A few weeks ago, I appeared on Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union. It was held at the New Orleans Convention Center, where only 2 1/2 years ago, residents packed into its structure seeking protection from a storm that, for many, never ended. While there was much debate about the show itself, for my part, I wanted to impart a simple message: our work in support of the African world is not done.
Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois understood the connections between Africa and African-Americans. DuBois was an original convener of the Pan African Congress in 1945, where the declaration read, "We believe the success of Afro-Americans is bound up with the emancipation of all African peoples…" The movements of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to space for a social consciousness within the Black community. The anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., led by African- Americans, began to take hold and Americans proved once again that we could change the oppressive policies of our government. Today, the discussion on activism, particularly advocating for a different foreign policy, is laced with skepticism. Do African-Americans still care about Africa? After apartheid, what is next for Blacks to struggle for? As one writer asked, "is Pan-Africanism" dead?
I experienced the U.S. anti-apartheid movement through the lens of a junior high school student in Buffalo, New York. I was the only Black student in my grade and the only one with a "Free Nelson Mandela" button on my jean jacket. I wore it proudly. I was hundreds of miles away from the action in front of the South African Embassy. I didn't understand the complexities, but viscerally I understood the movement held meaning for me.
Since then, much has happened for me and for the African world. Globalization coincided with the fall of the apartheid regime, and the Cold War political blocs in Africa shifted dramatically. New questions began to emerge. How much U.S. engagement is good in Africa? Free trade or fair trade? In the midst of conflict, should the United States intervene unilaterally or take a multilateral approach? Should we focus on charity or on sustainable development?
While there are questions, there are also many new opportunities. African-Americans have begun to travel in record numbers to Africa and throughout the Diaspora. This new generation of students and young professionals examine the current state of the African World from many angles, not just relying on the evening news, but also on articles from African newspapers, the web and blogs. Overwhelmingly, this new generation believes that we, as a global African people, cannot be treated like mere collateral damage in this new millennium.
Black Americans are making connections that have never been made. The new discussions around Afro-descendants in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico broadens our children's awareness of our broader identity, history and struggle in this hemisphere. African Americans must understand that the war on terror is a global war and it destroys international civil liberties and threatens advancement in the African World.
The best human rights movement wisdom tells us that we must continue to listen to and learn from each other's struggles across the globe.
The U.S. anti-apartheid movement was a 40 year struggle to recognize and educate the American people about a horrible system of oppression supported in its totality by our own government. Agitation from inside of South Africa toppled the regime and we stood in support of that struggle. Today, we must continue to fight all policies, domestic and international, that do not put the dignity and welfare of African peoples at the center of the discussion. Perhaps we will see another experience similar to the Free South Africa Movement. But, we may also have a movement on our horizon, more extraordinary then we could ever imagine.
Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum