As someone who grew up with parents involved in the Pan-African movement (The All-African People’s Revolutionary Party was the organization) in the 80’s and 90’s my political development as a black person was markedly different from most of the other black activists I know. According to my father I even had the chance in my early childhood to share space with Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), one of the most famous and important Pan-Africanists of the later 20th Century. This upbringing added to my own independent development through my college years I believe has given me a unique perspective on the issue of black people and revolutionary politics.
That perspective has led me to the question and issue of this article, what does Pan-Africanism mean to American blacks today? This question came up for me out of my experiences in the Occupy movement over the past few months. I won’t reproduce the entirety of my thoughts here, but I wrote a piece critical of the rhetoric and organization of the occupations in that they leave little space, politically and mentally, for blacks, Latinos, women, the queer community and other minority groups. Predictably, I got quite a bit of backlash from people who are involved in the occupations saying I was off base. The most poignant and fervent criticisms though came from other black people, whom I thought I was speaking up for. They took a position that basically argued that we as black people need to set aside the race issue (or deprioritize it) to build unity with the rest of the “99%”. They argued that putting race at the front or making it a primary concern is divisive and prevents sympathetic whites with similar issues and concerns from working with our community. Although I disagreed with the argument that anti-racism and economic rights work was mutually exclusive, I decided to take some time to think about why it seems like so many black people are today willing to throw anti-racism under the bus for the sake of unity with the “rest of America”.
Now in contrast to the (in my experience, new) trend of assimilationism we see among many of the new black (and other minority group) activists, you have always had the extreme opposite in the black community. That opposite is the “kill whitey” crowd, whose ideas some would call black supremacy and reverse racism (although this piece does a good job breaking that down). These are the people who once and still argue for a separate nation for black people and looks at every white person as an open or closet racist. I always found this line of thinking a non-starter and counterproductive.
My question then turned to why it seems like among the “activist crew” of black people in the US today there are only two camps of thought, assimilationism and separatism? I believe the answer lies in our identity as black people/African American. Identity is the basis on which humans define their place in the world and how they basically relate to other human beings and groups of human beings. Nationalism and ethnic identity in this sense is a very important part of any political movement among oppressed peoples and the answer to the question of what nation we belong to very much defines the terms on which a people organize their movement and the terms on which they measure freedom and security. From that idea I believe the combination of how “blackness” is constructed and the realities of how “Americaness” works creates a situation where ideological, assimilationism and separatism becomes the default bases from which black people organize today.
American society at its base is imperialist and racist. The concept of “whiteness”, Manifest Destiny, the world’s police mentality, and even the America First mentality are all ways in which America’s base is exposed for all of us to see. Looking at American history when it came to movements, groups, or individuals who organized or pushed a vision for America that lied outside the base of imperialism and racism it’s always been the unstated and mindless goal of America to either bring the deviant into the fold of fold and make it part of the existing narrative or destroy it. Example of appropriation can be seen in the way we talk about the Civil Rights Movement and MLK, while on the other hand the destruction reaction of America is exemplified in the treatment of the Black Power Movement.
The reaction to this “eat or destroy” mechanism of American society by black people then becomes either to go along with the assimilation or fight back against it. The issue becomes though that for black people who our perceived “nation” or group is only the 13% of the American population that identify as black. We in our minds have no nation, homeland, or independent culture (in the sense that the Irish are distinct from the English) except for what came out of our experience as the descendants of slaves in America. Without any independent base outside of America and its cultural, political, and social borders I think these two mentalities become the only logical options for black people in organizing.
The issue however is that these are both nonstarters within the context of how America operates today. The assimilationists issue is that they are trying to become “American” in a society that is fundamentally racist. The “normal” American is white, male, and straight, a form that no black person (or any minority for that fact) can actually fit. This leaves us in a situation where we are trying to sit at a table where there is no space and we wonder why we keep ending up hungry. On the other hand I believe that the separatist mentality and organizing method is also a nonstarter because who in their right mind really believes that America, as it is today, will ever allow us to have our own space. There’s also the small issue that all this land belongs to the native people of this nation and who are we to snatch it from our oppressors and tell the native people “oh wells”.
The key determinant of both approaches that breaks both of them is the idea of “blackness”. Blackness in most black people’s minds is the national identity that connects us to about 40 million other people in the United States. In some tepid fashion many of us also see people of African descent in the islands and on the continent as black too, but for most blackness is limited to American people of African descent. The reason this is a problem however is because if we’re talking about what is essentially Black Nationalism (or the rejection thereof for the assimilationist), the whole domain from which we can fight for freedom is the United States period. Psychologically and socially the “black nation” has no history before slavery, no homeland, no language, and no shared sense of purpose beyond survival. This is not to say that we haven’t done extraordinary things in America but whatever we have done has either been destroyed (Black Wall Street) or taken over by the mainstream (MLK’s legacy). A people without a place of their own (socially, politically, and physically in some cases) is one that won’t survive too much longer
Now what can be a solution to this dilemma of identity that has trapped us in this spiral of destruction? My answer is Pan-Africanism, the idea that all of us of African descent are one people and one nation. That nationality is based on of our history, shared culture, politics, and interests in both the previous realms. Having the totality of African history, culture, politics, and power behind our struggles in America can bring us to a place where we may actually see some light at the end of the tunnel. I won’t claim that I have any monopoly on the solution to black people’s problems but I believe that taking Pan-Africanism, an ideology that has over 100 years of organized history, can add to that discussion and push it forward to somewhere productive.
Let me begin by describing what Pan-Africanism is in the first place. Pan-Africanism in its most prevalent form throughout its 100+ year history is the ideology that all people of African descent are one nation and one people and that our freedom will come when we unify Africa under socialism (or any form of anti-capitalism). This is based on the fact that we all, including the diaspora share a history, culture, experiences, and language(s) (“Ebonics” is included in this, as much of its grammar rules come from the Bantu languages of West Africa).
The unification part is based on the fact that without unity we are powerless against the powers of the west and the imperialists. This includes the diaspora like those of us in America in that a unified Africa would be able to fight for our human rights over here just as America protects Americans in foreign nations.
The socialism part is derived from the fact that the Maafa (African Holocaust aka slavery and colonialism) was born out of the need for profits and power aka capitalism. If we are going to see freedom for Africa and her people it must be born out of the corpse of the system that continues to oppress us. The new system will be based off collective production, true democracy, and unity aka socialism.
That’s the simple definition of Pan-Africanism. It is not the idea that “black people need to get together”, it’s also not just recognizing our “africaness”. These are forms of cultural nationalism, the idea that we need to take back our collective African culture and embrace it. Cultural nationalism is of course part of the Pan-African project but is in of itself not enough to do much of anything. Saying your African does little to stop a bullet or the rape of the continent, that’s why the political and ideological unity of Pan-Africanism is so important.
Another thing about Pan-Africanism is the idea that we people of African descent by freeing ourselves from capitalism and imperialism will aid the global struggle against capitalism by denying the capitalists access to our land, people, and wealth. This same tenant applies to all nationalist and anti-imperial movements. For every people who becomes free that’s one more leg we knock from under capitalism. One caveat is when nationalist movements start getting too self-involved and begin to show the same xenophobic traits of their former masters (Dominican Republic and Haiti for instance). For Pan-Africanists here in America, we take the stand that we must work in solidarity with any people fighting for freedom (women, poor whites, the gay community) BUT we still asset our right to organize independently and articulate our own struggle outside the confines of the mainstream and feel it’s necessary to do so for sake of our own independence which can’t be guaranteed by anyone but ourselves.
In terms of talking about the political and social implications of Pan-Africanism, it is easy for us to discern the place that one would occupy if they were from Ghana for instance. Build organization, unite with Africans from other nations on the continent, overthrow capitalism, create All-African government, and build socialism. The implementation is hard but the theory and idea is easy to grasp. For our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean it also not too hard for them to cross the chasm that’s been place before them. Because their nations are 80%, 90%, almost all people of African descent, people in Haiti and St. Vincent for instance wouldn’t find it too hard how to fit into the fold either. Follow the same steps as the people on the continent and just do the job of connecting politically and socially to the continent and judging by things such as Vodou and Santeria the social part is closer to completion than we think. Now the story for American blacks is much different from those in other nations because of our unique history and our relationships to the people around us in America, BUT the job is there to be done and nobody said it would be easy.
Now this conversation needs to be placed in the proper frame. These thoughts are not for the biracial among us (who almost inevitable get thrown in with the rest of us black people) who have a parent whose white or something other than black. I know you guys have a legitimacy built-in that makes some of what I say not apply to you. I also want to let ya’ll know this isn’t a white people bashing space and any “white people” comments are more so about the dominant mentalities that dives their thinking versus any hatred of the people themselves. Lastly before anyone makes the statement that “We are all Africans in the end” or has the “we are all just people and this is divisive/distracting us away from the real enemy/ 99%! 99%! 99%!” sentiment, those arguments and ideas are based on not really understand what I’m saying in this piece and even though I want to make it as simple and direct as possible if you don’t get it feel free to email me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to have that discussion. With that said let’s get into it.
The issue of Pan-Africanism and black people in America has usually never gotten past the first barrier that is always set out in front of us, the issue of “black” vs “African-American” vs “African”. The issue is that many black people feel that either they don’t share enough “Africaness” to call themselves such or that they feel they are truly “American” at this point and thus find no common interest in calling themselves African only. Many of our famous black leaders were Pan-Africanists and have dealt with these arguments at various timed during their political careers. Marcus Garvey (given he was from Jamaica but spent most of his political years in America), Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture, WEB DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X were all proponents of Pan-Africanism and to varying degrees considered themselves African int he direct sense.
To the argument that we don’t share enough Africaness to consider ourselves African there are many ways in which we are still part of the African story and the African people. The obvious is our genetics and our skin color. Remember save for a few of our generations all of us are still mostly African in our genetics and most of our family lines lead not to Britain or France but West Africa most likely. As my dad puts it “where you think you get that broad nose, big lips, and dark skin from?” Also we can look at language as a connection to the continent and our past. “Ebonics” or as it’s properly know in linguistics, African-American Vernacular English, is considered by some linguists to be a creole language (a language that develops out of the mixing of two other ones, in this case English and most likely a number of West African ones). The implication of this being that the way black people typically talk to one another is the result of our ancestors’ language and the need to understand their captors. Other than that, many cultural and social activities and features of black people are actually common those seen among many African people. In the end we are still attached to our homeland, the issue is that the separation has rendered us unable to see the connections and commonalities.
Now to the second part, on the issue of our connections to America overpowering any commonalities we have with Africa, I’ll let Malcolm X give a few words on the issue:
“I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American…. No I’m not an American, I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy…. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of a victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
“We’re not Americans, we’re Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – that rock landed on us.”
“One of the things that made the Black Muslim movement grow was its emphasis upon things African. This was the secret to the growth of the Black Muslim movement. African blood, African origin, African culture, African ties. And you’d be surprised – we discovered that deep within the subconscious of the black man in this country, he is still more African than he is American.”
“Twenty-two million African-Americans – that’s what we are – Africans who are in America.”
“When I’m traveling around the country, I use my real Muslim name, Malik Shabazz. I make my hotel reservations under that name, and I always see the same thing I’ve just been telling you. I come to the desk and always see that ‘here-comes-a-Negro’ look. It’s kind of reserved, coldly tolerant cordiality. But when I say ‘Malik Shabazz,’ their whole attitude changes: they snap to respect. They think I’m an African. People say what’s in a name? There’s a whole lot in a name. The American black man is seeing the African respected as a human being. The African gets respect because he has an identity and cultural roots. But most of all because the African owns some land. For these reasons he has his human rights recognized, and that makes his civil rights automatic.”
Now assuming you get his point, the identity of African America loses its flavor in that why would you take an identification that’s attached to a place that you’re still oppressed in and “black” is also out because where is Blackland? Black is devoid of any historicity and doesn’t give one any place in the world except being “not white” or “the opposite of white” as in whiteness and white people. African give us a grounded history and place in the world (and in America, a history of our suffering here and where we was stolen from) and it affords one a billion plus new brothers and sisters across the globe.
From this perspective then, the primary goal of Africans in America is survival and contributing to the freedom of Africa. Now why do I say survival instead of freedom in America? The issue of freedom in predicated on the fact that one has the free space to be free and determine one’s own destiny as a person and as a people. Considering that American society is European in origin and that it is the nerve center of global capitalism the chances of us securing a truly free space that is socialist and African is slim here. Although we should still try to do so along with all the other oppressed people in America, we can’t be like American whites and treat this place like it’s our homeland because it’s not because it belongs to these people.
Our freedom must be one where the base for our liberation is the African continent (and in the case of the Caribbean, those places too since the indigenous people of many of those places are completely gone). Our skills, knowledge, and political power that we can derive from this nation ought to be used to prevent America’s interference in Africa. In return as Africa grows stronger in its independence it will be better able to help us over here fight for our human and civil rights in America. The relationship is two ways and mutually beneficial.
Now when it comes to “larger struggles” such as the worldwide socialist movement and Occupy Wall Street for instance, our place ought to be to stand in solidarity with these movement with a special focus on pushing these movements to recognize the right to self-determination of Africans and all other oppressed people within America and in the wider world. For socialism in particular the contribution of the Pan-African project is that by freeing Africa, one of the richest pieces of land on this Earth we help accelerate the demise of capitalism by denying the capitalists the continent’s resources and people. The difference between us and whites and other nations fighting for their freedom is that they are organized. The have a base, land, united culture and some semblance of independent wants and needs that we have not had the chance to develop. How can we as a whole people join in winning freedom with “everyone else” when we aren’t even sure what we want for our people? In the process of joining these movements and adding our voices to them we must also articulate our own freedom which will be unique to us and our nation. There is no shame in doing for self as long as your keep it in its proper context that African freedom is not the end of the struggle for our nation.
Pan-Africanism for the American black person, if they chose to accept it, places the struggles of America and black people in its proper context. It shows us that we are not a “minority” but a nation of 1 billion people spread across the earth, all with a thirst for freedom and liberation. Pan-Africanism is not a rejection of our experiences and “benefits” we have in America but the affirmation of our contributions to America and using those contributions for the benefit of our people. Most importantly Pan-Africanism takes us from being just a stolen people on a stolen land, without a history, and being defined as simply not-white and not worthy, to a people with thousands of years of history, culture, and contributions to humanity, and a people who strives to continue to further humanity along by doing our part to destroy the systems of oppression that bind all of us in its web. As Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana and one of the fathers of modern Pan-Africanism said: “Forward Ever, Backwards Ever!” That should be our motto and battle cry as we march again, as we always have, towards freedom. Hotep!
P.S. Because this is probably the most intensive article I’ve done in quite a while, I would appreciate getting as much feedback on this as I can. Please if you have any comments or questions about the piece don’t be shy and post something in the comments below. Also feel free to share this wherever you want too.
- Pan-Africanism and American Blacks Part 1: What is Pan-Africanism Exactly? (redsociology101.wordpress.com)
- Pan-Africanism and American Blacks Part 2: Pan-Africanism in Action (redsociology101.wordpress.com)
- What’s Obama Got to Do With It: Tavis Smiley and the Black Establishment (redsociology101.wordpress.com)
- Why are black people so annoyed all the time? (dbzer0.com)
- The 99% Isn’t Me: Being the Minority in the 99% (redsociology101.wordpress.com)