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Diaspora takes its name from the ancient Greek dispersion, meaning “to scatter,” and, in the past, has been most closely associated with “the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile” (Merriam-Webster 2004, p. 345). For historians and social scientists, the concept embodies an assumption of forced dispersal, but also a shared identity organized around a mythic homeland, and the belief in a massive return (Akenson 1995, pp. 378–379). The creation of Israel, a real nation, did little to diminish this association, and the conflicts surrounding Israel’s expansion in the region still generate much discussion about the ongoing victimization of the Jewish people (Morehouse, pp. 7–8; Cohen 1997).
Expanding the Diaspora Concept
The next significant groups associated with the diaspora concept are those that form the “African diaspora.” Similar to ancient and modern-day Jews, the scattering of African-descended people owes its origins to the coercive systems of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism that resulted in the forced migration of thousands of Africans to the New World, and later involuntary migration. For newly Christianized African slaves and their descendants, the story of Jewish displacement held special appeal, especially the belief in the return home. Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), founder in 1917 of the United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), seized upon the diaspora desire to return home. He spearheaded a “Back-to-Africa” movement that had strong financial support, although the Black Star Line he built was intended to promote commerce between African Americans and Africa rather than return people to the land of their origins.
With such a strong symbolic connection among Christian blacks to the injustices that Jews had endured across time and space and their belief in a mythic homeland, it is not surprising that black scholars would seize upon the diaspora concept in their work. According to Brent Hayes Edwards, this concept of “diaspora is taken up at a particular conjuncture in black scholarly discourse to do a particular kind of epistemological work” (2001, p. 46). That “work,” as described by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), was an activist-scholarly agenda aimed at bringing “intellectual understanding and co-operation among all groups of Negro descent in order to bring about at the earliest possible time the industrial and spiritual emancipation of the Negro people” (1933, p. 247).
An interest in linking the scattered population of New World people to their African homeland is central to the ideas and planning that produced the 1900 PanAfrican Congress, organized by Henry Sylvester Williams (1869–1911), and the subsequent Pan-African congresses in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1945, and 1974 organized by Du Bois and others. But most scholars studying the history of the African diaspora credit George Shepperson with joining African to diaspora (Alpers 2001, p. 4) in his 1965 paper, “The African Abroad or the African Diaspora,” for the International Congress of African Historians: Diaspora versus Migration. Seventeen years later, the organizer of the panel on which Shepperson presented his paper, Joseph Harris, would go on to edit one of the seminal texts on the topic, Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. His classic definition would shape how generations of scholars interpreted the concept:
The African diaspora concept subsumes the following: the global dispersion (voluntary and involuntary) of Africans throughout history; the emergence of a cultural identity abroad based on origin and social condition; and the psychological or physical return to the homeland, Africa. Thus viewed, the African diaspora assumes the character of a dynamic, continuous, and complex phenomenon stretching across time, geography, class and gender. (Harris  1993, pp. 3–4)
To Be or Not to Be a Diaspora
While the use of diaspora “as social form,” “as type of consciousness,” “as mode of cultural production” (Vertovec 1997, p. 277–278), as paradigm (Hamilton 1990), or as interpretive framework (Drake 1991; Gilroy 1993; Hall 1990) has grown in popularity in cultural studies, history, and the social sciences, it has also generated much controversy. Some scholars, such as Donald Akenson, argue for “a degree of skepticism” when employing the concept. He asserts that its most pristine application is to modern Jews, and anything else leads to imprecision: “That is why, were we to be master of our vocabulary, ‘diaspora’ would be a term limited only to the ancient Hebrews and their descendents, the modern Jews. To use the word ‘diaspora’ even as a metaphor for other groups is to replace a precise connotation with a fuzzy one” (Akenson 1995, p. 379). Steven Vertovec agrees, and argues that “the current overuse and under-theorization of the notion of ‘diaspora’ among academics, transnational intellectuals and ‘community leaders’ alike—which sees the term become a loose reference conflating categories such as immigrants, guestworkers, ethnic and ‘racial’ minorities, refugees, expatriates and travelers—threatens the term’s descriptive usefulness” (Vertovec 1997, p. 277).
Östen Wahlbeck counters by asserting that it is the new application of an old concept that produces new understandings of globalization and transnationalism:
In the 1990s, migration researchers have used this old concept for a variety of new purposes. Instead of studying international migration, the focus is often on transnational diasporas.… I propose that the concept of diaspora, understood as transnational social organization relating both to the country of origin and the country of exile, can give a deeper understanding of the social reality in which refugees live. (Wahlbeck 2002, pp. 221–222)
Stuart Hall offers another notion of diaspora that challenges traditional views:
Diaspora does not refer to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return.… The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity, diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. (Hall 1990, p. 235)
Despite these new ways of conceptualizing diaspora and the debates over the use of diaspora to account for so many diverse forms of movement by groups of people across time and space and for varied reasons, it remains a powerful and useful concept for history and the social sciences.
- Akenson, Donald Harman. 1995. The Historiography of English-Speaking Canada and the Concept of Diaspora: A Sceptical Appreciation. Canadian Historical Review 76 (3): 377–409.
- Alpers, Edward. 2001. “Defining the African Diaspora.” Paper presented to the Center for Comparative Social Analysis Workshop. October 21.
- Cohen, Robin. 1997. Global Diaspora: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- Drake, St. Clair. 1991. Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. 1933. Pan-Africa and New Racial Philosophy. Crisis 40: 247–262.
- Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2001. The Uses of Diaspora. Social Texts–66 19 (1): 45–73.
- Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and DoubleConsciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hall, Stuart. 1990. Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford, 222–237. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
- Hamilton, Ruth Simms. 1990. Creating a Paradigm and Research Agenda for Comparative Studies of the Worldwide Dispersion of African Peoples. East Lansing: African Diaspora Research Project, Michigan State University.
- Harris, Joseph E., ed.  1993. Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.
- Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2004. Merriam–Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Author.
- Miller, Ivor. 2004. Introduction. Contours 2 (3): 141–156.
- Morehouse, Maggi M. nd. The African Diaspora: An Investigation of the Theories and Methods Employed when Categorizing and Identifying Transnational Communities. http://people.cohums.ohiostate.edu/avorgbedor1/diaspmo.pdf.
- Vertovec, Stephen. 1997. Three Meanings of “Diaspora,” Exemplified among South Asian Religions. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 6 (3): 277–299.
- Wahlbeck, Östen. 2002. The Concept of Diaspora as an Analytical Tool in the Study of Refugee Communities.Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 28 (2): 221–238.
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