7.2.11

African?

In this past week I have been following an online exchange among member of the Development Discussion Group that meets monthly in Lusaka. Their topic of choice was “Race in Zambia” and a number of articles have been shared in preparation. The subject fascinates me and I had many ideas I felt I could contribute but decided to continue eavesdropping. However, the most recent contribution was a link from the Mail and Guardians blog. It is in short a defence of the conflation of the words African and the race that is sometimes called African.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I detest my race being called African. To me, Africa is a geographical designation that refers to anyone of the hundreds of millions of people who reside on my continent. Moreover, there are many competing definitions and titles for the race to which I belong, African, Afro-Caribbean and (gulp) People of Colour. 

There are some who would even dismiss the notion of race labelling it “biological essentialism.” Blacks, even without including people of mixed heritage, encompass many physical characteristics beginning with the colour of our skin, our hair and height and we have diverse traditions, cultures and geographical locations. 

Nonetheless throughout history, we have always been the “Other.” 

Being Black is not a biological classification (as we know race is not a biological concept). To be Black is far more than a skin colour, or the continent from which we originate, but it is our common history of Otherness – the slave, the museum centrepiece, the blaxploitation film - that makes us a Race. It is, for instance, the same idea that distinguishes Jews from other Europeans or Arabs. 

Black people have been defined as “different” by since ancient times. In fact, it has been suggested that we were not Black until “the norm” defined us as such. We ourselves see our distinctions, we know we are divided into groups, some distinct and some vague, we see our physical difference and cultural diversity. However this does not stop the rest of the world classifying us a single unit and assigning specific characteristics to a heterogeneous collective. 

Throughout history, we have been called, inferior, sub-human and ugly. The racialisation was epitomised in the Atlantic slave trade. It was not the first or last time that Blacks have been enslaved and of course African and Arabs were as complicit as Europeans and Americans. But I would propose that the Atlantic Slave Trade strengthened the concept of the singularity of Blacks because the distinctions between Blacks ceased matter as we all became a commodity. The Slave Trade also weakened the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa is readiness for the formalisation of the colonial system. 

In the twenty-first century Black people can be found all over the world, we inhabit every class and every imaginable profession. Our economic and social conditions have changed overall for the better but unfortunately, in many parts of the world, for worse. Finally, the continent from which we originate is populated by more and more people who would call themselves Africans and yet are not Black, which takes nothing away from our identity or our heritage. 

Photo: Karol Kelly

Links We Are Not All Africans, Black People Are! http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/sentletsediakanyo/2010/12/28/we-are-not-all-africans-black-people-are

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