How I became an Afro-Pessimist

All forms of exploitation are alike. They all seek to justify their existence by citing some biblical decree. All forms of exploitation are identical, since they apply to the same “object”: man. ~ Fanon

On March 19th 2011, the UK as part of a multi-state coalition took part in a military assault on Libya in order, allegedly, to prevent Qadhafi’s forces from killing helpless residents in the Libyan city of Benghazi.  The propaganda embraced quite rapidly from the start by people in Britain, and indeed around the world, by both sides of the political spectrum went something like this: Qadhafi could not rely on Arab Libyans whom he had oppressed for decades and instead was forced to utilise paid mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa who were now killing and raping Libyans. While international media opinion-shapers were swallowing the propaganda – some located in the offices of Al-Jazeera and many having vast followers on twitter to amplify the message – graffiti started to appear on the walls of buildings around the nerve-centre of the NTC’s operations in Benghazi depicting Qadhafi, simian-like, equipped with a long tail, thick, bulbous lips and crinkly afro hair. The general thrust of these representations was to depict Qadhafi, due to his past beneficence to Black Africa, as having betrayed his identity and that of true Libyan people.  He was as Black as the Africans rampaging through Libya to prop up his authority and thus, an enemy of the state. The PR contingent in the Benghazi offices of the NTC aimed to use the bodies of Black Africans to create a sense of horror in the anglo-phone world at the bestiality of these alien monsters who were disembarking at airports (photographs that were disseminated from the NTC nerve centre show them, looking like night street cleaners in hi viz yellow wellington boots and not carrying anything that could reasonably be concluded to be weapons ) in order to satisfy their lust for Qadhafi’s black gold and nubile Libyan girls. This graffiti depicting Blackness as bestial was no new political language. It is part of a rhetorical code that has come to symbolise the way in which Black Africa is represented. [Outside of Disney and the Lion King, you can watch charity ads begging for you to save baby girls from genital mutilation in Africa which has more or less outlawed the practice across the continent. Or others that show mothers feeding their children microbe-infested water, as if aeons of progress had not already alerted mothers and significant others to this fact.  Never let facts stand in the way. There’s money in them thar representations]. I wanted to understand how the Arab world had embraced it. I had seen it before in the depictions of Colonial French African soldiers later captured by the Nazis which showed them raping German women and killing their dogs. I began to tweet my concerns about the way in which the conflict was being racialised. Nobody was listening. Everybody had a handle on the way the war was being managed and it mostly followed the narrative of the Arab Spring having migrated to Libya where now an oppressed people were seeking liberation from their tyrannical leader. Race and gender were absolutely marginal to the desire of an international community who wished to rid Libya of the evil Qadhafi. It bothered me that US Arab academic feminists who I had grown to admire and who I expected would pick up on the way the civil war was being racialised by forces within Libya would come to my side. And when they didn’t, I began to despair and then my despair turned to rage. When it became clear that Africans – and I need to contextualise this further – were being killed by Arab Libyans, I was reprimanded for describing those Black Africans as Africans … “weren’t Libyans Africans?”.  In order to head off that argument so that I could detail the abuses I was seeing beginning to be reported by people on the ground, a narrative that was easily drowned out, I started to refer to Africans as sub-Saharan Africans. The idea that there was an Africa and a sub-Saharan Africa I found difficult to accept but as I said, I just wanted the facts out there … strict adherence to what was happening rather than losing focus and slipping into abstract arguments about what was sub about everything south of Libya? etc. But still, for them, there was no urgency to consider whether the international community had been duped into launching military strikes on Libya based on what I saw to be a racist representation of Black Africa by the duplicitous NTC who were engineering the PR for their side in Benghazi in order to alienate Qadhafi.  How could it be? When the stories of African migrant women sheltering in the ports were being raped and when African men were being lynched, I wondered at how smart these women really were.. And they were smart. At the best US universities. Harvard, etc. Middle class academics. They were enamoured of Graeber who was then de rigeuer reading for anyone wanting to tap into the radical wave, rippling out of Cairo. So well placed too. They read  Puar and Butler and dabbled in Fanon and they were critical about European universalism but they’re not critical about what is happening to Africans on the ground in Libya?  At this point, I realised there was a problem to do with how we see African people. At this point I realise that my voice is as marginalised as the voices we are not hearing in Libya. That is , not those Libyans mollycoddled by Qadhafi and given everything thanks to their oil wealth… you know houses and free university education but those ultra-poor Africans who came to Libya to do the dirty work Libyans are too privileged to do for themselves in order to earn their passage on those boats we, the United Kingdom, are about to sink. As if that will solve the natural movement of people out of war zones. At this point I am feeling something akin to disgust for Arab academic feminists. I guess they’d never really looked at the situation from the position of being lynched. Or raped. But I want to understand how they fit in with what I come to understand later as anti-Blackness. And how they could continue to play the identity politics game. This was the starting point for me. My foray into Afro-pessimism really began with this deliberate ignorance of Black death in Libya. What kind of indoctrination can lead there? What kind of alienation is this? How does this apartheid cleave through Europe and the Middle East so that educated Arab feminists are … I want to say “blaise” about Black death after 9/11 particularly? How is it that they accept the maintenance of an apartheid in their own countries while enjoying their diasporic existence, without seeing how contradictory that is? An apartheid that is really a European creation? An apartheid that speaks to the myth of a superior people who need boundaries… this Africa marked by the sub-Sahara, for instance. This looking at those who are from the sub-Saharan killed, held in their very own Libyan zoo where bananas are thrown… as beneath them while the liberated as masters of their own destiny look on laughing?

Why should I be kind and give you paragraphs?

More to follow

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