I had the chance to meet Naomi Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at the Black Student Union on the University of Minnesota campus last Friday (March 2). She was in town for the Nobel Peace Prize forum, and engaged the students (mostly of color) in a conversation, which was more intimate than a presentation. Tutu talked to us about her current work with racial justice and gender empowerment, what opportunities made her move to Nashville, Tennessee, her views on the apartheid’s legacy for South Africa, and its similarities/differences with the Israeli/Palestine situation.
I asked her about “blackness” before she left: What necessarily constitutes one being Black, and can you be both Black and African? Or are the two inherently different because of their unique histories?
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, what with Black History Month concluding, and as I’ve been studying African American history and the Civil Rights Movement much more in classes this year. One thing I’ve increasingly come to understand is that the Black struggle in America did not take place in isolation of events in Africa. The Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement had strong pan-Africanist elements and helped to inspire/were also inspired by the African independence movements of the 1960s. Throughout, political leaders in Africa and those in the African American community visited each other and provided support for each other’s movements.
- Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first African American justice most known for taking up the Brown v. Board of Education case, helped Kenya write up their first constitution after independence from Britain.
- Kwame Toure (aka Stokely Carmichael), the first leader of the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and one of the Black Panther Party’s most vocal leaders, was a fierce Pan-Africanist and expressed solidarity with Africa’s independence movements on many occasions.
- Malcolm X visited several countries in Africa in the last year his life, because he believed that the Black struggle in America couldn’t be isolated from the African struggle in Africa.
All of this goes back before the struggles of the 60s of course.
- Marcus Garvey, a well-known Jamaican pan-Africanist, started up his own African American shipping line named “Black Star” to send goods and help facilitate the Back-to-Africa movement in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
- Famous figures such as Dr. WEB DuBois and Frederick Douglass were also in solidarity with the struggles of Africans in Africa and the Diaspora, evident in much of their writing and work.
So, in light of this rich history, I mentioned to Tutu that in many ways African Americans and Africans have a shared history of struggle. She agreed. She added that the concept of “Black” doesn’t actually exist in African countries, because essentially everyone is “Black” there (and that “Black” is a socially constructed concept created by the English colonizers, it doesn’t exist in African discourse or knowledge).
HOWEVER, now that we as Africans are living in America, she explained that dominant society racializes and categorizes us as “Black” regardless, which we have to accept as part of our identity. Also, we as Africans OWE it to African Americans to self-identify as Black and join in their struggle, because of their contributions to our histories. But also, if we don’t, it could lead to false feelings of exceptionalism that we create ourselves.
For example, there’s an implicit notion that since we’re African, we “know where we came from,” and we’re not descendants of slaves, we therefore think we’re somehow “better.” Dominant society also plays up such perceived differences to further stereotype both Africans and African Americans: dominant society portrays Africans in America as more hard-working and successful, and by the same token, African Americans as lazy, uneducated, and unsuccessful. Tutu said these are the same perceived “differences” white Afrikaaners in South Africa play upon when African Americans visit the country: white Afrikaaners stereotype their country’s local Blacks and compare them to the foreign Blacks, who are seemingly more successful and educated (again, stereotypes and false exceptionalism).
So, long story short: As Africans living in the Diaspora, we can and should be proud of our unique cultures and histories. But at the same time, we should know that we are Black, African AND African American. Let’s be proud of our multiple, overlapping identities, and our shared histories of struggle and solidarity.
In Part II, I’ll talk about the flaws of Pan-Africanism, the danger of romanticizing Africa/Africans and of falling into the generalizations/”we are all one and the same” trap.
(Photo: Naomi is second from the left, I’m the third.)