Being African in Black + White

Posted by Bernice Yalley on 25th May 2021

Being African in Black + White

In the lead-up to African Union Day on May 25, I had been harassing my African friends with informal surveys about what it means, for them, to be an African. I exchanged long audio-recording sessions with a dear South African friend of mixed racial ancestry. In her birth country, she is known as "Cape Coloured" or "Cape Malay" because her heritage is an amalgamation of Malaysian, Indonesian, Dutch and the indigenous Khoisan people of Southern Africa. This is a friend with whom I used to work in the United States, and to whose desk I would stomp to decry and dissect racial microagressions. Our collective eyes would moisten as we discussed racism. My friend comes from one of the most racially complicated countries in the world with categories and classifications that usually precede a racial pogrom. Because of this, I was particularly curious about her definition of what it means to be an African, with an African identity. On the surface my friend does not look like what the world might typically associate as being African. She is not dark-skinned, her hair is not particularly ethnic, her accent is untraceable. But, she is a proud African and will fight anyone for saying otherwise.

I asked my friend, what is an African identity? Neither of us could put it into concrete words, but it was something like a rhythm, a beat, a cultural understanding when someone says, "I am an African". It has a certain unifying meaning. It is how we over here in Ghana can find elements of ourselves in the Black struggle for liberation in South Africa, Zimbabwe and we are still waiting on Francophone Africa.

As I am building Africa Goodnest, a company that is set to encourage trade of value-added products out of Africa, I have been asking myself, well, who or what is an African? How far back do one's antecedents need to go before their present-day heirs can assume an African identity? I would also ask if the person themself identifies as an African. Where do they consider their ancestral home? Would they evacuate to that ancestral home in the case of war, famine or a global pandemic? I have been considering all this as I start to field questions about what white people are doing on my website. "What kind of neocolonial tomfoolery is this?" I am asked. The protocol I have adopted for working with brands on Africa Goodnest is that companies need to be at least 50 percent owned by an African national. Sometimes that African national is not Black. Some of this protocol is also based on intuiting motives and ensuring that there is a collective goal of furthering the value of African-made products by Africans for Africa. So, for instance, if a company is made up of four people of whom two are white European nationals and two are Black Africans living outside of the continent and visit once a year, we might have more questions. It is my own version of affirmative action.

So, what is an African and who gets to be in this exclusive club? Today, history, religion and international donor interventions try to strip away the "Africanness" from African countries north of the Sahara, to distinguish sub-Saharan Africa from the rest of the continent. Somehow sub-Saharan Africa has become synonymous with Black Africa and therefore "lesser than" though no well-spoken person would ever admit it. These distinctions form artificial barriers and create competition where there ought not to be. In Christianity too, we see the "Africanness" diluted away from the religion's early fathers like Augustine, Tertullian, Origen. They too were African. But I digress...

In 1958, a few years before African Union Day was founded, and a year after Ghana gained independence from Great Britain, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister of Ghana and firm believer in Pan-Africanism, gathered Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Cameroon into the First Congress of Independent African States. In 1963 when the Organization of African Unity was founded, African countries were starting to battle for liberation from colonial rule just as the American Civil Rights movement was also gaining its footing. The African continent was celebrating unity with themselves and also with the African diaspora. We continue to do so, as we build and celebrate Africa both within the continent and beyond our shores.

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