A fortnight of protests worldwide in the wake of the gruesome extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis could not have been predicted by the most sophisticated minds in political thought and history.
This was not due to a lack of foresight. In fairness, the misdiagnoses ironically stemmed from proper education on history – the misery of America‘s black people is most often than not challenged by said people with little to no solidarity from outside the United States.
Careful credit may, however, be given to the imagination of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, the most prolific non-American ideologue and advocate of describing blackness as African familyhood. By this logic, Nkrumah had no qualms writing in Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare:
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“The Black Power movement in the U.S.A., and the struggles of peoples of African descent in the Caribbean, South America and elsewhere, form an integral part of the African politico-military revolutionary struggle.”
The magnitude of Nkrumah’s vision gets bigger when we understand the the intricacies that shaped the 1960s politics in Africa and United States. A good number of African independence leaders could not see the big cross-continental Pan-African umbrella that Nkrumah tirelessly defended.
We may also generously speculate that these leaders did see the need to make Pan-Africanism a global struggle for black identity but they also held well-founded fears of the capacities of white American imperialism. Nkrumah himself wrote what we have read in exile after he was ousted in a coup in 1966 to which the CIA lent support.
But even Nkrumah could not have seen Belgian youth defacing a bust of King Leopold II in Brussels; protesters bringing down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol; thousands of Italian protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” in a Roman square and Germans besieging the American embassy in Berlin with a few harshly-worded questions.
There were protests in Spain, Norway, France and in Australia, it took the government’s insistence that lives could not be risked during a pandemic to stop what could have been tens of thousands marching in Sydney.
There were a few others in Africa, where in Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo was the sole African leader to voice his condemnation of the killing of Floyd and offer support for black Americans. There was even a government-funded “remembrance” service for the 46-year-old Floyd in Accra.
The threat of a clearly dangerous pandemic has not stopped millions from throwing away all the protocols expected to save lives. In the last two weeks, a white police officer killing a single black man has been enough for all of us to take a respite from the intended-to-scare coronavirus headlines.
For any political observer, the questions would be fairly simple: Why George Floyd? Why are we seeing the biggest anti-racism protests these times in the West? Is this the turning point?
Interestingly, some of these questions are based on the presumption that we understand what racism thoroughly is. Discrimination on the bases of race and/or skin color, to paraphrase an overwhelming majority of dictionaries.
What we may be skipping over is that a conception of racism as merely discrimination on the basis of skin color animates the well-meaning and yet short-sighted protestation against “all forms of racism”. There are those who have piggybacked on Black Lives Matter protests to remind all that they too are kicked to the curb.
There should be no denial of the truth that against white supremacy, all other peoples are alienated from the fruits of their labors and are asked to justify their humanity. The sense, explicit or otherwise, that the modern world is the manifestation of European culture drives prima facie compulsion to think that those of the Caucasian stock are masters of the world.
But as actor John Boyega alluded to in a haze of social media interactions last week, it will be dishonest to quickly move past the moment. The moment is one in which another black man has been killed carelessly by an officer of the law.
Why do we have to pay attention to the moment? It comes connected to history of more than 400 years.
Floyd’s death, thanks to a camera phone, provides both a visceral and metaphorical image of the tensions between those Europeans historically called black and those they have called white.
Pause the video, zoom into the image, and play it again to listen carefully to the muffled words of Floyd. In that moment, you come face-to-face with the longest and most consequential dialectic on race in the Western world.
In this violent confrontation of physical and psychological natures, Europeans have taken from Africans and given very little. Pay no heed to the shameless foolishness that credits the abolition of commercial slavery to white people.
The fact remains on this dialectical journey that white identity has constantly defined itself in opposition to and in the condescension of other peoples, particularly black people. From African lands and labor, Europeans have amassed the material sustenance and wealth that has justified the sense of superiority.
It is a rather vicious circular logic:
- Europeans are better than Africans hence slavery and colonization
- Slavery and colonization were effectively rewarding for Europeans
- The gains of slavery and colonization then justify why Europeans are better
Anti-black racism has thus arguably been the most potent grounds for white supremacy. It would be most unfortunate if we are cowered into rejecting a provable truth in the spirit of “all racism is bad”.
All racism is clearly not created equal. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote:
“[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
This hits home for black people in the United States and elsewhere. There is a familiarity to Floyd’s cry that other peoples may not easily come to terms with in their relation to white supremacy.
For a simple reason, they call the enslavement of African peoples in America the original sin. It is important to remind ourselves constantly that what was the strife against the incivility of white America towards black America became the vehicle to convey other injustices, racial, sexual, and others.
We moved from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Immigration Act of 1968 to the Marriage Equality Act of 2015.
But the recognition of the uniqueness of anti-black racism is not a move to underrate the multiracial efforts that were kicked off by Floyd’s death. It is a good thing that more young people are telling governments in Europe and elsewhere that black lives matter in an apparent turn that proves Baldwin wrong – not that he’d be displeased were he alive.
Baldwin would welcome the rainbow dreams of young white people and the hellish nightmares of the old. But Baldwin would also hope the reasons for these protests are genuinely about black lives and not because the times seem convenient.
One of the worst things that could happen is for the protests in the US and beyond to be conflated with the personality and cultism of Donald Trump. Mistaking gangrenous symptom for the cause is foolhardiness.
President Trump has painlessly embodied the entitlement with which many have associated white America and its imperialism. He has neglected the moral responsibility of the US that former presidents had preached several times but many times never lived up to.
Trump has, however, taken the gloves off, having no regard for respectable rhetoric. He does not even aim to inspire and bring along friends to solve problems of international dimensions.
Western Europe fervently dislikes Trump. But are we to hope that Western Europe would also view the Black Lives Matter movement as an invitation towards critical introspection into European culture and how it treats black people?
The soccer leagues are resuming in Europe after the coronavirus-forced breaks. Have we turned a corner on the monkey chants? Are we still going to hear how players of African-descent are “strong” but not necessarily “intelligent”?
What is going to happen to the unsolved murders of black youth in England? And what is going to happen to those in France and Italy who have told European ministers of African-descent that they have no place at the table?
How are Africans going to be met when those who survive the ill-advised voyage across the Mediterranean reach the shores of Spain and Italy? And in Belgium and the Netherlands, have we seen the end of such questions as “where are you really from?” asked of second and third-generation immigrants?
There are enough reasons to believe that the future might be different in Western Europe, at least. Germany (technically in central Europe) and the UK are two places that have been forced in recent years to have deep internal conversations about the place of non-white citizens – conversations that have included anti-black racism.
But we must also pay heed to how white supremacy works and the metamorphoses it has undergone to bolster its resilience. No way of life would exist for half a millennium that has no shock absorbers.
The honest challenge of white supremacy would require a critique of capitalism and imperialism. If anyone has doubts about this, we would need to remind ourselves that the commoditization of black humanity was not done apart from the birth of white supremacy.
We would have to start asking why black people are usually the most disproportionately unemployed in the United States and why Africa gets the worst ends of deals with the West. The two problems are not strictly exclusive fro each other.
To challenge white supremacy, we would want to start questioning the ‘common sense’ that says unless you are making money from it, it is useless. Because in the hierarchy of an increasingly financialized capitalist reality, there is most often white men at the top.
We would have to be careful when corporations throw some money at the problem on one side and cash out tenfold on the other. We would do well to address the problems of the depths from which people of African descent are asked to compete as if they stood on the same plateau as others.
This will be uncomfortable even for some Africans and African-Americans who have benefited from the way white capitalism structured our material reality. Their statuses have depended on carrying water for a system that encourages exploitation.
But for black people who have succeeded financially in these conditions, we may yet sympathize even though we ask them to sacrifice. Leopold Senghor captured the dilemma of the African who thrives in the world that was not made for them:
“The equilibrium you admire in me is an unstable one, difficult to maintain. My inner life was split early between the call of the Ancestors and the call of Europe, between the exigencies of black-African culture and those of modern life.”
In spite of the unprecedented vocalization of what black lives should mean, there is no way of telling what will happen after protests. If pushed to the wall, one may even err on the side of not expecting much to change.
It is very much a tricky business for a political writer of African descent who has to be both skeptical enough to see through hot air and optimistic enough to be open-minded. But it is not as if any other well-meaning person is not battling the same conflict.
We would have to wait and see – forgive the cliché. But heaven knows we are glad for this moment.