The casually brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin has sparked protests against U.S. racism around the world. Washington D.C.-based Angolan journalist Mayra de Lassalette noted the irony that Floyd was murdered on Africa Day. Across the African continent, individuals, movements, and parties have mobilized to manifest their solidarity, critique U.S. hypocrisy, and demand that their own governments institute police reform. Burkina Faso’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Désiré Sougouri, called on the organization’s Human Rights Council to debate racially motivated human rights abuses, the systemic racism that inspires police brutality of Afro-descended peoples around the world, and police violence against peaceful protestors. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union, condemned Floyd’s murder and invoked the organization’s 1964 resolution against racial discrimination in the United States.
Recalling solidarities between Black populations in the U.S. and those on the African continent, John Lewis, then Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, proclaimed: “One man, one vote is the African cry. It must be ours too.” U.S. civil rights activists followed political change in decolonizing African countries. And African leaders, as Mahamat pointed out, protested abuses of U.S. Afro-descended peoples in the mid-1960s. This back-and-forth regard across the Atlantic reminds us that in the modern period relations between the African continent and the United States, not to mention the West in general, have been built in and through race.
This virtual special issue contains articles and book reviews that span the Journal’s history: the earliest piece dates to 1964 and the most recent is from the first issue of 2020. We know that race has been a key category for apprehending the African continent, both for outsiders and for the continent’s diverse peoples. Across centuries, race, racism, and racial thinking have been used to dehumanize, to justify enslavement, to organize power, and to structure the routines of daily life and mediate how people relate to one another in markets, in courts of law, in neighborhoods, and in domestic space. The pieces featured here explore how Africans at different points in time have debated ideas of race, imagined their cultural and social practices through racial thinking, and shaped statecraft.
In 1991 the then editors of the Journal of African History requested a review of V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa (Indiana, 1989). In the year of his book’s publication, Mudimbe received the African Studies Association’s Herskovits prize. The JAH had not reviewed the book and asked Steven Feierman to do so, correcting course. Mudimbe’s focus is not race or racism per se. Instead, The Invention of Africa delineates an archaeology of otherness. A structuring discourse, otherness is the key concept that undergirds changing ideas about race over time and the emergence and intransigence of racism. Historians tend to work up and out from a variety of sources and focus on relatively narrow periods of time. The works selected here do that. Taken together, though, they propose a complex and varied history of race that contributes to thinking about the big question of otherness, so key to framing the African continent in Western discourse and imagination since the early eighteenth century.
Black racial and diasporic identity forged in the violence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the experience of systemic racism have been critical to intellectual and political movements created by Afro-descended peoples around the Atlantic. These movements staged a global or Atlantic form of Black politics. Robert W. July’s 1964 article considers Edward W. Blyden’s writing and thinking. Racism kept Blyden, who was born in St. Thomas in 1832, from studying at a theological seminary in the U.S., and impelled him to Liberia where he studied and worked, eventually holding diplomatic and other government posts. He relocated to Sierra Leone and worked as an educator and statesman until his death in 1912. July describes Blyden’s thinking as Negritude avant la lettre for its emphasis on a distinct, African personality. In books, newspaper articles, and pamphlets, he argued that Blacks on the continent and in the diaspora should cultivate the African personality and work to secure political freedoms through economic success. Blyden’s work left a lasting legacy on Pan-Africanist thought. R.L. Okonkwo’s 1980 article begins by stating that Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association extended Blyden’s ideas to argue for political independence from colonial rule in the early twentieth century. Though the Garveyites in Nigeria and Sierra Leone did not immediately accept the idea of independence, Okonkwo notes that Garvey’s arguments for African independence influenced the thinking of nationalists like Nnamdi Azikiwe, who read Garvey’s Negro World journal.
Race was a key category for organizing colonial structures and life. Racism justified empire. Racial thinking informed African agency. The politics and social life of racial respectability defined an arena in which some of the most disempowered members of society acted. Wayne Dooling’s 2018 article looks at how Cape Town’s poor Black population (African and coloured) in the interwar years used ideas about racial respectability. Dooling argues that despite a widely shared set of values related to family, hygiene, and education, poverty and the state policies that structured it challenged the capacity of Black Cape Townians to create the conditions of respectability to which many aspired. Studying Dar es Salaam, Emily Callaci (2011) uses racial respectability as a lens to analyze the debates around youth, mobility, sexuality, popular cultural practices, and racial nationalism. Dansi, a novel form of social dancing that emerged in the 1930s, became a practice discussed extensively in the Swahili press of the 1950s. Youth marked their presence in urban space through the cosmopolitan dansi while nationalists either sought to reform it into a respectable, modern form or rejected it as a corrupting foreign influence. Callaci exposes points of tension in what constituted racial respectability among nationalists and in nationalist politics.
The politics of racial respectability took on renewed significance following independence. Frederick Cooper noted in Africa since the 1940s (Cambridge, 2002) that 1994 marked freedom from the racist rule of apartheid, the last vestige of colonial control, and the eruption of the politics of race and ethnicity in the Rwandan genocide. Jonathan Glassman’s 2002 article argues that the idea of race as a colonial imposition is insufficient to explain the pogroms of 1961 and 1964 in Zanzibar. Glassman follows debates in the 1950s Zanzibari press in which African intellectuals – both Arab elites and indigenous writers – developed ethnic and then racial nationalism and advocated increasingly rigid forms of identification. He shows that Africans did crucial work in producing and developing racial thought in the late colonial period and notes the need to consider pre-colonial concepts of ‘civilization.’ Concerned with refining how we think about race historically, René Lemarchand’s review of Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers (Princeton, 2000) critiques Mamdani’s argument that the origins of the genocide are located in Belgian racialization of Tutsi that turned them into settlers. Lemarchand does not dispute colonial imposed racial categories but contests the idea of Tutsi as settlers. He emphasizes the tangled history of ethnicity and feudalism and the political threat posed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front in relation to the génocidaires’ racist propaganda. Looking at postcolonial Nigeria, Douglas Anthony offers a reading of race on the global stage in which external audiences were formative. His 2010 article on Biafra traces the shift in emphasis from modernity to race in the Biafran separatist discourse across the 1967-1970 conflict. After an international commission decided that the war did not constitute a genocide, Biafran leadership claimed that Biafran self-determination constituted a challenge that the white supremacist forces of the world would not abide.
Historians of West Africa have begun to deepen the genealogy of racial discourses into the pre-colonial period. Baz Lecocq’s contribution to the Journal’s forum on Trans-Saharan History in 2015 and Ghislaine Lydon’s 2012 review of Bruce Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 emphasize the long, complex intellectual history of race in the region. African ideas about race, racism, enslaved and free persons, religious practice, and phenotype disrupt the division of the continent into North and sub-Saharan regions. Chouki Hamel’s 2008 article on the Gnawa of Morocco animates key themes in that broader discussion. He asserts that the descendants of a diverse group of West African Muslims sold and enslaved in Morocco, who came to occupy a marginalized position in an Arabo-Berber dominated society, cultivated a distinct identity rooted in Blackness, mystical Islam, and musical practice.
Race is a relational category that institutions and people use to connect or divide across oceans, land, streets, and intimate space. Two articles in this virtual special issue show how, over time and with shifting political priorities, racially organized colonial states disempowered mixed-race groups. Hilary Jones explores the history of the métis from 1870-1920 to push back the chronology of African political action in colonial Senegal that begins with the 1914 election of Blaise Diagne to the French National Assembly. In her 2012 article, Jones argues that the descendants of French men and African women in the Four Communes understood themselves as Senegalese while defining themselves, in part, through loyalty to French republican institutions. Serving on the General Council, dedicated to affairs in the protectorate, mixed race and African habitants often defended local interests against those of the metropole. Interwar changes in colonial administration instituted more strict racial divisions that marginalized, and thus radicalized, some métis who then sought common cause with Africans outside the communes. The polarizing racial divisions of early twentieth century South Africa are the context of Mohamed Adhikari’s 1997 article on African Political Organization’s ideas about race. A coloured political association, APO published a newspaper by the same name, the APO. Adhikari reads the APO closely to chart the debates, contradictions, and changes in how the coloured petty bourgeoisie thought about itself. He noted that, for example, editorials identified with global Black struggles and political successes while also distancing themselves from Black South Africans in the 1920s.
Apartheid South Africa is a symbol of extreme, state-organized racism. Continuing systems of racialized rule demonstrate that South Africa was not unique. Technocratic, modern states can be particularly adept at embedding white supremacy in the laws, bureaucracies, and practices that organize daily life. Writing in the twilight of apartheid, Saul Dubow’s 1992 article parses Afrikaner thinking on race from the 1920s. He argues that the 1948 election of the Afrikaner National Party was not the culmination of racist ideology but an important inflection point. Dubow describes Afrikaner racial thinking as white supremacy anchored in scripture, experience, and science. It was an ideology that proved adaptable, enduring, and deadly in practice. The notorious passes and identity cards that controlled Black mobility and labor in apartheid South Africa had cognates in other colonies. Keren Weitzberg’s 2020 article investigates the imperial origins of contemporary biometrics in Kenya through a study of the kipande, a registration card with fingerprint for Africans, introduced in 1919. Approaching biometry as an embodied, archival practice, Weitzberg links questions of infrastructure, capital, and racial discrimination. The banal routines of bureaucratic practice imbued racial subjectivities. She argues that white settler protests of a universal identity card imposed in the late 1940s reveal fractures in white identities in colonial Kenya but are also evidence of how white settler colonies and white supremacy are not isolated extremes but links in a global system of racial capitalism and modern forms of rule.