Black Power was primarily a revolution of the mind: the continuation of the revolution of Marcus Garvey. It first aimed to free “black” people who embraced it from seeing themselves and their past through the lens and language of those who trampled on their humanity, denied them the dignity of embracing their ancestral homeland and restricted their economic ambitions to ancillary occupations.
This process of disempowerment began many centuries ago with European imposition of multiple, racially-tainted identities upon the African, culminating in a ruthless, systematic colonisation of the mind in a variety of colonial situations from late-19th to mid-20th Century.
Martinican poet-politician Aimé Césaire graphically expressed the results of this relentless assault in his book, Discourse on Colonialism (1955): “I am talking about millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys.”
Radical Martinican thinker-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon expressed a similar sentiment but in more direct cultural terms in his book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952): “Every colonised people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality—finds itself face-to-face with the language of the civilizing nation, that is, with the culture of the mother country.”
Chris Searle succinctly summarises Césaire and Fanon: “We find our identities through our language.” An understanding of this phenomenon is critical to understanding and appreciating the burden of responsibility undertaken by the Black Power (BP) movement.
Searle, a white Breton, taught English in Tobago during the Black Power era. In the “Preface” to his book, White Words, Black People (1972), he acknowledges the BP backdrop to his experience. To him, the remarkable successes of agencies in the struggles for “black freedom,” from Marcus Garvey to the warriors of BP, including the black presses, “have meant that there is a new meaning in the English language for the word ‘black.’ ‘Black man’ is ‘one who struggles, who fights oppression.’ In this sense, with this meaning, we should all be black.”
Too often, like Searle, we narrowly conceive the linguistic dimension of these struggles only from an Anglophone perspective. Between the decline of Garveyism and the rise of Black Power, “black Frenchmen” in the diaspora and Africa pioneered a remarkable movement in black consciousness that is worthy of noting.
French colonial policy of “assimilation” was skilfully designed to mask racism with the mirage of egalitarianism. As a result, “black Frenchmen,” particularly the more privileged “assimilated” intellectuals, completely subverted their black identity in order to become “French.”.
One of the most striking narratives of self-consciousness through the rediscovery of his black identity is that of Aimé Césaire during his student days in Paris in the 1930’s. Césaire relates how some white passengers’ taunting of “un nègre mélancolique” (“a melancholy nigger”), seated next to him on a train, shocked him into the reality of his own blackness. For the first time, he was conscious of seeing “a nigger,” not just a man; also, for the first time, he was convinced that “nègre” (nigger) referred to him as well [Michael Lambert, “From Citizenship to Negritude,” 1993].
This experience inspired Césaire’s masterpiece, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). Cahier echoed Marcus Garvey’s mantra, “Africa for the Africans” and for the same reason: it was only by embracing Africa and one’s Africanity that the detoxification of blackness from centuries of racist contamination could be achieved.
Leopold Senghor, who became Senegal’s first President, was educated in Dakar, the capital city, before going to Paris to further his studies in 1928. Dakar was one of the Four Communes of colonial Senegal (St. Louis, Dakar, Gorée and Rufisque), the most intensely Frenchified spaces in Africa outside of Algeria. Senghor experienced a similar journey of self-discovery in the 1930’s. Awakening from the stupor of assimilationism, Senghor writes: “We could assimilate mathematics or the French language but we could never strip off our black skins or root out our black souls” [Lambert, “From Citizenship to Negritude”].
The writings and activism of Césaire and Senghor, among a few other black scholars of the 1930’s, launched the Negritude movement. The term Negritude is a derived from “nègre;” it was the black Frenchman’s antidote to the negation of humanity powered by the term “nègre.” As expressed by Lambert, the negritude movement “reinvented new ways of seeing blacks, both for themselves and for white Frenchmen.”
The colonial regimes brutally deployed “niggerism” and “negroism” as disempowering identities in all slave colonies in the Americas. In his autobiographical novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, James Weldon Johnson describes the deep emotional pain he experienced when, as a 9-year old, he inadvertently found out in school that he was not white. Weldon and his mother had migrated from Georgia to Connecticut.
Running home from school, he addressed his mother (probably a “quadroon” or “mustee”—a “near-white”), “Tell me, mother, am I a nigger?” Weldon’s school was predominantly white. Before that day of reckoning, Johnson did not self-identify with the “brown and black girls and boys” of the school. Brown and black were obvious references to complexion of skin; but “nigger” was different—it was the ethnicity of a slave, regardless of complexion.
“Reconstruction” had just ended in the USA so the memory of slavery was still very strong for any Southern parent of a child of Johnson’s age. The implication of being a nigger was implied in his mother’s response: “No, my darling, you are not a nigger…You are as good as anybody.”
If there was any doubt that “anybody” was white (and that white was the precondition for goodness), the reference to Johnson’s father removed it completely: “Your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood in the South is in you.” It did not matter that “the best blood” equated with the biggest slave owners. With the rude awakening, Weldon assumed his new ethnicity: “Coloured.”
Winston James correctly contends that ethnic identity is “always in the process of being made and remade” [“Migration, Racism and Identity,” in New Left Review, 1992]. Nevertheless, no other “group” of people has had to negotiate as many ethnic identities as members of the African diaspora, itself an ill-defined terminology.
Historian W. D. Wright asks rhetorically of the African Diaspora in early 1960’s USA: “Are they Africans, Afro-Americans, African-Americans, Blacks, blacks, Black-Americans, or black Americans?” [Black History and Black Identity: A Call for a New Historiography (2002)].
A person of the same phenotype in the Caribbean may still conveniently assert even more racial identities at any given time: “African,” “Black,” “Creole,” “Coloured,” “Mixed,” “local white”, “West Indian” (or narrower national applications), “Afro-West Indian,” “West Indian of African descent” or even “Negro.” All these ethnicities are externally imposed/by colonisers of the African.
The problem, however, is not simply one of externally prescribed ethnic identification; after all, the external imposition of national as well as ethnic identifications is a universal phenomenon.
The following examples underscore this point: the identity of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean as Amerindians/Indians, Caribs and Arawaks are externally imposed ascriptions; the ethnic name “Yoruba” is Hausa (the dominant language-culture system north of Yorubaland); another ethnic identity of the Yoruba in the republics of Benin and Togo is “Nago,” a name that appears in most Caribbean plantation slave colonies. “Caribbean” and its variants, West Indian and Antillean, are all externally imposed identities.
Historically, Africans in Africa have imposed their own ethnic identities on whites. For example, in Ghana white residents invariably identify with the Akan term “obroni;” the equivalent in Kenya is the Swahili expression, “mzungu/muzungu.”
Africans in Caribbean slave colonies also coined their own linguistic terms as ethnic identifiers of white enslavers. The most ubiquitous term, “buckra”, has its provenance in Igbo, Efik or Ibibio (all in southern Nigeria). In some colonies, “buckra” pejoratively described only poor whites.
Incidentally, the white diaspora has been more successful than blacks in completely jettisoning identities ascribed to them by the people they colonised. In the Caribbean, “buckra” is now obsolete; in the USA, “Paleface” has been consigned to the same fate. Interestingly, Kenyans have monetised white (mainly tourists’) rejection of mzungu: anyone who has been to Kenya would have noticed whites wearing T-shirts with the bold print “I AM NOT MZUNGU.”
Although some have argued to the contrary, the terms mzungu and obroni are not equivalent to the English language terms “negro,” “nigger” or “black.” Mzungu and obroni are culturally sensitive, and even sometimes used as polite labels.
Essentially, both terms mean “strangers” and, although transliterated as “white,” they do not exclusively apply to complexion—indeed, some black people have been so called, if they persist in particular “foreign” behaviours. I was called “obroni” by students of the University in Ghana because of my “foreign” accent.
At a conference of Africanist historians in 1974, convened to iron out issues in writing the UNESCO-sponsored compilation of African history, the white scholars—the vast majority of conference delegates—with customary imperious arrogance, remained steadfast in denying the two native African scholars, Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal and Theophille Obenga of the Congo, the right to define “negro” [S.C. Drake, Black Folk Here and There]. To contextualise this objection, we have to consider the ontology of word power.
Nineteenth-century white American poet Emily Dickinson affirms: “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.” Indeed, all creation myths endow the spoken word with divine essence. In Hinduism (and other Dharmic religions), Om (Sanskrit, also transcribed as Aum) is the most sacred sound/syllable, uttered with greatest reverence, because of its relevance to birth, life and death.
In Kemet (Ancient Egypt), language (spoken or written) was called mdw ntr (pronounced Medew Netcher). Through mdr ntr, Atum/Temu (also called Khepera) brought himself as well as the universe into being. Mdr ntr was inscribed on the outer coffin and lid of a mummy to protect and guide the soul through the underworld to its final judgement.
In my last column, I highlighted the essence of an individual’s name (rn) in Ancient Egypt. This belief is still alive and well in Africa today. To give a new-born a name is to complete its essence as an individual person—as Sharon Bernhardt explains, “the name is for the person’s soul” [cited in Liseli Fitzpatrick, “Names and Naming Practices,” BA Thesis, Ohio State University, 2012).
Naming is done at about the ninth day of a child’s life—it is, therefore, patently absurd to name a baby before it is born or even conceived. Africans may assume new names during their lifetime, for example, after initiation into a “secret society.” Often, these names are secret and endowed with spiritual power, called nyama among the Bambara people.
In Africa, the word is a powerful tool of divination. Interpreters of oracles imbue the communicator with immense social power. It is the same power that is wrapped up in self- or externally imposed identities. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre succinctly summed up the balance of power between “colonialists” and “natives” towards the end of the colonial era: “The former had the Word; the others had the use of it.” [“Preface” to Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963]. Ownership and control of the word was—and remains—crucial to Euro-American global cultural hegemony.
Many white historians unequivocally embrace the “one drop” racist canon in assigning “black” (“negro”) identity to all shades of “African Americans.” These same historians brazenly reject “black” (“negro”) identity even for “brown” people of Africa. If one looks at The Penguin Atlas of African History compiled by Colin Mc Evedy, one would see how the demographic distribution of “Negro” equates exactly with the areas that were ravaged to supply servile labour to Europe’s American colonies.
There are no “Negroes” in East Africa or South Africa—for the peoples in those regions, the “controllers of the Word,” forged new identities: “Hamites,” “Bantu” or “Khoisan,” who were considered not “true Negroes.” This absurdity paid dividends to colonialists: it served effectively to deny “blacks” in the Caribbean and USA any agency in the history of the greatest civilizations in the continent, thus deepening the self-hate and inferiority complexes of Africans, especially in the diaspora.
Garvey set the example to the Pan-African community in reclaiming the cultural unity of Africa. This legacy became central to Black Power. In my next column, I shall identify the exact date when the word “black” became a bad word in the English language and also explore further how Africans have confronted this word, not only to decontaminate it but also to endow it with the power of liberation.