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As we die in plain sight : the autopsy of African Civilisations

D 18 octobre 2022     H 21:13     A Benjamin Maiangwa, Christiane Ndedi Essombe     C 0 messages

Christiane Ndedi Essombe and Benjamin Maiangwa write that the aggressive erasure of African civilisations is obvious to anyone capable of shifting away from a colonised world view where history is written by the coloniser and their African proxies. This erasure of humanity and civilisations was once again visible with the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Essombe and Maiangwa explain that even in death, symbols of historical oppression remain venerated and absolved of their crimes while their survivors continue to endure centuries-long violence and trauma.

By Christiane Ndedi Essombe and Benjamin Maiangwa

It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead ; it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten…. The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child ; nevertheless, the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955)

Disorientation, argues Ian Williams, is a moment of racial awakening, it “marks an emerging awareness of white dominance, and a place for the Black person in the hierarchy of whiteness”. It has been a bedfellow to many a people of colour. I (the second author) was taking a walk with a friend around a populated waterfront area when we came across a woman with her little poodle seated peacefully on her lap. The dog went wild as soon as he cast his gaze on us, barking non-stop. The lady felt the need to issue a quick apology : “sorry, my dog only barks at people who look a little different”. I wished she hadn’t bothered. I wondered how different we really were in a place that was brimming with all shades of difference.

Certainly, this incident wasn’t my first moment of “disorientation”, but it was telling. It came when I was not prepared to think of myself in racial terms, or should I always be prepared ? This disorienting moment, this criminal racial encounter, this violence of being born, is a call to introspection about what I may have lost through the banality of racial violence ; about my resolve, our resolve, to occupy our own space in the world.

W.E.B. Du Bois concluded that Black people develop a double consciousness in which they learn to see themselves through the White gaze. Even as one strives to centre their subjectivity to see themselves according to their own terms, one remains crudely aware of the Othering they can and will be subjected to, for the maintenance of a racial hierarchy. These dynamics of Othering are so pervasive that many racialized people end up adopting the White gaze uncritically. So, for example, conversations about Africa, its history, and people, its premodern or pre-European configurations are often ignored or forgotten.

Africans, aware that they had civilisations that pre-existed the inroads of the Europeans and Arabs on the continent, are almost oblivious of what these systems were. As a result, our deep history and culture, if acknowledged at all, are often explained away as inconsequential to world affairs. Western thinkers and politicians have argued ad nauseam that African societies have lived outside of history with nothing to offer. The aggressive and, at times, self-imposed erasure of the African civilisation is obvious to anyone capable of shifting away from a colonized world view where history is only written by colonists and their African proxies.

The reminder of the erasure of the humanity and civilisations of the African and colonized people was once again seen in the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September, 2022. Her passing saw massive mediatic coverage during which seemingly every minute of the multi-stage funeral was discussed. To those with keen eyes, a critical viewpoint or simply a less Eurocentric vantage point, the blatant omission in most of the media coverage was the connection between the Queen as the incarnation of the British monarchy and global systems of oppression.

By mourning her departure her supporters and subjects are only according her the due that they felt she deserved. Yet, the Queen’s seeming benevolence, grace, and poise in the discharge of her royal duties, cannot discount that she represented a callous, imperial system which she kept intact. This should not be surprising as European monarchy is based on the belief that some people are allegedly descendants of a (white) God, which gives them the authority to reign over those who do not have a royal lineage. Indeed, the British rapport with French and Spanish monarchies on one hand and the eradication and overthrowing of royal dynasties in Asia, Africa, and America to make way for colonialism and imperialism on the other, indicate that the authority of non-White monarchs has never been quite recognized by their would-be European homologues.

Instead, a belief in the social construct of race and the hierarchisation of regions of the world, socio-economic status, gender, and religion was used to justify the hegemony of White royals and their agents over racialized, non-European Others. The dehumanisation of colonial subjects, while conveniently vague to those mourning the Queen, remains fresh in the memory and flesh of those who experienced it firsthand. Hence, the aversion of those who remember this history—mostly Africans, Indigenous groups, including Irish Catholics—towards the convivial sentiments expressed by those who do not is quite understandable. Even in death, symbols of historical oppression remain venerated and absolved of any fault while their survivors have yet to hear an apology or receive reparations for the century-long violence and generational trauma they experienced. Furthermore, exhorting survivors of the oppressive world that the Monarchy symbolizes to “move on” when that very institution remains intact, is just another way of reinforcing a Eurocentric colonial rationale that dismisses those it sees as inferior.

For indigenous and Black people whose civilisations and cultures were destroyed by the British empire, whose lands were considered terra nullius, whose bodies were enslaved, commodified and instrumentalised to set both the foundation of a global racial capitalism and (settler) colonial, white supremacist societies, the silence around the relentless violence unleashed by the British monarchy is many things but surprising. Perhaps, now is the time to consider whether a separation from the Crown by countries like Canada, Australia and the entire Commonwealth would be a mere symbolic decoupling with a violent past or an actual act of emancipation.

Surely the death of a monarch is exactly the right time to bring up the racist, sexist, and capitalist agenda of the British monarchy. These realities have commonly been ignored in the western world disguised under the (il)liberal world system in which the monarchy’s real meaning is fundamentally at odds with the acknowledgement of global history.

Death, as taboo as this topic is in ‘rational’ Western culture, must be an invitation to examine the meaning we ascribe to life and the legacy we wish to leave. It must be an initiation for formerly colonized peoples, particularly African peoples, to reflect on how they were hurried, as James Baldwin says, into “the pallid” arms of God, and taught to see themselves as inherently defective and sinful. As Baldwin wrote :

The African, exile, pagan, hurried off the auction block and into the fields, fell on his knees before that God…who had made him but not in His image…. Wash me, cried the slave to his Maker, and I shall be whiter, whiter than snow !

With such a violent history of identity denial, racial oppression and the cult of whiteness, racialized people of this world ought to ask themselves whether they have ever defined themselves as anything but a sad copy of their oppressors. Or better yet, they ought to ask themselves how they would want to be remembered in a postcolonial, post-transatlantic slave trade world where history is deeply Eurocentric and racist.

Although conversations about death and legacy can seem odd, we argue that they provide a framework to think about what and who matters on the global stage. After all, death as a physiological phenomenon is the only certainty of any living being and is associated to characteristics identifiable by all. Death of a people and its civilisation on the other end, does not seem to have such obvious characteristics. It is often only in hindsight that one can appreciate the civilisations that were and that no longer are.

We also proclaim that there is a specter haunting Africa and the Black community, it is a specter of her civilisation. But instead of exorcising it, this specter is crying out to be embodied in the realities of her “disembodied” peoples through deep revolutionary reflection and action.

To be sure, liberation does not end with the attainment of independence. Rather it begins as a people take their own destiny into their hands and begin to understand that the seeds of change are contained in their own agency for survival and propagation.

So, even as Africans and other former British colonies demand an apology and restitution and the return of stolen wealth, we reckon that the real fight lies within. The autonomy and liberation of the oppressed is tied to the revival of their civilisations.

We define civilisation as a complex systems that emerged as populations established settled dwellings secured food surplus and engaged in non-food related specialised activities. Large populations settling into a given space leads to the establishment of a political structure to rule over the area and control production. Thus, it is theoretically unavoidable that several civilisations have existed throughout history. Such systems have delivered social norms and social stratification specific to them. Yet simultaneous feelings of emptiness, stolen legacy and denied identity can abound when one reflects on the implications of this definition for any civilisation in a (formerly) colonized space.

If we take Africa as an example, often, Africans themselves, only know about the history of their civilisations as told by former colonial powers or by the Africans who ended up assimilating into a supposedly colourless, objective, approach to their own people.

But as Frantz Fanon warned us, “for the colonized subject, objectivity is always directed against him”. There is no such thing as objectivity when the colonial gaze wanders on what it considers its own properties and justified actions, even when they normalise the use of astoundingly barbaric means to defend and carry out the so-called mission civilisatricefor the purported welfare of the “uncivilized African”.

Centuries pass by and yet the contempt and compulsive need to invalidate, belittle and instrumentalise the non-western Other remains. The colonial impulse to abide by a hierarchy of humanity to justify white supremacy has been unforgiving whenever the European colonial gaze has come into contact with pre-colonised accomplishments in non-European spaces. Such documented realisations leave bare the indisputable fact that non-western civilisations were alive well before foreign invasion and never needed western civilisations to thrive.

Ancient cities like Djenné, Gao, and Timbuktu long modernized before their contact with Arabs and Europeans. On this count, the idea that ‘Black Africa’ was dragged out of its “tribalism” and “darkness” by Arabs and Europeans and into the “big currents of change” is a lie that has rendered a people worthless and erased their contributions to global society. And yet, Africans themselves seldom make reference to their deep history that sustained them for millennia – as Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears write, “the ideas of ancient Egyptians, the epics of traditional societies and the religious and [their] philosophical utterances of Africans since the beginnings of human society.” To this day, the kingdom of Axum, the splendour of the Dahomey kingdom and the African origin of astronomy and astrology, are still on death row, trapped in the jail of historical amnesia, internalized colonialism and anti-Blackness.

Several decades ago, Cheikh Anta Diop demonstrated how easy it is to whiten and Europeanise African civilisations, breaking them apart so as to never connect them with any trace of greatness. Walter Rodney noted how Africa’s stolen artefacts have been used to define European metropoles, hideously informing their civilised identity. African artefacts and peoples have been destroyed, overwritten as European and looted to justify the colonial project.

At a time when even African institutions do not protect their own civilisations nor tell their own history, it is unclear whether these facts will be forever erased from historical records and from the memory of the very Africans whose ancestors birthed them. Within such a conjuncture, one wonders whether the history of African civilisations will be over-written by (western or westernised) “objective experts” and “change agents” or whether African people will awaken from colonial slumber, and return to revive and protect their rich history and cultures.

Only time will tell.

For now, we argue that in a paradigm of Eurocentrism and White supremacy, African societies have been set for failure ever since they were marked as mere resources to exploit and instrumentalise for the benefit of western hegemony. African societies would be best served in conducting a thorough reflection on their civilisations because as James Baldwin warns, “we cannot escape our origins…those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become”. And how do we find this key ? Femi Aborisade argues, through “the collective action of the common people that can emancipate and transform society.”

Africa as a colonial construct is hanging onto some violently pieced-together parody of western ideals, further erasing its own identity and agency and devaluating its reputation and innovative capacity. Being Black or African is a responsibility unto oneself, not an excuse from understanding the past. As Ian Williams says, “when you position yourself in history, you enter into a community of people with similar experiences and you observe how the racial climate changes over time”. When you so position yourself, you create a sufficient level of discomfort that could engender change despite the hostility you face.

As the erasure of African civilisations continues, the only remaining questions are as follows : are we as Africans aware that we are nearing extinction and, if so, why do we remain passive as we are dying ? Is our passivity in death further evidence that we’ve never known what living feels like ? Or are we hindered by a double consciousness that slots us neatly into the image that White men have of Black people’s fortunate ability to laugh all their troubles away ?

We ought to come to terms with the fact that it is only us who can prevent our history from being reduced to an asterisk at the end of a British monarch’s eulogy. It is for us to imagine who will speak our eulogy and whether what would be said will challenge the status quo of a post-transatlantic slave trade world, or feed into the story written by European colonial powers for the last 400 years.

Christiane Ndedi Essombe holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Montreal School of Public Health. She has worked with various marginalized populations such as people with albinism in Tanzania, migrating people at the US/Mexico border, survivors of the Colombian armed conflict and refugee claimants in Montreal. Her current projects focus on interrogating racial violence in African contexts and its link with internalized colonialism in people of African descent.

Benjamin Maiangwa teaches in the department of Political Science at Lakehead University. Maiangwa’s research focuses on the intersection of politics, culture, and society. His recent publications use storytelling, action research, and critical ethnography to explore notions of contested belonging, mobility, and how people experience conflict and peace in everyday life.

Featured Photograph : James Baldwin presenting his new book at a press conference in the American Hotel in Amsterdam (14 November 1974).

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