The African Diaspora in North America

Historical Overview

The movement of African Diaspora to North America started in 1619 when a Dutch slave trader exchanged his shipload of Africans for food. The Africans became servants, similar in legal position to many poor Englishmen who traded several years’ labor in exchange for passage to America. However, the popular conception of a racial-based slave system did not develop until the 1680s. From 1619-1808, approximately 500,000 Africans were brought to North America as slaves. The African slaves frequently resisted their lot. Such resistance ranged from runaway slaves to open rebellion and, ultimately, revolution. Colonies of runaway slaves (Maroons) were established in locations such as Jamaica, Surinam, and Brazil, and the historical legacy of resistance and rebellion persisted up to the twentieth century in the forms of the defiant creation of black villages following emancipation and the political struggles for democracy and independence between the 1940s and 1960s.

The Current Situation of Black Immigration

There are several factors responsible for the increasing waves of migration away from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which in the early 2000s constituted the bulk of the African Diaspora. Most significant are political instability, repressive or oppressive state policies, economic hardships, and lack of personal advancement. Migrants also desire to settle in the more advanced metropolises of North America because of better economic opportunities and higher educational attainments. But what is mostly fuelling migration from Africa is the phenomenon of economic and technological globalization, which tends to concentrate wealth and more lucrative economic and job opportunities in the metropolitan centers of the world, particularly in North America and Europe. Metropolitan cities such as New York, London, Toronto, Paris, and Amsterdam accept the bulk of immigrant populations from Africa and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the major concentrations of people of African descent, outside the African continent, are in the United States and Brazil.

The United States of America

Historical Overview

In 1808, the import of slaves to the USA became illegal, but to own slaves and their descendants remained customary especially in the agricultural south where lots of laborers were needed for agricultural work. The process of the abolishment of slavery started in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out between the “free states” of the north and the “slave states” of the south. On the January 1, 1863, in the middle of the war, President Abraham Lincoln passed an emancipation bill where he declared all slaves of the “rebel states” to be free. Slavery was then totally abolished throughout the USA in 1865 based on the thirteenth constitutional amendment. However, even after the end of slavery African Americans were still discriminated against through segregation and poor education.

Searching for a fresh start in life, more and more African Americans migrated from the southern parts of the US to the urban north which triggered an inner-American migration wave. This caused an overflow of labor which meant many black people couldn’t find jobs in the cities and had to live separately from the Whites. Thus, so-called Ghettos developed in desolated parts of the cities. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, African Americans demanded equal treatment under the law and the end of racial discrimination by means of boycotts, marches and non-violent protests towards the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The civil rights movement reached its height at August 28, 1963 when more than 200,000 people of all races gathered in front of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC to hear Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Shortly after that, the US Congress passed laws which forbade political, legal, social, and racial discrimination.

The Current Situation

Today, black Americans make up 13.5% of the total US-population. Throughout the last decades, black people have been becoming increasingly more present in the middle classes. In 2002, 50.8% of all black Americans occupied so-called “white-collar-jobs” (academic professions and positions in management or administration). In 2003, 58.3% of all black High School graduates were enrolled at a college within one year (compared to only 35.8% in 1982). The percentage of white students who attended college or university totaled 66.1%, less than 8% higher. However, the income of black people is still lower than that of white workers and unemployment rates, especially those of black young men, are higher.

Poverty continues to force many African Americans to live in city districts with high crime rates and drug abuse. In recent years, the main focus of the civil rights movements has shifted to concentrating on the question as to whether the American government should be committed to amend– or supportive measures. Affirmative action is has been used to ensure that a certain percentage of jobs are given to black workers and that a certain number of students at a school are members of minorities. The public discussion about the necessity, effectiveness and fairness of these programs intensified during the 1990s.

The Role of the US Government

The United States government has taken an active role in the lives of African Americans since the late nineteenth century. With the American Civil War fought partially over slavery, the United States’ sixteenth president and declared abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln, delivered the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 declaring that “all persons held as slaves are and henceforward shall be free”. Afraid that his proclamation would lose validity after the war, the United States Congress proposed and ratified the thirteenth amendment ensuring that slavery would never occur again. Soon to follow were the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments which gave African American equal protection under the US constitution as US citizens and African American men the right to vote.

The turn of the century may not have included slavery but segregation and discrimination were obstacles for African American in the first have of the twentieth century. In a court case, Plessey vs. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court declared that the separation of blacks and whites in public education and venues was not a violation of the fourteenth amendment and that the law could not be expected to “abolish distinctions based on color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality”. However, in a precedent case nearly sixty years later in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned their original ruling with the court case, Brown vs. Board of Education. The Supreme Court declared that “discriminatory nature of racial segregation” was a violation of the fourteenth amendment.

Segregation may have been declared unlawful in 1954, but discrimination and inequality continued to be a struggle for African Americans. To continue to ensure equal treatment of African Americans, the Civil Rights Act was but into legislation officially making segregation unlawful. Included in this piece of legislation is Title VII guaranteeing equal opportunity within the workforce against discrimination due to race, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VII ensures that all Americans are not discriminated against in regard to “recruitment, hiring and promotion, transfer, work assignments, performance measurements, the work environment, job training, discipline and discharge, wages and benefits, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment”.

Notable African Americans

Rosa Parks (1913 - 2005) was an American civil-rights activist from Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a racially segregated Montgomery bus. She was arrested and fined but her action led to a successful boycott of the Montgomery buses by African American riders. Certainly her case was not a unique; African Americans had been arrested for disobeying the segregation laws many times before. However, in 1954 the Supreme Court had rendered an important decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which held that educational segregation was inherently illegal. The decision encouraged African Americans to fight more boldly for the end of racial segregation in every area of American life. Thus, NAACP officials and Montgomery church leaders decided that Parks' arrest could provide the necessary incentive for a successful bus boycott.

Nat “King” Cole (1919 - 1965) was one of the most popular singers and Jazz-musicians of his times. He developed a special way of playing the piano which was influenced by his idol Earl Hines and also by the melodic chants of his childhood. From 1944 onwards, he was the singer of the “Nat King Cole Trio” which recorded in 1946 their first hit “The Christmas Song”. Only four years later, Cole became an internationally acclaimed singer thanks to his version of the song “Nature Boy”. Along with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole belongs to the most famous singers of the 50s and 60s. This is particularly due to the soft tone of his voice and his emotional appeal Cole is still loved by many people throughout world.

Malcolm X (Malcolm Little) (1925 - 1965) was an African American civil-rights activist from Nebraska who converted to Islam. After he was discharged, he traveled around the USA and achieved a strong growth for the “Nation of Islam”, through his campaigns. By the end of 1963 he fell out with the leader Muhammad and founded the “Organization of Afro-American Unity” which aimed at immediate political action. Beyond the originally black nationalism he developed approaches of a universal humanistic revolutionist concept. Malcolm X was assassinated by African American fanatics at a meeting with his followers. His memories “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” which was published posthumously by A. Haley is considered as a classic of African American self-expression.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968) was an American theologian, Baptist priest and civil-rights activist from Georgia. Since the mid 1950s he was active in the Civil Rights Movement and from 1957 on he was the leader of the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference” (SCLC). On the occasion of a protest march to Washington on the August 28, 1963 he called for free society founded on equality with the slogan “I have a dream”. He was in jail several times and, after multiple unsuccessful attempts, was assassinated in 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is now considered as the symbolic figure of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

Toni Morrison (1931 - ) is an American writer from Ohio and a representative of African American literature. In her historical novels she creates a complex picture of a deep alienation and search for identity of African American women and unsettled family relationships. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Colin Powell (1937 - ) is an American general from New York. He studied Geology and was sent to work in Vietnam in the 1960s after he finished his officer training. In 1968, he was commander of the V. US-battalion in the German Federal Republic. From 1987 - 1989 he was the first African American to be a National Security Adviser and from 1989 - 1993 he was the chairman of the chiefs of staff of the US military forces. During the Second Gulf War against Iraq, he coordinated the allied deployment plans and was highly involved in the preparation of the operation “Desert Storm”. In 1996, he refused the candidacy for presidency which the Republicans offered him. From 2001- 2005 he was Foreign Minister of the USA, the first African American in this office.

Barack Obama (1961 - ) is an American politician from Hawaii and in 2009 will become the forty-fourth president of the United States. In 2004, the jurist with a PhD. was elected senator for the State of Illinois and thereupon the charismatic and patriotic Democrat advanced to be one of the most popular politicians of the USA. Before being elected to the Senate he taught Constitutional Law at the Faculty of Law at the University of Chicago. Particularly his call for peace and a fast withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, as well as his ideas of social policy, earned him his popularity.

Associations and Current Leadership

Nowadays, there exists a confusingly high number of clubs, initiatives, societies etc. concerned with African American issues. The Tom Joyner Foundation helps students continue their education at African American colleges. The Foundation provides money directly to the Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for the purpose of helping these students complete their education. Another important institution is the Africa Reparations Movement. Besides seeking reparations for the enslavement of African people in Africa and in the African Diaspora, they are campaigning for an accurate portrayal of African history and thus the restoration of dignity and self-respect to all people of African descent. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN was formed in 1970 when a group of Arkansas welfare mothers formed ACORN’s first membership. ACORN is a grassroots, multi-issue community organization that operates in 26 states. Working together in affiliated neighborhood groups, ACORN Community organizers fight for increased voter registration, better education and health care, environmental justice and wide ranging neighborhood improvements. Blacks in Government, BIG, was founded in 1975 as a non-profit organization to help African American civil servants. Initially, it was thought that the umbrella organization would address only the problems at the Federal level. However, it was soon determined that State, County, and Municipal Black employees were faced with the same general type of employment problems. The Malcolm X Institute for Black Studies is an organization at Wabash College which lists as its objective the promotion of educational, cultural, and social programs of concern to the citizens of the Wabash & Crawfordsville communities, particularly African American citizens.

For further information:


Historical Overview

The African Canadian history is rich and complex, dating back to 1518 when millions of Africans were enslaved by European countries and brought to perform slave labor in the ‘New World’. Most African Canadians immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean and the USA.

The earliest African Canadian communities were established in the Maritime Provinces, and Birchtown became the largest settlement of free Africans outside Africa. The African in Canada was recorded in Nova Scotia in 1605 and served as an interpreter under Governor de Monts. From 1628 until the early 1800s, African slavery was widespread in Eastern Canada yet practiced to a lesser extent than in the United States; one reason for this is that climate and geography prevented the development of plantation and agricultural structures in early colonial history. When the slave trade was abolished and enslaved Africans were freed, the movement of Africans to Canada slowed. While there continued to be migration within North America, there were few African arrivals from outside North America until the twentieth century, when immigration from the Caribbean increased as Cape Breton sought coalminers. The period during and after the two world wars saw changes to immigration laws which made it possible for Africans to enter Canada in order to fill the gaps left by Canada's war effort.

When referring to the African Diaspora over the course of the two centuries, it is important to acknowledge the similarity of the process that was practiced in Canada by the British and French. After the 'Great Expulsion' of the French settlers in 1775 (the 'Acadians'), the first major group of Africans in Canada was comprised of slaves brought to Nova Scotia by residents of New England. As a result of the American Revolution in 1776, white Loyalists escaping from the colonies also brought their slaves with them to Nova Scotia, whilst African descent Loyalists who supported the British during the American Revolution also arrived in Canada to cash in their ‘Promised Land’ grants. A number of black people fled from the war between the British Empire and the United States between 1812 and 1815 and settled in Nova Scotia and Ontario.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 in Canada and, conversely, the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 in the United States that stipulated that fugitive slaves had to be returned to their owners by law. This brought another wave of group of refugee slaves to Canada, who fled to southern Ontario via the 'Underground Railroad' network of safe houses and secret routes. Many of the earliest black communities chose to remain in Canada and founded settlements in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and, later, in Western Canada with the opening of the border in the mid-1800s. By 1860, the African Diaspora numbered approximately seventy-five thousand in the province of Ontario, however most members returned to the United States after the American Civil War.

The 1901 Census recorded 17,400 people of African descent living in Canada, amounting to 0.3% of the population. Most African Canadians during this time resided in Ontario or the Maritime provinces. Over the next few decades, the African Diaspora in Canada grew slowly, reaching 32,100 in 1961 which accounted for 0.2% of the population. By 1991, there were 504,300 people of African descent living in Canada (1.9% of the total population). In 2001, the African Canadian community was the third largest minority group in Canada, after the Chinese and South Asian populations. The 2001 census recorded 662,200 African Canadians, representing just over 2% of Canada’s total population and 17% of the visible minority population.

The Current Situation

The population of Africans and African descendants in Canada has different backgrounds and experiences. Some can trace their heritage in Canada back several centuries, while others have immigrated in recent decades, and have only just set up their lives there. In many ways, the African Diaspora has helped shape the cultural mosaic of the local and national landscape. The African Canadian population is the fastest growing ethnic minority and is particularly prevalent in Canada’s largest cities, especially Toronto. People of African descent from around the world have been attracted to Canada by the promise of freedom to live, work, worship, study, maintain cultural traditions, and be involved in the daily activities of their own community.

However despite this, Canada has still had its issues of segregation in the past. While Canada did not have legal segregation, there were always "understandings" about which neighborhoods black people should live in, or where they could worship. Most professional organizations, sports, schools, unions, and trade associations would not admit black people. Stores would not hire them, restaurants, theaters, and skating rinks did not admit African Canadians and hotels would not rent rooms to African Canadians no matter how famous they were.

Today, the African Canadian presence can mainly be found in city regions - the overwhelming majority of African Canadians live in metropolitan areas such as Toronto and Montréal. Since geographically, according to the 2001 census, some 62% of black people live in Ontario and 23% in Quebec, we would expect this high concentration in Toronto and Montréal. Almost 47% of all African Canadians live in Toronto and 21% in Montréal.

Through the arts, African Canadians are able to give expression to the many issues, events, and challenges that have impacted the African Canadian community over time. Art, writing, music, dance, theater and film, from African Canadians explore the nature and scope of the African and African Canadian identities, question the stereotypes and challenge the ordinary. This is all in an effort to build upon and re-create a vibrant culture from which they can ground themselves as African Canadians.

The Role of the Canadian Federal Government

Although Canada’s history does not include the enslavement of Africans, it has witnessed racism and discrimination towards African descendants which has led to a need of intervention by the Canadian government. The persecution of Jews and minorities during World War II resulted in the development of several forms of legislation addressing discrimination. In 1944, Canada introduced the Ontario Racial Discrimination Act which “prohibited the publication and display of signs, notices and other representations of a racially and religiously discriminatory nature”.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the appearance of human rights legislation all over Canada. Each individual providence took it upon themselves to create a piece of human rights legislation and a commission to administer these rights. The initiatives of the Canadian providences were followed by the Canadian federal governments’ enactment of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977 which covered discrimination.

Canada continued to introduce other forms of legislation addressing racism following the creation of the human rights legislation. In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms legally made racial discrimination unconstitutional. Also the Multiculturalism Act of 1992 was created and acknowledges the government’s determination to “recognize discrimination as a factor in Canadian life” and its commitment to address any barriers which exist in service and employment.

However, the effectiveness of the discrimination legislations is questioned by Canadians. An appraisal of the Canadian Human Rights Commission was taken in 1991. The author who conducted the study found that 36% of race cases were rejected due to lack of substance. It was also found that “complaints based on race were dismissed without a hearing more often than those based on other grounds”. In a study conducted by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission in 2000, it was discovered that “only 3% of race complaints were successful in their final disposition”. Many also blame the process which human rights cases must go through. Groups have “complained that the exclusive jurisdiction that human rights commissions have over human rights cases is oppressive and that complainants should be given the option of presenting their case before a court of law”.

Associations and Current Leadership

The African Diaspora Association of Canada (ADAC) provides a forum for Canadians of African descent to build a network of ‘action-oriented individuals and groups’ in support of communities in Africa and Canada. Their goal is to mobilize communities of African-descent in Canada to create and support a multi-faceted Diaspora program that provides effective, economic, social and political empowerment, inclusive of youths and women. The Association for the Advancement of Blacks in the Health Sciences (AABHS) is a non-profit organization of African-descendant professionals who work or are in training in the health sciences. The African Canadian Continuing Education Society (ACCES) is a non-profit making society dedicated to helping young African descendants obtain the skills and education needed to benefit themselves and their society. The Canadian Centre on Minority Affairs (CCMA) is a non-governmental organization. Established in 1990, the mission of the organization is to develop and promote social development and public policy initiatives for the Caribbean Canadian community through research, human resources development, public education, advocacy and international cooperation. The purpose of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is to facilitate throughout Canada the development, sharing and application of knowledge and expertise in order to contribute to the elimination of racism and all forms of racial discrimination in Canadian society.

Notable African Canadians

John Christie Holland (1882 - 1954) was a reverend from Hamilton/Canada. He was born to parents who escaped slavery from southern United States and made their home in Hamilton. John Christie Holland was the first African Canadian recognized for his humanitarian contributions. In 1953, John Holland received the Citizen of the Year award in the city of Hamilton, Ontario.

Daniel Grafton Hill (1923 - 2003) was a Canadian sociologist, civil servant, human rights specialist, and Black Canadian historian. With a PhD. in sociology from University of Toronto and a decade's experience with social causes, he was first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission 1962-71. Under his management the commission evolved innovative tactics, widely copied in Canada and other countries. In 1971, he became the first full-time chairman of OHRC and in 1973, established a consulting firm in human rights with international clientele.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson (1925 - 2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer from Montréal, Quebec, Canada. He is widely known throughout the world for his piano playing and Jazz technique. Most people admire and honor him as being one of the best Jazz pianists of all time for his speed, dexterity, and ability to swing at any tempo. Oscar Peterson has recorded close to two hundred albums for various labels.

George Elliott Clarke (1960 - ) is a Canadian poet and playwright from Windsor, Nova Scotia. Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. His writings are concerned with the African Diaspora in Canada’s East where a separate group of people of African descent lives. Clarke coined them „Africadians“. His poetic works feature genre transgressions and the mixing of classical forms with oral traditions, Jazz and Blues rhythms. His most famous work up to now is Whylah Falls (1991).

For further information:

Milan, Anne and Kelly Tran. “Blacks in Canada: A Long History.” 2004. Online. DSL. 10 December 2008.

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