Geography Informs Solidarity: I Have Seen Africans Become Black (Politically)

“I remember when I realized I was Black… It wasn’t long ago, it was 10 years ago.” -Tsedal (in her interview for my thesis talking about when she moved to the United States from Kenya)

On the Realization of Blackness: Context

Tsedal thinks of the identification with Blackness as more of an internal realization, rather than acceptance of something imposed from the outside. Although, identifying as Black is influenced by both internal and external factors. This identification with Blackness in the United States by Americans, Africans, and Caribbean people alike as well as in Europe by Afropeans, Black Europeans, and Africans in Europe is a political act of solidarity with the Black Diaspora and global Black experience. There is no one way of being Black and there is no universal Black experience. However, there are similarities and patterns of the treatment of Black people in Western nations. Additionally, there are cultural patterns within music, food, fashion, parenting, and art that can be seen across many Black communities.

Having spoken to  many Africans in Europe as well as my African (and Caribbean) friends in theU.S., the identification with Blackness becomes salient when moving to either North America or continental Europe. This is largely because one’s ethnic or national identity is not seen as their primary form of being. One is usually and most quickly identified by others as being Black. This external identification comes with certain treatment, stereotypes, judgements, and association whether positive or negative. My friend Cliff told me that many Austrians are disappointed to find out that he does not play futbol (soccer) because they assume that since he is Black African, he must play and be good at futbol. A rather harmless, albeit annoying, assumption. On the other hand, another friend tells me people frequently stop and ask him for drugs because they assume since he is Black he must sell drugs. We see police violence and brutality against Black men (but also women) in the United States, United Kingdom, Austria, Greece, France, etc. As my Somalian friend Guled told me in his interview, “Black Lives Matter equates across the board anywhere in the African Diaspora.”

This realization of Blackness is in one part an acceptance of the identity that may be influenced by how others see you and is simultaneously an acknowledgement and recognition of a Black experience that is manifested in many ways culturally, politically, socially and geographically. The experience of Blackness as post/neocoloniality, racism, geographical dispersal, music & dance, spirituality, fluidity, commodity and community. The realization or identification with Blackness, especially by certain African and Caribbean populations (people from the horn of Africa and from the Spanish Caribbean), is a way of aligning oneself with communities that transcend ethnic identity and national borders that are usually violent, divisive, and exclusionary.

Geographies of Solidarity: Oppressive Blackness

When one becomes invariably associated with a collective it can seem to erase individuality and other forms of self-directed identity. It also provides an opportunity for solidarity which goes beyond the nation-state and national boundaries, which were largely imposed by colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, European exceptionalism (through their ‘civilizing missions’) and North American imperialism. Often the necessity for Black solidarity comes from the oppressive points of Blackness where Black bodies are disproportionately mistreated and have violence inflicted upon them. Black people as marginalized and oppressed populations is one reason for some disassociating with the identity, yet is also a reason why others gravitate towards this identity in acts of solidarity. Moving from majority Black nations in Africa and the Caribbean to majority White nations in Europe or North America can mean prioritizing Black identity to combat feelings of isolation, minoritization, create community, and fight anti-Black racism. When the geographical context shifts, so does one’s identification. With the change of geography, different issues and experiences become more salient and forefront realities for Black communities.

I have seen people who mostly identify with their their nationality or ethnic identity on the continent of Africa, in the Caribbean, or in Latin America become Black after a short (or long) time in European and North American cities. I think of it less as becoming Black and more as affirming Blackness. The realization of the continuities and shared culture between Black communities. The subtle and explicit racism and exclusion of Black communities in Western cities and from Western nationalism more generally. The struggle against neocolonial policies, neoliberal capitalism, and racism/fascism. All of these factors contribute to and necessitate the political identification with Blackness by people of African descent in Western nations.

Geographies of Liberated Blackness

Afrofuturistic solidarities have no borders. Borders are antiquated constructions that are often violent forces of exclusion and marginalization, making the political hierarchy of passports central to discussions of human rights rather than centralizing humans. International Black solidarity is not new and has been highlighted in pan-Africanist ideologies as well as literary and cultural movements such as Negritude and New Negro Movement (aka Harlem Renaissance), in theory and Black scholarship with Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and Fanon’s work (including essays in The Wretched of the Earth). Blackness, although now seen as quintessentially Black American, has always been transnational and international. Now it is common to hear people talking about “no borders” or being “from earth,” especially in Europe with the ‘refugee crisis’ and in the U.S. with the crackdown on immigration and the immigrant ban. However, Black people have been understanding Blackness as necessarily working outside of national boundaries for centuries.

The Afrofuture is the realization that in the past Blackness has always been and is still an international political and cultural identity. Blackness is resistance and queerness (re: theories of the queerness and Blackness not only relating to sexual identity). Blackness is rearranging hegemonic linear notions of time and space where past is unattainable and the future is not yet here. In the Afrofututre the past, present and future are happening simultaneously; Sankofa. This is the geography of liberated Blackness: it is rather post-geographical in the sense that geographical boundaries do not limit it and it is not solely informed by nation-states.

Becoming Black as an act of realizing international solidarity and recognizing the fluidity of Black identity is a decolonizing  stance that allows for people of African descent to self-direct our realities. It makes collectivity art through individuation, rather than individualism (which is the violence of capitalism). Individuation is belonging to yourself and a collective. It is understanding your individual differences, needs, biography, desires and experiences within the context of a collective but not bounded by it. Individualism favors self-interest over and separation from the collective, reproducing neoliberal capitalism that exploits vulnerable populations and postcolonial nations. Africans or Caribbean people becoming Black (or realizing we are Black) when moving to and living in Western nations allows for discussions around the need for solidarity and necessity of identifying with Blackness in these places. It also gives us opportunities to produce spaces where we can affirm and contest our multivaried identities.

Liberated Blackness is a geography of everywhere and nowhere, reinforced by the ever-changing reality of Black communities.

*Note: In this article Western nations refers to countries in North America and Europe, other White majority countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and settler European colony/Apartheid country: South Africa