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The Unapologetic Blackness of the Me Too Movement

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As we tell the story of Me Too, says TRACEY NICHOLLS, let us not forget the centrality of black women’s struggles for control over their own bodies in the evolution of contemporary activism against rape culture.

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Let me tell you a story.

I thought Rosa Parks was an old woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus because she was too tired to stand after working all day.

Me too.

I thought Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when he was her boss, was quite possibly just plain lying.

Me too.

I thought the present-day feminist revolution that is changing conversations around the world was started on Twitter by a white Hollywood actress.

Me too.

Let me tell you a story about the truth behind all those fictions. It’s a story about how the world changed for all American women (and many women in other countries) because of the strength, courage, and integrity of three black women: Rosa Parks, Anita Hill, and Tarana Burke.

On October 15, 2017, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano tweeted an invitation to her Twitter followers to respond to a suggestion from a friend of hers: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

That tweet sparked a response which has indeed become a kind of online census of victimhood. This is the crucial thing to recognise about the moment when #MeToo met social media: that it inaugurated a census. It gave people who had experienced sexual predation a way to stand up publicly and be counted.

Sexual assault and harassment complaints are habitually dismissed when they are made against privileged men, and especially when they are made against powerful men. And the victims who make these complaints are disparaged as attention-seeking, opportunistic, and vengeful.

The accusation of opportunism, in particular, suggests that the accusers believe that going public about having been degraded sexually somehow confers a glorious social privilege upon them (a fiction belied by everything we know about the under-reporting of sexual violence in societies around the world). And the disparagement presents consequences to the perpetrators (if the complainant is believed). Loss of prestige or reputation are viewed as worse than the consequences of the assault or harassment itself, which include the trauma and post-traumatic stress that have for years been recognised as consequences of violence generally, and are now finally being acknowledged as consequences of sexual violence.

Sexual assault and harassment complaints are habitually dismissed when they are made against privileged men, and especially when they are made against powerful men. And the victims who make these complaints are disparaged as attention-seeking, opportunistic, and vengeful.

What #MeToo exposed was not a cabal of vengeful feminists but an ubiquitousness and normalisation of sexual predation, often by powerful and influential men, who are, therefore, socially recognised as more credible than their victims. This choice of victims is not an accident; predators target those they believe will be considered unimportant precisely so that they will be able to discredit any complaints that might be made.

The credibility of complaints is attacked on the grounds of the complainant’s race, social status, national origin, and most especially—when the perpetrator is male and the victim is female—on the basis of gender. Even today, as the United Nations identifies gender equality as one of its significant Sustainability Development Goals, in most countries, women’s voices are not accorded as much credibility as men’s voices in law courts, in police stations, and in public discourse.

Individuals who choose to behave in predatory ways are sheltered from the consequences of their behaviour by widespread beliefs that women lie about being victimised. In fact, because of social shaming around women’s sexuality, women are more likely to stay silent about things that did happen rather than to manufacture things that did not happen.

Predatory individuals are sheltered by the suspicion that allegations of this kind are likely to be false. In fact, the rate of false reporting of, for instance, rape allegations is about the same as the rate of false reporting for other felonies. In addition, predatory individuals are sheltered by demands for “objective proof” that are not demanded in other types of criminal accusations. In fact, a victim’s accusation of fraud, theft, or other forms of violence is sufficient to trigger an investigation, and multiple accusations are sufficient to establish a pattern of behaviour on the part of the perpetrator that is considered circumstantial evidence of their wrongdoing.

Victims of sexual predation know these differences; fear of not being believed is the primary factor explaining why only about 35 per cent of sexual assault cases in the United States are ever reported (which is actually relatively high when compared to a country like Japan, where the reporting rate is estimated to be under 5 per cent). The #MeToo social media census was a space in which victims could self-identify without being invalidated.

But before there was Alyssa Milano’s call to stand up and be counted, there was more than a decade of grassroots activism and solidarity with sexually abused African-American girls that was being carried out by Tarana Burke, the civil rights activist and community organiser who coined the term. There was “Me Too” long before there was #MeToo. There was a black woman, this black woman, doing anti-sexual assault work and victim support long before there was any widespread public discussion by white liberal feminists of the problems of sexual entitlement and predation by wealthy and powerful men. This trail-blazing by black women is also not an accident.

The civil rights movement and the struggle for women’s rights

There is a long history in the United States of advocacy for women and struggles for women’s rights to control our own bodies. That history is grounded in the community organising that black women have done for and with each other, and it has gone largely unrecognised until quite recently.

In 2010, historian Danielle L. McGuire wrote a book about how the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that is now most closely associated in the popular imagination with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. owes its existence to the tireless work of black women in the southern states against racialised sexual violence. McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, documents the campaigns and community organising of black women working in churches and with the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to demand equal justice under the law for black women who had been raped and sexually terrorised.

There is a long history in the United States of advocacy for women and struggles for women’s rights to control our own bodies. That history is grounded in the community organising that black women have done for and with each other…

One such campaign, directed by the NAACP, was organised to demand the arrest and trial of the seven white men who were responsible for the 1944 gang rape of an Alabama woman named Recy Taylor. The newly-hired NAACP branch secretary who organised the campaign was Rosa Parks. Eleven years later, the advocacy alliance she helped to form, the Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor, would become the Montgomery Improvement Association, the support organisation for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that launched the civil rights movement.

Contrary to the mythology that constructs this society-changing coalition as Dr. King’s heroic challenge of white supremacy, it was a movement built by black women like Rosa Parks. She was no tired old woman the day she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus; she was a trained and accomplished activist. And although Recy Taylor never did get justice for the sexual violence she endured, the principle Rosa Parks was fighting for—that sexual violence against black women should be treated as seriously under the law as sexual violence against white women—was finally upheld as a legal precedent in 1959 when the four white rapists of Betty Jean Owens in Tallahassee, Florida were convicted and sentenced for their crime against her.

Almost 50 years after black women mobilised communities across the South to petition for Recy Taylor’s right to face her attackers in court, a black woman named Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male panel of US Senators in the nation’s capital, Washington DC. The men were there to confirm conservative black judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court seat that had been vacated by the retirement of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. The woman, a law professor, was there to inform them that when she had worked for Thomas a decade previously at the US Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he had engaged in sustained sexual harassment of her that called into question the good character which, due to his inexperience on the bench, had been cited as the primary evidence of his overall fitness to serve on the highest court in the country’s legal system.

The year was 1991. The term “sexual harassment” had been coined by the feminist movement back in the 1960s but it was not a widely understood phenomenon in 1991 and there was, at the time, little appreciation for how pervasive it was in workplaces. As law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw notes in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, it was Hill’s testimony of Thomas’s persistent pressure on her to date him, his discussion of explicit pornography he liked to watch, and comments about his own sexual prowess—all taking place in the offices in which she served as his assistant—that produced America’s “great awakening around sexual harassment”.

However, as Crenshaw also notes, the lessons Anita Hill’s testimony might have taught the country were inadequately learned: Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court where he serves to this day, alongside fellow alleged sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh. Hill, in her own 2019 New York Times op-ed, suggests the intriguing possibility that what we now know as the #MeToo movement could have started as far back as 1991, if only that Senate Judiciary Committee panel had listened seriously to her testimony (and that of the corroborating witnesses they never bothered to call).

In the wake of Anita Hill and in the tradition of Rosa Parks came the response of Tarana Burke to a 1997 conversation with a 13-year-old black girl who confided that she had been sexually abused. As “Me Too” broke into the American popular consciousness in October 2017, Burke recalled to a New York Times reporter that this confession had left her speechless and troubled. Having worked with and advocated for marginalised young women since she was a teenager, she belatedly realised that the most appropriate response she could have given the girl was quite simply “Me too”.

Almost a decade after that moment, in 2006, she created a movement to marshal resources for other young victims of sexual harassment and assault—resources she wished had been available to her and to the 13-year-old girl who had called her to this particular strand of her life-long activism—and began promoting the phrase “me too” as a way of raising awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, and as a way of supporting survivors of that violence.

However, as Crenshaw also notes, the lessons Anita Hill’s testimony might have taught the country were inadequately learned: Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court where he serves to this day, alongside fellow alleged sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh.

The black roots of “Me Too” are, I think, crucial to understanding what it is trying to achieve, and how. I spoke at the outset of “Me Too” as a census, and I believe that is a useful way to understand how it has functioned in its #MeToo Twitter incarnation. But a robust understanding of “Me Too” as a solidarity gesture has to acknowledge its contextual association with the call-and-response traditions of black music and black vernacular English. Me too is a call and a response: me too … you too?… yes, me too.

Emerging voices

The campaigns for justice and respect to which Rosa Parks, Anita Hill, and Tarana Burke have all contributed their efforts to make a world in which black women are honoured members of their communities have changed things. There is more bodily autonomy for all women in the United States today (challenged and under threat, to be sure, but present). There is more awareness of what it means to have to navigate a “hostile workplace”, and there is more support for the women and men, girls and boys, who have been harmed by sexual violence.

Even as these women are being acknowledged for their courage and dedication, however, and even as black feminist scholarship strives to make sure the contributions to American life of other black women—Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, to name only a few—are not forgotten, it is important to remember that the tradition of black activism in the US is a communal one.

In the New York Times interview about her role in the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke dismisses the initial controversy about Alyssa Milano hijacking her movement and erasing her contribution by tweeting a “Me Too” invitation that did not credit Burke, saying that it is selfish to frame a movement around one person. Movements should be about amplifying the voices of the community, the survivors, she concluded. (And it should be noted that Milano, who had initially been unaware of the origin of the phrase, swiftly corrected her oversight and has subsequently been vocal in promoting Burke’s Me Too campaign.)

Similar sentiments about the plurality of sources for activist movements and the value of horizontal (non-hierarchical) organising structures are expressed by Alicia Garza in connection with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in a 2016 New Yorker article. The article is a fascinating analysis of how Black Lives Matter emerged as a voice for racial justice from a self-consciously intersectional point of view. It reminds readers that we all engage the world through multiple identities (race, gender, age, sexual orientation), and makes space for Garza’s argument that effective activism to make American society less hostile towards black lives needs to foreground not just a commitment to “unapologetic blackness” but also to an “unapologetically queer” focus. (She notes, for instance, that of the 53 recorded murders of transgender people between 2013 and 2015, 39 were African-American.)

Author Jelani Cobb contrasts the history of black organising in the 1960s, with its emphasis on top-down leadership, with the more diffuse structures of BLM: the three black women often credited with creating it—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—are carefully distinguished as architects of BLM’s online organisation, while credit for the movement that arose out of protests over Mike Brown’s 2014 murder in Ferguson, Missouri, is given to DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie. But, as Garza notes, BLM is not about consolidating power in an identifiable leadership hierarchy; it works like traditional labour organising did, and like Ella Baker (the civil rights activist who served in leadership in both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) did, it reaches out to the people “at the bottom”, tapping the creativity and energy of the whole community.

The story we need to be hearing and telling, then, in this age of “Me Too” is not just about black women’s leadership, but about the tradition of leadership deeply embedded in black women’s community activism. The power is in the people, and the people need to be heard. Call and response.

The civil rights movement is (mis)remembered as a movement of black men for racial equality; Black Lives Matter is perceived in the media as a redress movement organised exclusively or predominantly around black men murdered by a systemically racist policing structure. In both cases, men’s names are foregrounded in activist histories that have been built up out of women’s labour and include women’s experiences. (Sandra Bland, say her name.)

As we tell the story of Me Too, let’s not forget or overlook the centrality of black women’s struggles for control over their own bodies in the evolution of contemporary activism against rape culture.

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

Ideas

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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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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