There is no longer any doubt that the black race is under siege. This fact has been on the table for centuries. And there is no longer any surprise, but bemusement, as to why it remains an issue in the twenty-first century. We have the tragic death of George Floyd as a terrible reminder that race is still alive and kicking in the United States, in the whole of North America and Europe, and all across the globe. This needless death is also the signifier of the connection between Africa and the African diaspora that gives the black race its unique but damaged coherence. The trajectory of racial hatred, from the first black to be lynched in America to the pre-meditated and state-sanctioned chokehold that took the breath out of Floyd’s body, dates back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the precursor to the horrors of colonialism and its tragic dehumanisation of the entire black race.
From when humanity has been categorised into different races, from the Caucasoid to the Negroid, racism has become the most significant problem with the world. From wars to genocide, and from individual wickedness to state organised killings, the black race has been centre of one of the most organised holocausts in human history. Slavery, and the slave trade in the black skin, constitutes the single most significant atrocity that humanity has committed against itself. It is a calculated grand racial prejudice that was carried on an ideology strengthened by language, biblical theology, racial science and philosophical reflection. Slavery and racism had the intellectual support of Aristotle and Hegel, two of the most significant philosophical intellects in the world. And slave holders consisted of priests, devoted people of God, and respectable people who considered God to be white and the blacks to be the dark side of God’s creation—the incarnate of the devil himself. Being black, in the racial logic, is the ground for all kinds of deductions. Being black means such a person is ignorant, stupid, criminal and even monstrous. For Shakespeare, that most celebrated of poets and playwrights, black is the badge of hell!
W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the most famous scholars of the black race, once wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” This is a fundamental diagnosis of a global predicament that pits one half of the human race against the other. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and countless million blacks bore the terrible brunt of racial prejudice in the United States alone. And the overall consequences of this led Du Bois and others to the idea of the Pan-African movement. As a liberation movement, pan-Africanism was meant to link the homeland and the diaspora in one formidable and coherent onslaught against the racist oppressors everywhere they may be found. In taking over the pan-African battle cry, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sekou Toure, and many other nationalists applied the ideology of liberation specifically to the African continent already devastated by colonialism, a logical extension of racism. And from the pen of Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and other black intellectuals, we read about the rapacious colonial arithmetic, and how Europe underdeveloped Africa. Even the Rastafarian movement, hinged around the black theological interpretation of the messianic status of Haile Selassie, the late emperor of Ethiopia and the plaintive reggae rhythm of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and other lamented the black predicament.
From the collective intellectual recuperation of the Ibadan School of History, the literary reimagination of the African Writers Series, and the individual scholarship of intellectuals—from Claude Ake to Molefi Kete Asante, Africans have attempted to turn around the many centuries of racial abuse and stereotypes which literally and metaphorically depict the blacks as sub-humans, and subsequently consigned them to the fringe of humanity. So, yes—the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line. And that problem has extended to the twenty-first century with the countless lives that had been lost to the systemic racial prejudice of the western world, and the neocolonial ravaging of the African continent by the neoliberal hegemony masquerading as globalisation.
And since the death of George Floyd will likely not be the last black body to be strangled by the American system, and since Africa will not cease to be the hunting ground for any new racial power (China is the latest of the conquerors of Africa), it is time we re-diagnose the problem of race and the colour line. And the fundamental question in this regard is simple: what is wrong with the black race? There are several ways to read this question. First, it should not be seen as a rhetorical question whose consequence is to see Africa and Africans as victims that bad things have been happening to. Most of the literature on slavery, colonialism, racism and the racist ideology, as well as Africa’s continuing underdevelopment, have usually cast Africa in the trope of victimhood.
Indeed, even the global media take sensational interest in the tales of multiple and multidimensional tragedies coming out of Africa, from unceasing war in the Congo to the crises of the nation-states. One other way to read the question is to see it as a challenge to Africa and Africans to put more individual and collective and continental efforts into measuring up to the Caucasian achievements in politics, economics, culture and technology. Booker T. Washington championed this thinking with his argument that the blacks would achieve the needed integration into the American society and the ultimate acceptance by the whites if they were able to pull themselves up by their entrepreneurial wit.
The modernisation theorists also propounded the trickle-down theory as an economic counterpart of the entrepreneurial theory of acceptance: Africa will become modern if it abandoned its traditional past and embrace the European modernity. When we say “something is wrong with the black race,” what do we intend to communicate to the resolution of the problem? It is basically that Africa is its own problem. And its own solution. George Floyd and the memories of many others who have died signaled the dynamics of white-on-black brutality. But then, we should not be blind to the black-on-black tragedies both in the homeland and in the African diaspora. But beyond this, the black race is a race that is plagued by a low self-esteem, probably due to the allure of its profile of being a victim. When, in 1933, Carter Godwin Woodson wrote The Mid-Education of the Negro, he pointed at a very deep malaise that afflicts the entire black race—the deficient dynamics of self-realization that has prevented the race from taking stock of its affliction and making progress from a fundamental realisation of its own weaknesses and strengths.
And so, we get back full cycle to the significance of pan-Africanism beyond its emotive capacity to rally Africans and the black race to a unique belief in themselves. As a liberating ideal, pan-Africanism speaks to the urgency of rediscovering our own pathways of self-realization and the reclamation of our agency as blacks. We have been choked not just by the stranglehold of racial prejudices of many centuries, but equally by a fundamental lack of attention to our own internal dynamics and possibilities.
To overcome oppression and liberate the black race, we first need to look deeply inward and into our own capacity to understand and realise what ails us, and how we can overcome ourselves. The black race has not been able to breathe for centuries because we have choked fully on the vomit of our own fear and worthlessness. To use a biblical statement, we have always appeared like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so have we become in the face of the giant oppressors. But then, we have to first be human in our own eyes if we want others to accept our humanity. We have to dare to believe in our own selves before we can dare others to believe us.
The illustrious history of the black race tells a different and most significant story that narrates our deep capabilities. The withering of our own belief in our own humanity simply means the black race is the problem of the black race. Racism and neocolonial oppression have been able to undermine our humanity because we do not have a foothold in the dynamics of who we are. The pan-Africa ideology is even forced to mediate the fragmentation of personality between the homeland and the diaspora. The African American think the continent is a lost ideological cause (after all, pan-Africanism was established in the United States); the Africans think the diaspora is too complacent in its enjoyment at the margin of white privileges. Thus, if we can reaffirm that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the color line, then the solution lies in the capacity of Africans and the black race to redefine themselves as being fully human in spite of their blackness.
Pan-Africanism, therefore, becomes reinvigorated as a movement that brings our humanity and achievements home first to us, before we can then confront the racism that threatens to wipe us off the face of the earth. It is in this sense that pan-Africanism becomes critical for our very existence as humans. The challenge is making pan-Africanism into a programmatic framework that enables blacks everywhere to work according to an agenda that promote blacks in Africa and the diaspora. With the killing of Floyd and the global wide protests, it may be too early to begin to hope for the rolling back of systemic racism, but something has to give, and especially within the collaboration of the African and African diaspora in ways that speak to the black economic empowerment. Ghana, for instance, is already working to facilitate an enabling environment for returnee diasporans. This gesture to a concrete agenda for strengthening the pan-African agenda.
In 2003, the African diaspora was constituted as the sixth region of the African Union. This recognition could serve as the locus of the action plan to galvanise the over 170 million people of African descent into a formidable human development pathway for rejuvenating the continent’s self-esteem and development dynamics. It is time for the pan-African idea to be transmuted from mere rhetoric of liberation to the harnessing of the black energies wherever they may be found. Blacks have toiled and served others. It is time to consolidate that energy into serving the homeland and the black empowerment everywhere.
The African Union, for instance, as the institutional representation of the ideology of pan-Africanism, can commence an ideological sensitisation that begins first with an African diaspora and African summit that brings together leaders of thoughts, statesmen and women, civil society organisations, intellectuals and scholars, youth movements, and eminent persons into a convocation that reflects on black lives everywhere, and how blackness can become a formidable source of strength and progress. This is a herculean agenda, but the first step is always the most significant.
Prof. Olaopa, retired federal permanent secretary and directing staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.