, Smith describes his capture in Africa, subsequent voyage to the Americas, and his life there as an enslaved person.

Depiction of the Host Country

The final characteristic of diaspora literature is the depiction of the host country and, frequently, the comparison of the host country with the displaced person’s homeland. The African American literary tradition often involves critiques of US society but not necessarily comparisons to Africa. However, in literature from contemporary African writers residing in the United States, the difference between African and American (and African American) culture is a common theme.

During her first year in America, when she took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station and then the subway to visit Aunty Uju in Flatlands, she was struck by how mostly slim white people got off at the stops in Manhattan and, as the train went further into Brooklyn, the people left were mostly black and fat. She had not thought of them as ‘fat,’ though. She had thought of them as ‘big,’ because one of the first things her friend Ginika told her was that ‘fat’ in America was a bad word, heaving with moral judgment like ‘stupid’ or ‘bastard,’ and not a mere description like ‘short’ or ‘tall.’” -Americanah (Chapter One)

The above quote comes from award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013). The novel tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States. In the United States, Ifemelu begins to experience racism and sees herself as a Black woman for the first time.

Examples of African American Diaspora Literature

Some examples of African American diaspora literature include slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries, work by African American writers, and work by African authors living in the United States.

Slave Narratives

Slave narratives are a strong example of early literature from the African diaspora. Works such as A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, but Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America (1798) and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) often emphasize the enslaved person’s continued connection to Africa and usually included a description of the Middle Passage, the voyage between Africa and the Americas.

African American diaspora, people standing on map, StudySmarterThe journey enslaved Africans made from Africa to the Americas became an important feature of the diaspora's literature.

African American Writers and the Diaspora

For many years, African Americans were thought to have lost their culture and connection to Africa during the Middle Passage and subsequent enslavement. However, many writers rekindled a connection to their ancestral homeland during the Harlem Renaissance. Authors like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen make numerous references to Africa in their work, examining the role of Africa as a homeland in constructing African American identity.

The Harlem Renaissance was an African American art and cultural movement during the 1920s and 30s that was centered in Harlem, New York. The period included an explosion of artistic and intellectual work by Black artists and thinkers in literature, music, dance, fashion, and other art forms. Some of the key writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen.

Can you think of some examples of African American literature that would not be considered diaspora literature? Why or why not?

Modern-Day African Diaspora Writers in the United States

Many African diaspora writers working in the United States are not African American. These include well-known Nigerian writers Akwaeke Emezi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Liberian American Wayétu Moore, and Ghanaian American Yaa Gyasi. Because these writers have arrived in the United States more recently, their work is quite different from African American writers and usually offers clearer examples of diasporic themes.

Facts about African American Diaspora Literature

  • All African American literature can be considered part of the African diaspora, but African diaspora literature also includes literature from African writers living in countries around the world as well as African immigrants in the United States.
  • Scholars began to use the term ‘diaspora’ to describe Africans and people of African descent who lived outside of Africa in the 1960s and 70s.
  • The Americas have the largest population of Africans and people of African descent outside of Africa.
  • The African diaspora has produced many award-winning authors that have significantly impacted American literature.

African American Diaspora - Key Takeaways

  • The African diaspora is a complex dispersal of individuals from various African countries for various reasons.
  • The main cause of the African diaspora was the transatlantic slave trade, which may have transported as many as 100 million African people primarily to the Americas.
  • African American diaspora literature has similar characteristics to diaspora literature more broadly, including a strong connection to the homeland, details of a journey that takes the displaced person away from the homeland, and contrasting the new place of residence with the homeland.
  • Because many African American writers have been living outside of Africa for several generations, some African American texts don’t exhibit the characteristics of diaspora literature.
  • First- or second-generation African immigrants writing in the United States write literature that might be more commonly recognized as part of a diaspora.

References

  1. Colin Palmer. “Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora.” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. 1998.
  2. Glen Chambers. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Origins of the African Diaspora in Texas.” Texas A&M University. 2021.

Frequently Asked Questions about African American Diaspora

The African diaspora is a complex dispersal of individuals from various African countries for various reasons. Many members of the African diaspora have lived in the United States for generations and are now considered African Americans.


The African diaspora is important because people of African descent now make up a large percentage of the population in many countries, including the United States, and have made significant cultural contributions to these places.

The African diaspora includes Africans and people of African descent living outside of Africa, including African Americans.

The main cause of the African diaspora was the transatlantic slave trade.

The African diaspora greatly impacted many countries around the world by creating global transformations in culture and society.

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