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Making Black Lives Matter: Fanonian Notes About Today’s (Shifting) Front Lines

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Fanon offers a much more pessimistic view of the opportunities for black thought and being than King does, arguing that the black person trying to assert his or her humanity is cast into “a zone of nonbeing” by a world that equates humanity with whiteness.

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Making Black Lives Matter: Fanonian Notes About Today’s (Shifting) Front Lines
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Emmett Till, say his name.
Amadou Diallo, say his name.
Trayvon Martin, say his name.
Aiyana Jones, say her name.
Sandra Bland, say her name.

This a small selection of lyrics from “Hell You Talmbout”, a song recorded by Janelle Monáe and Wondaland in 2015 to protest the endemic racialised violence that African-Americans face everyday in encounters with law enforcement. It is a memorialisation of the human beings whose legally-sanctioned homicides have produced searing, horrifying story after story in the American news for decades. Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Freddie Grey, another of the names in the lyrics, was fatally injured in the custody of Baltimore police in the year this song was released. This song is more than a monument to lives lost to racism and hatred; it is an anthem that is shaping and giving moral force to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Despite its clear call for diversity in mobilising people to fight for recognition of black people’s humanity and the right of African-Americans to live their lives in the context of respect and security that white middle class Americans take for granted, BLM is frequently the target of criticism that it is promoting an exclusionary “black nationalist” agenda.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded in 2013 by three American women of colour – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – to rally popular resistance against this deadly state-sponsored violence and to build “a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise” (blacklivesmatter.com). Formed in the wake of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin (stalked and shot by a neighbourhood vigilante who was subsequently acquitted) and further radicalised by the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 death of Mike Brown (shot by a police officer who faced no charges), BLM has asserted itself as a champion of what it terms “unapologetic blackness”, and of the need for gender-inclusive, queer-positive, intergenerational community activism on a global scale.

Despite its clear call for diversity in mobilising people to fight for recognition of black people’s humanity and the right of African-Americans to live their lives in the context of respect and security that white middle class Americans take for granted, BLM is frequently the target of criticism that it is promoting an exclusionary “black nationalist” agenda. Opponents, often uninformed and unwilling to engage with BLM’s own stated manifesto, claim that American society should instead dedicate itself to the view that “all lives matter”.

In attempting to stake out this ground, however, BLM’s opponents ignore the obvious point that a movement dedicated to ending state-sanctioned violence against a racially identifiable group is in fact working to make all lives matter. Retreating into false universalism serves only to deflect attention from the justice demands that are being made, demands that have been made by black Americans since the days of the slavery-abolition movement in the mid-19th century and which were thrown into global prominence in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. (This speech is now widely understood in the United States as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s-1960s racial justice movement which, in the popular imagination, ended racism in America.) When one considers the many names said in the lyrics of “Hell You Talmbout,” and the news stories behind those lyrics, it becomes obvious that the American popular imagination is quite wrong on that count.

So, what accounts for this belief that racial equality has been achieved in a country in which one is still very much at risk – of physical violence, of psychological violence, of death – if one is moving through the world in a black skin? A sketch of an answer to this paradox of belief in a level playing field that somehow coexists with a pernicious significance of whiteness in ongoing power relations can be found in synthesis of two remarkable Caribbean theorists of race: Frantz Fanon (of Martinique) and Sylvia Wynter (of Jamaica).

Humanity as whiteness

In 1952, Fanon published the first of his major works on the phenomenology of blackness, Peau Noir, Masques Blancs, written while he was doing his residency in France as a doctor of psychiatry. This book was not published in English until 1967 (as Black Skin, White Masks) so it was not an analysis available to Dr. King when, in 1963, he was publicly dreaming that his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

Fanon offers a much more pessimistic view of the opportunities for black thought and being than King does, arguing that the black person trying to assert his or her humanity is cast into “a zone of nonbeing” by a world that equates humanity with whiteness. This is what he means when he writes that the black man’s destiny is a white destiny: the black person (entirely appropriately) wishes to assert himself or herself as human; the African-American wishes to assert himself or herself as American; and the obstacle encountered in each case is that humanity and Americanness have been coded implicitly as white. One can assert one’s humanity, or one’s citizenship – that is, one can fight the social and psychological alienation Fanon theorises throughout this book – but one cannot insulate oneself from encounters in which the other person looks no further than one’s skin.

This destabilisation, this denial of humanity, is what Fanon is referencing in Black Skin, White Masks when he describes an encounter with a (white) French child who cries out in fear to his mother because of “the Negro”. In that moment Fanon experiences a crumbling of his “corporeal schema” (his sense of inhabiting a human body) and its replacement with “a racial epidermal schema” (his realisation that he is being seen, not as inhabiting a human body, nor even as a human inhabiting a black body, but only as a black body). This experience of being human and not having one’s humanity recognised is the basis of the “massive psychoexistential complex” that Fanon hopes to destroy through ruthless analysis of its cultural construction, and that the Black Lives Matter movement hopes to destroy through their embrace of unapologetic blackness.

The struggle to break down the cultural architecture of humanity-as-whiteness is complicated by a phenomenon that Sylvia Wynter traces in an important essay interrogating American race relations in the mid-1990s: the ability of concepts (like who counts as “deviant”) to shift and adapt to contemporary realities while still targeting the same populations. Wynter begins her “open letter” to her fellow black academics with a quotation of Stephen Jay Gould’s assertion that “systems of classification direct our thinking and order our behaviours”. Her overall purpose is to interrogate the role of academics and intellectuals in perpetuating a system of thought that casts black Americans – and black people worldwide – as what she terms “the Conceptual Other” of white (American) culture, a project that she introduces through discussion of the race-relations issues raised by the then-contemporary Rodney King riots.

“How,” she asks, “did they [the police officers who assaulted King, and jurors who subsequently acquitted the officers] come to conceive of what it means to be both human and North American in the kinds of terms (i.e. to be White, of Euroamerican culture and descent, middle class, college-educated and suburban) within whose logic, the jobless and usually school drop-out/push-out category of young Black males can be perceived, and therefore behaved towards, only as the Lack of the human, the Conceptual Other to being North American?”

Calling her fellow intellectuals to account for their/our role in constructing cultural concepts and norms, she further asks: “What have we had to do…with the putting in place of the classifying logic [in which] young Black males can be perceived as being justly shut out from what Helen Fein calls the ‘universe of moral obligation’ that bonds the interests of the Simi Valley jurors…to the interests of the White policemen …?” What it means to be in a “universe of moral obligation”, in Wynter’s explanation of Fein’s work, is to be a “circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other”.

In a world that has changed its laws but not its wealth distribution or economic power structures, discrimination shifts from racial labels to socio-economic ones, but continues to pick out the same marginalised populations.

Black Americans have never been fully, non-provisionally included in that universe, Wynter charges, despite the changes in law and social policy inaugurated by the Civil Rights Movement – the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and various Affirmative Action programmes instituted in government hiring and college admissions. Conceptual and linguistic shifts have conspired to keep black people from being seen as unproblematically “inside” the moral-obligation universe. If confronted with the question of whether any given black life matters, most people would agree that of course that life matters. But, at the same time, these same people endorse language and policies that exclude “the criminal”, “the jobless” or “uneducated” and, globally, the populations of “The Third World”.

In a world that has changed its laws but not its wealth distribution or economic power structures, discrimination shifts from racial labels to socio-economic ones, but continues to pick out the same marginalised populations. “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movements, and of the Affirmative Action programmes which incorporated a now new Black middle class into the ‘American Dream,’ the jobless category has been made to bear the weight of the Deviant status that, before the Sixties, had been imposed on all Americans of African and Afro-mixed descent,” explains Wynter. She observes that “it costs $25,000 a year [in 1992 dollars] to keep a kid in prison; which is more than…college. However, for society at large to choose the latter option in place of the former it would mean that the ‘kids’ in question could no longer be ‘perceived’ in N.H.I. [no humans involved] terms.”

One could make similar points about the overall economic benefits (building a bigger pie) that could result from giving African nations greater access to genuinely fair trade agreements and genuinely equitable economic development. Indeed, Wynter notes the parallel between the deliberately marginalised African-American youth and the global populations that Frantz Fanon identified in his other major work on the phenomenology of blackness, The Wretched of the Earth, as les damnés .

Wynter’s overarching summary of her argument is worth quoting in full:

It is only on the basis of the classificatory logic of our present Humanities and Social Sciences, and its related mode of subjective understanding or “inner eyes” generated from the representation of the human as an evolutionarily selected organism, (and who can therefore be more or less human, even totally lacking in humanness as in the case of the N.H.I.), that we can be induced to see all those outside our present “sanctified universe of obligation,” whether as racial or as Jobless Other, as having been placed in their inferiorized status, not by our culture-specific institutional mechanisms but rather by the extra-human ordering of bio-evolutionary Natural Selection.

Her point here is that failure to see black Americans as Americans – indeed, as human beings – is not a failure at the level of cultural institutions (which could be reformed and made more just); it is a foundational epistemological commitment that shapes how we see humanity. It is the unjustifiable, and therefore unasserted, justification for the beliefs that privileged people perpetuate and marginalised people internalise: that those “at the top” (white people, wealthy people, citizens of developed countries) are there because they are better specimens of humanity. They are the evolutionarily selected, the winners. They have not earned their privilege any more than gold has earned its ascribed value, or diamonds. They simply are more valuable. I hope, in putting this point into words, to expose it for the nonsense it is. I hope also that articulating it in this way is making clear the connection of Wynter’s argument to Fanon’s existential analysis of blackness as always embattled in a world that is always white, and the connection to the ways that the Black Lives Matter movement is being framed as unapologetic blackness and being dismissed as exclusionary by “all lives matter” proponents.

Economic fetishisation

Wynter indicts our entire epistemic archive (the stores of knowledge that organise our current epoch) for its “economic ethic,” its “hegemonic economic categories” that cannot see these damnés (be they black/jobless American youths or the Global Poor) as anything other than “throwaway lives” to be given no more consideration than the “discardable environment” precisely because none of them can be, or is being, monetised.

In this worldview that she argues we must reject, if a thing has no price-value, it has no value at all. All of our conventional wisdom is focused on how to bring about increasingly higher standards of living; to speak of anything else is to be foolish, to be naïve, to stop making sense…worse, to be a mouthpiece for Marxism or socialism. The only way out of this economic fetishisation at the core of our worldview is to rewrite our knowledge – to re-envision what counts as the true, the good, and the beautiful as concepts no longer underpinned by economic foundations.

This revisioning of our social world might start by taking seriously the Black Lives Matter commitment to “struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive”. For BLM, this commitment is a global one; their work is a struggle for a racially-just United States of America, and it is also a sustained outreach to people in other nations “as part of the global Black family”. While there are clearly many aspects of their work that are US-centric, there is also a very real sense in which, aspirationally, BLM’s manifesto mirrors the work that needs to be done on a global scale.

A first step towards this world in which all people have the resources to thrive is represented in initiatives like the global Sustainable Development Goals (articulated by the United Nations in 2015 and committed, like BLM, to a “leave no one behind” agenda) and the pan-African Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, which envisions a citizen-driven transformation of the entire continent. While neither initiative implicate the complete epistemic transformation that Wynter prescribes, they do trouble the economic fetishisation she critiques in our contemporary world by refocusing our attention on values that are not fully reducible to economic considerations. Both the global and the continent-specific agendas echo Wynter’s rejection of our current practices of throwing away people and throwing away the planet that we need to sustain all our lives, just as they amplify the moral core of Fanon’s decolonisation message: that no one is expendable, ever.

That the United States needs a “Black Lives Matter” movement (and a #MeToo movement, and an Occupy movement) is a depressing indictment of a society that has failed to make the systemic social justice reforms that Martin Luther King called for…

These are not new ideas; the project of building pan-African communities and coalitions has been argued for since the days of post-World War II decolonisation when the world witnessed the attempts of newly independent nations to articulate a policy of non-alignment with the global superpowers of the time, both of which have long since run out of inspiring rhetoric and are now retreating into exclusive focus on the only tools they have left: bullying and force. It is (long past) time to renew that conversation about how to move forward into a geo-political space that takes sustainability, development, and justice seriously.

That the United States needs a “Black Lives Matter” movement (and a #MeToo movement, and an Occupy movement) is a depressing indictment of a society that has failed to make the systemic social justice reforms that Martin Luther King called for, and that both Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter theorised.

But the human energy that is being poured into the BLM movement by the artists and academics who are promoting its goals, but most especially, each unnamed individual in each protesting crowd, people who are giving what would otherwise be their leisure time, their family time, speaks loudly and uncompromisingly of enduring recognition of the need for change. We can, and should, hope for a better world in which Fanon’s “new man” – still struggling to be born – might live a fully human life. We must also, as Fanon urged us, work together to bring that world into being. To borrow from the title of one of Kwame Nkrumah’s essays, the struggle continues.

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Tracey Nicholls is a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Peace Studies, Soka University, Japan.

Ideas

Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.

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Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.

Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.

Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.

Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”

But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators. 

Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.

Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.

The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.

This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.

There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.

Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.

The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.

You can find Lords of Impunity at Nuria Bookshop in Nairobi and on Amazon.

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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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