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Africa’s Place in the Radical Imagination

The African continent was and continues to be ground zero for Western state-making projects.

Supporters of the Malagasy opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana gesture and chant slogans during a rally at the 13 Mai Plaza, in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on December 29, 2018, to protest against the provisional results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

How does a geographic area occupy both a physical existence and a figment of our imagination, now even further tangled in Wakanda fantasies? What is the cultural, political, affective, discursive space in which impression or illusion (or desire) takes primacy over materiality?

Our leftist politics are as much an act of generating new futurities as they are destroying and remaking new structures and/or repurposing existing ones. But often, in the process of dreaming that constitutes our radicalisms, we retreat into ahistorical and erasing revisionisms as opposed to situating our political visions within some concrete foundation. Within radical politics, Africa often exists far more comfortably as an abstracted symbol, a site of the ultimate myth-making within political imaginaries — a phenomenon to which those in the African diaspora are not immune — than it does as a geographically bounded plexus of messy and sometimes contradictory material realities.

Ground Zero of European Empire-Building

Though bloody colonial violations have been perpetrated across the globe, the African continent was, in many ways, a ground zero for the European state- and fortress-making project. It was a place of plunder from first contact in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to the 1884 Berlin Conference’s “diplomatic” distribution of land that precipitated Europe’s ongoing scramble for the continent, to coercive liberalization policies that adjusted relatively newly independent states’ infant economies in response to what for many were inescapable debts.

King Leopold II infamously ran a slave colony in his ironically named Congo Free State, which he was able to administer under the guise of philanthropic work and the promise of abolishing the Arab slave trade in eastern Africa. Congo has not been free since. He forced the native Congolese to extract rubber to meet growing Western industrial demand. He deployed his private army, the Force Publique, to enforce resource collection quotas with chicotte whippings, kidnapping and torture, village burnings and collectivized punishment, and, perhaps most gruesomely, sadistically collecting hands and feet of Congolese people so as not to waste bullets.

Africa, too, was something of a drawing board for the Western world’s most identity-making genocide (this is not a reference to the slaughter of the Native American, First Nations, and Arawak and other peoples of the Caribbean, whose murders facilitated the settlement of North America). Prior to the Nazis’ slaughter of 10 million so-called Untermenschen (Jews, Roma, Blacks, Slavs, ethnic Poles, physically and mentally disabled people, gays, and other “lesser” or “asocial” peoples that offended so-called pure Aryan sensibilities) during World War II, imperial Germany decimated the Herero and Nam peoples during the 1904-1908 Herero Wars.

What began as “classic” settler colonial migration and competition over resources and land quickly evolved into genocide after Kaiser Wilhelm II instructed replacement colonial administrator Lt. General Lothar von Trotha to suppress indigenous insurgency mit allen Mitteln (“by all means”). Through forced labor systems, starvation and dehydration in the Kalahari and Namib Deserts, prison camps and summary execution of all enemy combatants (which included every Herero man, woman and child), Germany’s first race war was waged.

At the Shark Island Concentration Camp, Dr. Eugen Fischer conducted extensive experiments on the living bodies and corpses of indigenous prisoners. He studied the Basters, the mixed-race offspring of European settler men and indigenous women, concluding that genetically muddied people like those should not reproduce. Adolf Hitler praised Fischer’s racial hygiene work, which influenced the ideas of Aryan racial purities in his own infamous manifesto Mein Kampf. Fischer’s 1913 work The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation Among Humans supported German anti-miscegenation policy and provided a scientific legitimization of and justification for the 1935 Nuremberg Laws.

In 1933, Fischer signed a loyalty oath to the Nazi government, and was appointed most senior official of the Frederick William University (now Humboldt University of Berlin). In 1937 and 1938, Fischer extensively experimented on and sterilized mixed-race children and Roma people, continuing the study he had begun in Namibia. In 1940, he officially joined the Nazi Party. Just as Frantz Fanon wrote that “the antisemite is inevitably a negrophobe,” we, too, can practically understand how so much structural violence in modern capitalist society is derived from anti-Black, or specifically anti-African, “science” and other logics.

Racialization as a Displinary Structure

As Alexander Weheliye noted, race and racialization comprise a disciplinary structure that govern a hierarchy of humanity into “full humans, not-quite-humans, and non-humans,” where blackness (and a proximity to it) clearly distinguishes those able to claim “full human status” from those who cannot.

The afterlife of slavery that we can see in the “post”-emancipation and “post”-Jim Crow United States, too, can be understood and analyzed on and through the continent; Saidiya Hartman’s précis that “emancipation instituted indebtedness” is applicable to the postcolonial continental condition. British slave-owners were compensated for their forfeited property after the abolishment of the trade and institution of slavery, and Haiti’s legacy of indebtedness began after the island’s slaves audaciously freed themselves from France through their 1804 revolution. The African continent has similarly been in arrears to their “former” European masters since the release of continental colonies following these states’ successful struggles for independence.

Today, economists discourage debt abolition as it might motivate developing countries, including many African ones, to continue defaulting on their loans or refuse to make timely payments or over-borrow funds. It may even lead to industrialized nations altogether ceasing financial assistance to these countries because of a poor return on their investments. So where debt abolition is understood as moral hazard per orthodox economics, we might then understand the maintenance of indebtedness as moral (as well as social, political and economic) necessity.

Through the colonial process, the continent has been relegated to a laboratory-like zone of non-being within which bio-/necropolitical technologies could be refined — Africa has been a site of pharmaceutical testing, military exercise and expansion, a dumping ground for both waste and the charitable donations of the team merchandise of Super Bowl losers (a fitting metaphor). It is a continent, too, of managerial imposition, with borders sketched atop long-existing nations and super-sovereign administrations (whether League of Nations/United Nations mandate or “separate but equal” apartheid administration or proxy governance by Western nation-states) simultaneously eroding continental governance and projecting narration of an incapacity for self-governance.

Our racialized seeing, our very capability to see and humanize, is contoured by anti-blackness, and so Black African suffering is not legible as a human suffering that must be alleviated for humanity’s sake. Rather, it becomes a canvas upon which Western moralizations can be articulated and acted and political values can be assessed. Suffering is not alleviated so that the continent might suffer less in earnest. Aid “solutions” are offered so as to further necessitate their existence, a continued management and domination of space and people through a continuous provision of resources that justify continued conquest through “development” and “charity.”

The struggles of African people(s), both within nation-states and beyond/between them, are deeply interconnected with other global struggles for autonomy and self-determination. The liberation of Africa is also the liberation of its diaspora: the freedom of the continent and the collection of peoples first burdened with the non-human designation “Black” is the freedom of the diaspora that also endures that non-human subjection, whose social death is foundational to the social contracts of their respective nation-states.

An epoch marked by a true continental self-sufficiency is one also marked by a considerably weakened Western world, as the prosperity of Western capitalism is presently and has historically predicated upon a weakened Africa; an Africa whose collective economic growth and self-sufficiency is hamstringed by (the exacerbation of) conflict, corrupt governance, and market politics that devalue agricultural exports and stunt the expansion of manufacturing and industrial and other formal economic sectors.

Beyond Flattened Talking Points

For all of these reasons, for reasons also not mentioned, our internationalist concerns for the continent and the one billion people living there must necessarily transcend the flattened talking points to which Africa is frequently reduced in our discourses. The open-air slave markets in Libya cannot simply become a feature in our rapid-fire news cycle or ammunition in a set of taking points about Hillary Clinton’s imperial track record. The relatively recent abrupt end to former President Robert Mugabe’s nearly forty-year tenure, for example, is not the opportunity to flex political muscles sculpted through painstaking participation in dogmatic purity politics.

In the formulation of anti-imperialist projects, there exists the idea that a leader or party’s politics begin and end with an articulated relationship to the West: that anti-Westernness (which is somehow metonymic with anti-imperialism) is a politics in itself. These difficulties seem to come to a particular head when we seek to understand the Chinese government’s interactions with the different states with which it has commercial and economic and political and social interaction. We revert to the politics of the Little Red Book that contoured contemporary Chinese relationships with the continent through provision of support for independence struggles. But even as we might celebrate a source of economic support that contests the West’s hegemonic sphere of influence, we can also earnestly acknowledge the nurturing of a political co-dependency and other happenings in agriculture, petropolitics, construction, and other sectors that might call the intentions of the relationship into question.

A number of leaders on the continent are publicly skeptical of or hostile to the West — we may remember the former president’s histrionic anti-Western flourishes in his United Nations General Assembly addresses. But despite these bold pronouncements, Mugabe’s governance and economic management lacked deeply, and scores of Zimbabwean people suffered under his rule (not even to mention the ethnic violence in Matabeleland for which he and the new leader, President Emerson Mnangagwa, along others, were responsible).

Our imaginations have arrested the development of the continent, it seems. Some of our imaginings of the continent have halted its development at the point of extraction in a way that a freed Africa would necessarily return to a romanticized (sometimes bordering on ahistorical) pre-colonial/pre-transatlantic slave trade state. Others of us know the continent solely through the wave of liberation and independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s, wherein a freed Africa would, once again, return to those moments of trans-diasporic and transcontinental revolutionary politics.

The continent often fails to exist as a dynamic and constantly changing, widely varied collection of peoples, parties, interests and realities. While we might criticize the colonial treatments it continually receives in media portrayals or political discourse, it still remains a political and historical terra nullius upon which yearnings and desires of diasporans and non-Afro descendant leftists alike can be projected.

African politics neither need to be the sole focus of our internationalism, nor should they displace passion for other causes — but they cannot be relegated to an afterthought after we have exhausted our solidarities with other struggles. There is, for example, no understanding of American border imperialism without linking African extraction to a contemporary regime of biological citizenship that duly precludes foreign-born Africans and Afro-Caribbeans from ever being fully understood or embraced as citizens.

Similarly, there is no robust understanding of imperial military strategy without the Department of Defense’s AFRICOM, an American government-coordinated combatant command whose mandate purports to “promote regional security, stability and prosperity” despite actively militarizing the continent in service of American security interests (ones often at odds with the material needs of large swaths of the communities within the countries in which they operate).

The flattened dark continent is comprised of fifty-four countries and over one billion people, thousands of ethnic groups and languages and countless cultural expressions and material engagements with economic mobility and poverty and industrialization and agriculture and fashion and poaching and urbanism and higher education and corruption and entrepreneurship and service economies and military conflict and so many other realities.

Our politics must accordingly be oriented around the myriad social, historical, political, economic and discursive ways that the continent has been subjugated — including the question of how our tax dollars continue to facilitate its ongoing marginalization. These considerations demand far more thoughtful consideration than the limits and impositions of our Western political imaginations.

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