Book Review- The Pan-African Pantheon: Prophets, Poets and Philosophers

It is opined that both advocates and critics alike of literature about Pan-Africanism, stand to studiously benefit, from this contemporary book on the theme of Pan-Africanism, meticulously edited, by Nigerian scholar Adekeye Adebajo. Adebajo is the ‘Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation’ at the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ), in South Africa. When contextualized his edited text, is a welcome addition in the discourse of Pan-Africanism. This book adroitly adds to contributions made by others addressing Pan-Africanism. Preceding texts include books by British historians Hakim Adi (Nigerian born) and Marika Sherwood’s (Hungarian born) Pan-Africanism History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (2003), followed by Malian Frenchman Guy Martin’s African Political Thought (2012) andMarika Sherwood’s Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa, and the African Diaspora (2012). 

Observably Adebajo’s edited text under review, shares the same publication year as African-American Reiland Rabaka’s edited volume Routledge Handbook of Pan-Africanism (2020). Fast-forwarding to the present year, this book review is being authored in the same year, as the republication ofHakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism: A History (2021), initially published in 2018. From the aforesaid sample list of scholars, one may justly opine that the theme of Pan-Africanism draws from scholars, sited the world over. Adebajo’s introductory chapter, cogently points out key details about his book, which eruditely provide an array of definitions of Pan-Africanism (what ‘it is’ and ‘is not’) and traces “origins of Pan-Africanism historically to the two scourges of European slavery and colonialism” (Adebajo, 2020:7). This text offers thirty–eight chapters’, of which thirty-six are abridged biographies, about both pioneering and contemporary Pan-Africanists.  

Although Adebajo deserves to be credited, for acknowledgement of the aforementioned texts he explicates, how his book differs from them. Although Adebajo agrees, that there are similarities with Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood’s text, which features forty Pan-Africanists “ A key difference, however, is that while Adi and Sherwood’s very useful compendium has 3-5-page biographical sketches of each of these figures, our volume has more substantive, 15-20-page essays” (Adebajo, 2020:4). The latter “go beyond the short biographies of these figures to examine the struggles in which they were involved within a broader historical and contemporary context” (Adebajo, 2020:4). Differing from Rabaka’s text, is that Adebajo’s text is “organised thematically rather than biographically or regionally…We have thus not imposed any theoretical or philosophical framework on any of the authors” (Adebajo, 2020:5). Regarding limits “Our volume does not attempt to develop any theory or philosophy of Pan-Africanism. Instead, we set out the history of Pan-Africanism and the evolution, interaction and intellectual ideas and impact of the 36 Pan-African figures covered in this book” (Adebajo, 2020:4-5).

What are flaws, of this book? It sum, its grave omissions. Among others is in the category of ‘pioneers’ (in Part 2) and regarding ‘female’ Pan-Africanists (only seven were featured in stark contrast, to twenty-nine males). It is no understatement to state that no reason, can justify such gender bias. Indeed it is disappointing how Adebajo’s text, omitted chapters of ‘pioneering Pan-African pantheons’ whom undoubtedly have laid the foundation, for the officialisation of Pan-Africanism. Specific reference in mind here, foremostly include pioneers such as Trinidad and Tobago born Henry Sylvester Williams (shockingly only mentioned five times) even though ironically Adebajo mentions in his opening chapter, that Williams is “credited with having coined the terms “Pan-African’ and “Pan-Africanism” (Adebajo, 2020:22) and South African Alice Victoria Kinloch                   (sparsely addressed by Aldon Morris in ‘Chapter Four’ and Colin Grant in ‘Chapter Five’).The aforesaid criticism is stipulated being mindful, that elsewhere Sylvester Williams (as he is commonly called), has arguably received his fair share of attention unlike Alice Kinloch. Indeed Kinloch’s marginalization, persists to date. Fellow scholars are henceforth challenged, to address such gaps. For instance it must be noted that Adebajo’s claim of Sylvester Williams, having “founded the African Association in London in September 1897 to lobby the British parliament and public opinion to oppose the violence of European colonial rule in Africa…” (Adebajo, 2020:22) is deceptive. To be clear, what is refuted from Adebajo’s aforementioned narrative, is not the action taken by Sylvester Williams but the false claim made to ‘founder’ of The African Association. Adebajo is not alone in making such a misleading claim, as other contributors such as Aldon Morris (2020:96) are just as guilty. The following source ought to assist, to arrest any existing doubts, that Sylvester Williams was merely one among co-founders of The African Association. “In presenting this the first Annual Report of the African Association to our friends, it is well to mention that the founders were Mr. H.S. Williams, Mr. T.J. Thompson, and Mrs. A.V. Kinloch” (Williams, 1898:1). Even if it was never Adebajo’s intention to do so, his aforesaid claim unfortunately fuels the bonfire of patriarchy, namely when seeking specifically for ‘black women’ pioneers of Pan-Africanism. 

With poignant concerns of patriarchy in mind, I cannot downplay how I found it worrisome, that Adebajo’s text, similar to others which preceded it and the one which was republished just after it, boldly make claims about amid others Edward Wilmot Blyden and WEB Du Bois as “father(s) of Pan-Africanism” (Adebajo, 2020:21; Morris, 2020:88). Not once however in this entire text, do we read any reference to ‘mother (s) of Pan-Africanism’. Such selective amnesia support critics, advancing the argument that the ongoing former sole allusion, excessively made in respect of male Pan-Africanists, persists at the expense of female pioneers of Pan-Africanism. My lamentation therefore about marginalization of female pioneers such as Alice Kinloch, who may arguably serve as the ‘founding mother of Pan-Africanism’, deserves attention. With all things being even however Sylvester Williams and Alice Kinloch, should have topped Adebajo’s ‘Part 2’, as part of key organizers, leading to the founding Pan-African conference in 1900. 

In the final analysis, prospective readers of Adebajo’s book, should advisably consider assessing it, according to the following three key points:

There are unique features about this volume. Firstly, as the 38 essays are written by African, Caribbean and African-American scholars largely based in their regions, the book contributes substantively to efforts to transform curricula in all three regions and across the globe; secondly the book covers 36 major Pan-African figures in a bid to build a contemporary Pan-African canon; and thirdly, the volume encourages a cross-general dialogue between scholars, as well as between past figures of Pan-Africanism and more contemporary ones with whom current students would already be familiar (Adebajo, 2020:6-7).

Ultimately besides this book’s shortcomings, it is timely. I agree that “It comes at a time of increasing interest in Pan-African thought and Africa’s International Relations” (Adebajo, 2020:6). Only time will tell however if indeed, the editor’s claim is realized of “seeking to ensure that Pan-African knowledge forms part of knowledge production [and] forms part of, and influences, mainstream global thinking” (Adebajo, 2020:6). Indeed reading this text from South Africa, as a ‘black’ South African, a ‘false postcolonial’ ontological existence could not escape me.  Although hardly any reference is made towards the Pan African Congress (PAC) of AZANIA, the richness of Pan-Africanist insights from this book, compels for it to be considered as ‘a must read’.

By Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi

The writer is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS). E-mail: tmvulanemoloi@gmail.com