Vapid concepts are often accompanied by nebulous articulations of necessary actions de-linked from the tradition of Black struggle that has sought to restore the African way (cultural reclamation) and reestablish our sovereignty (nationhood and independence).
I believe that there is a great desolation in our souls that results from our failure to create a sovereign expression of our peoplehood. Absent territorial sovereignty, we are and will remain subject to the caprice of more powerful groups. Nationhood is no guarantee of happiness or security, but it reflects a more determined pursuit of these things.
“Black Nationalism is a self-help philosophy. What’s so good about it? You can stay right in the church where you are and still take Black Nationalism as your philosophy. You can stay in any kind of civic organization that you belong to and still take black nationalism as your philosophy. You can be an atheist and still take black nationalism as your philosophy. This is a philosophy that eliminates the necessity for division and argument. ‘Cause if you’re black you should be thinking black, and if you are black and you not thinking black at this late date, well I’m sorry for you.”
-Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet
Being in Ghana has given me a good opportunity to reflect on the proposal advanced by Africans as early as the late 18th Century as a solution to our American problem. This solution was the central focus of the African Civilization Society and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as great African thinkers such as Martin R. Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey. That solution was emigration. Though there were variations in their individual and organizational proposals, collectively they posited the following premises:
1) African people would never achieve their full potential in the United States and other contexts of internal colonialism that so characterizes our condition in the Western hemisphere,
2) Africa was the rightful home of its descendants wrongfully displaced by the savage plunder of racism and the exploitations of enslavement, and
3) The creation and defense of a united and sovereign Africa should be the aim of all African people.
These proposals stirred the Black imagination in the Americas throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th. It was only with the decline of the UNIA that the thought of returning home was momentarily quieted.
In some respects, this thought has returned, and with some vigor. The confluence of America’s ever-virulent racism, the mobility and social capital of the Black petty bourgeoisie, the economic growth of various African countries, and the absence of viable counter-proposals that center upon the question of territoriality and African diasporan humanity has once again situated emigration as an attractive solution to our American problem.
I do not disagree, at least in principle. Emigration is a path that we should consider among others. However I think that the viability of emigration is predicated upon several factors which I never hear addressed in the often romantic appeals for emigration to Africa in general and Ghana in particular. Each of these factors are inextricably linked. These are land ownership, citizenship/residency status, and continuity within the broader global struggle for African liberation.
The first factor, land ownership, is relevant in that land is, as Malcolm X stated, “the basis of all independence.” This is not simply an appeal to agrarian ideals of self-sufficient communities built upon the mutual cooperation of collectives of families, but rather an acknowledgement of the imperative components that enables our struggle to progress, that is its intergenerational survival via our ability to create, sustain, and expand our institutional capacity. When I refer to institutions I am referring to the six levels of institution building articulated by the Council of Independent Black Institutions which are education, food, clothing, housing, health care, and defense. The ability to own land is a central element in the process institutional development. Indeed the paucity of Black institutions in the United States is in part linked to the destabilization of Black communities, that is the denial of autonomous territory wherein our cultural expressions might be effectively directed towards the recreation of a political-economy that (1) rests upon the needs of the community, (2) is sustained via the will of the community, and (3) seeks to project our community into a self-determined future. Absent the legal ability to own land, to acquire land that we might set about developing as the spatial locus of our own grand vision of the future—a necessarily intergenerational vision—we are doomed to the myopia of today, for our inability to truly concretize our vision will constrain our capacity to build a bridge to our desired tomorrow.
The second factor, citizenship status or resident status rests upon the myriad dimensions via which one exists within any social environment. In African societies one could argue that social inclusion exists at each of the following levels: clan, ethnicity, and nationality. Emigrants from the diaspora would generally fall outside of the bounds of clan (save for those who gain some connection via marriage to nationals of that country) or ethnicity. Citizenship or resident status is critically important to the process of creating home, of shaping the political context in which one might propose to forge the future. The American experience illustrates how our physical presence alone is insufficient to contribute appreciably to shaping the social environment in which we exist in ways consequential to our cultural visions of the future. There we are denied a destiny of our own design. In any prospective and adopted home it would be inadvisable to content ourselves with something beneath second class citizenship—non-citizenship or impermanent residency. This is an insufficient basis upon which to position ourselves, as it makes us the hapless spectators of others’ designs for the future, merely the viewing audience to a political process that decides our future while we sit as muted observers.
The third factor, the connection to the broader struggle is perhaps the most important. The problems faced by Africans in the diaspora are both deep and debilitating. These are problems that cannot be solved by simplistic proposals, but only by solutions that seek to satisfy the crises born of a paucity of political, economic, and cultural power. Absent our ability to exercise power consistent with our own vision of the future, create and distribute the goods and services that provides the basis for our material well-being, and demarcate and refine our productive and creative capacities we are minions of other peoples and their designs for us. Desired departure from the embattled shores of the lands where our ancestors were made to suffer and where we are daily subjected to the evisceration of our humanity is wholly understandable. However such a departure is largely irrelevant if it does not contribute towards the formulation of structural solutions for the malaise of African people. How would the settlement of diasporan Africans in any given African country enable them to create institutions that seek to address the myriad problems that we face in the Americas? How might the works of diasporan communities on the African continent be synergistically linked to those corresponding efforts in the Americas for community transformation and empowerment? In short, how might processes of emigration contribute to the reclamation of African culture and the restoration of African sovereignty in the world?
The purpose of this essay is not to answer such weighty queries, but rather to pose them as being inescapable imperatives whose resolution underscores the relevance or irrelevance of emigration as a solution for our people. It should be noted here that the emigration envisioned by Delany or Garvey and the UNIA was not one of the absconding of individuals and their families, or the forging of islands of individualistic capitalist accumulation, but rather the movement of masses of like-minded Africans, resolved to forge a new society, one that would be a gleaming exemplar of African redemption in the world. I think that those who propose emigration as the answer to our American problem should revisit these proposals, as they can serve to enrich our vision.
In another essay I’ll examine a parallel proposal, one that poses an altogether different answer to this question of territoriality.
The acquisition of sovereignty is not simply a political process, in fact the actualization of statehood is one of the later stages of this arc of national development. One might argue that it begins more squarely in the minds of the people, in their conscious recognition of their right to be independent, to be the arbiters of their collective affairs. Part of the social psychology of nationalist struggle is embedded in the language that the people employ to express their aspirations for freedom.
Martin Delany, in his book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States,
In our own country, the United States, there are three million five hundred thousand slaves; and we, the nominally free colored people, are six hundred thousand in number; estimating one-sixth to be men, we have one hundred thousand able bodied freemen, which will make a powerful auxiliary in any country to which we may become adopted—an ally not to be despised by any power on earth. We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving us from her embraces; but we shall not go where she desires us; but when we do go, whatever love we have for her, we shall love the country none the less that receives us as her adopted children.
Delany establishes three major points in this passage. First is that we, African people in the U.S., are powerful force, one that is capable of contributing favorably to any society. Second is that we are loathed by that same society. That this loathing denies us comfort sufficient with equating this society with the intimacy and warmth that we associate with home. Third he advocates that we find a home, that we chart a future for ourselves free of the fetters of degradation.
Central to Delany’s advocacy for independence is the use of language as a way of demarcating the social milieu wherein such struggle is to waged. In so doing he articulates a very specific image of African Americans: A powerful collective, persecuted, yet aspiring towards a sovereign reality.
The second stage in the arc of national development is the formation of social movements for the acquisition of sovereignty. Two historical examples that illustrate this are the tradition of maroonage during the era of enslavement and the movement for the establishment of independent cities and towns in the immediate aftermath of enslavement’s supposed abolition. In each of these contexts the people, in word and deed, affirmed their right to be free. These actions were an outward manifestation of an underlying belief in the legitimacy of independence and the viability of sovereignty as a response to the oppressive state apparatus of U.S. society.
The maroon tradition is indicative of the unwillingness of Africans to acquiesce to European dominance. One apt example of this comes from the account of a maroon named Mango from Virginia. They state.
I escaped my master’s plantation. It was so easy. I tried to convince my close friends to leave with me. Only three did so […] To keep the remaining slaves in check, master told the slaves we were ruthless, unchristian and not to be trusted.
When we raided plantations, the slaves ran from us faster than the whites. We have twenty-seven men and twenty-eight women now. At one time we had as many as forty-eight men and thirty women before their deaths. We have lost only four men during raids and on the many plantations we have raided, we could only get six slaves to run with us. And they were all women. The whites will never catch us…
Mango expresses little ambiguity about the legitimacy of struggle against an oppressive system, of divesting that system of the human fuel that powers it. Mango’s account is simultaneously critical of the state apparatus and the mass of Europeans invested in its survival, as well as instructive of what is perceived to be the most practical response—independence and sovereignty.
Though the maroon movement is typically considered only a feature of the era of enslavement, the response of our people to continued oppression after enslavement’s supposed end reflects certain affinities with the maroons’ view. On April 17, 1880 Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, leader of the movement of Blacks to the western United States, was called to testify before Congress. When asked why he set out to establish this movement he stated:
Well, my people, for the want of land–we needed land for our children–and their disadvantages–that caused my heart to grieve and sorrow; pity for my race, sir, that was coming down, instead of going up–that caused me to go to work for them. I sent out there perhaps in ’66–perhaps so; or in ’65, any way–my memory don’t recollect which; and they brought back tolerable favorable reports; then I jacked up three or four hundred, and went into Southern Kansas, and found it was a good country, and I though Southern Kansas was congenial to our nature, sir; and I formed a colony there, and bought about a thousand acres of ground–the colony did–my people.
Here Singleton acknowledges the malaise of African people–incessant dehumanization and degradation. However he also articulates his view of the importance of land, that which Malcolm X said was the “basis of all independence”, and thus seeks to establish a land base for African people. Singleton stops short of waging war against the system set against African people (as advocated by the maroons), nor does he call for national independence (as does Delany), what he does however is to demonstrate the necessity and intelligence of creating the institutional framework requisite of any sovereign people.
Both of these accounts evidence the use of language in significant ways. Mango’s account exposes the oppressor as fallible and vulnerable in the face of opposition. He also demarcates the political sensibilities of the African masses as those who are willing to confront the enemy and those lacking in this resolve. He closes with a defiant assertion, “The whites will never catch us”, in effect stating that they will not be stopped. Likewise Singleton begins by framing the necessity of his actions in terms of futurity—“our children” and the absence of viable possibilities for their lives being a source of grief and sorrow. He also reveals that the Exoduster movement was not simply the effort of a charismatic, heroic individual, but a collective effort as he notes having received favorable reports from his agents of the suitability of Kansas for his people.
The third and fourth stages in the arc of national development are the creation of a sovereign state and the defense of that state from contrary forces. These are reflected in the Republic of New Africa’s New African Creed. For the sake of this discussion points 5, 6, and 8 are most relevant. These state:
5. I believe that the fundamental reason our oppression continues is that We, as a people, lack the power to control our lives.
6. I believe that the fundamental way to gain that power, and end oppression, is to build a sovereign Black nation.
8. I believe in the Malcolm X Doctrine; that We must organize upon this land and hold a plebiscite, to tell the world by a vote that We are free and our land independent and that after the vote, We must stand ready to defend ourselves, establishing the nation beyond contradiction.
These stages of struggle are interlinked. The realization of sovereignty necessitates a disruption of the existing apparatus of anti-African oppression, and as such represents a threat to the continued functioning of that system. Like Mango noted centuries ago, to deprive the existing system of African people—our labor, wealth, and our minds– is to deny it the fuel that drives it and enables our oppression. Thus the RNA clearly recognized that the most effective response to oppression is sovereignty, and that our efforts to attain sovereignty would not go uncontested.
We continue to refine our understanding of struggle, and this is reflected in our language and tactics. From “Uhuru Sasa” (“Freedom Now” in Kiswahili) in the 1960s to Abibifahodie (“Black Liberation” in Twi) today, language continues to be a contested domain, a frontier of struggle that reflects our efforts to define reality for ourselves. Ultimately language is more than a mere means of communication. It also becomes a way of demarcating space, reinforcing identity, and engaging in a process of symbol manipulation—that is the utilization of imagery for the sake of communicating certain ideas.
Language conveys layers of meaning, and these layers multiply as we move from colonial, to modern African, to classical African languages. The colonial languages are the existing frame via which we have sought to articulate much of our aspirations for freedom. These languages reflects the extent to which that struggle itself is embedded within the territorial context of European domination and the context of cultural penetration. The use of African languages within these struggles in the mid-20th Century represents both the contested nature of space—that we continued to reside in the spatial context of European domination, but that we had resolved to transform our culture to augment our capacity to resist it. These languages also symbolized a conscious process of re-Africanization, that is the reclamation of African culture in the wake European oppression. The growth of interest in the classical African language of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher) in the late Twentieth Century represents an attempt to use language acquisition as a process to reconstruct and operationalize an African worldview as a prerequisite to both conceiving and actualizing a sovereign reality.
Language matters. It is not an idle consideration. Quite the contrary it reflects the cultural logics of liberatory struggle. Via the effective use of language we might at once identify the problem before us (the Maafa), articulate the most viable response, and convey the varied mechanisms through which this solution is implemented (such as kujitiwala, a Kiswahili word which means self-governing or sovereignty). Language can be employed to tell us who we are, and by extension who we are not (such as the RNA’s “New African people”). Language can also capture the optimal condition to which we might aspire (such as or mAat, which is, as Sebat Rkhty Amen states, “harmonious balance”). Language provides the conceptual canvas upon which our image of possibility is rendered.
It is strange to gaze upon America’s pathological racism from Ghana. It is no less disturbing to behold, but it also makes me feel that we, Africans in America suffer a profound disadvantage in that, unlike our counterparts here or in other majority Black countries, we do not have our own society free from the idiocy and machinations of others who historically and presently have succeeded in maximizing our subordination. I am not suggesting that these ostensibly Black countries are panaceas, but they are places where in many respects we are (or believe ourselves to be) the stewards of our local destinies, which is different from the malaise of African Americans and other Diasporan Africans who are the subjects of often indifferent and frequently hostile states and institutions.
The hyper exploitation of enslavement was compounded by the evisceration of African humanity, and as such, provided a pretext for the legal mandates which enshrined Black oppression for the next century. And while that legal mandate was revised, wherein explicit acknowledgement of racial subordination as a state mandate was omitted, the damage had been done. The racialization of poverty and opportunity, the social psychology of white supremacy, the massive cultural apparatus designed to achieve what Carter G. Woodson called mis-education and Jacob H. Carruthers called de-education were sufficient to ensure that Blacks in the U.S. would remain on the margins of society–their hopes buoyed by the select few whose success became the stuff of “pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps” legends–an implicit condemnation of all those unable to overcome the weight of history and the burden of structural racism. Those others who refused to dream, the denizens of America’s declining urban centers in the late 20th Century, were ushered into the burgeoning prison industry, itself the heir to the fallen legacy of America’s great industrial economy. This was America’s assurance that it had a special place for Black people, the same place that it held in reserve for us in 1619: the dungeons of captivity, the expanding frontier of an ever-evolving hyper-exploitation, and life behind the veil of racialized contempt.
This puts before us a troubling malaise, one whose analysis is easier by far than its resolution. Some have argued that we should abscond to distant shores, that a more fulfilling life awaits us in Ghana or elsewhere on the African continent. I do not doubt that this may be true for a small minority, but this is not scalable as a solution to the structural racism faced by the masses of Africans in the U.S., to say nothing of the impact of global capitalism on the Black masses the world over, where the avarice of a few is afforded by the marginalization of the many. Thus one arrives on that distant shore beyond the horizon, only to find the flag of greed and corruption waving resplendent.
Others have advocated that our redemption lies in the voting booth, that a new era of Black electoral participation will lead the path to our redemption. This may be an efficacious strategy in some respects, but it ignores the lingering challenges that we face in cities and states where we are a numeric minority, and it does not capture the reality that the effectiveness of any form of governance in communities that have been wracked by economic decline will require degrees of remediation beyond simply electing a preferred candidate. As we are finding with the election of left-leaning candidates in countries in the throws of neoliberalism, governing in the midst of economic crisis can easily result in a political establishment which both teeters on the brink of illegitimacy and whose policy prescriptions reifies that which we see in many global cities—that local economic development is reliant on capital flows from international banks and multinational corporations–thus even progressive, grassroots leadership will remain tethered and thus constrained by the global economy, likely resulting in diminished hopes for the masses and the inverse—profitability–for the centers of economic power.
I think that the solution to these challenges begins with us working backwards from the present reality in all of its starkness and devising paths which are logical based on these undeniable features.
- The United States is a society where racial inequality is a historic reality. There is no evidence which refutes Derrick Bell’s thesis that “racism is permanent and indestructible”, therefor any vision of the future of Africans in America must take into account the ever-present specter of racism and its irrepressible need to visit misery upon our lives. This means that racism is not within the exclusive purview of some historic white community, an inheritance which will be shed by some new generation. Rather that American racism is inextricable, echoing KRS One’s contention that “You can’t have justice on stolen land.”, a truth that has not and will not be invalidated via the passage of time.
- The United States is a society whose processes of governance reveal one of the fatal imperfections of modern democracy. In the balance of power between the will of its citizens and the desires of its major economic institutions, capital rules. This is why many years ago W.E.B. Du Bois called for Industrial Democracy, that in a truly democratic society no process should exist beyond the assent of the people, that the rule of the people should be absolute both with regards to policy and the economy. In the U.S. we have seen the reduction of the power of the people and the enlargement of the force of capital on the political apparatus. This trend has only intensified rather than lessened with time.
- The economic system of the U.S., the vaunted prosperity that became the beacon of hope for people around the world is hobbled by its basic unsustainability—that is, America’s economy is based on a level of resource consumption that is both unsustainable and dangerous with regards to its impact on global warming, its despoiling of ecosystems, its depletion of water resources, and its energy consumption. The America that Black people and others have been clamoring to be included in is a ghost, a promise that can never be kept due to the finitude the Earth’s resources.
These three issues create a fundamentally different starting point for us to imagine our collective future as African people in the U.S. Moreover, they engender a conversation that requires that we fundamentally rethink our notions of economic development, our faith in certain institutions, or our belief in a redemptive future for the U.S. that finally and utterly eschews the transgressions of its past and present. This starting point compels us to ask a number of questions. What are we prepared to do for ourselves to insure our collective survival and success wherever we find ourselves? What form of economic development will offer, as Dr. Anderson Thompson says, the greatest good for the greatest number” of our people? Where should we cast our lot and how will we forge community there? What are we willing to do to mitigate the corrosive impact that many of America’s dominant institutions has had on our lives—the criminal justice system, mass-media, schools which excel at mis-education and de-education, the profit-driven health care industry, and so forth? What does our history in the U.S. reveal to us about the breadth of possibility when faced with a recalcitrant and violent system? How, for instance, did Africans in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries respond to the malaise before them? How might we learn from their successes and ameliorate their shortcomings? Ultimately, what do we want for the future of Black people, and what are we willing to do to achieve it?
If we fail to grapple with these questions, we consign ourselves to America’s designs for us, which is far far less than what we deserve.
A compelling proposal from Kawaida: An Introductory Outline by Maulana Karenga. Sadly, much of this remains in the realm of the conceptual rather than the actual.
D. Build Pan-Africanism – As Pan-Africanists, we must build Pan-Africanism as a global project, not just a continental one. Any serious and successful Pan-Africanism must be rooted in and reflective of the following basic principles and practice:
1. unity and struggle of Africans wherever they are;
2. acceptance of the principle that the greatest contribution to the liberation of African peoples is the liberation struggle each people wages to liberate itself, and thus;
3. acquire the effective capacity to aid others still struggling. In a word, the overall struggle for African liberation is one, but a people must begin the struggle wherever they are.
4. development of mutually beneficial cooperative efforts between Continental and Diasporan African.
Kawaida proposals at FESTAC: a. permanent Afro-American observer status at OAU; b. All African People’s Convention-international as distinct from continental (OAU) – Continental and Diasporan; c. Pan-African University-Continental and Diasporan; d. Diasporan Studies in all African universities as African Studies in West; e. Continental and Diasporan common language – Swahili; f. developmental capital – for all Africans; g. African people’s lobby-for all Africans; h. African people’s skills bank-for all Africans; i. support in the UN-and other international bodies by African countries for Afro-Americans and other Diasporan Africans and other concrete support (political pressure, capital, information, asylum, etc. where possible).
5. recognition and response to the fact that in the final analysis, each people is its own liberator. A people that cannot save itself is lost forever.
“Every people should be the originators of their own designs, the projector of their own schemes, and creators of the events that lead to their destiny—the consummation of their desires.”
-Martin Robeson Delany
What does it mean to struggle for “equality”, “inclusion”, or “justice” in a society with a history of colonialism, enslavement, and sexism? How does such a struggle not simply seek to reform, amend, or slightly adjust the adjust the social order rather than subvert it? Does not the discourse of reform necessarily reenforce the perceived legitimacy of the existing order? And does this sense of legitimacy constrain the capacity of social actors to envision and construct a truly emancipatory society? I begin with these histories, because they are not a past truly removed from the present, as they are relived and re-inscribed daily.
Denmark Vessey wasn’t interested in reform. Neither was Harriet Tubman. Neither was Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey. The reformist position necessarily precludes the tactics or philosophy of radicalism. Can a people who have experienced the dispossession and dehumanization that Africans in this country have endured afford to be reformist? What is the cost of seeking to adjust a society that daily feasts on the Black body? What viable future emerges from this vacuous path?
As if America has ever had any regard for Black folks or Black mothers. The subtext of this is that the current Baltimore rebellion and protests are devoid of legitimacy, and that the participants are unruly thugs bereft of sound parenting. That “safe negroes” would patiently wait for the proper authorities to deliver justice for Freddie Gray (something that we all know will not likely occur). I’d love to see the mother of one of Gray’s violent killers berating him or her publicly. But of course we’ll never see that. Agents of the state, even when they are murderers, are always given the benefit of the doubt. Their violent actions are dismissed as “lapses of judgement”, or worse, they are portrayed as isolated actors, aberrations of an otherwise functioning system.
This cover suggests that order needs to be restored. Rather than positing that the true source of disorder is the state, which daily meets out physical and psychological violence against Black people, it invokes the image of Black youth. This is why I argue that Black youth are viewed as a social malignancy. We see this in the schools, the streets, the media, and prisons. This mother then becomes the imagined antidote for that condition. She is juxtaposed to the unseen, but still symbolically present “bad mother” who supposedly births violent criminals.
I won’t weigh in on the debates that either champion, critique, or explain this mother’s actions. I will say that this event, and those that have proceeded it teach us that youth are the makers of revolution. We need to seize the fervor of this occasion and direct it towards both confronting this social order and actualizing a new emancipatory one. Therein this young man’s energy would be well served, and perhaps this mother’s love/fear/anger might be purposefully directed toward building a better world, rather than simply attempting to shield our children from the existing one–the one that seeks to obliterate them simply for existing.