Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the violence present on US soil further exemplifies that local issues are also global; that racism is a problem across borders not simply within them.
In the United States, we are still in the middle of a reckoning. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders have ignited an unquenchable rage stemming from centuries of racialized violence at the hands of police and the state. The insidiousness of racism, which has been known and protested for centuries by Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour, has been made explicit to a world that insisted on denying its reality. As a result, there have been worldwide protests not just against state-sanctioned violence but against institutional violence at universities, unequal access in the publishing realm, gendered violence and inadequate corporate diversity and inclusion efforts—also known as systemic and institutional racism that leaves Black people at a disadvantage and highlights white privilege.
Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the violence present on US soil further exemplifies that local issues are also global; that racism is a problem across borders not simply within them. The anti-racist readings lists that have been commonplace all over the internet, highlight a possible hunger to learn more and, ideally, to do more. Alternatively, they may simply signal a superficial appearance of knowledge consumption that sits in the realm of theory divorced from practice. However, as the reading lists have poured out as a pedagogical measure positioning and reducing Black American voices to racial educators, many may be left wondering: What place does Africa have in this conversation?
Hypervisible yet Invisible
In our imagining of new worlds that are grounded on racial justice, Africa remains hypervisible yet invisible. The celebration and valuation of Black people through a foregrounding of an African mythic past, functions to both produce an alternate narrative of Blackness from a diasporic and elitist perspective while also marking Africa as aesthetically important. For many, Beyoncé’s visual production, Black is King, is an example of a politics of ‘ Black is beautiful’. Though a beautiful ode to Black people, the film reproduces an image of Africa that is reliant on old tropes. It centralizes a black diasporic re-envisioning of self through a romanticization of an African past. As scholars like Aime Cesaire, Eduard Glisssant and Stuart Hall remind us: the aesthetic is deeply political and cannot be divorced from a revolutionary politic. However, what happens when we see fail to see Africa as more? What happens when we move beyond Africa as a marker for racial lineage and include Africa in an anti-racist discourse? In other words, how can we position the struggles on the continent as part of the conversation on global racial injustice?
As the COVID-19 pandemic and the explicit nature of police brutality continue to produce new conditions for reimagining a different type of world, it is important to grapple with the historical interventions that place Africa in the centre rather than periphery of that new world. The diasporic and continental engagements that connect global struggles together provide a deeper handling of the globality of local struggles. Within Black Atlantic scholarship, Africa has primarily existed as an imagined place, a space of recognition, a place of longing. Michelle Alexander notes in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Ghana, as conceived as a black utopic space during and after its independence provided an assumed escape for African American intellectuals looking to flee the racism in the US, and committed to an anti-racist political ideology. Alexander’s examination of diasporic speculative travels documented the various intellectuals who sought a familiar safe haven in the first independent African nation. Along with the individual expeditions, the emergence of tourist industries further brought Black diasporic travellers to the Cape Coast and Elmina Castle. At such sites, these travellers could see first-hand the dungeons their ancestors were forced to inhabit. Over the years, Ghana has been positioned as a long-lost home for Black diasporic travellers and the country has taken up this role with relative success. Ghana’s 2019 Year of Return, which marked 400 years since the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown, VA, brought hundreds of black people in the diaspora to Africa for the first time. But these heritage tours marked the ‘commodification of culture,’ as noted by Paula Ebron, and the imbalanced political landscape in which the diaspora engages with Africa and vice versa.
An Anti-Racist World?
The work of scholars like W. E. B Du Bois and Cheik anta Diop and other twentieth-century thought leaders call attention to the ways in which Africa has historically been apart of conversations of an anti-racist world. While he also engaged in a mysticism when engaging the African continent, Du Bois’ analysis of history centralized Africa in a discourse of the making of the modern world. Published in 1930, Du Bois’s Africa: Its Place in Modern History foregrounds Africa and African people in the birth of a ‘real world-commerce…[that] started as a commerce mainly in the bodies and souls of men.’ In that sense, the transatlantic slave trade while also serving as a beginning to the production of black diasporic identities also marked Africans as exports for European capital acquisition. However, the story of African impact did not end when slavery was abolished. According Du Bois, the abolition of slavery was a result of economic concerns around the unsustainability of slavery: ‘philanthropy,’ he wrote, ‘was not working alone to overthrow Negro slavery and the slave trade. It was seen, first in England and later in other countries, that slavery as an industrial system could not be made to work satisfactorily in modern times. Its cost was too great…’
Colonialism replaced slavery as a global system of exploitation. Thus, both slavery and colonialism were methods of exploitation that centralized Africa in producing a modern western world. Du Bois understood that an analysis of capitalism was necessarily racial and thus required an engagement with Africa over time and space. In a similar vein, in The African Origin of Civilization, Diop analyzed how the relegation of Africa to (h)istory, a minor role in western modernity, rather than (H)istory betrayed flawed assumptions, among which were Egyptian whiteness. Historians who assumed Egyptians were white worked to connect Egyptian accomplishment to European history. However, Diop’s reinterpretation of Egyptian history converged upon a black historiography that delinked race to civilizational progress. Despite a span of 47 years between Du Bois and Diop’s publications, the necessity to reassert Africa significance in the making of the world persisted.
The postcolonial moment in Africa in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement in the US once again positioned Africa as a racial political building block and a stepping stone towards imagining a different future. The rhetoric pushed by Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara placed African figureheads as global leaders in the reconfiguration of a world not guided by racial capitalist logics. Even the Biafran struggle, framed largely as an ethnic conflict at the time, leveraged the language of race in its critique of the Nigerian state as a product of western imperialism. Through speeches like the Ahiara Declaration, Biafran political elite employed racial descriptors to position the Biafran project as part of larger anti-colonial movements within and outside Africa.
Beyond uncovering the independence moment, however, how do such histories help create an understanding of our global contemporary that also recognizes the interconnectedness of political, economic and social struggles? The question remains: What does an anti-racist discourse that leaves Africa out mean in this current moment? It means that the contribution of scholars, teachers, artists, and activists like Suzanne Cesaire, Franz Fanon, and Cedric Robinson have been sidelined in favour of the racial home narrative. Though in ‘Diaspora and Cultural Identity’, Stuart Hall notes the importance of notions of home as organizing political principle(s), he also argues for a different conception of cultural identity. ‘The second position recognizes that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference,’ he writes, ‘…Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories.’ This second notion of a Black diaspora recognizes specificity in the experience of blackness, and therefore contemporalizes Africa. Africa then becomes more than a reference, and the continent’s people and challenges become integral to a larger analysis of the present.
How Africa Imagines Itself
On the other side of how Africa is imagined within a Black diaspora is the question of how Africa imagines itself within the continent post-independence. Outside of South African voices, in the struggle against racism, what does the rest of Africa have to say? Last year, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to Nigerians about Race’ was published on Africa is a Country. The essay discussed the lack of recognition by Nigerians of the real ways that race is a part of the framework of even the world’s largest black nation. We see these questions arise again in concerns over the Nigeran state’s relative silence at the murder of George Floyd, which sparked commentary from other African nations, notably Ghana.
Panashe Chigunmadzi’s plea to Nigerians rather than the Nigerian state takes note of the ways in which the state apparatus is itself a product of racial capitalist logics. We see anti-blackness not simply in the bleaching of skin and the relaxing of natural hair; it exists in the various examples of ‘slow violence’ we see in the Delta, it exists in the evictions of peoples on Tarka Bay, it exists in land grabs by corporations in various central and eastern African countries, it exists in the debt policies Africa has been plagued with, and, as we have seen recently, it exists in the narratives of disease. These, too, are acts of anti-blackness guided on assumptions that black people are disposable and that profit and property matter more than human life. As we continue to live in a moment where #EndSARS protesters have made explicit the issue of police brutality in Nigeria, connections drawn between other movements outside and within the continent provide a framework to think about liberation as a global struggle. The lived reality is that in many black nations, like Nigeria, emancipation is but a fictive ghost in the face of neocolonial dispossession.
No Safe Haven
As Jemima Pierre has pointed out, Africa is deeply entangled in the racialized logics that ground this world because Africa is a part of this world. Pierre’s ethnographic engagement with race in Ghana makes clear the racial hierarchies that seem so obvious in heterogenous demographics within a more homogenous setting. As examined by Achille Mbembe, the assumptions of race that guide Africa’s place in the racial global discourse emphasizes the formation of blackness on the continent. In other words, Africa is already a part of the conversation. As Robin Kelley noted, we can look to the failure of South Africa to ‘recognize that the only future that is a truly abolitionist future is the dismantling of capitalism and the racial and gender structures that oppress us because capitalism was created on the grounds of a theory of inequality.’ So, as our minds continue to be consumed by our lived realities under COVID and as we focus on protests across the country, let us remember the interconnectedness of this moment. Let us remember that the US and Europe are not exceptional in this regard, that there is no safe haven from racism, and that Africa is a part of this deeply racialized world⎈
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