Palestinian Studies

2023 Workshop

Alessandra Amin

Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Palestine Studies, Columbia University

Palestine and the “Question of Freedom” at the First Pan-African Cultural Festival

Young sociologist Nathan Hare had recently been hired to coordinate the first Black Studies program in the United States when he traveled to Algiers in the summer of 1969, intent on covering the First Pan-African Cultural Festival for the inaugural issue of The Black Scholar. Writing in what would soon become a renowned journal of Black culture and political thought, Hare describes the event as a coming-together of “African generals and footsoldiers in the war of words and politics,” a gathering of minds to determine the role of culture in anticolonial liberation. Among the participants were people from every corner of the continent and its diasporas, including prominent representatives of the Black Panther Party, but only one group lacked a geographical or heritage-based connection to Africa. “Greeted by heavy applause,” Hare describes, an unidentified “representative of the Palestinian movement (Al Fat’h)” approached the podium, where his polemical remarks “kindled revolutionary sentiment among the African delegates.”

Hare’s passing mention of Palestine’s participation in the PACF is a narrow window onto a zeitgeist. Through his article, we see Palestinian organized resistance make contact with African American scholarship, the Black Power movement, pan-Africanism, and Third World cultural decolonization as fuel to the flames of anti-imperialism. As a contemporaneous editorial in the Rabat-based Souffles attests, Palestine became during the 1960s and 70s “a symbol of liberty and social justice” for many across the decolonizing world, representing “an aphrodisiac to our impotence, the banner of our hopes, the balm to our wounded flesh.” Fatah’s explicit embrace of this symbolism is evident in the address of Hare’s unnamed speaker, who argued that on a map “which divides the world in two blocs, that of the forces of colonialism, racism, and despotism on the one hand, and that of revolutionary and liberating forces on the other… we Palestinians pose… the question of freedom.”

If this statement seems to espouse a sweeping, generic conception of Third World solidarity, Fatah’s anomalous position at the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival speaks to a very specific nexus of sociohistorical resonances. This paper considers how such a nexus elucidates the mechanisms by which Palestine gained purchase as a symbol of anti-imperialism in the wake of the 1967 June War, positioning Palestinian participation in the PACF in relation to the festival’s foundational principles as well as its politically charged location. As the festival’s organizers strived to bridge cultural gaps between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, how did the figure of Palestine trouble territorialized conceptions of Africanity? As Fatah plastered posters onto walls that bore visible traces of the Algerian War of Independence, what visual dialogues emerged between the Palestinian cause and the FLN’s anticolonial legacy, and how did they impact Palestine’s accrual of symbolic capital? Ultimately, I argue, assessing Palestine’s participation in the 1969 festival grounds its growing international profile in a discrete and localized politics of anticolonial liberation.

Alessandra Amin received her doctorate in art history from UCLA in 2022 and is currently the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Fellow in Palestine Studies at Columbia University. She is working on her first book project, Mother Figure: Art and the Palestinian Dream-State, which considers the emergence of the dream and the maternal body as nested modes of relating to Palestine in art made during the heyday of the Palestinian Revolution (1965-1982).