“Revolution is not a one-time event.” Audre Lorde
The world is agog with rage against the murder of George Floyd. A murder that cannot be denied because it was recorded in full glare and seen all over the world. It has generated protests and rightly so all over the US and other major European countries, positively sending the most powerful man into his bunker and reverberations across the Atlantic as in the case of the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol (United Kingdom), over his role in the slave trade. Even the statue of King Leopold of Belgium had to be saved before the wrath of the people brings it down. Beneath and beyond this rage are a long and bitter history and a present conundrum. The easy culprit is racism. It is indisputable that racism killed Floyd, yet a more excruciating gene-archaeology will find a more insidious culprit: power; if you like it to sound like racism, we may call it powerism.
But what is this racism? The belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and characteristic and capacity and that the differences produce inherent superiority of one race over the other. A political or social system that promotes this ideology is racist. In simple terms, racism is the belief that one’s race is superior to other races. Racism is largely a western idea and practice although you find it in other societies of the world to varying degrees. Blacks all over the world hold the record as the greatest victim of racism. And the simple reason is they don’t have the power. The root of this racism was sown over four hundred years ago. Most people know the basics of this history; blacks were kidnapped and involuntarily taken as slaves from Africa to the new world of Americas and stripped of all their social humanity, leaving them with only their skins for easy identification and for further dehumanising experience. Racism is easy to blame because it has a visible face, the different physiognomy, particularly the skin.
What first came to my mind when the news broke was: was this not how Eric Garner was murdered sometimes back and was he not saying ‘I can’t breathe?’ How could the same incident so callously occur again? Well, Daniel Pantaleo who choked Garner to death was not indicted and was only fired in August 2019, five years after he committed the offence! Power had $5.9 million dollars to compensate the family of Garner. With Floyd, at least we are seeing the beginning of justice, but nothing to celebrate yet. We have to see the end of it. It has been over four hundred years since we ‘can’t breathe’ as black people have been saying. Definitely power is the anchor and bedrock of racism. The black man must therefore learn to look beneath his skin and know that his skin is not the problem. Seeing the skin, overly focusing on it as the source of racism against us is a reason black man keeps getting the racist treatments from white powered establishment with little hope of redress.
Most blacks avoid looking at the issue of responsibility in this dilemma. Black man’s failure to look himself in the face and accept his responsibility sown over four hundred years ago is a great obstacle to overcoming racism. I argue that there are primary and secondary responsibilities in the sad saga of the Atlantic slave trade, which black men are yet to recover from the pain and loss of that experience. Often responsibility for the slave trade is laid at the feet of the ‘stupid and wicked’ white men who came to Africa and forcefully took millions of black people to the then new world. The ‘innocent and wise’ black men who sold their folks have little or no blame. It is a common dictum that ‘action and reaction are equal but opposite in direction.’ In a metaphorical or analogical turn the flap of a butterfly in the forest of Africa can set in motion a cyclone in America. So the flap of the butterfly and the cyclone are equal, though their contexts are remote to each other. For sure, many would never agree with this idea.
Back to the issue of responsibility, the primary responsibility for the slave trade is that of the black men who sold their ‘useless’ fellows to strangers they don’t know where they came from in exchange for ‘useful’ items such as guns, mirrors, wines and bottles. Africans set this trade in motion and ‘stupid’ white men turned it into a great asset, without which they would never have been where they are now. The secondary responsibility belongs to the white men who discerned that the black man is physically the strongest of the races and decided to exploit the labour of the black people. This they did successfully for over three hundred years during which they harnessed their brain for the easement of their living. It is this secondary responsibility that black men have focused their attention and it has borne little fruit. If black man will focus and challenge his own primary responsibility, perhaps we will be talking less about racism and its detriment on black men.
This slaver mentality has not left the black men. Today black slave merchants are choking fellow black men with invisible chains, deluded by the golden chain on their own necks and hands. Debts for generations yet unborn, harsh living conditions for those alive, through blind kowtowing to western powers, not much different from the ancestors who exchanged their folks for mirrors, wines and bottles. Until some African nations get their acts together and represent the black race in the first rung of the world, the black race will continue to be the foot mat of the rest of the world. Of the three major races, only the blacks have no representative on that rung. The yellow race has representatives on that rung with the white race. Nigeria, with the greatest ‘potential’ to do so for the black people has so far failed to do so and as Mandela said, until Nigeria does, the black man will always be the joke of the rest of the world. All races have made the world. I think the Chinese deserve their place in the world today for giving the world paper; the West gave the world logic and Africa deserve a place because we gave our foolishness and sweat to the world. Imagine the world without the paper and the labour of African slaves, the world could hardly have been anywhere near where it is today. The west may have given the world logic, without the paper of the yellow dragon and the foolishness and the sweat of the Africans, its logic would never have had expression. The world belongs to all of us.
Blacks in Africa (through the leaders) owe the descendants of slaves in the western world an unequivocal apology for the wrong our ancestors did 400 years ago by setting their destiny as well as ours in a tumultuous motion that we are yet to regain our balance. Theirs is only the worst end of this spectrum of tragedy. Worse injustice than that meted out to Floyd is being meted out by fellow blacks to other blacks on African soil. Is it the banditry and insurgency in northern Nigeria, wars in the Congo or xenophobia of South Africa? Our responsibility to our iniquity is legendary but we cannot look in the mirror. Rather, we prefer to look out the window and put the greater blame on the white guy outside. Until the primary responsibility has been fully accounted for, you cannot truly ask for the account of the secondary responsibility. This is no denial (of white responsibility) but putting the cart before the horse.
This brings us back to George Floyd; he is the culmination of 400 years of white knees on our neck as Reverend al Sharpton has said. To quote Michel Foucault “power is every…because it comes from everywhere.” White power is smart enough to make the lowest of the whites feel superior to even the brightest of blacks. While the anger all over world is justified, it scratches on the surface (note that many whites are angry as the black men). As someone observed of the Colston saga, we ought to see it differently; it is not Colston alone that is being commemorated in the statue because of his philanthropy to Bristol but to see in the statue the sweat and labour of black men who sweated out the wealth for Colston to play the philanthropist. It is also the history of the black slaves that was pulled down in that statue. The symbols of the wealth derived from the slave trade are too entrenched in the system that they cannot be simply pulled down or pulled out. Memory, however sad, matters. Without that statue, many would never have heard of Colston and the dreadful history to his name and many more.
It is the power behind racism that must be challenged, the one-per-centers, dictating how the reminder 99 per cent of us must live our lives to sustain the one per cent. Let’s hope justice would be fully served in the case of Floyd to serve as a deterrent to other wannabe white supremacist police. Without deterrence, more Garners and Floyds will still be choked to their death while pleading ‘I can’t breathe.’ Africans need some powerful representatives in the comity of nations. Power responds positively only to power. Power does not pander to emotive vituperations. Only actions, the type that can send any puff puff punk to his bunker. The powerful also flinch. The world is Machiavellian, not necessarily because of Machiavelli.
Floyd’s incidence may have shown the world that indeed ‘Black Lives Matter,’ blacks, especially those on the continent of Africa need to do more to make black lives matter. As Malcolm X said to African leaders in the 1960s that the lives of Africans on the continent are connected to those in the Americas and elsewhere and those on the continent must take the lead and not to be deluded by its flag independence. When black lives do not matter on the continent, it can hardly matter anywhere else. Racism is nothing but the face of power and power relations. Africans must acquire this power. Only then can we truly say no to racism and make the lives of black people, wherever, matter.
Dr Saka Aliyu writes from Bayero University, Kano.