Thinking About a Global Blackness

Now, before you read further, I need to make it clear that I am not thinking about Blackness in terms of myself. I am a white woman who happens to be a scholar of African American literature and theater, with overlapping interests in critical race theory, linguistics, and history. When I hear things in popular culture that at all relate to the work I’m doing, I like to write about it and practice the kind of connection making I require my students to do in the classroom. If there’s one thing I say over and over again to students is that our study of literature does not begin and end within the four walls of our classroom. Making connections and seeing how our texts relate to the world around them helps students see their study as relevant and critical, rather than old and musty. So I need to practice what I preach, I figure.

On this week’s episode of the podcast Another Round with Heben and Tracy, their guest Bim Adewunmi spoke of her perspective as a Nigerian-British woman with regard to the influence of African American culture on global understandings of Blackness. She noted that American culture is highly influential and pervasive, and because of that, representations of “Blackness” around the world tend to be rooted in an African American Blackness, even though there are many more “ways to be Black.”

This caught my attention not just because it is interesting, or because Adewunmi was herself an interesting person, but because it connects to some issues and challenges within the Black Power Movement of the 1960s-1970s. Specifically, I’m thinking of the Pan-African movement within Black Power, which sought to develop solidarity between African Americans and Africans. In his book New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, William Van Deburg discusses various aspects of the movement, many of which related to the idea of a global African-ness, if not a global Blackness.

Van Deburg argues that in the wake of Frantz Fanon’s seminal text The Wretched of the Earth, African American thinkers and political figures began to see themselves as part of a larger familial group of the African Diaspora, rather than only as descendants of American slaves.

By adhering to this culture-based African philosophical orientation, black Americans could draw upon the power of the collective in their struggle to become active agents in shaping the world (60).

This collective mindset was meant to help create a fully aware, positive Black consciousness, so it is interesting to juxtapose this philosophy of first connecting with the global African community in order to improve the state of things in the US with Adewunmi’s description of African American culture, acting independently of the global community, overwhelming all other means of Blackness around the world.

Interestingly, this notion of the powerful influence of American ideology and culture over the rest of the world was something of an obstacle for the revolutionary subset of Black nationalists during the Black Power Movement. Van Deburg writes:

The fundamental problem facing black and other Third World peoples was American-led, capitalist control of international economic affairs. The fundamental solution then, was to make the entire world a battlefield–to organize both nationally and internationally for the overthrow of the prevailing system. […] Control of the black nation-state had to be viewed as part of the world liberation movement, not as an end in itself (153).

Thus, the pervasiveness of American culture, even African American culture, was a point of contention within the Black Power Movement, or at least within certain factions of the Movement.

Adewunmit said on the podcast that she was planning on writing something about this idea of Global Blackness and its relationship to the African American experience that is so often represented as the default Blackness. I hope she is able to do so, because I look forward to reading it and learning more about her experiences in this context.

Reading List and Citations:

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
  • Van Deburg, William. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
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