To historian and author of ‘The Inevitable Revolutionary: How Thomas Sankara Weaponized Coloniality’, Kai Mora, Sankara ‘embodies the spirit of resistance, prudence, and forward-thinking that the global Black world needs.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up, I was the bookworm in my family. I mainly read fiction—a common motif I loved was the unruly character who becomes a sort of antihero that you develop a curious affinity for, like Holden Caulfield in A Catcher in the Rye. I felt deeply connected to rebellious characters like these and in my adulthood, I find myself drawn to similar motifs in history, finding readings about unlikely African and Black revolutionaries like the Mozambican Samora Michel or Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers the stuff of my literary elation.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout has consistently characterized my life in various ways. Much like the main character of the text, I am constantly mediating intellectual life with the part of me that rejects institutional ways of thinking. This has become increasingly true over the past few years as my academic career has progressed. Recently, as I’ve been contemplating what it means to be an ‘intellectual’ and what use it has to the global Black community, The Sellout has become a key source of observations that influence my evolving opinion on this matter.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Although I am a committed Fanonian, I depart with Frantz Fanon on his ideas about Pan-African culture on which he elaborates in The Wretched of the Earth. Whereas he rejects the idea that there is a fundamental quality that culturally unites Black people across the globe, the opposite is the foundation to all of my professional work. Because I believe there is, indeed, a fundamental quality innate to all Black people despite geographic difference, my subsequent work revolves around exploring continuities in the Black experience that have the possibility to link us together in practical ways.
I felt deeply connected to rebellious characters and in my adulthood, I find myself drawn to similar motifs in history, finding readings about unlikely African and Black revolutionaries the stuff of my literary elation.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins has certainly shifted my criticism of Marxism in the Black experience. His exploration of the Haitian Revolution through the Marxist lens illustrates the complex intersection of class and race within the Black experience, demonstrating the need to historicize ideologies to make them relevant.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Definitely draft first then edit!
What was your process for writing ‘The Inevitable Revolutionary: How Thomas Sankara Weaponized Coloniality’?
That essay was a culmination of years of studying Thomas Sankara, an extraordinary human being. I first discovered him through a cameo he made in a documentary on Frantz Fanon narrated by Lauryn Hill named Concerning Violence, after a chapter in his seminal text The Wretched of the Earth.
I then entrenched myself in Sankara’s speeches and interviews before knowing anything definitive about his life or political career. Later I found that his biography made complete sense in context with these primary sources, indeed making him an inevitable revolutionary. The writing thereafter came quite easy. I feel that it was a seminal essay in my career and I am ecstatic that it found its home in The Republic.
What’s something you wish more people knew about pan-Africanism?
First that it was largely originated in the diaspora, rather than the continent. This is important because diasporans, like myself, have often struggled with feelings of African authenticity. Diasporan figures like Jean Jacques Dessalines, Edward W. Blyden, W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were some of the key originators of pan-Africanism, which evolved into the political movement we know of on the continent in the second half of the twentieth century. Secondly, while pan-Africanism is indeed a political movement, it is also quite simply a mode of navigating the world, one does not have to be a political activist to be a Pan-African.
While Pan-Africanism is indeed a political movement, it is also quite simply a mode of navigating the world, one does not have to be a political activist to be a Pan-African.
Which book(s) would you recommend to a beginner on pan-Africanism and African history?
Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism: A History and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Who’s one African historical figure that you think everyone should know?
It might be too easy to say Thomas Sankara, but, I, in earnest believe that he embodies the spirit of resistance, prudence, and forward-thinking that the global Black world needs. Burkina Faso, which got its name from Sankara in 1984, had already been independent from France for over 20 years before Sankara came to power. Sankara’s political career was, therefore, not centred on just any vague notion of independence, but on unadulterated concern for the psychological and material fate of the Burkinabé. His name lives on decades later in the revolution that just overthrew Blaise Compaoré, his childhood friend and alleged co-conspirator in his assassination, after 27 years in power—a testament to the strength and longevity of Sankara’s vision.
Thomas Sankara embodies the spirit of resistance, prudence, and forward-thinking that the global Black world needs.
What’s one thing you would change in relation to the documentation of women in African history?
I would like to see Black women less attached to the legacy of their husbands, male partners and colleagues, regardless of prominence. These women were brilliant in their own right, and often inspired their husbands and other notable male revolutionaries. The Martinican Nardal Sisters, for example, were sure patrons of the Harlem Renaissance, certain catalysts of the Négritude movement, and known acquaintances of the most distinguished writers and artists in both of these movements. Aimé Cesairé, the famed poet who coined the phrase ‘Négritude,’ even proposed to the youngest sister, Andrée, and was rejected! Yet the sisters are seldom acknowledged for the works they themselves have created or works they inspired in the shadow of the men they supported. This must change.
Which African museums/museum exhibitions would you highly recommend, if any?
The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Arts (MoCADA) here in New York always has a wealth of accessible and engaging programming around diasporic culture. This local gem has been a particularly good way for me to stay connected to contemporary experiences as a historian who is often lost in exploring the past. Despite the serious ethical issues with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York, their The African Origin of Civilization exhibition was beautifully curated. Their African art collection is also quite extensive and a must-see for those who can. If nothing else, it illustrates why these items must be returned to their rightful homes as sources of power and pride that go centuries deep.
I would like to see Black women less attached to the legacy of their husbands, male partners and colleagues, regardless of prominence. [Black women in Arican history] were brilliant in their own right, and often inspired their husbands and other notable male revolutionaries.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Just get straight to the point. In academia, the use of jargon and fancy language as some sort of signature style has become so common that the way to now differentiate oneself is to be as clear and simple as possible. This is useful to me not just as a writer, but as a public historian that hopes to connect with the average audience and introduce them to the complexity of African and Diasporic history.
Who’s an artist you wish you had discovered earlier?
I wish I would’ve known about Charles White, the phenomenal painter from Chicago. The vibrancy and complexity in which he captured African American life during his career was at once revolutionary and reflective of its time.
Who are the artists you’re most excited about today?
Imeru Tafari, the son of reggae legend, Queen Ifrika, is certainly dropping some heat these days. He’s a young but powerful voice in reggae, you can hear the roots in his lyrics. Ashs the Best (Senegal) is also a favourite, I put him on whenever I’m studying or just need to unwind. His R&B inspired music reminds me of just how much we share across the global Black world.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
African heritage in Belize. Coming from Belizean heritage, it has been important to me to connect with this part of my ancestry. Texts like Assad Shoman’s 13 Chapters of a History of Belize, Peter Ashdown’s Marcus Garvey in Belize or even music such as Paul Nabor’s 1999 album Paranda: Africa in Central America are among some of the ways I’ve engaged with Afro-Belizean history. Through the study of groups like the Garifuna, or the revolutionary Garveyite Samuel Alfred Haynes, who wrote the Belizean national anthem, I am discovering how far the reach of Africa truly is in the Atlantic world.
Through the study of groups like the Garifuna, or the revolutionary Garveyite Samuel Alfred Haynes who wrote the Belizean national anthem, I am discovering how far the reach of Africa truly is in the Atlantic world.
What are you currently working on?
Two things. The first is my anticipated dissertation topic, which is on the Gnawa, a West African descendent Islamic sect centred in Morocco. I argue they have roots in the Bori cult still active today in Northern Nigeria. The second is my next series of lectures at the African History Project. This will be centred on music from the continent and the diaspora, and will include lectures on the pan-African legacy of reggae, jazz and the blues.
Question from Chika Unigwe: What book is on your bedside table now?
The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa by Elizabeth Fentress and Michael Brett (though I would caveat that ‘Berbers’ is a pejorative, and Amazigh should take its place). I’m a pan-Africanist in the most literal sense—I think when we exclude Black people based outside of the continent, we do ourselves a terrible disservice by perpetuating the divisions caused or exploited by European colonialism.
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