I am an anthropologist in that I have been trained in and study, in both university and professional work settings, the science of qualitative variables. This entails conducting interviews, participant-observation, focus groups, archival and literature-based research, surveys, and other anthropological research methods in a reasonably objective manner. I come to the topic that is the deconstruction of Black civilization from this position of training and predilection in my analyses. I am writing here to assert the particulars of my perspective of the Black community, in relation to other nodes (i.e. actors and systems or forces). This delineation of the social dynamics, as observed and also garnered from works by mostly Black artists and scholars, of the Black community is provided with hope that it may be used as a tool for its liberation and empowerment. A tool against that which, to the Black community, is the maker of their Otherness: the oppressor. This writing is an attempt at a decolonized praxis.
According to Indigenous-American activists, Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird, decolonization is the “meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands. Decolonization is engaged for the purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation” (Waziyatawin and Yellow Bird 2012, 3). A decolonized praxis is, thus, a theory-informed practice attempting to resist and overturn forces of subjugation. In this case, this subjugation is due to colonialism, which continues as a neo-colonialism in the form of free-market capitalism, in addition to racism.
I am making this attempt at a decolonized praxis through this writing, as an outsider to the Black community, after having read the book of essays and speeches by Audre Lorde titled, Sister Outsider (1984). In the book, Lorde discusses how White people should take on the role of teaching about Black civilization, Black authors, race, and other such topics, because as a Black lesbian feminist socialist, she was herself often exasperated and deeply affected by the process of repeatedly teaching about these subjects to a White audience (Lorde 1984, 117). It was an energy absorbing activity for her, where energy could have been used instead for her self-definition towards self-actualization (Lorde 1984, 115; 45-46).
As a White-passing half Middle Eastern woman, I have decided to take on this endeavor; this requires that I, and other White interlocutors discussing these subjects, read and listen carefully to Black peoples’ perspectives, and absorb and empathize with their worldviews, to make sure that that which is taught and propagated is useful to Black liberation and growth. This is a call for a people-centered research and one that is participatory in that it is engaged with the communities that one is researching, rather than be removed and theorized from afar á la “armchair anthropology.”
Of course, when attempting a decolonized praxis on this topic from a position as a White outsider, it is essential to come to terms with, and rectify, the power dynamics at play between the author and the subject matter. In this case, there is the danger that I could conduct an analysis and write in a way that is paternalistic (e.g., the “White-savior complex”), which is demeaning to and dismisses the real worldviews of those being subjected to study usually for their continued subjugation. Rather than make this mistake, this paper is being written with the hope that Black people, and other people of color, in addition to those whom are similarly oppressed as the Black community can use this deconstructed knowledge for the purpose of their liberation, empowerment, and other more tactical goals.
This paper draws majorly from three works: two history books titled, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (1987), by Chancellor Williams and Africa: African History Before 1885 (2000) by Toyin Falola; and the pivotal psychoanalytical book on Black identity titled, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), by Frantz Fanon. These books were chosen to reflect both the external historical record, as produced by Black historians, and the internal psychoanalytic impact of colonialism on the Black community, as contemplated and written about by a Black psychoanalyst. In this light, it must be noted that I am merely making connections between these external, material happenings and these internal, psychological impacts to define the node that is the Black community holistically, with substance, body, and depth.
In this overall endeavor, it is impossible for me to be entirely objective. Rather, this paper embraces the subjective and attempts a self-aware, if you will, account of the social dynamics at play between the Black community vs. other actors (e.g., other people of color, Whites, LGBQTA+ people, various religious sects) and systems or forces (e.g., colonialism, capitalism, racism, sexism). This attempt at self-awareness is in regards to my position as the author, as White-passing, half Middle-Eastern, a woman, etc. This is further in relation to the varied and multi-dimensional other actors and human beings whom identify or are identified as part of the Black community in addition to the systems or forces that often subjugate people.
Williams’ book, for example, is essential to the literature on the topic in that it brings to light the history of Black civilization “that had been either unknown, known and misinterpreted, or known but deliberately ignored” (Williams 1987, 17). In this, Williams provides an account of Black civilization that is the viewpoint of themselves as the “conquered,” rather than that of their “conquerors” (Williams 1987, 18). Williams makes the subject of his book, ‘the destructionof Black civilization,’ highlighting the forces, including slavery, nature (e.g., inhabitable land), and religious imperialism, that contributed to the material and psychological subjugation of Black civilization. Falola’s book is also essential in that it contributes the historical framework that derived from Africa. For example, Falola writes:
First, history (in Africa) was conceived as the knowledge not only of the past, but also of the present…It was the study of people in their environment and of the institutions that govern their relationship with others – social, political, economic, and religious…Second, Africans were also conscious of the historical significance of occurring and recurring events. The idea of history was of such paramount importance that every effort was made to preserve it for future generations, although not in a written form. Much of the historical preservation was accomplished through oral tradition. (Falola 2000, 8)
Falola furthermore writes: “The conceptual idea of Africa as a continent without civilization or significant historical achievement was principally a by-product of the rise of racist scholarship in Europe. It was essentially a creation of Western thought and a Eurocentric framework of explanation” (Falola 2000, 9). Therefore, Falola unearths the historical framework of Black civilization, which has been subjugated, enabling Black people to reclaim their roots.
In this, the ‘roots’ of Black people entails an existence, cognition, and self-assessment before the confrontation of themselves in relation to a hegemonic White people. In the “Introduction” to his book, Fanon asserts: “White civilization and European culture have imposed an existential deviation on the black man. We shall demonstrate furthermore that what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk” (Fanon 1952, xviii). In other words by Fanon: “As painful as it is for us to have to say this: there is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white” (Fanon 1952, xiv). This is to say that Black identity often inherently confronts an existential crisis that is being regarded as Other to the hegemonic norm that is White, and internalizing this regard. Fanon asserts that this has a psychological impact, which ranges from having an inferiority complex in wanting to be White, having a thirst for revenge, or striving to discover the meaning of Black identity (Fanon 1952, xvii-xviii). This psychoanalysis is bound for a degree of falsity per the nature of it as subjective speculation. However, Fanon provides insight to the deeply embedded dynamics of the Black psyche in relation to others.
This paper cannot accomplish a proper deconstruction of Black civilization without an analysis of language and what it implies, as empirical evidence, about social dynamics between actors and in relation to systems or forces. Nor can this paper give proper nuance and detail about the workings of Black civilization against domination in a few short pages. However, I hope it has spurred your respect for and imagination about the complexity of Black civilization, and I encourage you to read Black authors and works by other people of color if you want to respect, empathize with, and understand their worldviews.
Falola, Toyin (ed.). 2000. Africa: African History Before 1885. Volume 1. Carolina Academic Press: Durham, North Carolina.
Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press: NY, New York.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider. Crossing Press: NY, New York.
Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird (eds.). 2012. For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook. School for Advanced Research Press: Santa Fe, NM.
Williams, Chancellor. 1987. The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.Third World Press: Chicago, IL.