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Are Nigerians ‘Black’ Enough to Talk about Race? Re-imagining the Discourse on Race

If race explains why the relationship between Africans and African Americans and between South Africans and Nigerians ‘is so messed up’, then of what use can race be to remedy the situation?

In April 2019, the Zimbabwe-born, South Africa-raised author, Panashe Chigumadzi, wrote an essay, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To Nigerians about Race’. In it, she suggested that Nigerians, among others, were not sensitive enough to, and did not think deeply enough about, the racial struggles still facing many other Africans living in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, or indeed within the African diaspora.

Such a callous attitude, she suggested, was bizarre given that while the experience of many Nigerians—particularly those in the country’s upper classes—meant that they did not obviously, or directly, have to deal with such issues as ‘race’, the post-colonial experience was such that, if they thought about it enough, most Nigerians ought to be able to relate to the need for racial struggle and progress. Ultimately, Chigumadzi called for Nigerians to include as part of their responsibility as ‘Giants of Africa’, a deeper understanding of, and support for, racial solidarity.

Chigumadzi’s piece caused me to stir in a way that most commentators, lacking grace and nuance on the issue, have rarely before. But first, let me get my gripes with some of what she writes out of the way.

I am less disappointed by Chigumadzi’s way of seeing Olúmọ Rock than I am of her Nigerian guide who responds, by supposedly laughing ‘apologetically’, to her derisive comment that, in Zimbabwe, ‘you will see Olúmọ Rocks in everybody’s backyard and then you will never waste visitors’ time again with this. About what, precisely, is there to apologize?

It is a resounding shame that her ‘Nigerian brother’ seemingly could not offer her, with deep pride, the explanation that it was through the protective fortress Olúmọ offered that Ẹgbá soldiers defeated the mighty army of the Dahomey Kingdom in the 1851 Battle of Abẹ́òkúta, and then again in 1864.

According to historian, Nurudeen Ọlátóyè Arógundádé, it was around Olúmọ that ‘Abẹ́òkúta developed into a town of major significance in 1854. It was founded by the Ẹgbá warlord, Ṣódẹkẹ́, by the displacement of earlier settlers at Abẹ́òkúta by Ṣódẹkẹ́ and his lieutenants. They settled around the OlúmọRock to found a new state and capital.’

Further, according to the creation mythology of the Ẹgbá, it was out of Olúmọ itself that God created the earth and all of its peoples. And so, the name has a dual meaning—first, that the ‘troubles and suffering are over’; and, ‘that from which God created or moulded.’

It is why Olúmọ sets the theme of birth, of praise and worship, and of joy, for J.J. Ransome-Kuti’s Lori Oké O’un Pẹtẹlẹ—the Ẹgbá National Anthem. Olúmọ is the rock that proves, for the Ẹgbá, that we are here by the very founding of nature, and not by the ‘discovery’ of other men. I expect a certain type of culturally inept European not to appreciate the importance of Olúmọ. Such persons, trained by neoliberal market valuation never to seek the essential and inherent worth of a thing, would fail to recognize Olúmọ’s value simply because they found it not to be as large or as shiny as their rocks. But I do not expect it of other Africans, of friends.

I cannot say if Chigumadzi will lump me among the ignorant Nigerians whose ‘racial politics’, just like our country, is considered too underdeveloped to engage with. Notwithstanding, I find it useful to speak with her even if she is now too frustrated to want to speak with me.

For the first two years of my doctorate, I lived full-time in the United States. The issue, for me, would not be the one that Chigumadzi notes seems, oddly, to plague many Africans who only find out that they are ‘black’, in a political sense, upon their arrival into the United States. Prior to living in America, I knew I was black; what I did not know, and what I would quickly come to understand, was that I was not black enough.

To Caucasian Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, whose understandings of humanity are so deeply structured by race—that were they suddenly to be drawn under a Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’, they would be utterly incapable of identifying a person as a human-being simply because they could not tell the colour of their skin—I was evidently black. Well, I knew that already.

But black was no longer simply a reference to the level of melanin in a person’s biological composition. At least not to many African Americans. I came to understand, more deeply than I ever had before, that ‘Black’ was, rather, a term of political and sociocultural belonging. A belonging—both as Black and as American—that had been long and hard fought for through every available channel that American society had to offer. Through the justice system, education, housing, employment, the transportation system, the political and economic structures—blood had been shed, and necks broken. For African Americans, the term Black was a reclaiming, an exaltation and a celebration of memories of a shared past. Like Tiv, Luo, Itsekiri, isiZulu, Black was an ethnicity of pride.

It was inspiring. This was the kind of thing about which I had gone to America to learn. It was why I had consciously chosen the United States as the site for my higher education. Black America was a country that offered an invaluable lesson to many African countries in general, and to Nigeria in particular, where our largely colonized minds force us to perpetuate depravities that we either insist are part of our ‘culture’ or convince ourselves have nothing to do with the extent to which we have been brainwashed and traumatized by the colonial experience.

In Nigeria, we terrorize our women and our poor in homage to colonial authoritarianism. We mock as ‘backward’ those who persist in speaking our indigenous languages and simply will not ‘advance’ themselves by speaking English ‘properly’. We persist with political and legal structures that were never made to serve the native populations, having not the courage to dismantle the whole charade and start again but, this time, with ourselves in mind. I do not know if it is less or more forgivable that most of what we do, we do unknowingly.

I would go on to spend another five years toing and froing between the United States and Kenya until my doctorate was complete because another thing that I learned in America was that I was ‘African’ and that I desperately needed to be in Africa. Again, I already knew that; but now as a full adult, America moulded in me a conscious, and consciously militant, African pride. This time, the lesson came from African Americans themselves.

In an episode of the American comedy series Black-ish, Junior’s father, Dre, becomes concerned that his son needs black friends. They sift through a list of possible suspects and finally get to a black boy. ‘Where is he from?’, Dre asks his son. Junior answers: ‘Malawi’. ‘Where is that?’, Dre asks. ‘Africa’, the correct answer returns. Sceptically, Dre shakes his head and declares ‘pass’. The boy from Malawi is ‘African’, you see. He is not ‘Black’.

I understand, Black-ish is a comedy series; but the scene I highlight portrays something that exists in real-life interactions between Africans and some—not all, not even most, but enough—African Americans. For these African Americans, many Africans simply are either not black enough or not black in the ‘right’ way.

The sentiment seems, to me, to also at least partly underly the attitude and actions of many black South Africans towards Nigerians living in South Africa. And this it that whatever oppression Nigerians might have suffered as a result of the colonial exploitation; and any suffering we continue to bear as the result of living in countries in which many colonial structures (seen and unseen) still remain standing; never-minding all of this, our hardship has not been as hard, neither in quantity nor in quality, as the burden of the African American or the black South African. As a result, we do not deserve to reap the rewards of a progress that we have not suffered enough in making.

Such a view, of course, relies either on a knowing distortion of history or an ignorance of it. I have no desire to sugar-coat this history, so let me first acknowledge that regardless of Wlé óyínkás personal opinions about the struggles of black South Africa, even at the official level, the policy of various Nigerian governments towards the anti-apartheid struggle was, at best, mixed.

To be sure, Nigeria was at the forefront of the international agenda against apartheid, which culminated in the 1984 Nordic-Nigerian Initiative in the UN General Assembly for a resolution eliminating apartheid. Indeed, after the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Nigeria moved to forefront of pressing for international action on apartheid. In 1976, the National Committee Against Apartheid in Nigeria was established and led by Malam Aminu Kano. So emotive was the issue of apartheid in Nigeria, and yet, under the Shagari regime, while the left-wing radical, Maitama Sule, served as the chairman of the UN anti-apartheid committee, several ministers under Shagari were accused of illegally selling oil to the apartheid South African government.

While a simplistic story does not emerge from the history of Nigeria’s role in the anti-apartheid movement, it remains that there were those in Nigeria who were ardently supportive of the anti-apartheid struggle both at the political and economic level and in art and music.

This history seems, however, not to have been strong enough, not ‘black’ enough, to prevent another Nigerian from being stabbed to death in South Africa a few days ago. Nigerians are not the only set of Africans currently under attack in South Africa. Among others, Somalis have also been the victims of the wave of xenophobic attacks that have been ongoing in South Africa for, at least, the last ten years.

These events continue despite the fact that Somalia, perhaps more than most other African countries, lent critical support to the ANC. In 1974, Siad Barre, in his capacity as then-Chairman, invited the ANC as an equal member of the Organisation of African Unity. According to a letter by Thabo Mbeki, Somali ports provided the gateway for ANC guerrillas to infiltrate South Africa by sea.

In the case of Black America, it is not simply the influence of traditional African forms on modern-day African American culture—on its art, its music, its dance—that is of relevance, although these too are, in my opinion, of no small consequence. The influence and contribution of African Consciousness to the African American liberation struggle is most obvious and most familiar in the thoughts of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois. That their ideas are capable of being used to wrongly dismiss the importance of black protest and struggle by those who are, as Chigumadzi highlights, less thoughtful and undeserving of our attention does not make such facts any less important.

I do not present these histories as a means of saying that either black South Africans or African Americans owe other Africans anything. They absolutely do not. In fact, the little that has been done by Nigerians—and other African countries in which European domination paid us the minimal courtesy of not settling—in contribution towards anti-apartheid and anti-slavery movements is, perhaps, the minimum that was required of a continent that either did not fight hard or well enough to stop its people from being taken and enslaved, or, in some cases, actively sold them.

The resistance by African polities, and slaves themselves, to the Atlantic slave trade is relatively well-documented. What seems to be somewhat less well-understood is the extent to which the slave trade could not have proceeded without the collaboration of, or at least acquiescence by, many African rulers—particularly along the coastal states of West Africa.

History, it seems, does not permit of simplistically linear stories. At some point, there must be a reckoning; but to be fruitful, it must be an honest reckoning; and one that takes place on our own terms.

But is the term ‘race’ ours? If, as I am attempting to suggest, race itself is what forms part of the very explanation for why the relationship between Africans and African Americans and between South Africans and Nigerians (and many other Africans) ‘is so messed up’, then of what use can race be to remedy the situation? Will we (all African people and its diasporas) genuinely benefit from an inter-diasporic conversation that is expressed primarily in racial terms?

The problem with talking about race rather than talking about ourselves in a more fundamental, and essential, sense as Africans, African Americans, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Kenyans and so on, and ultimately as human beings, is that there is something about ‘race’ that is corrupting. It deforms both the user and whom or whatever she uses it against. No matter what positive reclaiming we wish to make of it, like the very colonial state that was the practical expression of a racist European philosophy and science, ‘race’ was always intended as a means of domination and division. It is impossible to wield it, to stay within its corrupting super-structure, without destroying and staining both yourself and those against whom it, always inevitably, comes to be used.

As such, the above-described situations, both in the American and South African contexts, are not surprising. Race—or ‘racialism’, as the African Philosophy professor, Lee M. Brown, terms it—was always intended as a tool of division and exclusion. Its invention was for the precise purpose not only of falsely distinguishing between ‘master’ and ‘slave’, but also of forcing the oppressed to find their salvation by making false distinctions among one another.

A European-ness that used race to immorally set itself up as the universal reference made it inevitable that there would, on one hand, be those who, in seeking a European approval, would be driven to cry ‘but we are not as black as…’ And that, in search of a European respect, others would be driven to demand ‘… but we are blacker than.’

The defensive echoes of the former call are never far behind the disdainful attitude of some Nigerians towards the recent, and painful, histories of African Americans and black South Africans. Such self-alienation demands only our pity.

The philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has noted that in much of the talk against universalism what is being objected to is not really the concept of, nor the possibility for, universalism, but rather a ‘Eurocentric hegemony posing as universalism.’ He is quite right.

But attaining universalism means hearing everybody’s voices and figuring out what amongst what we all have to say is truly common, and commonly applicable. In what still remains relatively recent human history, one voice has screamed louder than the rest and it is time to turn the European volume down so that we may be allowed hear everybody else.

I do not think that I am alone in believing that in order to come to an understanding of the genuinely universal, we must begin to start ignoring a European-ness that wrongly sets itself up as the ultimate normative standard against which all other forms of human existence and experience must first be juxtaposed before being determined to have value, and how much.

On the part of Africans, in particular, and brown and black peoples, in general, this requires a great deal of conscious unlearning and relearning. It requires remembering that, long before Europeans had anything to say about our matters, Africa was, is, and always will be of insurmountable value to the universe of knowledge. This remembering means concretely discovering, understanding, and disseminating our own cultural, and intellectual, ideas and traditions as primary sources and not simply as responses to, and from the constructed perspective of, the secondary ‘other’.

This constructed perspective of, and as, ‘the other’ was started by colonialism and slavery. But it can only be dismantled by getting rid of the framing discourse in which we live our lives and do our work largely in response to a question that was always invalid. And, furthermore, a question that we, ourselves, never did ask—is the African, like the European, really, truly, fully a person?

To stay forever mired in the framework that racism proposes is to give it philosophical credence where it has none; and to be perpetually engaged in the work of ‘distraction’.

To ‘ignore’ European-ness also means making an incredible intellectual, cultural, and philosophical effort not to see one another, as Africans and African diaspora, through European eyes. This requires that we make the effort of understanding and respecting each of our cultural and intellectual histories. I must revere the might of Tubman and Biko just as I hope for others to appreciate the weight of Olúmọ.

So yes, let us talk about race, but let us talk about it by doing work that sees Africa and all of its diasporic peoples as primary sources with deep and deeply complex human histories that are not simply a response to European barbarism, but are valuable inherently. Let us talk about race so that we can understand what it has come to mean for huge groups of people in constructing positive identities.

But also, let us talk about race so that we can dismantle the falsities it seeks to set up as fundamental truths. Let us not talk about race in order to compare ‘bruises’, or to determine whose blackness is ‘darker’, more painful. That would be to give power to that from which we all seek to take it.

If we are talking about race, this time let us do it only because we wish to put ourselves back at the forefront of our own narratives; as it was before