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 kujitawala, 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.