The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean world requires an understanding of the history of East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Islam: Dr. Omar H. Ali

'Diasporic lenses' is a helpful way of framing things. I think looking at things in diasporic terms is an important move away from the nation-state fixation of the past century and a half; it is a move towards interconnections across regions and the world in ways that are more helpful both analytically and at a basic human level, says Dr. Omar H. Ali, Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History, African American & African Diaspora Studies Program (AADS), The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, editor, Roots and Routes.

We often see the history of diasporas are synonymous with the history of marginality. Even though some diasporas have come up over the time, African diaspora remain in the margins in most parts of the globe. How do you perceive such phenomenon?

Race is a function of power. Those who have power determine the categories of superiority/inferiority. The fact that most black people in the world continue to be economically and politically marginalized has to do with history and the making of the modern world, which is the product of European imperialism and colonization starting in the sixteenth century. And while the issue of marginality affects all people and therefore not just black people, the disproportionate number of black people who are poor and marginalized in the world calls for particular attention. So, as Haile Selassie said, and Bob Marley sang: 

"Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior

Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned

Everywhere is war."

How inclusive is the term African diaspora when there is such great diversity within the African nation states in terms of political-economic development, cultural differences, conflicting relationship between diaspora and home state etc?

The African Diaspora is the free and forced migration of Africans and their descendants across the world. Although Africans and their descendants continue to migrate across the globe today, approximately four million people dispersed across the Indian Ocean between the second and the twentieth centuries, and about eleven million dispersed (or spread) across the Atlantic between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The term should be understood as capturing the global dispersion of Africans, however much of how most people think about the African Diaspora is focused on the Atlantic world, to the exclusion of the Indian Ocean world (not to mention the Mediterranean world). Long before Africans migrated across the Atlantic, they were migrating on their own volition or by force within Africa itself and across the Indian Ocean world. The different areas of the global African Diaspora are certainly different from each other and really challenge the notion of nation-states by suggesting fluidity and flows of people, products, and ideas (among many other things) that transcend official boundaries. The fact is that nation-states were largely imposed over ordinary people as a way of controlling resources.

Do you perceive that the recent transnational African diaspora identity has any impact on the pan-African identity among the African nation states? There has been visible jubilation among the people of blacks after Obama won the presidential election.

I'm not sure that the notion of diaspora has been embraced or is even known within Africa beyond small circles of people (which is also true outside of Africa). It is, generally speaking, a term that academics use; it is not so much part of the language outside of scholarly circles at this point. By contrast, Pan-Africanism has a longer history as a term and is used among many more people. I think it is unclear to what extent the Diaspora term has impacted on the ways in which African nation states, or rather people in African states, think about themselves and others of African origin across the world. President Obama's election in 2008 (and subsequent re-election) brought enormous pride to black people (indeed many more than just black people) across the globe. I, like so many other people, did not imagine this possible in my lifetime, which makes me think that there are perhaps other unimaginable things that could happen within our lifetimes. I’m being optimistic, of course. But why not? Optimism is not in opposition to realism. In fact, I think optimism allows for possibilities, even if small. I will take that any day over pure cynicism. 

The African Union in World Bank collaboration has initiated ‘African Diaspora Development’ programme. Do you think such programmes will yield any result? How is it perceived by the African countries?

I hope such efforts yield results for poor people, and not just administrators and authorities in charge of the programs. Another way of putting this is that it is an interesting development which could lead to substantive changes. I do not know how the particular phrasing of the collaboration is being perceived by African countries (or, rather, the best-known voices within those countries). 

In one of your article you mentioned “Historically, Africans and their descendants in the Indian Ocean world tended to have greater social mobility due to Islamic laws and societal conventions that incorporated the children of enslaved women into the homes of slaveholders as free kin.”  What could be the reason for this emancipation or greater social mobility for not translating into the political and economic domains? For example Africans in the Indian Ocean world today are seriously marginalised and not visible in both political and economic arena as it in the case of United States of America and elsewhere.

First of all, while there are a number of prominent black figures in the United States (from the Obamas to others of their class, such as Collin Powell, or even billionaires, such as Oprah Winfrey) the majority of black people in the U.S. are poor—very poor—and politically marginalized. There is an excellent paper by Dr. Lenora Fulani entitled “The Development Line” (which can be found online) that discusses this. Her argument is that we need to engage the issue of human development as a way for black people (all marginalized people) to become more powerful. Focusing on ‘race’ alone will only get you so far. Using performance and play as tools for development have been very successful in this national sector. So while there are structural macro-economic and political factors to be engaged, we cannot leave out the issue of human development as part of the mix. If you look at the history of the U.S., there has always been a small black middle-class but most black people in the country have not yet been fully integrated (despite the Civil Rights legal gains of the 1960s). Are there more possibilities for people of African descent in the U.S. than in South Asia? I would say most definitely, but there is much work to do on this side of the globe. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean world has a different history. Going back to the seventeenth century, for instance in India, the system of military slavery in which Africans were enslaved and taken to South Asia where they worked as soldiers, allowed for social mobility in large part because of Islamic conventions. While we can point to a person like Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian who was enslaved as a child and then ends up in India, where he will become de facto ruler of the Sultanate of Ahmednagar, demonstrates such social mobility, there were many other Africans in the Indian Ocean who did not rise through the ranks but lived out there lives in marginalized conditions. There are efforts to gain rights among African communities in India, but it is a very difficult fight, since these Siddi communities are relatively-speaking so small and little-known.

Barring few research works, including yours, there has not been much scholarship on Black diasporas in Indian Ocean area. Do you think this is due to their invisibility and marginality in the society?

I think there is increasing attention being paid to the African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean world, for instance the African Diaspora exhibits at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem from three years ago and the subsequent shows in New York regarding African Elites in India, which is now heading towards India, but it certainly is a lesser-known area of the global African Diaspora. Part of this has to do with the greater assimilation of Africans into those societies (for example, the children of black concubines were free and took on the names of their fathers and adopted their cultures and languages). Another part, which is more current, is that scholars of the Black Atlantic are either unaware of or intimidated about learning in greater detail about this part of the world in order to teach it and incorporate it into their own research--to be ultimately transmitted to the wider public through textbooks, popular articles, and (down the line perhaps) documentaries, and movies. The issue is one of 'otherness' or 'foreigness'; most scholars tend to stick with the areas that they are most familiar with. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean world requires an understanding of the history of East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Islam. It's less a question of capacity, and more a question of intimidation to delve into very different geographical areas, histories, and cultures. The sources are Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, among others. This is very different than studying the Atlantic, which can be studied with English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese to a very large extent--languages with which many Atlantic scholars are familiar with. Delving into the Indian Ocean for these Atlantic-based scholars requires a willingness to stretch in a number of ways. The good news is that we have some good tools to make such a stretch more possible—namely the exhibit online on “The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World” by the Schomburg Center. It’s a great place to start.

There has been increasing diaspora identity across the globe, it sounds like the world is full of diasporas with increasing transnational networks. How do you visualise the world unfolding before us in the next 10-20 years and its ramification in social, political, economic and cultural arena?

This is a fascinating question. Ten to twenty years is a blip of time in world history. If you were to ask the question of the next 100-200, or better yet, 1,000 to 2,000 years, assuming our species does not destroy itself and the world by that time, I think we might see some visually significant changes, accompanied by very different concepts become the new norm. Perhaps our world will be so obviously intermixed and our concepts of race and other forms of identity so undermined that we will ... I don't have the answer. I do hope for the best, for a world in which poverty is eradicated and that creativity is actively encouraged, a world in which our priority is our collective human development and growth, joy, and happiness. A world in which we might say to each other, 'There was a time when our species did such terrible things to each other and other creatures on earth. I'm so glad we don't do that anymore.' Now that's optimistic!

Do you think there is a greater need for research focus on grasping the changes through diasporic lenses?

'Diasporic lenses' is a helpful way of framing things. I think looking at things in diasporic terms is an important move away from the nation-state fixation of the past century and a half; it is a move towards interconnections across regions and the world in ways that are more helpful both analytically and at a basic human level (as in finding commonalities with other people from other parts of the world). I also think, or suspect, that the diasporic lens will be replaced with new ways of seeing and being down the line. What they are, I do not know, but certainly diaspora helps us see the great fluidity and flow of people, products, ideas, and practices across the world and across time. For now, it's a useful conceptual tool (even if there is no consensus on what 'diaspora' even is) to work with in understanding the world.

You have been a prolific writer, great teacher and also a serious researcher, what suggestions do you wish to give to the young researchers working on diaspora issues?

Pursue everything that you're interested in and don't worry about not knowing something before jumping into it; by jumping into things, you learn, so go ahead and jump! And if you have any trouble jumping, e-mail me at and I will be your biggest cheerleader. By supporting each other to try new things, we grow ... and remember to have fun! 


Dr. Omar H. Ali is Associate Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History and Director of Graduate Studies in the African American Studies Program at UNCG. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, he studied ethnography at the School of Oriental and African Studies before receiving his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He is the author of two forthcoming books, Islam in the Indian Ocean World: A Documentary History (Bedford St. Martin's) and Malik Ambar: Abyssinian Defender of India's Deccan (Oxford University Press). A recipient of an Excellence in Teaching Award and a Chancellor’s Recognition of Contributions to the UNCG Community, Ali serves on the History Academic Advisory Committee of the College Board and is a Road Scholar for the North Carolina Humanities Council, lecturing on "The Many Faces of Islam." Most recently, he was Lead Scholar for the Council's Summer Institute, "Muslim Journeys.” A former visiting Fulbright professor of history and anthropology at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Library Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, Ali has appeared on CNN, NPR, PBS, and Al Jazeera.


Interview Date:   Friday, Sep 12, 2014
Person Name:   Dr. Omar H. Ali

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