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
I recently watched a video where a financial expert offered advice for diasporan Africans seeking to invest in Africa. She highlighted two areas of particular concern to the state and commercial interests: agribusiness and real estate. The agribusiness discussion touched on some things by which I was both surprised and unsurprised. One surprising element is the growing global demand for Ghanaian pineapples. According to my wife, they are quite good. It would appear that many folks in Eurasia agree.
With regards to real estate there’s great interest for housing developments for the cosmopolite elite. Apparently, though there is a great need for housing for the poor and laboring masses, it simply isn’t as lucrative to house them as the petty bourgeoisie. No surprises there. This is the same model that prevails in the hyper-developed west.
Ghana reflects something a bit different from what Walter Rodney postulated (underdevelopment), which I call “uneven development”. This is the pattern that enables the educated elite to enjoy all of the conveniences and privileges that the 21st century offers, while others live a century or more removed from such opulence. You can see this first hand when you go to Accra, two centuries side-by-side. Its very interesting.
Of course my reason in posting this is not simply to critique the inevitable social malformations that capitalism produces, but to highlight the emergent economic forms of the global south where increasingly the diaspora is returning home, armed with cultural and commercial capital, and building edifices to the vapid western model of development.
Yes we should invest in African economies (both on the continent and in the diaspora), but I fear that if we do so absent a vision of economic development that produces Anderson Thompson’s African Principles, that is “the greatest good for the greatest number”, then we are simply playing a game of hegemonic musical chairs–where we take the place of the west as the lords of Black misery. We have to be better than that.
Cxi ne estas malbona ideo, sed gxin havas iu limigoj. This is not a bad idea, but it has some limitations.
The good part is that Esperanto would be easier to learn. While English, French, and other European languages are official languages in many African countries, many people cannot speak them properly. In some ways the European languages, the colonial lingua francas, have remained the languages of the cosmopolite elite as they are generally the ones who have been afforded the opportunities to learn them. Moreover with the curricular changes in some countries to primary school instruction being in local languages primarily (say in Ghana and Tanzania), English and French will become even more imperiled as languages used fully among the masses.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. By that I mean that the decline of the old colonial languages, while dysfunctional in the sense that it removes a common medium of communication, also allows for that role to be supplanted by other languages. In some places this transition is taking place organically. Take the spread of Asante Twi in Ghana as it is quickly becoming the defacto lingua franca of that country. Swahili is also slowly spreading into central Africa and north and south beyond the bounds of Kenya and Tanzania. Again these are promising developments as English (or French) were insufficient as organic mediums of communication in many respects.
This question of organicity is in fact the challenge of Esperanto. Esperanto does not necessarily have an organic base from which it can naturally spread. There are some groups in Africa who are teaching the language. On Facebook recently I was intrigued to see an Esperanto-Swahili dictionary, but the language lacks a foothold. This is something that can only be mediated by institutions or a living and thriving speech community.
I think that Swahili is a stronger contender for an indigenous language that might become a continental language, and in some ways this would be better. While no one owns Esperanto, it is still a European-derived language, and its advance in Africa does little to satisfy the decades old challenge of “modernizing” African languages as tools of creative and intellectual production (read Ayi Kwei Armah’s “Our Language Problem”). The fact that creative writers, legislators, and scientists still rely on Western languages to capture and communicate their knowledge would not be solved by the adoption of Esperanto. They would simply move their dependence from one European language to another (albeit an artificial one), while failing to facilitate this necessary development in their indigenous languages. I would consider such an outcome to be a profound waste of potential.
The longing for home is most acute among a people dispossessed of one. Some of us, in desperation, lay claim to the desert, seeking to make a home for ourselves within it. Predictably however, the desert does not give life. It takes life and returns death.
One mustn’t choose to live in the shadow of fear and doubt. Fear can populate the mind with thoughts of legions of potential perils. Fear may provoke anxiousness and anxiety, but these feelings possess an energetic quality that if properly harnessed can also motivate one to act.
Doubt is the corrosive acid of self-assurity that if not faced and divested of its power can compel inaction when action is needed, capitulation when perseverance might carry the day.
When I was 9 years old I resolved to eradicate my fear of the dark. I went into the darkest room of my apartment and sat. I wanted the darkness to envelope me. I wanted for fear to show itself, to unleash the doom that it so often promised lay just outside my covers.
In the beginning I was terribly afraid. I feared the invisible hordes, who draped in darkness, might prey upon me. But this fear was counter-balanced by something else, my knowledge that the darkness was merely the absence of light, and my fear merely the triumph of irrationality and the absence of reason.
I conquered my fear of the dark, and also learned something more, fear and doubt are synergistically linked, one compelling us to retreat, the other assures us that no matter what we do, the possibility of triumph is illusory. In spite of this, fear can be bested. In fact when confronted we often find that fear’s ominous vestments merely hide a withered and frail form. Similarly, doubt can also be overcome. Much of its power over us is that it faces us in the mirror, it lurks in our memories of failure, it resides in the certainty that what we are striving after is–like so many things–simply beyond our capacity. Doubt has to be seen for what it is, mediocrity’s companion, the one sure path that will always divert us from evolving into the people that we might potentially become. It is a fetter, yes, but an impermanent one that if discarded enables us to rediscover who we are and what we can accomplish.
While my forays into the dark eventually bested that fear, others remained. Thus throughout my life I have found it continually necessary to seek out fear, challenge it to show itself and to deliver the oblivion that had promised, or to leave me be. I have also had to remind myself that it is not doubt that faces me in the mirror or lurks in my memories, but that doubt is a shadow that grows proportionally to the light within which one walks. Doubt is the inescapable echo of your voice projected into the world, faint and diminishing, but never fully absent.
Despite the bombast of fear and the vacuity of doubt, the future remains undetermined, providing us the chance to fashion our lives and the world into an image and form worthy of our highest potential.
A people who have experienced cultural dislocation are in need of moorings lest they become adrift in a sea of relativism and alienation.
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 tragedy of our situation is not simply what has happened, but what, as a result, can never be. It is this gap between what would be optimal and ideal, and what is that we must reconcile ourselves with. This reconciliation need not be capitulation, but a resolute commitment to forge the future out of an imperfect past.
I think that the academy is overly concerned with its own importance; that what passes for criticality within it can generally be characterized as, at best, safe and non-threatening to the global systems that it purports to critique; and at worse, discourses that obfuscate what terms like “critical”, “radical”, or “revolutionary” potentially mean.
I may be wrong, but I think that Amy Jacques Garvey, Malcolm X, Hannibal Afrik, and so many others who were advocates of African liberation situated their work beyond the confines of academia because academia is not–despite the copious use of the terms “critical” or “social justice”–a sustainable front in revolutionary struggle. It is a potential contested zone, but many of the people best positioned to contest these spaces are more interested in attaining the rewards of the institution, rewards that do not change or challenge the material conditions that we face. Many others are, sadly, forced to prioritize their own survival over the lofty ends of reality transformation, as these spaces can eviscerate the emotional well-being of those unprepared for the incalculably numerous microscale attacks on their humanity that occur therein.
Yes, some of us survive to have respectable careers. However, we are consequentially and perpetually weighted down by the armor of self-protection, distracted by the maddening churn of assessment and evaluation, made less productive by the efforts to prevent our brain spaces from being new sites of colonization by the armies of vacuous rhetoric and needless toil, and made less productive in the worlds that we actually inhabit as our vision of an emancipatory social possibility is filtered through language and paradigms that binds and blinds us.
The academy is a self-disguising and dynamically modular möbius loop. It masks its own redundancy with the illusion of relevance and the busying of professors who it perpetually seeks to reduce to the status of drones.
It has become the new shrine whereupon whose alter we sacrifice fertile minds and preciously finite time in the hopes that the mystery gods of the heavens will transmute our offering into transformative action in the world. If so, it will be the first time in the history of the world that work has been accomplished absent a preceding and corresponding effort. Such is the unforgiving nature of the world, that words, no matter how abundant are no proxy for action. As the elders remind us, “Kazi (work) is the Blackest of all.”