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Not Your Negro: Kanye West’s Distorted View of Race in America

7 min read.

In an act of gratuitous self-hatred, the American rapper’s comments on slavery open the wounds of a painful debate. In the Age of Trump, racism is now normalised, enabled even by its victims: Well-heeled Kenyans scrambling for a Ksh 1 million seat to watch a very British royal wedding on a TV screen in Nairobi; a liberal white woman looking for a black lover to erase her guilt. RASNA WARAH surveys the psyche of a very global scourge. 

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Not Your Negro: Kanye West’s Distorted View of Race in America
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I normally would not pay much attention to what Kanye West and his exhibitionist wife Kim Kardashian – whose obsession with her own body has reversed the gains of the women’s movement by several decades and whose ridiculous reality TV show has contributed significantly to dumbing down its viewers – but the American rapper’s ill-informed statement on slavery cannot go unchallenged.

During an interview recently, West is quoted saying: “You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” When he was criticised for making this comment, West (whose own ancestors were African slaves) responded by saying that what he really meant was that “for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means we were mentally enslaved”.

West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o (though I doubt it as the rapper does not appear to be much of a reader) who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people “decolonise their minds” – that is, when they stop aping their former colonisers and start respecting their own culture, languages and traditions.

Unfortunately, this has yet to happen in Ngugi’s birthplace, where all things British are still viewed as superior. A case in point is the Kenyan-owned Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club (probably named after Windsor Castle) in Nairobi that was charging one million shillings (about $10,000) per couple for watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding on the hotel’s television set. This staggering price, which is within the reach of only a handful of people in the country, included a luxurious night at the hotel and a helicopter ride to Mount Kenya for breakfast the next day. (According to news reports, the event was fully booked on the day of the wedding.) Even though the wedding had a distinctly African-American flavour, complete with a Martin Luther-like pastor delivering the sermon and Oprah Winfrey in attendance, it was not lost on many that this was a distinctly British affair paid by British taxpayers. And notwithstanding the bride’s black ancestry, this marriage is not likely to improve race relations in Britain or America.

West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people decolonise their minds.

Kenya’s mental colonisation also manifests itself in its foreign policy. While much of the world shunned the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem last week, Kenya’s ambassador to Israel made it a point to attend the ceremony, along with a dozen or so other countries, most of which were failed or fragile African, Latin American and Eastern European states. (Meanwhile, Britain, which had a hand in creating the state of Israel, was noticeably absent.)

However, this former British colony’s display of self-loathing and self-colonisation nearly fifty-five years after independence is not comparable to the physical bondage that Africans experienced for centuries in America. Kanye West believes that slaves in America did not revolt for 400 years because they were mentally enslaved. Maybe he doesn’t know that those slaves who tried to revolt or to liberate themselves were met with lynchings, beatings, torture and later with segregation laws.

West should read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which poignantly explains why even after more than a century since slavery ended, black people in the United States are still under the threat of being humiliated, locked up, beaten or killed – both by the police and by ordinary people. (If West is not inclined to read a book, he can watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck.)

The “Black Lives Matter” movement is happening in today’s America, not in Martin Luther King’s America or in 18th century plantation America. Today young black men are more likely to be stopped by police, searched, murdered or incarcerated than any other group in the United States. In his book, Coates wonders how a black man in America can live freely in his body when that body is under constant threat of being exterminated.

In an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, wrote that he is often referred to as “a nigger professor” or “a nigger with a PhD”. He says that he received several racist and threatening messages after he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that was in the form of a letter asking readers to accept the truth about what it means to be white in a society created just for white people. One woman even accused him of being a racist. The messages were so vitriolic that campus police were forced to monitor his office.

It is not just the die-hard racists who exhibit this sense of entitlement, or what is known as “white privilege” – the result of distorted history lessons – but so-called progressive or liberal whites as well. At a meeting that brought together human rights activists from around the world, one of the white women (Dutch or Danish, I can’t remember which) admitted to me that she was rather ashamed of the fact that despite having lived in South Africa for several years, she had not yet found a black boyfriend – as if to say that sleeping with a black man would lend more credibility to her activism credentials and define her as a non-racist.

Because I am prone to be rather blunt and tactless, I told her that she need not worry – some of the most racist white slave owners in America regularly slept with/raped their black female slaves, and that did not make them any less racist. (I didn’t tell her that I am married to a black African man and that I have rarely used this fact to gain points with my fellow Kenyans. Or that because most Kenyans are still mentally colonised, and value white skin more than black skin, a detail that often works to my disadvantage, partly also because my husband belongs to a politically and economically insignificant ethnic group.)

I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls. The silence that followed this conversation was palpable. I had clearly touched a nerve.

I was reminded then of what the writer James Baldwin had said about racism in America: “At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.” One of the ways white America lives with the fact that the United States’ wealth is built on the bodies of black slaves is by blaming the latter for their own fate – as Kanye West did. And the only way white people can live with black people is by dehumanising and emasculating them so that they will not be forced to engage with them on equal terms, and therefore, will not have to confront the immorality of their ancestors’ actions.

I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls.

This also involves not knowing or telling the truth about oneself, which leads to a schizophrenic existence. White Americans, as Baldwin put it, “are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence” – the kind of incoherence that led a young European woman living in South Africa to apologise for not having an African boyfriend. White liberals suffer most from this, as they cannot even hide behind their racism to avoid making contact with non-white people. It is a sad spectacle to watch. (Relax, I often tell them. And listen, I mean really listen, if you can. )

I will end on a personal note. I am not white, nor am I black. I am in that murky category of people who white people refer to as “people of colour” (who comprise the majority of the world’s people). I have experienced racism and sexism in various shades, but it is only in recent years that I have become more aware of what it means to not be white in this world, perhaps because I am now much more conscious of it, and maybe also because people like President Donald Trump have made racism more acceptable. I have always been aware of my race, having lived in a former colony in Africa where I stand out as a non-black minority. Juggling issues around race is part of the DNA of most people who have experienced racial segregation or European colonisation.

But I never thought that racism could manifest itself in the way it did a few years ago when I was leading a project whose team members were all white. Over the course of the project, the group became sullen and uncooperative to the point where I was forced to abandon the project altogether. When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”

When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”

What I learnt from that experience was that racism is so insidious and so deceptive that it can suck in the most well-intentioned people, including African-Americans like West, whose reckless utterances are lapped up by Trump’s America as evidence of black people’s servility and self-hatred. West owes his people an apology.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

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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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President
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The sudden death of Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli has thrown the East African nation into a period of political uncertainty.

Vice-president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has been sworn in as his successor, making her Tanzania’s first woman president.

The transition is all the more challenging given the major rupture – both political and economic – caused by Magufuli’s presidency. Magufuli, who won a second term in October 2020, dramatically centralised power and pursued an interventionist economic policy agenda. He courted controversy on a number of fronts, most recently, by claiming that Tanzania – contrary to mounting evidence – was Covid-free.

Hassan has called for unity and counselled that now is not the time to look at what has passed but rather to look at what is to come.

Despite the 61-year-old leader’s forward-looking stance, questions remain about how Magufuli’s legacy will shape her time in office.

The authoritarian turn

Magufuli oversaw the marginalisation of opposition parties and a decline in civil liberties. His first term was defined by heightened intimidation and violence against opposition leaders, including disappearances and physical attacks.

Thanks to five years of repression, the October 2020 general elections saw the opposition all but wiped out of elected office. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi now controls all local government councils. It also holds 97% of directly elected legislative seats, up from 73% in 2015.

In addition, media freedom and civil liberties were also restricted. A law passed in 2018 imposed jail terms for questioning the accuracy of official statistics.

But Magufuli’s authoritarian tendencies were not unprecedented in Tanzania. For instance, the rule of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete was also marred by human rights abuses as well civil society and media repression. Kikwete also cancelled Zanzibar’s 2015 election due to a likely opposition victory.

It remains to be seen whether Hassan will adopt a more liberal approach, loosening restrictions on opposition parties, the media and civil society. Even if she does, the damage will take time to repair. Opposition parties, for instance, may well struggle to regain their strength. Among other setbacks, they have lost almost all local elected representatives – a core element of their organisational infrastructure built up painstakingly over decades.

Centralising power in the party

Another key pillar to Magufuli’s legacy is the centralisation of power within the Chama Cha Mapinduzi.

In the early years under founding president Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s ruling party was dominated by the president and a hierarchy of appointed state and party officials. But, following economic liberalisation in the 1980s and Nyerere’s retirement from politics, the party became steeped in factional rivalries. These were spurred by new political alliances and an emerging private sector business elite.

This factionalism reached its height under Kikwete amid accusations of widespread corruption. Magufuli’s nomination as party presidential candidate only occurred because the rivalry among these factions left him as the unexpected compromise candidate.

Once in office, though, Magufuli quickly signalled he would be nobody’s puppet. He used his position as ruling party chairman to create a “new” Chama Cha Mapinduzi. This involved breaking with party heavyweights, including Kikwete, suppressing factional organising, and consolidating his own support base.

Magufuli’s new base was a cohort of freshly appointed party officials as well as civil servants and cabinet ministers. His loyalists likened these changes to a revival of Nyerere’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi. But, in our view, the comparison is misleading.

Like Magufuli before her, Hassan will be taking office – and party leadership – without her own political base. She will also have to contend with revived factional manoeuvring as sidelined groups try to regain an upper hand.

Hassan could align with a loyal Magufuli faction, which includes influential figures within the party. But, early indications suggest she intends to follow the advice of “party elders”, notably Kikwete. The former president reportedly attended the party’s most recent central committee meeting on Hassan’s invitation.

Aligning herself with Kikwete will likely lead to the reemergence of the internal factional rivalries that characterised the former president’s tenure.

Implications for economic policy

If president Hassan does continue to take a political steer from Kikwete, one likely outcome is that there will be a change in economic policy. In particular, a return to growth that’s led by a more business-friendly approach to the private sector.

Calls are already being made for such a course of action..

The danger for Hassan, however, is that under Kikwete this model was associated with high levels of corruption and unproductive rent-seeking.

A careful reassessment of the Magufuli era is needed to guide future policymaking.

Magufuli used his control over the ruling party to pursue an ambitious policy agenda. This was also linked to his political project of centralising power.

Although this trend actually began under Kikwete, Magufuli accelelrated a move towards more state-led investment. Under his leadership, both state-owned and, increasingly, military-owned enterprises were offered strategic contracts.

This ambitious programme initially won him praise. But over time, his authoritarian decision-making, mismanagement, and lack of transparency prompted a more critical response.

Many state enterprises remained cash-starved, relied on government financial support, and registered losses.

When the government’s controller and auditor general called for more scrutiny of public finances, his budget was slashed. And he was ultimately forced to retire and replaced by a Magufuli loyalist.

Alongside state investment, the president also sought to discipline private sector actors. Some observers suggest that this led to more productive investment, notably by domestic investors. But others point to renewed crony capitalist ties.

Magufuli’s most high profile corporate battle was against Canadian-owned Barrick Gold and its former subsidiary, Acacia Mining. From the two, he demanded USD$190 billion in tax arrears and a renegotiation of operating terms.

Many saw this resource-nationalist approach as an inspiration and a model for African countries seeking to take greater control of their mineral wealth. But in the end – partly due to externally imposed legal and economic constraints – Magufuli walked back on some of his demands. Instead he opted for cooperation rather than confrontation.

He negotiated a joint venture in which Barrick took a majority stake of 84% and Tanzania the remaining 16%. Key elements of the nationalistic mining legislation passed in 2017 were also reversed.

On the plus side gold overtook tourism as Tanzania’s biggest foreign-exchange earner. In addition, some small-scale miners saw their livelihoods improve. Results were more mixed elsewhere, especially for Tanzanite miners in the country’s north.

Ultimately, Magufuli leaves behind a mixed economic legacy. It combines misdirected authoritarian decision-making with positive efforts to pursue an active industrial policy. Reining in unproductive domestic investors and renegotiating adverse contracts with foreign investors were part of this agenda.

There is a risk, given this complex mix, that Tanzania’s policymakers may learn the wrong lessons from his presidency, leading back to the flawed model existing before.

Significantly, neither Magufuli nor his predecessors managed to achieve more inclusive growth. For this reason poverty levels have remained stubbornly high.

The pandemic and beyond

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

Whatever she does, the health emergency and associated economic crisis will likely define her presidency. It could indeed define the economic trajectory of the African region in years to come.

Both Kikwete and Magufuli ruled through an economic boom period. Commodity prices were high and access to international finance was fairly easy. This gave them latitude to choose between various development approaches.

If Tanzania reverts to the status quo of the Kikwete years, the risk is a reemergence of rent-seeking but without the same highly favourable economic growth conditions. Indeed, as external conditions worsen, Hassan may find her options far more limited.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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