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UK’s First Black Studies Professor Calls on African Diaspora to Unite

Radical scholar Kehinde Andrews is part of a broad movement calling for renewed internationalism and Pan-Africanism.

As Black and African people, our power is in organizing ourselves globally, says Black radical scholar Kehinde Andrews.

As Black Lives Matter continues to flourish in the United States and beyond, many activists within the movement are calling for renewed internationalism and collaboration among people across the African Diaspora. In this exclusive interview, author, activist and Black radical scholar Kehinde Andrews issues the call: “We need to get back aligned with the revolutionary version of Pan-Africanism.”

Andrews is founder of the Harambee Organization of Black Unity and professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University in Birmingham, England. A son of first-generation Black British immigrants (African-Caribbean), he is now credited as the first Black Studies professor in the U.K. Co-editor of the book series, Blackness in Britain, Andrews is director of the Center for Critical Social Research and co-chair of the U.K.’s Black Studies Association.

His 2018 book, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, was published by Zed Books in London and is still widely celebrated by Black activists, artists and intellectuals worldwide. A frequent contributor to The Guardian, Kehinde’s commentary has also been featured in The Washington Post, CNN, The Independent and Ebony Magazine. In this interview, Professor Andrews discusses the road forward for the Black radical diaspora and his new book, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World.

Lamont Lilly: What called you to Black Studies as an intellectual discipline?

Kehinde Andrews: I was a child of the British Black Power movement. Both my parents were heavily involved. We also had the Saturday Schools, which were formed as supplemental learning because the racism was so bad, even in elementary school. It was not until the mid-1960s that Britain started to have large numbers of Black children in the schools here. But since the educational setting and curriculum were so colonial in their views and teachings — so anti-Black, anti-Caribbean and anti-African — we made our own schools on the weekends.

These supplementary schools were not just for Black history and culture. Those same schools also included math and English because a lot of Black children weren’t receiving any education at all. The Saturday Schools are definitely where my calling first began. Black Studies may be new here in the formal sense, but our resistance has always been present.

You recently published a new book called, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World. What was your purpose in writing this?

The New Age of Empire is really an extension or deepening of my 2018 book, Back to Black. The goal is to help informing our community that this system is at a dead end now. It’s not for us and never has been. But with The New Age of Empire, I wanted to start with the very beginning of this thing called the West in 1492. This period marks the start of the largest genocide in human history, which in turn led to the enslavement of Africa and the evolution of colonial violence.

One of the things I wanted to drive home is this connection of colonial violence that makes capitalism possible. Without this history of colonial violence, not only is capitalism not possible, neither is white supremacy and the industrialization of Europe as we currently know it. I also wanted to show how this history still shapes what the West is today. To our oppressors, the same Black life that was disposable 500 years ago is just as disposable in 2021 — from the U.K. to the U.S., from the Caribbean to the continent of Africa.

We’re still having protests in the 21st century chanting “Black Lives Matter” because to the ruling elite, they never have. So that was the purpose of the book, to not only show this history and reflect upon it, but to essentially state that revolution is our only answer if we’re serious about our collective liberation.

In the U.S. South, the cotton industry is a major part of the historical landscape here. But you highlight how there in England, Manchester was a part of King Cotton too, as was London, Liverpool, even Glasgow in Scotland. You also draw a direct correlation to cotton money financing Europe’s industrial revolution. Interesting!

One of the things that Britain prides itself on is that it abolished slavery a few years earlier than the U.S. It was officially abolished here in 1838 versus 1865 in the United States. But while Britain may have abolished slavery, it was certainly still happy to bring in cotton from the U.S. South. One of the reasons that Britain’s slave trade ended early though was because it was sugar-based. The British were also fighting off more and more rebellions from native populations who never desired to be British colonies — present-day Jamaica and Barbados, for example. So, Britain’s abolishment of slavery was largely for economic reasons. It certainly was not out of morality.

Cotton was hugely important to the development of the British economy. Liverpool, along with Bristol, might get mentioned at times because they were port cities. But Manchester? No. People never talk about Manchester in relation to slavery, nor its role in the Triangular Trade. Manchester only becomes a vibrant urban center after a canal was built from Liverpool to Manchester. That’s where the cotton factories were located.

The city was built on cotton production. It would come in through Liverpool by way of New Orleans, then onto Manchester for processing. The U.S. South was their direct source. There was such a direct link that during the U.S. Civil War, the city of Liverpool was an open and avid supporter of the U.S. Southern confederacy. The industries in Liverpool wanted to keep slavery. Liverpool raised the equivalent of like 20 million pounds and sent it to the confederacy as a show of their support. This relationship meant a lot to Britain, and to multiple cities here. Since Britain was no longer the center of empire and production, it needed “the states” as a financial partner to help build itself back up. This is the history that brings us to today.

Sounds like a transfer of power from the old “mother country” to the new “mother country.”

That’s true. If we think about it, the U.S. became an even more important trading partner after its independence from Britain. This is one of the key shifts in the new age of empire. Britain no longer needed to have direct imperial control of foreign territories for it to still depend on those places. While Britain evolved in the name of diplomacy, U.S. ambition stepped forward as the new face of Western empire.

Colonialism found new forms. Today we have institutions like the World Bank, United Nations (UN) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) posing as friends while continuing to exploit, particularly throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Colonialism literally adapts to new conditions and new generations.

One of the British-based multinational conglomerates you mention in your book is Unilever. Unilever manufactures Lever 2000 and Dove soaps, produced from African oil palm from countries like Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Are these kinds of economic agreements for natural resources equal in value? What does Africa gain?

Africa isn’t gaining much of anything in these kinds of agreements. Corrupt presidents or heads of state might be gaining something, but if you’re a rural farmer of oil palm, your life hasn’t changed much at all over the last 100 years. Many of the old colonial cash crops based on the African continent have still remained. Some have even predicted that by 2050, the West will need an additional plot of land the size of Germany specifically for oil palm farming. That’s because African oil palm is such a vital ingredient to so many of the products we consume.

In reference to Unilever, by resources, Africa is the richest continent in the world, which is why everyone is there. Companies like Unilever still rely on their extractions from African soil. If these companies had to pay a proper or fair amount for the oil palm that produces their wealth, there wouldn’t be as much profit for them. These corporations want Africa to be poor so they can continue extracting and exploiting.

One of the things I did not mention about Unilever was the recent controversy and backlash from its skin lightening product called Fair & Lovely. Unfortunately, there are Black people, Africans who are still using this stuff. It’s really a mental and psychological holdover from European colonization, this internalized anti-Blackness. However, after concerns and protests from the local Black Lives Matter movement here in Britain, Unilever decided it needed to rebrand to reflect more so-called racial justice. So, it changed the word “fair” to “glow.” Now it’s Glow & Lovely.

Different name, same colorism. Different name, same exploitation. It’s so ridiculous you almost have to laugh. Except the long-term effects of these dilemmas aren’t so funny.

In Chapter 6, “The Non-White West,” you state that “by 2100 the majority of Africa’s natural resources will have been depleted by foreign interests and its farmland either overused or in the hands of offshore investors.” How do we prevent your prediction from coming true?

The answer to that question belongs to Africa itself. What has allowed for this process of economic stripping to take place for so long is Africa’s lack of unity. If Africa united, none of this would be happening. The fact that we’re missing that strong sense of mass consciousness only fuels that division.

A strong sense of Black consciousness is what connects us, not only on the continent, but throughout the entire African diaspora. As much as we don’t like the West and its many forms of white supremacy, we should be taking notes. On the basis of white supremacy, Britain, Germany, France, the U.S. — these countries have all agreed to set their differences aside and work together. They all win, and Africa loses. We have to match that with a unified Black consciousness that speaks for the best interests of Africa and Africa’s global diaspora. If we’re going to prevent such a prediction from coming true, our time is right now.

Winnie Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Amílcar Cabral … are these Pan-African freedom fighters and their teachings still relevant today?

These leaders are definitely still relevant and so is Pan-Africanism. They’re probably looking down on us right now, with love, saying, “We told you so.” But even though people like Thomas Sankara and Winnie Mandela may be gone, their ideas are still living and breathing with us.

In relation specifically to the ideology, I think people should understand that Pan-Africanism is more than just African people liking each other. Within Pan-Africanism, there are actually two different distinctions or schools of thought. There is the radical Pan-Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba, which is based on the idea of African socialism, unity forged beyond borders, and a collective sense of Black consciousness and self-determination. This Pan-Africanism is fully committed to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and women’s liberation.

The other form of Pan-Africanism is a bit more bourgeois and conservative. This form discards the idea of continental unity in favor of the nation-state model. This particular lineage is also open to supporting a kind of pseudo-Black capitalism. And although well-suited in Blackness, this form also tends to borrow from the West in hopes of reforming it versus being an antithesis of the West. The problem is that it is the latter more compliant version that is often uplifted and force-fed to the global African masses from Western figureheads.

We need to get back aligned with the revolutionary version of Pan-Africanism. This applies to the entire African diaspora because the continent needs the diaspora just like the diaspora needs the African continent. It only does us an injustice to see ourselves in the context of Britain or the United States. As Black and African people, our true power, base and hope is in organizing ourselves globally. This doesn’t just apply to the independence struggles of the 1960s. This also applies to today. We have to pick up the blueprint and push it forward.

Although he wasn’t based on the African continent, I think the work of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity offers a prime example; so does the work of Claudia Jones, who was exiled to Britain after being imprisoned and deported from the U.S. Some of us may have forgotten, but these revolutionary ancestors have never left us. Their teachings are living inside of us. The work now is bringing these ideas to life. I believe we can, my brother, because I believe in the Black radical diaspora. We can do this! We must.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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