Out of pandemic anti-Blackness, a case for pan-Africanism

Yannick Giovanni Marshall 06 May 2020
Virtual pan-Africanism can be a refuge.

Chinese Jim Crow including “no blacks allowed” policies, evictions, forceful testing of Africans and African Americans and leaving Black people to starve on the streets of Guangzhou led several African leaders to come together and demand an end to racist mistreatment.
It was not much but it was enough to spur a Chinese whitewashing campaign, forcing officials to try to spin the reporting as sensationalising isolated incidents. Relationships will be mended and Chinese capital will soon overcome this minor threat to its access to African land and resources.
But we have seen something.
Voices from all over the continent took to “African social media” and, united in disgust and outrage at anti-Black racism, shook governments until diplomatic intervention had to be made. It was a fleeting vision of what a people’s pan-Africanism could be.
China is not uniquely anti-Black. The entire world is Negrophobic. It will remain Negrophobic so long as it cannot manage to wean itself from white supremacy.
No pre-colonial culture has proven resilient enough to stave off the infection of the settlers’ racism. No postcolonial people have proven independent enough to reject white supremacist instruction on the “racial hierarchies of man” – especially if they have been told that their complexion allows them to move into the house near the master and leave the field with the “savages”. There is a minstrel show on in every culture.
And the enlightenment is not coming.
Time will not do away with a European theory of human difference sourced from classical texts composed in an age when ancient Romans thought Africa was a land of blemines, or “people without heads, having their eyes and mouths in their breast”.
It has yet to dawn on most of the world that reading meaning into differences in melanin content and hair texture is not an early mapping of the human genome but nearer to a farm animal See n’ Say – one that is broken with its colours not corresponding to anything.
The world has wrapped up ancient conceptions of being and humanness and placed it in the hands of traders disembarking from their ships with trunks full of their cracked, broken mirrors. Time will not reveal that they have been had.
Time will not loosen the world’s grip on anti-Blackness and so what is required now is a radical loss of patience. There is no point in taking the world by its shoulders and shaking them while screaming about the existence of Black humanity. They will not get it.
You cannot draw the anti-Blackness out of global culture any more than you can tug hip-hop out of a racist high schooler‘s mouth. Pandemic anti-Blackness does not go away on its own with time. It does not end by winning over a billion racists one heart at a time.
It ends by flipping the world over onto its back. Anti-racist work is mitigative; pandemic anti-Blackness requires a vaccine and we need it now.
As we wait, slave auctioneers are running free in Libya, while Black-people-hating lynch mobs gather in India, in the Dominican Republic, in South Africa. French doctors publicly float experimenting new drugs on African populations – again. As we wait, monkey noises are routinely made at Black football players in England and bananas thrown at Black ministers in Italy and no one seems concerned about rapid reverse-evolution in the lands of Wordsworth and Vivaldi.
There is only one culture that makes monkey noises and throws bananas at human beings in public – racist culture.
We cannot wait for Israel to notice that the forced sterilisation of Ethiopian women and the mimicry of eugenics and racial hygiene betrays a crisis in the colonising imagination. We cannot wait on the Arab League to consider whether the ubiquity of torture in homes where migrant African maids are employed is the best possible representation of Arab civilisation.
We cannot wait for South African xenophobes to realise, while transfixed at the sight of themselves in the mirror under apartheid father Hendrik Verwoerd’s powdered wig, that they have failed to match up to even his low bar of “good neighbourliness“.
Waiting at the door of a racist’s acceptance only results in sore feet. And the things of his house are cheap and his problems not worth the fixing.
As difficult as it is, it is time for some social distancing. Time to put our smiles in the dustbin, shutter the window and make some difficult decisions. Millions of children have already contracted the psychological disease of believing that they are ugly, stupid and unworthy because global thought has chosen not to evolve beyond the simian. Wantonly abused, they know hatred, abuse and afternoon tears in a classroom corner before they can conceive of difference. They have been too long freely injured. Their childhoods have gone too long ungrieved.
Traditional pan-Africanism’s end goal was a United States of Africa. Whether that be a singular continent-wide country or a federation of African and African Diasporan states (and societies) with a vested interest in African independence and the defeat of anti-Blackness. There is a lot to be said about this dream. The cooperation between states can mean collective defence, travel and cultural exchange and a stronger bargaining position on the world stage. No matter what we might think of their politics the African Union, European Union and NATO are powerful institutions.
It is also true that nation-states and organisations established for collective self-defence can save lives. In 1900, Ida B Wells noted that the US government rushed to punish lynchers and provide compensation to foreign governments when their citizens were killed by US lynch mobs. African Americans, on the other hand, had no government to advocate on their behalf and thus lynchers and local governments were not deterred.
Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey argued that if there was a powerful Africa with which African Americans could identify, the US government might think twice about reluctance to intervene in populist anti-Black terrorism (or about pursuing its own anti-black activities).
Even if a United States of Africa or a people’s African Union are institutional dreams worth pursuing they carry the baggage of the nation-state. These include the problem of territory, the masculinist nature of the state, continued class exploitation or simply an inability to imagine community beyond Western institutions.
A powerful federation of African and African-majority states would nonetheless mean a quicker end to mass incarceration, mass deportations and other anti-Black atrocities than protests or the pulled heartstrings of policymakers. But while we wait for the red, black, and green jets to take to the air, pan-Africanism is already here.
Black and African social media reflects a pan-Africanism of the everyday. Mobilising seemingly out of nowhere, community forms to rage against racist evictions in China, to rally against police killings in France or to discuss the latest Solange album.
Alicia Garza was speaking directly to Black Twitter when she, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Black and African social media challenges dominant narratives on every issue, provides platforms for the historically voiceless and forces everyone from celebrities to politicians to check and recheck their unconscious biases before they post, say or do anything. Pan-Africanists can mirror this.
Somewhere between the grandeur of a United States of Africa and the amorphous nature of Black twitter what virtual pan-Africanism can do is eke out space for non-negrophobic living in a negrophobic world. In many homes and organisations, pan-Africanists already work to self-quarantine in a world blanketed with the infection of anti-Blackness.
We have made our lives our shields, protecting us against the constant coughing of a world bent on forcing Black “inferiority” down our throats. But what COVID-19 has shown us is that lives lived shut away from the dangers outside do not need to be lived in isolation. They do not even need to be lived locally.
Nightly Instagram DJ parties create instant communities, discussion, exchange, and transforms a concert into a virtual society. Pan-Africanism can be similarly lived. Instead of listening to our Youssou N’Dour’s Dakar-Kingston and Bob Marley’s Survival albums at home, we might also enjoy the option of doing so with similarly minded people around the world. Instead of attempting to proselytise the uninterested, time might be better spent at global hangout spots with those of us who need no convincing.
More importantly, instead of Black students having to suffer acquaintance with the Carrollton, Georgia students who posted the ingredients for “making a [anti-Black slur]” on TikTok, they might find in a pan-African world a community made visible and constant in digital space.
The Black toddler girl who broke down under the weight of enforced self-hate might not only have to rely on the love of a great auntie but also the shoulder of an ever-present pan-African world.
I would love to be able to tell the Ethiopian student who underwent a mock lynching at an Atlanta high school in March that “those students don’t have to be your only friends. Check out this virtual, international Quilombo. We are building another world.”
Virtual pan-Africanism can be a refuge from global anti-Blackness as much as a video game or a book can be an escape for a bullied kid. A space where a child who knows that the black doll is ugly and bad and the white doll is pretty and good can log into a world where there are people who believe that lighter skin is no more beautiful than darker skin, than day is more beautiful than night.
We have been too long in the days of white supremacy. We are still squinting and it is difficult to recognise ourselves much less one another or anyone else. We should be rushing nightfall.
Pan-Africanism can and does take multiple forms and I am as glad waiting for the grand projects as I am about the small mercies. But in the meantime, our private shelters from anti-Blackness need no more be local, disconnected nor lived so remotely. There are probably more pan-Africanists in the world than the populations of some countries. Enough, at least, for a couple of parties.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.