An opinion piece by Nicholas Anakwue – Lagos, Nigeria
The sweeping currents of black solidarity and the #BlackLivesMatter movement have taken America and the world by storm lately, especially with the exasperating news of the murder of George Floyd. These have precipitated interests, once again, around the plight of Africans, both within their continent and in the Diaspora. The questions that have persisted on the lips of people have remained: When would all the hate stop? Why do black lives matter so little? What is so despicable about the colour black? Why is Africa, and are Africans, so often, discriminated against? What lies ahead for Africa as a people, as a continent?
There is, I dare say, an ambiguity one could effortlessly associate with the colour of black. Black represented the foreboding of the unknown, and yet, spoke of the dark beauty of puerile freedom. As regards to the latter, it was often in the delightful cover of dark, under the soft shade of an African sunset, that kids played their hearts out, dodging and revelling behind the foggy gleam of dimly-lit homes.
There was a certain freedom that the darkness invited. In Africa’s cultural past, folklores were often told, while gathered smugly around the family hearth, in the dark. Still, in this former friend, we also found a foe – evil was easily perpetrated under the cloak of darkness. This ambiguity with the colour black comes better to light (pun intended) when we consider that in subtractive colour mixing, all colours, together, make black, but, additively, make white. Black was the lack of light, while white was the lack of colour.
Furthermore, Myrdal asserts, that just as “the colour white is associated with everything good…black has through the ages, carried associations with all that is bad and low.” Black was seen as sinister, evil. Growing up in post-colonial Nigeria, I often hear the derogation, black people, employed as a final antiphon to the regular table talk of Nigeria’s woes and shortcomings. It was not uncommon to hear someone exclaim in an extravagant show of disappointment: Chai! Black people and their wahala!! Like Myrdal audaciously continued, “it becomes understandable and ‘natural’ on a deeper magical plane of reasoning that the Negro is believed to be stupid, immoral, diseased, lazy, incompetent and dangerous: dangerous to the white man’s virtue and social order.”
And so, following through this racist categorization of Africa, Hegel, the famed German philosopher, had excluded Africa from his trajectory of the world spirit, saying: ‘Africa is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.’ This smarting ignorance of Africa’s contributions to human knowledge, in the great civilizations of Ancient Egypt, the Mali Empire, the marvel of Ethiopian empire, etc., has not only reflected the deep-seated biases against Africa but are the very justifications for Africa’s association with the colour black. Like the black colour, Africa was seen as a dark continent; unknown, unexplored, unattractive.
This justification is without bases because realizing the wide variations in skin shade of Africans, together with its deep contrast with the colour black, leads one to wonder as to the true origins of the classification of Africans as black. Wole Soyinka helps this scepticism, painting a farcical picture of this disparity in his poem, Telephone Conversation, where he is uncertain about describing himself as dark or light, but with the comic portrayal, “West African Sepia”. St. Augustine did propose that a proper ostensive form of definition or denotation, like Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, pointed at an object in reality. It was a merger between an idea and its referent fact.
Unfortunately, the term “black person” seems largely undecided in what it described, akin to a chubby six-year-old happily trapped in a candy store, unsure as to which sweet to claim as his infantile right. And so, relevantly, a related description of Africans or Africa as the “Dark Continent” drives home the guess, as more likely, that the origin of the ‘black’ in Africa was not as a description of skin colour but as a verdict, however uninformed, on essence and character.
The African was associated with evil juju, fetishism, savagism, retardation, underdevelopment and unhistorical progress. Hegel, had further, described the Negroes as seemingly distinct from nature, not to be credited with humanity, as being yet fixated on an inferior rung in the developmental processes of humanization, being overcome with “sensations, instincts and passions”. He denied forthwith any consciousness of a “substantial objective existence”, that is, any concept of a philosophy or a theology, as belonging to an African mind.
But has been proven over time, these false tropes about Africa have not only been misguided, but intentionally dehumanizing. Africa is home to a richness of culture, belief, knowledge, and civilization. Given that, culture teaches ways of living and growing in our world, it is easy to identify the different cultural values of communitarianism, accountability, concern for each individual and a commitment to spiritual and moral values that Africa possesses. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu argues, Africa possesses the very “essence of being human”, which President Thabo Mbeki’s Ubuntu represents. Ubuntu was, for Africans, the attitudes of hospitality, caring about others and a willingness to go the extra mile for the sake of others. As such, we can rightly redefine the adjective of ‘black’ to carry forward the new nuances in meaning that our Africanness represents. Of the many lemons tossed in defiance at Africa, we can make lemonade.
Without doubt, Africa is still battling with certain challenges in health, politics and development. On more than one occasion, I have heard voices opine that Africa is lost in some ill-fated jinx, some curse that belonged to her essence of being black, blackened by vice, by greed and avarice, by the uncertainty that the black of dark hides. This is the pessimism of Gavin Kitching, whose scathing paper, Why I gave up African studies, was countered beautifully by Epprecht’s Why I love African studies.
Like Epprecht makes the point, Africa is a continent of hope. He points to significant strides in development that Africa is recording, because of the renewed interest of the public and private sectors in Africa’s emancipation. It is, yet, the foolhardy persistence of selfish and clueless governmental policies and gross mismanagement that has kept present the swaying shadow of colonial and neo-colonial impedance in Africa. If African countries were to strengthen and make independent their political interests, invest in their local industries, growing their own industries without much reliance on foreign products, build a viable economic base and define its territorial power, wouldn’t other foreign nations straighten up in respectful acknowledgement of her sovereignty?
Africa is taking steps in that regard already, with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which should make Africa a market for her own products. Leveraging on technology and the vast human resource potential that she has, Africa possesses the platform to expand and grow her knowledge base, and enhance development on the continent.
Being categorized ‘black’, regrettably, has, for the most part, seemed to have impacted our relationship with the rest of the world. It has conditioned us in an inferiority complex that we need to break free of. We are like crawling toddlers that have been made to believe we could never brave walk with our feet. Even with the United States of America’s boast of free speech and freedom of all peoples, we still witness subtler and subtler persecution and antagonism against “black people”. The notorious George Zimmerman, acquitted unceremoniously even after killing Trayvon Martin in cold blood, only exposed the hidden cancer of hate against blacks, in the US. George Floyd’s death, once again, sounds the emphasis on what has persisted as calculated hate against a people. Still, of all colours on a palette, while black is the least appreciated by the artist when painting a colourful piece, this changes when the artist intends applying the chiaroscuro effect – the effect of light. Ironically, it is proper shades of black, in contrast to light, that brings life to the already prepared image on canvass.
Ultimately, herein is the paradox. For, the paradox of being black is not being black; it is not being labelled or fated by the pigment of one’s skin. It is not being a dark womb of uncertainty, of fear, of underachievement. Being black is not the African curse—the African’s metaphorical recession into oblivion. Being black is not the shaded despondency of colour. In its paradoxical twist, being black is the hope of unlimited freedom, that nothing is yet decided, that cynical labels have fallen short of their mark, that possibilities are endless. Being black is being free even in the servitude of chains—chains of neo-colonial oppression and Western denigration. Being black is harnessing the illumination of life, like the proverbial artist painting history by his actions and inactions. And so, our Africa is rife with possibilities of advancement.
Yes, Africa is free, black is beautiful. We will only savour this realization when we, truly embrace our great potentials as a continent of beautiful dreams. You and I are protagonists of that great future for Africa, if and when we take the steps towards the horizon. This is the colour of our hope.