Sunday, 22 January 2012

Engaging With The African Identity

An updated version of a Voice Opinion piece by Kwaku

I’d like to begin by looking back at last year. The United Nations (UN) declared 2011 the International Year For People Of African Descent (IYPAD). On August 23, I presented a programme at Westminster City Hall to mark International Day Of African Resistance Against Enslavement - as an Africanist, I don’t call it International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, as suggested by the UN, or Slavery Memorial Day, as favoured by British institutions.

After that programme ended, I began filming a guerrilla documentary motivated by the IYPAD initiative, which I thought provided a good opportunity to investigate the issue of the African identity. Each contributor was asked whether they were African or black, and if they knew about the IYPAD initiative. Sadly, IYPAD was a missed opportunity to address the issue of African identity.

If we lived in our motherlands, say, Ghana or Jamaica, perhaps the issue would not be so pressing. However, for those of us living in the diaspora, it’s something we need to deal with. Racial identity is crucial to a people’s psyche and progress, and it is for this reason that I believe we should address the issue.

Non-Europeans in this country have historically been called black. Between the 1960s to 1980s, politically active Africans and Asians came together under the political black banner to fight racism. Organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, and Labour Party’s Black Sections, were made up of Africans and Asians. Black Sections counted the Asian politician Keith Vaz among its crop of four black MPs from the 1987 general election.

But in recent years black organisations have launched under terms such as Black and Asian, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. The Asians, whether or not they were born in the UK, have claimed a separate identity. So why don’t these organisations just change Black to African?

Our African identity in no way devalues the battles that have been fought and won by Black organisations and movements. The African-Americans describe themselves as Africans without rejecting Black Power. And by the same token, I’m not against organisations that go under the political Black, so long as African members are not described as black.

Some of us prefer to be described as West Indian or Caribbean. One can argue that the West Indians are actually the Europeans who went to the Caribbean as planters, business people and enslavers, whilst the enslaved Africans there were called African or negro.

The term Caribbean does not necessarily refer to people of African heritage. Strictly speaking, it refers to the Carib people. But even if it’s widened to cover people living in the Caribbean, then that includes Asians and Europeans. So unless it is qualified, as in African Caribbean, it could mean anything.

There is the argument that Africans born in the UK are British. That can be correct with regards to nationality, but not ethnicity/race. An African born in China is still African, and not Chinese. As Malcolm X said, if a cat gives birth in an oven, it produces kittens, not biscuits.

I’ll highlight two groups who prefer to be called black, British, or anything else but African. The first group actually have parents who come directly from the African continent. The main reason for this dis-engagement with their African identity is rooted firstly in poor knowledge about Africa and its history, and secondly the negative imagery and stereotypes associated with Africa.

These reasons also apply to the second group, who have their antecedents located in the Caribbean. But it’s compounded by the notion that Africans sold their forebears into enslavement, they’ve never been to Africa, they don’t know which part of Africa they come from, they can’t speak an African language, or that they have European blood.

There are some Africans who live on the African continent who do not speak any African language. Does this mean they are not Africans?

Yes, some selfish and mis-guided Africans were involved in the enslavement of fellow Africans. But there are traitors within every ethnicity/race. For example, there were Jews who collaborated with the Nazis, but I wonder if there are Jews who disassociate from their Jewish heritage because of the behaviour of the Jewish collaborators.

Putting aside offsprings of relatively recent mixed heritage relationships, one wonders what’s so unappealing about the African identity that some people whose phenotype is unmistakably African, but have a drop or two of European blood rooted in enslavement, prefer to disassociate from their African identity, whilst clinging to the vestiges of enslavement/colonialism and questionable associations with the oppressors.

Racial identity should be tied to land, and there is no land called Blackland, Blackistan, etc.

Incidentally, it is worth remembering the National Front or other racists don’t distinguish between Africans born on the continent, Africans from the diaspora, or Africans born in the UK with British passports, or those with some European blood!

I’ll end by referring to the IYPAD. The expression “African descent” is beginning to fall out of favour. There are those trying out expressions such as “African ascendant”. Interestingly, Dr Runoko Rashidi states in the TAOBQ film that African descendants are the Europeans (and I imagine any other race/ethnicity  that’s come out of Africa). These days I choice plainly African, African heritage, or global African.

Kwaku is the founder of Music Congress and leads on The African Or Black Question (TAOBQ) campaign and its You Are African discussion and film screening on Jan. 20 2012 at Westminster City Hall.

22/01/2012 Update: Following the first TAOBQ event on January 20 2012, the campaign has moved past discussing whether or not one is African. For those at the event who passed unopposed the motion that they were African, and all other like minded people, the next step is to deal with TAOBQ: What It Means To Be A Global African? provisionally set for April 2012.


  1. "These reasons also apply to the second group...they don’t know which part of Africa they come from, they can’t speak an African language, or that they have European blood."

    Vanessa Williams (the former Miss America) is African American with considerable European ancestry. Do you consider her to be African or is she too mixed?

  2. Thanks for comment, sorry for delay in responding.

    With reference to your first point, I'll point you to an old African saying: No matter how long a crocodile stays in the river, it does not turn into a fish.

    And Malcolm X said: When a cat gives birth in an oven, it has kittens, not biscuits.

    Regarding Vanessa Williams (Mariah Carey etc), if the US one drop is applicable, then they are African (of course they could be part European, Asian, etc).

    TAOBQ Co-ordinator

    1. Thanks for your reply. Vanessa Williams does identify as African American and you may appreciate this quote from her:

      “African American women from the beginning have embraced me. I am a product of an African woman, it is part of who I am and it is part of what I am and who the girls I am raising will become.”

      I doubt she would identify as a "Global African," but she does embrace her African heritage. What do you think of contacting her to get her feedback and/or support?

    2. Thanks for comment. There's no need to go after comments from individuals. We've got a position, and those that appreciate, are welcome,as are those that don't appreciate it. Being African or identifying as African, does not necessarily make one a global African. That demands some pro-activity and having an appreciation and concern for global African issues, etc.

      We'll soon post report from last week's Global African workshop, plus an article that explains the global African concept.

      TAOBQ co-ordinator

  3. Thanks for your reply. I thought you would appreciate those quotes from Vanessa Williams because she positively identifies as African American instead of "Black." Thus, I would presume her views on "TAOBQ" would be somewhat similar to yours.