Five students represented five diverse sets of experiences. Pauline Ngo Bayiha, Yaqub Elmi, Dejanelle Bovell, Zoe Dumm and Aniah Francis sat on USF’s African Student Association’s (ASA) first ever Pan-African Discussion on Feb. 21. They were there to represent and discuss the spectrum of diversity in the African Diaspora.
ASA President Mutale Mulenga and Vice President Iman Yousuf facilitated the discussion, the first of its kind at USF.
“I thought this event would be a great way to include all people of the diaspora, so that we can talk about our blackness,” Mulenga said.
Pan-Africanism is generally defined as the idea that people of African descent have common interests and should be unified in order to uplift black people, but the student panelists defined the term for themselves. They all said that although Pan-Africanism is meant to unify, it is also important that people, whether of African descent or not, recognize the diversity of blackness and attempt to understand the diversity of experience that that brings.
The panelists themselves embodied the diversity of the black experience: Ngo Bayiha is Cameroonian, Elmi is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Somalia, Bovell is an Afro-Latina, whose mother is an immigrant from Panama. Dumm grew up in Mexico and is biracial, born to a Hungarian-American mother and a Senegalese father, and Francis is Afro-Caribbean, born and raised in Trinidad.
The students shared personal experiences about barriers in the way of making Pan-Africanism a reality. The two main barriers discussed were the lack of understanding between diasporic groups and the intersectional issues that can be dividing in the black community, such as women’s rights and equality for LGBTQ identifying people.
These barriers have influenced the panelists’ experiences of their own blackness, which they all agreed is an American construct. Ngo Bayiha and Francis, for example, both come from countries with large black populations and said they had not thought about their blackness until they were living in the U.S. Elmi and Mulenga both said they were taught not to identify as African-American growing up, but were perceived to be African-American by people around them.
The students discussed their experiences with the pressure they feel to assimilate into American culture. Mulenga shared that she changed the pronunciation of her name to make it more Americanized, and Bovell’s mother assimilated her by never teaching her Spanish.
“[The discussion] pushed me to have the uncomfortable conversations that we need to have in order for us to come together as a people,” freshman Tamia Williams said, who was in the audience.
Sahndra Magee, another USF student in attendance, said that being face-to-face with the panelists, “made it easier to connect with and understand those issues.”
“Conversations like these are the only way [to achieve Pan-Africanism]”, Mulenga said after the event. On her plans for next year’s Pan-African Discussion, Mulenga said, “The next step [is] to continue broadening [this conversation] by being even more inclusive.”