By way of exploration, evolutionary migration, immigration, slavery, trade, and war, the history of Africans and the African diaspora is woven into the histories of ancient civilizations and modern day economies.
For instance, Opone was an ancient Somali city that traded with ancient India, Greece and Rome. Himilico was an explorer from ancient Carthage (a civilization located in modern day Tunisia) who is credited with discovering Northwest Europe. Several ethnic groups across South, Southeast and East Asia have ancestral and cultural ties to people of African descent. The Hla'alua (拉阿魯哇族) indigenous community of Taiwan celebrate a festival every year where people of African descent play prominent roles.
So while slavery is a large and violent part of the African diaspora story, it is incorrect to think it is the only part: people of African descent have played a role in the history of every continent over the millenia.
In general, diaspora groups face the issue of connection. How do they stay connected to the community they left? How do they become connected to the place they now reside? How does their identity evolve to enfold the cultural past and the cultural present? This issue of connection is a critical one to solve, because connection is the basis for building identity, building community, and ultimately, establishing belonging.
|“||A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.||”|
|— Marcus Garvey|
For some African diaspora groups, this issue of connection is especially hard given the violent histories of their community. In the Americas, descendents of slaves suffer from the forced and repetitive disconnection of their ancestors with any kind of community or heritage: slave owners forced separation of families, the repression of cultural heritage, even the erasure of names. Enabling reconnection to this lost heritage has been the goal of many institutions, nations, and people: Museums of the African Diaspora, Africa Day, Black History Month, Black Twitter, recognition of the African Diaspora as part of the African Union. All of these have created opportunities for people to connect with their heritage, connect with others, build a shared identity, and thus build community.
For all of Wikimedia’s work in cultural heritage, we have been notably absent in this arena of cultural activism. In general, African heritage and people of African descent are startlingly underrepresented in our projects. And the African diaspora - as a population that falls at the intersection of geography, language, and national borders - was an overlooked sub-group of an already underrepresented population.
|“||Wikipedia today is already fascinating and expansive. But it does not begin to represent the entirety of the world we live in — so much of the rich history, diversity of language, culture, and peoples of Africa is missing from the site.||”|
|— Katherine Maher, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation|
Into this gap steps AfroCROWD, a Wikimedia organization thematically focused on people of African descent, specifically those of the African diaspora. This includes people who identify as Africans, African-Americans, Afro-Latinos, Multiracial, Black, Black-American, Caribbean, Garifuna, Haitian, West Indian, and many more identities.
Founded by Alice Backer in 2015, AfroCROWD has become a bridge connecting African diaspora cultural activism and Wikimedia. By focusing on all aspects of the diaspora - women, artists, elected officials, etc. - they have been demonstrating how Wikimedia can be a mechanism for advocacy, education and connection within and for the diaspora. Such work has lead to partnerships with new and known allied organizations, such as the Swedish Mission to the United Nations and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.By spanning languages and countries across Europe, Africa, North and South America, AfroCROWD has been able to tap into the larger movement of cultural activism and establish Wikimedia as a strong partner.
Much of AfroCROWD initial focus was turned outward: establishing Wikimedia as a legitimate partner within existing African diaspora cultural groups. But the side effect of their success has been drawing the attention and interest of the international Wikimedia community.
In the last year, AfroCROWD has seen a spike in Wikimedia communities proactively reaching out to collaborate. Some requests come from long-time Wikimedia organizations who have ignored African diaspora communities in their country, who now want to learn how to reach out to them. Others requests have been from African communities, hoping to bridge the metaphorical and geographical gap. Such requests have led to new collaborations and connections, such as when African American Wikipedians were joined virtually by Wikipedians in in Accra, Ghana at a Black History month event in New York City in 2017. Or an upcoming joint campaign with Wikimedians from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, South Africa and the UK on African Cinema.
These connections within and beyond Wikimedia have established AfroCROWD as a network-level partner for those hoping to increase the visibility and participation of their underrepresented communities and knowledge within Wikimedia.
|“||“One of the knowledge gaps is the gap that Black people ourselves have about our origins.||”|
|— Alice Backer, AfroCROWD|
However, AfroCROWD plays a deeper role than just facilitating connections between cultural groups: it has also created a place for their participants to explore and connect with their heritage, origins, and identity.
Many African Americans face a painful and resounding void when considering their origins. This pulsing wound is one of the intergenerational effects of slavery, of a slave system that forbade any preservation of heritage or origins within slave communities. Such disconnection has lead some Black people to focus on Africa as a starting point for discovering their origins, and regaining the forms of knowledge that were forbidden by the West (e.g. spiritual practice or folk songs).
Given about a fifth of AfroCROWD’s events in the US are focused on Africa, organizers have found that a good portion of the African Americans who attend do so because they are exploring and discovering their origins through writing Wikipedia articles. Because writing an article takes a lot of research, the experience has become a gateway for participants to delve into the history and evolution of topics like cinema, dance, or language. And it’s through that dive into the past that participants fill in the knowledge gap they have about themselves, and rediscover the richness of their African heritage.
So whether it’s facilitating the connection between a person and their heritage, or facilitating the connection between Wikimedia and larger cultural movements, AfroCROWD has always been focused on building community: a place where people feel connected to each other, and feel like they belong.