British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2016 famously accused Barack Obama of harboring an “ancestral dislike of the British empire” that was borne out of the former American president being “part-Kenyan”.
Obama had removed from the Oval Office in his final year, a bust in honor of Winston Churchill, the World War II-era British prime minister who also happened to be an unapologetic white European supremacist. The administration owed no explanation for the removal of the bust but the press fraternities on both sides of the pond insisted this was a major issue that warranted all the time they dedicated to it.
Johnson has gone on to find other avenues to defend the British empire even as he had done before the incident in 2016. He and his ilk permit the praise and not the criticism of centuries of exploitation and subjugation of African peoples; horrors whose bitterness has taken permanent abodes in our mouths. We are rather asked to be grateful for a world construed for the perpetuation of the interests of people of European ancestry.
But the British prime minister’s criticism of Obama revealed a weltanschauung that has grown around the white Euro-American relationship with people of African descent in the last 100 years like plaque grows around a tooth. The people with a darker skin tone are seen as plain inferior to white superiority. In language readers of Frantz Fanon should understand, we are the subalterns in the hegemony. All Black people are by that default, on a similar footing.
Despite the commonality in subservience to white supremacy, we have often separated the colonization of Africa from the post-slavery vicissitudes against Black people in the so-called New World (for some reason, the global conversation on race in the Americas almost always manages to skip the politics of skin color in Brazil, the repository of the most enslaved Africans). Popular recollections of the Black experience in white hegemony is usually America-centric analyses, sometimes even through the studies of the most well-meaning scholars.
What is more intriguing is that the accusation above can also hold true of general American scholarship. The rest of the world is perceived as an extension of the United States. How many times have facts of economic and sociological work done in the United States been stated as if they were universally true? Too many times, we wield facts true for American society as if they are true for the world. This problem has also shaped the intellectual navigation of global Black politics and experience.
The challenge above affects, for instance, the question, “who is Black?”. For American readers, the most recent acquaintance with this philosophical problem is Vice-President Kamala Harris who was born in the US to a Jamaican father. Nevertheless, due to the efficiency of how people of African descent were otherized by white Europeans, “Black” has never really been difficult to define in the global sphere. It is not only Fanon who theorized a global understanding of ‘Blackness’ but also Fanon’s fellow Martinican Aimé Césaire and the first president of Senegal, Léopold Sedar Senghor.
I share the view that the 21st-century problem of defining Blackness is by and large, an American problem. We can look at this in two folds: first dimension goes to the controversy surrounding Harris’ Blackness. The movement known as the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) has in the last few years been extremely vocal about who gets to be called Black, believing that Blackness and such issues as reparations should be the preserve of descendants of slavery. I have had cause to critique their mission for Face2Face Africa.
The second fold is that American Blackness feeds a certain level of exclusion of the motherland, so to speak, and the rest of the African diaspora. Black American history, for many people, begins in 1619. Prima facie, that makes sense. The feminist literary critic Hortense Spillers writes of a “severing” in the emotional and spiritual connection between the enslaved who made it to the New World and the families they left behind.
Another reason why one may find a good reason to assert that American Blackness is different from Blackness anywhere is that Blackness anywhere is determined by the sociopolitics of the locale. Black people are the majority in Jamaica yet they have to contend with the foundations of modern society they did not lay. In America too, what it means to be Black is entirely different than in Jamaica.
Perhaps, no occasion celebrates the uniqueness of American Blackness than Black History Month celebrations in February. The monthly festival since 1970 has become more relevant even with the passage of time due to the undying cancer of racism. As a result of its Americanness, Black History Month is cut from the postcolonial politics of Africa. I do not speak of the fact that people in certain jurisdictions outside the States do not mark the occasion. Rather, I speak of how Black History Month has not successfully been used as an outreach as well as a challenge to add to the postcolonial evolution of Africa.
This failure stems from centuries ago of determined detachment. Indeed, one of the most famous proponents of taking Africa out of the American Black experience was Frederick Douglass. In 1852, Douglass told an audience who had gathered to listen to the famous What To The American Slave Is Your Fourth Of July? speech that “the time has not come for [Black people] to emigrate from these States to any other country, and last of all, to the wilds of Africa.”
Douglass would not hear any argument about the need for negroes to maintain a relationship with Africa. But before Douglass would even deliver that speech, many free Black people in the northern states did not want to be called African-American for fear of being shipped out of the United States. James T. Campbell’s African American Journeys To Africa captures the tension among Black people on the use of the prefix “African” in the 19th century. The Christian church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, was at one point forced by Black people to drop the “African” in the church’s name but its leaders stood strong.
Africanness was an aberration for Blackness in the United States. Depending on who you are asking today, it continues to be. The unwillingness to add Black History Month’s celebration to the postcolonial journey of Africa can be traced to this.
This is not to say America’s Black people are not intrigued about Africa. In the last decade, African-Americans have been trooping to settle in African countries, most especially, in Ghana. And that is all well and good. But it is not quite the same as channeling postcolonial African ambitions into Black History Month, which is frankly, the only mainstream Black festival in the US.
Why should postcolonial African politics be a central part of Black History Month? I’d have to refer you to Boris Johnson and the likes. The forces that countervail Black humanity do not serve their disrespect according to which region of the world a person of African descent belongs to. We are Black and that is where the conversation begins and ends.
Secondly, as fate would have it, people of African descent who are Americans are in the best position to force sociopolitical matters on tectonic scales. Even though they live in the matrices of historical and institutional racism, Black Americans can and should be willing to enter African political conversations. The global Black narrative should not be mediated via neocolonial interfaces.
Lastly, marrying the postcolonial African project with Black history month will be tantamount to answering a historic duty call. African Postcolonial studies and African-American studies are both geared towards destabilizing a racial hierarchy. Marcus Garvey asked for this future. And so did Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B DuBois.