Monday, February 26, 2007

Black History, pan-African citizenship, and the 21st century

As Black History Month winds up in the United States and in US Embassies around the world, I want to reflect on the larger meaning of the month, and to imagine how a pan-African identity for the 21st century might consolidate the gains of the Black world and help usher in a whole new different reality. The Public Affairs Section of the American Embassy in Malawi has carried out several activities in several cities and towns in Malawi to commemorate the history of Africans in America. According to The Nation edition of February 14, 2007, activities marking the month have included poster shows, book exhibitions, film screenings, and public discussions. On January 15, the Public Affairs Section hosted secondary school students and their history teachers to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is celebrated on the same day that Malawi celebrates Chilembwe Day.

I have already written on the significance of Chilembwe Day in Malawi being celebrated on the same day that is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, pointing out how both leaders should be seen as activists for peace and social justice. Although they lived their times separated by over half a century, the issues they both dealt with, the struggles of Black people against racism, have a much longer history. It is true that a lot has changed since these two courageous men sacrificed their lives as part of the struggle for the dignity of Black people, and that a lot more still needs to change. I grew up and went to school in Malawi, and even trained as a primary school teacher, but learned very little about Africans in America, let alone about Martin Luther King Jr, or Malcolm X. Hence it is significant that the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Malawi is commemorating Black History Month, and encouraging discussion of Black History in educational institutions. It is imperative that Black History, and its continuing struggles, become integrated into the school curriculum, and in the wider public sphere, especially the media, so that as many Malawians as possible become aware of the lives and achievements of Black people in and outside the African continent.

In integrating Black History into the Malawian curriculum and in the public sphere, it will be necessary to overcome the tendency to teach only the safe, benign aspects of Black History, leaving out the difficult parts. This entails telling our children the truth about the dehumanization that Black peoples have suffered at the hands of powerful white people and their institutions, as well as the continuing disdain and disrespect Black people continue to suffer at the hands of racists of all races, including a few fellow Black people as well. Of continuing concern are educated, elite Blacks who, unable to understand racism and its insidious ways, choose the easiest way out, disinheriting their Blackness and identifying themselves with racist white power and privilege.

I have recently learned, from my pan-Afrikan sistas at Black Looks, of suggestions made by the African Union for African countries to offer dual citizenship to wealthy Black Americans as a way of encouraging them to financially support African countries. The idea is brilliant, especially if it can be stripped of its financial motivation and made instead to focus on forging solidarity and the championing of pan-African causes. The financial aspects will be there alright, but not as the primary motivation. As the sistas at Black Looks and Baffour Ankomah urge, the concept must be extended to Black people around the world, not just Black Americans. The uniting factor here must be understanding and appreciation of the Black struggle, and hence solidarity must be sought with all peoples who share in this ideological cause, regardless of geography and of race. There are a few non-Black people who share a rich, meaningful appreciation of this cause, and who must be acknowledged for their humility, deference and solidarity.

In a powerfully and poignantly argued essay, Ezrah Aharone has written about the contradiction of the strategic importance of Africa and its resources to the West, and now, increasingly, to Asia, while African Americans have more or less abandoned ties with their ancestral homeland. Aharone decries the absence of Africa in the Black America revival project outlined in Tavis Smiley’s Covenant with Black America, observing that: “It’s urgent and imperative therefore that all leaders of African descent understand the ‘geo-strategic economics’ of how the world was fashioned into this current state. Otherwise they are, by default, perpetuating a world system rooted in irresolvable inequities.”

Back on the continent itself, the struggle for unity continues, with the ideals once championed by Kwame Nkrumah further receding into oblivion, as the education system fails to educate young Africans about pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness. The evidence of this oblivion can be seen in recent threats to potentially unifying, ultra-modern projects such as the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), aimed at connecting a large part of the continent South of the Sahara to reduce telecommunications costs for ordinary Africans. Charges and accusations of control and exploitation have already stalled progress on the project, and now an Indian technology company, Reliance Corporation, has announced plans to construct a cable line along the same route originally planned for EASSy.

In Malawi, the Shire-Zambezi waterway, a multi-billion Kwacha project that President Bingu wa Mutharika had hoped would reduce Malawi’s exports and imports costs by linking the country directly with the Indian Ocean via the Zambezi and Shire Rivers, is reportedly threatened by Mocambique’s plans to construct a bridge along the waterway targeted by the project. A recent report in The Nation reveals details about miscommunication and lack of consultation between the Malawian and Mocambican governments.

Many Africans do realize the crucial importance of regional and pan-African cooperation in the many projects needed to uplift the continent, but outside conscious efforts that build on historical struggle and shared destinies, such projects end up falling victim to capitalist greed and profit-mindsets. Even when these projects are initiated and developed by the most highly educated Africans with the best technical know-how, without this important aspect of education—pan-African consciousness—the greatest ideas for the enhancement of the continent will always be frustrated. The pan-African consciousness I am talking about here should also embrace Africa-centered ways of knowledge production, based on the values of uMunthu/uBuntu, which, according to Desmond Tutu, celebrate the achievements of others in the knowledge that our humanity, and hence our destiny, are bound up with one another. Much of Western-style schooling as inherited and practiced to this day is completely devoid of these virtues, as have argued Rev. Dr. Augustine Musopole and Rev. Prof. Harvey Sindima. As a result, we have the most highly educated minds coming up with very bright, innovative ideas, but with no direct benefits for the majority of the African people.

Whether it is in the realm of Black History, or in the realm of 21st century technological innovations meant to lift the continent out of its doldrums, a pan-Afrikan consciousness, and solidarity with other Black people around the world, and others who share in these ideals, need to be an integral part of our thinking.

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