As the Internet continues to facilitate a greater global awareness and sense of community among people of African descent, we are becoming more present to the challenges each other face in different parts of the world. When parts of Accra, Ghana, flooded in June, friends in the US began to ask questions about our safety, and post “Pray for Ghana” signs on social media (even if they showed up several days or weeks after the waters had receded). Likewise, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign attracted attention from all kinds of people, including many African Americans.
With last week’s string of police-involved shootings and Black Lives Matter protests dominating major news headlines, concerned Africans in the continent and elsewhere in the Diaspora have also been paying attention. Maybe not in the numbers that some social media commentators would like to see, but the outcry that does exist is a foundation to build on.
Across the pond in London, Afro-Brits and their allies shut down Oxford Street this weekend during a Black Lives Matter protest in solidarity with their African-American family. A smaller protest march happened that same day in Vancouver. In the past, Black Lives Matter protests have been staged in Johannesburg, Toronto, and Israel. The international African media has picked up the story also, with coverage of the killings and subsequent protests appearing in Kenya’s Standard and Nigeria’s Pulse among others.
If there is one element that has remained sadly but unsurprisingly silent, it has been African governments, singularly or under the African Union’s umbrella. The main leaders who have displayed the guts to openly challenge the US are the same ones who are often accused of their own internal human rights abuses: Presidents Robert Mugabe, Yahya Jammeh, and Yoweri Musveni come to mind. The Caribbean island nation of the Bahamas surprised a lot of people, however, issuing a travel advisory to warn their citizens about the risk of being beaten or killed while visiting America.
(Outside the Africa Diaspora, China and North Korea have openly condemned America’s record on race relations and police brutality, which is pretty much in line with their relations to the US anyhow.)
On an individual level, Nigerian musical artist Tiwa Savage posted a Black Lives Matter meme to her Instagram and retweeted a few posts relevant to the murders in Minnesota and Louisiana. Afterwards, she faced stiff criticism from some of her fellow Nigerians, who felt that she should first speak out about problems back home.
A less high-profile Nigerian studying at MIT shared his perspective on the need for Black Lives Matter as an immigrant who went from not understanding the American concept of race or “blackness” to experiencing aggressive racial prejudice firsthand:
“I stand there, stunned, waiting to see if he’ll say anything, but he keeps walking, and in a tone so unlike mine, I yell profanities at him until he’s in the bus and out of sight. I turn around, and people are staring at me. Their expressions are variations of a theme–annoyed, judgmental, concerned. I keep walking into my dorm, shaking with such anger. When I’m in my room, I almost cry. But I force myself not to.
“All I see is that man’s pink bloated face as he screams in my ears, “Why can’t you niggers–”
Young Vincent has learned a critical lesson about race and violence and American policing: Africans from the continent are not exempt from the profiling, abuse, or killings that triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the past 15 years, some of the most publicized instances of police brutality and death by cop have involved recent immigrants from Africa and predominately Black countries such as Amadou Diallo of Guinea, who was shot 41 times by New York police officers; Abner Louima of Haiti, who was brutally beaten and sodomized by other NYPD officers; and more recently, Charly “Africa” Keunang, a homeless Cameroonian who was killed on Skid Row by Los Angeles police officers in March 2015.
Among my own circle of friends, a handful back in Ghana have acknowledged Philando Castile and Alton Sterling on their pages, offered messages of concern and support, and launched critiques against the U.S. treatment of their brothers and sisters. “My heartbeat rate just increased so high,” one of my friends messaged me after he watched Alton Sterling’s cold-blooded execution in that Louisiana parking lot.
I’ve seen a few activists or simply vocal African-Americans complain about the lack of a more organized or widespread outcry by Africans who are still in Africa. For that matter, I suppose, they could also chastise the African-descended people living in Brazil and other South American countries, Central America, and the rest of the Caribbean, too.
I would say that there is plenty of room for growth on all sides. Not enough African-Americans are actively paying attention to the activities of the American government in countries around the continent, whether it is military action coordinated through AFRICOM or carried out via diplomacy, USAID, and other agencies. Nor do many of us actively watchdog American NGOs programs and other “interventions” that too often work under the radar, with very little oversight by the governments in the countries where they work.
It is practically human nature to be most concerned with threats that have an immediate and direct effect to our lives and the lives of those we live among. That’s just common sense and survival. The moral imperative to care and get involved is a noble one, but take a look at the state of our world: there are way too many problems that deserve our full and undivided attention. Nobody has enough time to get deeply involved in every single one.
Vincent, the MIT student, brought up another valid concern that may make people who believe that Black Lives Matter all over the globe hesitate to speak out or turn out in support of the movement:
“I’ve been in America for three years, and I feel wholly underqualified to speak about matters like this. In Nigeria, they floated past my radar, so why take them on now?”
While Vincent goes on to explain that his own personal experience with American racism gave him the courage to speak, how much more reluctant might a person who has never been to the United States and has mostly learned about it through the eyes of mainstream news media and Hollywood entertainment?
Rather than shaming people for not speaking out on issues they may not understand or feel directly connected to, I think it is better to use platforms like this – as well as our personal friendships and relationships with people from other parts of the Diaspora – to help each other gain more information about what is happening in the United States, how it fits into the historical relationship of Blacks and Whites in this country – a history that is just as underexplained in African schools as the details of colonialism are in the American education system – why they should care about problems that they cannot personally solve, and even how to balance solidarity with issues abroad against the time and involvement needed to address problems at home. Then we should take time to step out of our American focus and find out what’s going on elsewhere, although chances are good that if you’re reading this on Face2Face Africa, you are getting regular doses of information around the Diaspora already. So share what you learn with a friend.
I will leave you with a quote from Tiwa Savage’s rebuttal to the fans who criticized her:
“Let us not let the devil distract us by letting us fight amongst ourselves and lose focus on the many tragedies happening around the whole. Yes you as an individual might not be able to fight for every cause but even the little you do will help.”