From the end of May until a few days before Remembrance Day (November 11) flags at Canadian public buildings were flown at half-mast. This unusual occurrence was in recognition of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools. The unearthing of the graves shocked many non-Indigenous Canadians, but it came as no surprise to Indigenous Peoples themselves who had long maintained that the graves were there and more would be discovered. They knew that some of their children never came home from these institutions; but their concerns went unheard or were dismissed. Many of the children who did return home were scarred for life, and this trauma then had an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of future generations. Overall, this chapter is yet another tragic dimension in the history of settler colonialism in Canada.
Residential Schools, the last of which closed in the mid-1990s, were an instrument purposefully designed to undermine the culture and nuanced connections of Indigenous Peoples to time, each other, and the environment. The government and mainstream Christian Churches acted in strategic solidarity in a long campaign structured to annihilate Indigenous cultures, both figuratively and literally. The schools were just one of the tools used by settlers, and their superstructure, to impose control over the totality of economic, social, cultural, and extractive relations. This campaign has resulted in social dislocation, loss of resources (including land and natural resources) and inter-generational trauma and marks the fact that the dark history of colonialism is still an eternal present in post-colonial Canada.
Part of my journey of understanding this dark history has involved reading and re-reading books on this ever-present historical tragedy, and that’s how I approached a closer study of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Legacies of Recognition (2014). Using the work of the Martiniquen born, French educated and Algerian by choice psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) as a foundation – particularly Black Skin, White Masks – Coulthard argues that the conventional politics of recognition currently undertaken in Canada needs to evolve into “a resurgent politics of recognition premised on self-actualization, direct action and the resurgence of cultural practices that are attentive to the subjective and structural composition of settler-colonial power”. In expanding on Marx by, for example, considering the impact of dispossession of land, as opposed to implementation of proletarian status on Indigenous Peoples, Coulthard applies a Fanonist framework to the current operation of neo-colonialism in Canada, and blends the psychology of the individual with the structural of the collective in his trenchant analysis and, equally important, call for action.
Obviously, the need for attention to the ongoing alienation and dislocation caused by colonialism in postcolonial societies is not only a Canadian phenomenon. The ongoing importance and wide-spread influence of Frantz Fanon in terms of both theory and practice reflects that fact. Admittedly, there have been highs and lows in terms of Fanon’s place in the academic canon, due in large part to criticism regarding his framing of the role of violence in the process of decolonization, together with the fashionable disregard for meta-theories of liberation. However, his works continue to inform counter-hegemonic theory and practice around the world, and his words and ideas are as refreshing as ever. Fanon continues to engage people by his brilliance, his candour, his analysis, his guarded optimism and his sense of people being agents in their own destiny.
Coming sixty years after the publication of The Wretched of the Earth and his death from leukemia at the age of 36, Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth, edited by activist and scholar Nigel Gibson, provides a solid overview of the relevance of Frantz Fanon to the work of those of us who still believe that a just and humane world is both necessary and possible. Throughout the volume the contributors provide space and examples of a Fanonist development of radical humanism, which provides for the psychological development of the person within the context of consciousness raising, collective action and structural change. Through a variety of examples, the book also clearly demonstrates the fact that the agents of change do not simply have to be the usual suspects of the industrial working class but includes – and must include – the peasantry and the various manifestations of the lumpenproletariat. As noted by Gibson, “Fanon’s new humanism is a politics of becoming, based on the fundamental transformation of paralyzed Black and colonized subjects into new human beings through the liberation struggle” (p. 300).
Gibson then modestly concedes that the volume is “by no means exhaustive: it is rather something fragmentary, reflecting the moment” (p. 9). While that is a fair statement – I will comment on some of the gaps later – the bottom line is that this is an excellent book and marks Gibson’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that Fanon remains accessible and relevant to a wide-range of audiences, academic and popular. The theory is certainly there. All the chapters, for example, pay attention to the role of consciousness-raising, the psychological trauma (indeed mental illness) caused by oppression, the blend of individual development and collective growth, the need for democratic discourse and leadership, and the destructive role played by the national bourgeoisie in alliance with outside forces.
However, in line with Fanon and respect for the development of mass support and organic intellectuals, the theoretical content of the book is woven together in a wonderfully accessible collection of essays demonstrating the ongoing importance of Fanon in a range of settings and on a diversity of social issues. Taken together the work provides multiple examples of the emancipatory potential of the “living politic” which is “the thought from the ground about the reality of our lives” as discussed by the South African activist S’bu Zikode (p. 124).
The book is divided into three sections. The first section contains several chapters written by ‘Fanon Militants’ and provides essays on Fanonist practices in a number of settings including Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, and Palestine. For me, the core element of this section can be found in the idea of “consciousness raising”. Subjects covered include the use of radio by a diverse group of women in England as a means of developing a person’s optimal psycho-social functioning, the deconstruction of the class and gender ridden term “White Syrian” and what it means to confronting the brutal Assad regime, and the experience of being Black facing daily racism, “systematic terror” and micro-aggressions in an overtly racist Portugal and Trinidad and Tobago, casting people into a zone of “non-being”.
The impact of Fanon on Black Consciousness is also clearly animated in this initial section of the book. Chapters on Fanon and the emergence of “New Afrikan Communism” and his influence of Black people imprisoned by the prison-industrial complex are two of the themes specifically associated with that longstanding link. A particular highlight of this section was contained in a chapter written by Toussaint Losier where he discussed the role played by Owusu Yaki Yakubu and how he developed a way to closely read Fanon which would engage his fellow prisoners, including those held largely incommunicado in the brutality of long-term solidarity confinement. The extension of Marxist thought, together with a dash of Freud and Hegel, shines through in this section in the intersection of race, gender and class. Taken together this section provides a mix of those structural variables, and how they fit together as an organic whole rather than a linear progression of mutually exclusive sociological categories.
The second section – ‘Still Fanon’ – moves into a more theoretical approach to the application of Fanon to transformative change and provides a number of excellent examples of why Fanon is still relevant and, perhaps more importantly, needed as a guide to engaged mass political action. As noted by, for example, David Pavon-Cuellar, in a passionate call for change and justice makes the important point that the “Wretched of the Earth are still here”. Pavon-Cuellar does not mince words and he insists on using the term “Third World” as opposed to “Global South” in his analysis. He argues the point that the historical example of de jure decolonization has not actually provided for the wellbeing of the rural and urban poor. Building upon the remarkable resilience of capitalism to do what it needs to ensure its domination and insatiable appetite, Pavon-Cuellar notes that “Colonialism had to change to stay the same” (p. 233). He puts it bluntly when he argues that the “current globalization of this neoliberal capitalism is the consummation of colonialism. Similarly, imperialism triumphs and disguises itself in the new global consensus” (p. 246).
Building upon this blend of passion and informed analysis, a major theme in this section of the book is related to the role played by the “national bourgeoisie” in terms of propping up the systems of oppression, exactly as highlighted by Fanon himself. The article by Ayyaz Mallick on Pakistan gives clear examples of the role played by national governments in terms of meeting the similar needs of a variety of global players, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, and the crises that result from this difficult balance.
Nigel Gibson contributes an important contextualizing chapter to this section of the book where he locates Fanon as both “a clinical practitioner and as a political practitioner” within the dynamic of movement. By paying attention to both the internalization of colonial messages and the environment constructed by post-colonial capitalist relations, Fanon provides a way to support the development of “disalienation” and the common good. As noted by Gibson, reflecting the dynamic of theory and practice has to be undertaken in unity with the people and is related to an evolving and tentative process of becoming, rather than a static case of being “…a moment of becoming is always incomplete. For me, this is an essential element of Fanon’s anti-formalist dialectic” (p. 283).
The final section of the book is loosely arranged around the idea of Fanon’s homes, essentially places he lived (such as Algeria in “The New Algerian Revolution”, the chapter by Hamza Hamouchene) together with places where his thinking has had a significant impact. These include the influence Fanon had on Black Consciousness in America, excellently chronicled by Lou Turner and Kurtis Kelley and on the growth of the Irish Language in the North of Ireland, powerfully presented by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh. To me, however, this section was the most uneven in terms of readability. For example, I found the essay on postcolonial criticism and theory too academic for a book that attempted to make Fanon more accessible.
This may also have been related to the fact that this section also contained the transcription of a meeting between some of the leaders of the South African landless activist group Abahlali baseMjondolo and Nigel Gibson, which was beautiful in its integrity, honesty and dignity. What spoke to me most about this particular chapter was that it provided a sense of Fanon happening in real time and spoke to Gibson’s demonstrated desire to link Fanon with “the reader’s own lived experience” (p. 10). In this discussion, Gibson provided an overview of certain sections of The Wretched of the Earth – which he prefers to call Les damnes de la terre in its original French – and then members of Abahlali baseMjondolo spoke about concrete application of Fanon’s works. To my mind at least, this chapter made the essential point that “awakening is a constant process” (p. 433). By putting Fanon into this process, and extending our understanding of Marxism, the argument is made that this can result in a “living communism” (p. 433).
The second section of the third part of the volume, dealt exclusively with Brazil, and contained essays on COVID-19 and the impact on Black people in Brazil together with pieces on “Black Female Intellectual Production” and one on the economic exploitation of Amazonia. These were undoubtedly interesting pieces, and they dealt with pressing socio-political issues related to the daily operation of both neocolonialism and neoliberalism. However, it is still unclear to me why Brazil was chosen as a focused topic for this section. Fanon noted that Rio as a city and construct was an offence to Indigenous people, and talked about the exploitation of young Brazilian women, but why three chapters were devoted to specific issues in Brazil was not immediately apparent. As mentioned, the issues are important, but they could have been examined within other contexts, particularly given Gibson’s previous comment about the content not being exhaustive.
Inevitably a lot is left out, and the list of what should or could have been included will be large, depending on one’s area(s) of interest. For example, I felt that more attention could have been given to Indigenous politics and Fanon in North America. As I have suggested, Coulthard has made a solid contribution to this nexus and that foundation could certainly be built upon, and it would have blended well with the work of Abahlali baseMjondolo and the need for a decommodification of land.
Furthermore, although there was an essay on racial and class-based injustice in Trinidad and Tobago, a chapter on current events in the Caribbean would have been useful, especially given Fanon’s relationship to the area, particularly the French Caribbean. I would also like to have seen greater attention to the ongoing influence of Fanon in southern Africa. I know that this was neither a history nor a biography, and Gibson has commented significantly elsewhere on Fanon and South Africa, but the influence of Bantu Stephen Biko was tremendous, both in and out of the country. In the South African Communist Party, though they continue to maintain the idea of a two-stage revolution, there were individuals who had read and digested Fanon – Chris Hani for one. Further analysis of this in relationship to the neocolonial project of white monopoly capital would certainly have been welcomed. I would also have liked to read about what role, if any, Fanon has played on the political consciousness of Zambians and civil society, given their almost textbook experience with neocolonial relations, extractive commodity dependence, the wrath of international funders, the IMF’s Structural Adjustment forays and, most lately, crippling foreign debt to both China and Europe.
Finally, in light of the selfies, compromises, the self-serving displays of Clinton, Blair and Obama, and empty promises of COP26 in Glasgow, I think a discussion of Fanon and his impact on eco-socialism would have been of considerable merit and could also serve to engage a new field of activists, especially younger people. I believe that Fanon’s notions of consciousness raising, and healthy ego functioning, lend themselves directly to a green movement. I regard this as a missed opportunity in the book, especially when issues related to the alienation of land, the neocolonial extraction of resources and the psychosocial implications of environmental change for the rural poor and lumpenproletariat where themes raised throughout the book. Fanon can certainly inform the eco-socialist movement, by literally placing the person within their environment.
Still, Gibson’s volume is an excellent companion to Fanon’s works. It is not only suggestive of how one can read Fanon, but also how it can be applied in a transformative politics. The bibliographies accompanying many of the chapters provide the reader with specific area and topic guides.
Ultimately, though, the major point is that Fanon is still relevant sixty years after his death in 1961. As he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill or betray it, in relative opacity”. Certainly, a much-needed call to action. Individuals continue to be subject to the daily pain of alienation, they experience the daily indignity of threats to their various and multiple experiences of well-being. Millions face very real threats to their survival, both physical and psychological. Despite the hope that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decolonialization did not help people on the social, cultural, and economic margins of these newly “independent” nations. The national bourgeoisie mimicked their colonial masters and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The brutality simply took another form, and the exploitation continues apace.
Nigel Gibson and the other contributors to the book remind us that Fanon can help support the process of disalienation and promote opportunities for hope over fear; but this needs democratic relationships and the ability to listen. It also requires not only consciousness but the will to collectively act on that collective awareness. Following from this it requires organization. As suggested by Pavon-Cueller, “The still wretched of the earth need from their allied intellectuals the continued reading of Fanon in a militant, politically committed way, and not just for academic research or reflection” (p. 246). As the book constantly reminds us, we need Fanon to help animate the struggle so we can all breathe more freely and easily.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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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