Cultural logics and the “universal”

I could be mistaken, but it seems that the Western appeals to the universal, while relevant in informing a discourse on equality within the civic arena, have also served as a medium for the colonization of the ontologies and epistemologies of racialized and oppressed peoples. In this way, one might argue (and indeed, Imari Obadele did) that appeals to reform of the existing state apparatus and its default posture of coercive control towards African people, is also a ceding to that state a degree of unwarranted legitimacy.

The alternative to reform, sovereignty, that is Black nationalism, is generally regarded as both illegitimate and unrealistic. However notions of its legitimacy reside with one’s view on the basic question of whether African Americans have a right to self-determination. And history has demonstrated up until this point, and without a shadow of a doubt, that reforming America in such a way as to eradicate the vestiges of anti-Black racism within the society, its vast institutions, and its practices and beliefs continues to be an unrealistic end.

Therefore I maintain that the appeal to the universal obfuscates more than it clarifies. African people have a unique quandary, requiring a unique set of solutions. Solutions that are predicated upon cultural logics issuing forth from an African-centered orientation to reality.

Revisiting the Nationalist Vision of Emigration

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.