Quito Swan. Pauulu's Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020. 408 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6641-7.
Reviewed by Meredith L. Roman (The College at Brockport (SUNY))
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Historian Quito Swan’s second monograph exemplifies the cutting-edge research that scholars of Africa and the African diaspora have produced in the past two decades partly as a consequence of the institutional frameworks afforded by doctoral programs like the Comparative Black History Program at Michigan State University, and academic organizations like the Association for the Study of the World African Diaspora. Swan, who recently joined the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Indiana University in Bloomington, tells the captivating story of Pauulu Kamarakafego, an international Black Power leader, environmental activist, and unsung architect of the African diaspora, who was born Roosevelt Nelson Browne in Bermuda in 1932. Kamarakafego claimed that “he was ceremoniously given the name Pauulu Kamarakafego, ‘brown-skinned son of Chief Kamara,’ while visiting Kpelle relatives in Liberia” (p. 4). Swan acknowledges the inconsistencies in Kamarakafego’s recollections, noting that the name of the chief who ruled the Kpelle village of Sinyea when Kamarakafego visited it in 1959 was Sigbe Dorweh, not Kamara (p. 76). Notwithstanding this discrepancy, what is indisputable is that Roosevelt Nelson Browne, or “Roose,” as Pauulu Kamarakafego was known, dedicated his life to tirelessly advancing the political, economic, and cultural self-determination of Africa and the diaspora communities of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, Pauulu’s Diaspora contributes to the growing field of “Black Pacifics” (p. 10) and demonstrates that pan-Africanism and Black Power were not simply Atlantic world phenomena.
Swan insists that Pauulu’s Diaspora is not a biography but “a political narrative of twentieth-century black internationalism logistically anchored by Kamarakafego’s globe-trotting activism” (p. 20). Accordingly, at times Kamarakafego falls out of the narrative and Swan provides the rich context in which this remarkable leader lived, worked, and evolved. This includes acquainting readers with some of Kamarakafego’s contemporaries, such as the Trinidadian-born Kwame Ture, Dominica’s Rosie Douglas, and London’s Obi Eguna, who helped spearhead Britain’s Black Power movement. As Swan shows, Kamarakafego bridged this nascent community of Black Power activists with the older generation of pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah, Amy Jacques Garvey, and C. L. R. James (his mentor and close friend). Kamarakafego did not share James’s Marxist politics but the two men were united by the desire to gain the emancipation of oppressed people around the globe.
While Pauulu’s Diaspora is not a straightforward biography, Swan adeptly recreates the racially unjust yet politically radicalized world into which Kamarakafego was born in Bermuda, “‘the South Africa of the Caribbean’” (p. 21). Racial segregation, economic exploitation, and educational disadvantage were pervasive, and British authorities repeatedly refused to allow Marcus Garvey, the dynamic founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, to speak on the island. Despite the numerous indignities that the Bermuda’s black-majority population endured, Kamarakafego’s family taught him to appreciate the richness of music and dance, the value of knitting, cooking, and traditional medicine, the necessity of providing resources for neighboring communities, and the imperative of self-defense when confronted with white violence. Kamarakafego studied and engaged in protests at several U.S. colleges and universities in the 1950s that on one occasion resulted in a lifelong neck injury at the hands of the KKK in South Carolina. His experiences at the California Institute of Technology were fundamental in teaching him to pair his interest and expertise in science with political activism. Kamarakafego’s initial experiences traveling abroad, however, came not as a pan-African activist but as a member of the Boy Scouts. In 1949, he attended the World Jamboree in Australia where he first became acquainted with the Indigenous populations of Oceania with whom he would establish important connections two decades later as a respected international Black Power leader.
Swan acknowledges as significant and exciting the outpouring of scholarship on Black Power that has occurred since the mid-1990s. However, Swan challenges historians to move beyond the “‘US-centric’ appraisals” of Black Power (p. 16). He contends that Black Power even in its US incarnations can only properly be understood as a global movement that shared several features (including “black political and economic self-determination, global south solidarity, a revolutionary agenda, the legitimization of armed self-defense, pan-Africanism as an identity, embracement of political culture, environmental justice, a class analysis, freedom for political prisoners, and the overthrow of white power, capitalism, imperialism, and empire”) which facilitated its expansion around the world (p. 15). These common features made Black Power “a global, black internationalist, anti-colonial, inherently pan-African, and revolutionary movement that sought political, economic, and cultural self-determination from systems of white hegemony such as (neo)colonialism and imperialism, even when these systems were represented by black heads of state” (p. 16). Swan thus rejects the reduction of Black Power to the assumption of political power by African-descended individuals, whether it occurred in 1960 or 2008. Many political leaders in the Caribbean and Africa, Swan emphasizes, opposed Black Power despite their skin color and African ancestry because it was synonymous with granting “power to the people” (p. 114). Since political independence had not meant liberation from colonialism, Kamarakafego found that the Caribbean was fertile ground for the spread of Black Power. Kamarakafego’s commitment to Black Power, however, did not endear him to many national leaders who made exploitative deals that proved detrimental to the population but from which they personally profited.
Consistent with his objective to correct the US-centric focus of much Black Power scholarship, Swan decenters the experiences of African Americans in his discussion of the 1970 Congress of African People (CAP) and the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania in 1974. He explores the proceedings’ influence on anticolonial struggles in Oceania, highlights their attention to science and technology, and illuminates the prominent role played by Kamarakafego and grassroots male and female organizers. Swan does not shy away from addressing the conflicts that accompanied the organization and convening of these monumental meetings. Particularly provocative is Swan’s analysis of the experiences of Bruce McGuinness, the secretary of Melbourne’s Aborigines Advancement League whom Kamarakafego traveled to Australia to meet in 1969, and subsequently invited to attend CAP in Atlanta, Georgia. Owing to his pale skin and straight hair, some delegates mistook McGuinness as an interloping white liberal. Although McGuinness pointed to the history of systematic violence and dispossession that resulted in his phenotypical appearance, one delegate suggested that he “‘could always pass off as a Puerto Rican’” (p. 168). McGuinness responded with anger and exasperation, challenging CAP participants to expand their knowledge of the diaspora to include black Australians like himself rather than fit him into preexisting categories of knowledge. As Swan elucidates, “McGuinness’s experience reminds us how centuries of white hegemony, surveillance, colonialism, and miseducation had dislocated black communities physically and conceptually from one another” (p. 169). Motivated by deep empathy, Kamarakafego sought to dismantle this painful legacy by bringing black communities of the Atlantic and Pacific in direct contact with each other in order to create emancipated systems of knowledge and solidarity.
Tracing Kamarakafego’s global travels as an architect and diplomat of the “radical black diaspora” (p. 6) required Swan to travel extensively and, at times, rely on modes of transportation unfamiliar to most historians. Swan visited national, local, and private archives and conducted fieldwork among activists in places like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Kenya, Canada, Britain, and Bermuda. Swan’s extensive source base includes the records of conference proceedings and government intelligence agencies, print media, correspondence, oral interviews, and the writings of Kamarakafego himself. Kamarakafego penned an autobiography, Me One: The Autobiography of Dr. Pauulu Kamarakafego (2001), as well as nine structural engineering manuals that became in high demand throughout the Global South. The topic of these manuals ranged from how to make soap out of coconut oil to how to construct sustainable water tanks with cement and bamboo. In addition to empowering rural communities with access to fresh water, Kamarakafego wanted to reduce their dependence on the expensive importation of materials that made home ownership impossible for many people across Africa and the diaspora. Thus, while serving as the director of the Office of Village Development in Papua New Guinea in the late 1970s, Kamarakafego wrote the manual A House for Every Family (1979), which provided instructions on how to build homes out of bamboo, cement, and woven mats.
Previous scholars’ glaring disregard of Kamarakafego’s significance to the history and practice of Black Power and pan-Africanism is not reflected in the intelligence records of government authorities who surveilled and impeded his movements. As Kamarakafego traversed the globe forging a Black Power international, the intelligence agencies of the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, France, the West Indies, and Australia engaged in a parallel internationalism that sought to contain his charismatic influence. Government agents no doubt identified Kamarakafego as particularly threatening because his background in biology and ecology, which he taught at the university level in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, informed his commitment to diffusing knowledge of appropriate technology beyond college campuses in order to advance rural black communities’ self-reliance. Kamarakafego emphasized the urgency of establishing the infrastructure to train black science teachers to prevent former colonies like Kenya from becoming dependent on their former colonizers out of a need for scientific professionals. Before British officials deported Kamarakafego from Vanuatu in 1975, he developed projects (like making windmills, boats, bricks, coconut oil, sugar, and salt) that “were designed to build local self-reliance by enabling rural residents to produce key commodities and provide key services, thereby empowering their communities to reduce their dependence on Australian and New Zealand firms” (p. 230). After Vanuatu gained its political independence in 1980, the Vanua’aku National Party awarded Kamarakafego a liberation medal (Cuban leader Fidel Castro was the only other foreigner to be given such an honor), and in 1981 asked him to return to Vanuatu to assume the two-year position of rural development advisor.
At the time of the Seventh Pan-African Congress in 1994 in Uganda and the UN World Conference against Racism in 2001 in South Africa, Kamarakafego continued to demand an end to the obscene economic exploitation that multinational corporations and industrialized nations perpetrated against the Global South. He called for reparations to be awarded to black communities around the world in the form of an array of long-term investment projects (such as renewable energy programs focused on wind, water, solar, and biomass) that would endure until the destructive legacies of centuries of enslavement and colonization were effectively reversed. Quito Swan’s well-written and exhaustively researched study persuasively demonstrates that the history of Black Power cannot properly be understood without a discussion of the epic life of Pauulu Kamarakafego, whose revolutionary vision of a radically more just, humane, and sustainable world remains tragically unfulfilled.
Meredith L. Roman is an associate professor of history at SUNY Brockport and the author of Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937 (2012).
. See, for example, Monique Bedasse, Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Michael Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Quito Swan, Black Power in Bermuda: The Struggle for Decolonization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
. See, for example, Richard Broome, Fighting Hard: The Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2015); Tracey Banivanua Mar, Decolonization and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Robbie Shilliam, The Black Pacific: Anticolonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).
. See, for example, Peniel Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006); Jeffrey Ogbar, Black Power, Radical Politics and African American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Yohuru Williams, Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Black Panthers in New Haven (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000).
. On this direction, see Rhonda Y. Williams, Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (New York: Routledge, 2014).
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