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The fire now? A Meditation on Shattered Dreams of Racial Harmony

Cette fois, le feu ? Une méditation sur l’anéantissement des rêves d’« harmonie raciale »
Christiane Owusu-Sarpong
p. 178-217


Une longue histoire migratoire relie depuis des siècles l’Afrique à l’Europe et aux Amériques. Des événements récents montrent que, même si le racisme et la ségrégation sont à présent bannis par la loi, des hommes et des femmes classés comme « noirs » continuent d’être privés de droits humains fondamentaux partout dans le monde. Cet essai rappelle la perspective panafricaine qui unissait autrefois les voix puissantes des activistes africains-américains des droits civiques et des intellectuels africains-américains en exil à celles émergeant d’une Afrique en voie de décolonisation. Il montre par ailleurs que, suite à l’effondrement des rêves d’harmonie raciale des pionniers du xxe siècle, l’intelligentsia « noire » (africaine-américaine et africaine-européenne) contemporaine déclare qu’à moins que le « système de privilèges » occidental en place ne soit remis en question (en particulier par une réécriture de l’histoire), la colère qu’exprime la masse défavorisée des gens de couleur en détruisant des statues de héros déchus d’un passé colonial répréhensible conduira inexorablement à la réalisation de la prophétie de Baldwin annonçant : « La prochaine fois, le feu ». Cependant, en m’appuyant sur des souvenirs positifs de ma vie au Ghana et en m’inspirant d’autobiographies d’écrivains et d’artistes s’interrogeant sur leur appartenance plurielle, je choisis de rejoindre le groupe des « humanistes cosmopolites » auxquels Kwame Anthony Appiah fait dire : « Nous ne sommes pas obligés de traiter décemment les gens d’autres cultures et traditions en dépit de nos différences ; nous pouvons traiter les autres, décemment, humainement à travers nos différences1. »

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In memory of Albert Owusu-Sarpong (1946-2018)

Texte intégral

I would like to thank my friend, Professor Judith Miller (New York University), for having read over this piece and encouraged me to publish it.
My special thanks also go to my son, Didier, with whom I have been having long conversations about the contemporary “anti-racist” struggle, and whose reading tips have been most helpful.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude towards Luc Pecquet, the editor of the
Journal des Africanistes, for having shown interest in this essay, even though its central focus is not generally part of the journal’s topics.

1Albert Owusu-Sarpong was born in Ghana in 1946. When I met him, at the University of Strasbourg in 1973, he was writing a PhD on the poet, playwright, essayist and politician, Aimé Césaire, from the Martinique (French Caribbean). We got married in 1976, in France, and left for Ghana soon after. Albert and I both lectured at the Department of Languages (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi), until his nomination as Ghana’s Ambassador to France in 2001. During our 25 years together in the capital of the Ashanti Region, we raised our three children, Elsa Akosua Peprah, Colette Yaa Tiaaka and Didier Kofi Sarpong on the university campus. Whilst I was concentrating on my research work as an ethnolinguist, specialized in Akan Studies, Albert shared his time between his academic endeavors as a Professor of French and Francophone African Literature, his administrative duties as a Head of Department and Dean of Faculty, and his political commitments in the opposition. During the second half of the Twentieth century, Ghana was for decades plagued by a succession of military coups, depriving its citizens from basic human rights (such as the Freedom of the Press) and so, beside his father, Victor Owusu, an eminent lawyer and politician, Albert ceaselessly fought for a return to democracy in his motherland. And when John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor won the elections under the flag of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), and became the President of Ghana in 2001, he nominated Albert as Ghana’s Ambassador to France, Portugal and the Vatican. Albert stayed in Paris from 2001 to 2008, and thereafter returned to his academic life at the University of Kumasi, until he became the Ɔmanhene (Paramount Chief) of the Wenchi Traditional Area (Brong-Ahafo), under the Stool name Ampem Ɔsagyefo Anye Amoampong Tabrako II, in 2015. We were, since 2008, living separate lives, but Albert remained my lifelong friend to the end. And when a magnificent royal funeral was organized for him in May 2019, in Wenchi, six months after his passing on the 27th of November 2018, the children and I went to take part in the celebration of his life.

  • 2 Baldwin 1993 [1963]; Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury & Kamunge (eds.) 2018.

2I was writing an anthropological paper on Albert’s funeral, and, at the same time, planning towards a more elaborate memoir about Our Lives In and Out of Ghana – Making New Families for a New World, when a succession of unsettling world events throughout 2020 (the Coronavirus pandemic and the global explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement) prompted me to pause and wonder whether the shattering of the dreams of racial harmony shared by many of our generation, was giving way to what Johnson Azeezat, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge refer to (in deference to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time), as The Fire Now2. The following essay results from this meditation.

Shattered dreams of racial harmony...

  • 3 King 1963a (extracts).

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. [...]
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. [...]
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when
all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.3

3Many powerful voices have resonated loud and clear in America, before and since the inspirational Baptist civil rights activist preached about his dream of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, making the world aware of the tragic and very unique pain suffered by African American people, forever burdened by the stigmatizing history of slavery, forever in search of their roots, forever trapped between a lost African identity and American institutionalized racism. Their hopeful prayers and thunderous clamor echo through the centuries, each one of them adding a nuance to the common struggle for a world where BLACK LIVES MATTER in the same way as all other human lives do.

  • 4 Blight 2018.

4Frederick Douglass (born Bailey in 1818), the fugitive slave who became a leader of the abolitionist movement and whom his biographer, David W. Blight, describes as the “Prophet of Freedom4 ”, paved the way. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), he described the brutalities and hardships he experienced as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland. During his new life, in Massachusetts, where he managed to escape to in 1838, he delivered radical speeches, such as the oration he gave in New York, in response to an invitation by the Rochester Ladies Anti Slavery Sewing Society on the 5th (refusing to speak on the 4th) of July 1852, in which he exposed America’s hypocrisy:

  • 5 Douglass 5 July 1852 (extracts). Emphasis mine.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. [...]
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour...5

5Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet, exposed racial prejudice and social injustice – the “Fate” of African American people since the Emancipation Proclamation, on the 1st of January 1863 – in barking and biting poems, cadenced like blues. In the polyphonic text, “Laughers” (1922), for instance, he carried his sarcastic message across with the simplest of words, listing out what his “emancipated” people have been reduced to, what they are said to be by those who want to ridicule them, and what they are likely to become – for, no doubt, the last verse sounds like a quiet warning by the poet himself about what apparent resilience can lead to:

  • 6 A poem in the public domain, first published as “My people” in the June 1922 issue of The Crisis Ma (...)

Loud laughers in the hands of Fate –
My People.
Ladies’ maids,
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses -
Dream-singers all,
Story-tellers all.
Dancers –
God! What dancers!
Singers –
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers,
Dancers and laughers.
laughers...laughers...laughers –
Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate

  • 7 Henri Louis Gates, Jr., quoted by John Callahan in his Introduction to the 13th anniversary edition (...)

6A number of novelists added their voice to the on-going discourse on racial segregation and social injustice, culminating in Ralph Ellison’s masterful Invisible Man which won the 1953 National Book Award; it was much debated at first, but soon recognized, in Henri Louis Gates, Jr.’s words, as “a living ‘encyclopedia of black culture’7”. This was an experimental novel, in which the author introduces the avant-garde metaphor of invisibility in the Prologue:

  • 8 Ellison 2001 [1952] : 3.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me...8

  • 9 Ibid. : 343.

7And all is said, right from the first page onwards, about what it means to be ignored, to be reduced to nothingness, even “dispossessed of [one’s] dislike of being dispossessed9”; the concept indeed summarizes the dehumanizing experience of “people of color” in the United States of America in the 50s. The story ends with images of riots, and of the narrator disappearing in a hole, “hibernating”, “underground” – another metaphor, that of The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead developed in his 2016 novel, emulating modernist Ellison in his use of surreality; yet the narrator’s awareness grows, and he must emerge, speak, return to an absurd and lost humanity, so full of contradictions:

  • 10 Ibid.: 575.

Our fate is to become one. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker everyday, and the blacks striving towards whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going10.

8In an attempt to reconcile the nation, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gathered a number of sermons he had originally drafted for his Montgomery congregation towards the 1963 spring Campaign in Birmingham (Alabama), and published them under the symbolic title, Strength to Love. In one of the most famous pieces, “Loving your Enemies”, the love he defines is active and combative, not submissive and all accepting; it leads to civil disobedience and aims at breaking the segregationist’s hard heartedness:

  • 11 King, final § of “Loving your Enemies” (in 1963b), a sermon originally delivered at the Dexter Aven (...)

To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory’11.

  • 12 Cf. King 27 July 1963 & 1964.

9Once again, King was arrested during the demonstration, and criticized by local Christian and Jewish religious leaders. In his response to what they described as an “unwise and untimely action”, and despite all his own “shattered dreams of the past”, he insisted on the necessity of having acted at that point in time12. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – an essay which spurred the March on Washington, and led him to dream his most magnificent dream (quoted above), he declared, placing the African American struggle in a universal perspective:

  • 13 King 1963c (extract).

We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied”. We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter13.

A transcontinental quest...

  • 14 Baldwin 1993 [1963]: 63.
  • 15 Ibid.: 59.
  • 16 Ibid : 71.
  • 17 Ibid. : 73.

10In 1963, the year during which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated himself as an unbreakable preacher and non violent campaign leader, the essayist James Baldwin added his thoughts to a potentially explosive situation; he published two “letters”, written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, using a biblical prophecy, The Fire Next Time, as the symbolic title of his book. Even though “frightened” of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, whom he had “associated [...] with ferocity14”, he had accepted a dinner invitation from him in Chicago – an encounter he describes in “Down at the Cross. Letter from a Region of my Mind”. In that essay he observed that, even though he disagreed with some of Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X’s conclusions, “[t]hings are as bad as the Muslims say they are – in fact, they are worse (...[and]) there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed quite the contrary15”. At the dinner with Elijah Muhammad, bombarded by “the iron word of the prophet” for whom white people were the Devil incarnate, Baldwin found the courage to counter: “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?16 ”, even though he knew that he had no chance of being heard. The encounter led him to write that: “In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman17 ”. Baldwin agreed with the Baptist Preacher, that “...the Negro Can’t Wait”, but he rejected the Black Muslims’ insistence on a separate nation of Islam; he knew that the claim of seven states in “back payment” for slave labor was and would remain a “fantasy”.

  • 18 Terms used by Baldwin himself to describe his life between his two “homes” (America and France). Cf (...)
  • 19 Cf. Jordison, 26 February 2019.

11Baldwin stood somewhere in the middle, between the two ideological poles of the Civil Rights Movement; he had been brought up by a Baptist minister in Harlem, and had spent three years of his youth preaching in a Harlem Pentecostal Church himself, before leaving the church all together and becoming a cosmopolitan intellectual, a “transatlantic commuter18 ”. He moved to Paris in 1948. There he wrote Giovanni’s Room (1956), which the publisher of his first novel, Go tell it on the Mountain (1953), rejected. It did not address the “negro problem” (the topic he was expected to continue dealing with) but other forms of discrimination (against homosexuals and Italians) – as Giovanni, the novel’s Italian character, is treated by his white American lover, David, as a subhuman19. James Baldwin, the gay African American novelist, saw beyond race / color; his work dealt with prejudice in its all-encompassing forms.

12In The Fire Next Time, he addressed readers of good faith, both white and black, with the distance of the observer, and insisted on their shared duty:

  • 20 Baldwin 1993 [1963]: 105-106. Emphasis mine.

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!20

  • 21 Baldwin, 7 January 1971 [19 November 1970] (extract).

13Following events “at home” from St. Paul de Vence, where he eventually settled, Baldwin published “An Open Letter to [His] Sister, Miss Angela Davies” (1970), to let the Black Panther militant, who had been arrested some months before, know that she was not alone, that he had been defending her cause in Europe. In words which still speak to us today, he wrote that, “for the perpetuation of this system [which instituted intolerance for self-preservation], we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell21”. In his St. Paul de Vence haven, he indiscriminately received visiting African American musicians and writers, like Nina Simone, Miles Davies, Ray Charles, Josephine Baker, or Toni Morrison, but also French celebrities – actors like Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, and Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman writer to have been accepted at the Académie Française. Up to this day, the exceptional life he led, as a crosser of all lines, and the foresightedness of his writings continue indeed to “create the consciousness of others”.

14A number of African American intellectuals turned to the African Continent for solace. President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, for instance, welcomed the black cultural nationalist and pan-Africanist, W.E.B. DuBois and his wife, writer Shirley Graham, in Accra, and granted them both Ghanaian nationality. In the US, DuBois had disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of acceptance which, to him, would only lead to the continuation of the oppression of the “Black Folk”. He eventually moved towards Marxism and was accused of being a Russian agent. The disillusioned founder of the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) left for Ghana, where he spent his final years, working on the Encyclopedia Africana project. In his poem, “Ghana calls”, dedicated to his host, DuBois writes:

...I went to Moscow:
Ignorance grown wise taught me Wisdom
I went to Peking:
Poverty grown rich showed me the wealth of Work
I came to Accra.
Ghana shows its might and power
Not in its color nor its flower
But in its wondrous breadth of soul
Its Joy of Life
Its selfless role
Of giving.

  • 22 DuBois 20 February 1963 (extracts).

School and clinic, home and hall
Road and garden bloom and call
Socialism blossoms bold
On communism centuries old...

15In August of that year the 95-year-old sociologist died in Accra, happy in the belief that he had indeed come “home”, to a glorious centre of pan-African socialism.

  • 23 Lubabu 16 December 2011.
  • 24 Angelou 1987 [1986] : 81.

16Maya Angelou, the performer who had sung and danced in Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, and acted in Jean Genet’s play, The Blacks, the writer who had joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, also moved to Ghana around the same time (in 1962) with her son Guy, after a year in Egypt. In Accra, she worked as an administrator at the Ghana School of Music and Drama, learnt the Fante language, wrote feature articles for the Ghanaian Times and edited The African Review. She associated with Ghanaians, such as Efua Sutherland, the playwright, and Kwabena Nketia, the musicologist, and mingled with the African American community (in particular with the political refugees), whose members had come to Ghana “in the hopes of immersing themselves in their ancestral backdrop23”. Nevertheless, as she explains later in her fifth autobiographical work, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), they were all a bit disappointed by the indifference many Ghanaians manifested towards them. The suspicion and distrust they were under, after a coup attempt against Kwame Nkrumah, left them “a little less giddy and a lot less sure24”. She herself gradually felt out of place:

  • 25 Ibid. : 147-148.

Ghana was beginning to tug at me and make me feel uncomfortable, like an ill fitting coat. [...] My housemates and the other Revolutionist Returnees provided opportunities for strong political debate and laughter, but I had to admit that I had begun to feel that I was no longer in my right place. Every moment in Ghana called attention to itself and each social affair was self-conscious. When I went dancing, between the beats and during the steps, I thought ‘Here I am, Maya Angelou, dancing in Africa. I know I am having a good time.’ Shopping in the crowded streets I thought, ‘This is me at last, really me, buying peppers in Makola market, aren’t I lucky?’ I decided that I was too aware of my location; not just in Accra, or in Adabraka, or Asylum Down.
I needed to get away from Africa and its cache of subtle promises and at least second-hand memories. I blamed the entire continent and history for my malaise...

17In 1964, Maya Angelou decided that it was time to go back home; she had befriended Malcolm X, during his historical visit to Accra the same year, and she intended to help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), but he was assassinated in February 1965. She later joined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he too was assassinated in Memphis, on the 4th of April 1968 – the day of her 40th birthday. So she continued the struggle on her own, traveling the world, writing inspiring poetry, essays and memoirs – all the while, never giving up. “Still”, she wrote in her most famous poem, “I rise”:

  • 26 Angelou 1978 (eponym poem, extracts).

... Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into the daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

18Ghana continues to attract African American artists, looking for connections and spiritual fulfillment, such as the New York Times photographer, Chester Higgins, Jr., who has crossed many national and cultural boarders, in search of the “Unseen Spirit” of people of African descent, of personal identity and collective memories. In his collection of black and white photographs, Feeling the Spirit. Searching the World for the People of Africa (1994), Ghana is portrayed through a series of images, representing people, places, objects – moments of ordinary and ritual life, rarely still, never meaningless, such as a father praying over his son at sunrise by the sea, a hat placed on a bed in the workers’ quarters at a wood processing plant in Tamale, worshippers ringing the gankogwi or double gong at the Drobo festival in Koforidua, or cowrie shells worn around a woman’s neck in Kumasi.

19At the end of his “personal odyssey”, as he calls it, by “capturing these pure moments”, Higgins found a soothing answer to his nagging quest:

  • 27 Higgins 1994, Introduction (extracts) & back book cover.

We are Africans not because we are born in Africa, but because Africa is born in us.
Look around you and behold us in our greatness.
Greatness is an African possibility; you can make it yours

In and out of Ghana: personal dreams

20When Albert and I met, in Strasbourg, in 1973, we followed the American Civil Rights Movement’s aftermath, as well as events taking place in burning Apartheid South Africa. On “the Continent”, political independence had mostly been achieved, but the evils of the post-colonial African states had already manifested themselves. Albert kept himself informed, by reading Jeune Afrique and the TIME magazine, and by constantly listening to the BBC World Service on his radio. He also wanted me to know more about Ghana – a country I could hardly place on a map when we met, given the sketchy introduction to African geography and history French schools provided during my primary and secondary schooling days. This is why, for my 21st birthday, he offered me a copy of Michael Dei-Anang’s Ghana Resurgent (1964).

  • 28 Cf. Akala 2018, from “Interlude: A guide to Denial”: 31 & 33.

21Glancing through the now faded pages, I found passages which still make a lot of sense today, when so many people in Europe are in denial about the colonial era and its lasting consequences, objecting to whoever brings up the subject: “You just want to blame me for what my ancestors did”, or “You just blame the West for all of the world’s problems28”. In 1964, Dei-Anang wrote:

  • 29 Dei-Anang 1964 : 200.

More and more African states are achieving their independence. [...]
There is a tendency to look upon Africans who demand their freedom as if they were gaol-birds convicted of some hideous crime now demanding to be set free before they had served their sentence. But Africans are not criminals. They have no sentence to serve, because they have committed no crime

22In his own dream of a new, unified (Mother) Africa, which unfortunately faltered, the pan-African poet imagines the Continent not as a “third world” but as an emerging “third force”:

  • 30 Ibid.: 204.

Africa can develop into a third force, holding the balance between the two major contestants for world dominance. Africa’s aim then is to develop rapidly, industrially, economically, politically and socially, whilst maintaining her identity. She has no wish to become part of either the Eastern or Western power-blocs.
She will adopt the best from both worlds and add to either her own best customs and traditions. Those customs and traditions will not be used simply because they are African. No African makes the elementary mistake of believing that the African is the best person in the best of all possible worlds. Customs or traditions which prove to be merely obstructive to progress will be as ruthlessly banished as colonialism

23Sadly, despite the creation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 (replaced in 2002, by the African Union), the immediate future of many independent African states was to be much bleaker – and we know that international organizations rarely intervene in a country’s sovereign internal affairs. In Ghana, for instance, by the time I was given Dei-Anang’s hopeful book, Nkrumah had died in exile, Kofi Abrefa Busia’s government had been overthrown, and a military dictatorship was in place. It would take decades for the political turbulence to calm down, allowing Ghanaian citizens of today to enjoy a peaceful democracy and to expect that their nation’s economic growth will eventually lead to a complete alleviation of poverty.

24Albert, the Ghanaian patriot, was undoubtedly influenced throughout his life by his francophone literary culture, as well as by his personal experience of the long political crisis which affected his independent country; but always, even in the face of military dictatorship, he still favored the path of non-violent resistance, insisting merely on the right to speak and write freely, to protest with words – at the risk of political detention; he also remained confident in the future.

25Looking at our children with much hope, Albert held on to a declaration by General de Gaulle, “L’avenir est au métisssage”, quoted in its colonial context by the Senegalese politician and Négritude poet, Léopold Sédar Senghor, in an interview:

  • 31 Senghor 1980: 27. Translation mine.

... a “colonial governor” told me the following anecdote, said the poet. General de Gaulle had just decided to grant French citizenship, at least as far as the right to vote is concerned, to all North Africans and to all Negro Africans; so the governor asked him if he was not afraid that French blood would be polluted by Arab or Black blood. De Gaulle then rebuffed him, saying: Mon cher, vous êtes un bourgeois: l’avenir est au métissage (My dear, you are a bourgeois: [don’t you know that] the future lies in diversity)31.

  • 32 Cf. Bancel, Blanchard, Bortsch, Deroo & Lemaire (dir.) 2002.
  • 33 Putnam 2012: 55.
  • 34 Renold, Chichi & Renold January 2013.

26Albert was in no way what the French call a Béni-Oui-Oui (what the Ghanaians call a “Yes-Sir-Master” man), just as he believed that Satchmo (his favorite singer, Louis Armstrong) was no Uncle Tom. He was very much aware of the persistence and resurgence of racism in the world, a harrowing consequence of the 19th century pseudo-scientific theories about “the inequalities of the human races”, elaborated by Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1853) and the like, further confirmed by public displays of “primitives” in “human zoos32”, freak shows and colonial fairs. As Walter Putnam explains: “The physical proximity afforded by close-up encounters with exoticized natives promoted an ideological position of superiority among European viewers whose power and prestige were confirmed by such displays33 ”.Awareness and acceptance of collective guilt was only slowly progressing a century later, as evidenced, for instance, by the Sarah Baartman case: after several years of official debate (between 1994, when President Nelson Mandela made the request in the name of the Khoisan people, and 2002), the French Parliament finally adopted a legislation allowing the return of the remains of Sarah Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus”, to South Africa. Her remains had been exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris under the supervision of Georges Cuvier. Before her death, Sarah Baartman had been exhibited in freak shows in London and in Paris. As underlined on the ArThemis platform (Art-Law Center, University of Geneva), the French Parliament’s reluctant and belated intervention was meant “to send a strong sign of its commitment to sanction the return of the remains of a woman who had been subjected to the worst forms of racism and sexism during her life and after her death34”.

27We were in Paris, when the restitution officially took place, and Albert was pleased that this delicate diplomatic matter had finally been resolved; he was hoping that this example would help open people’s mind further.

  • 35 Rev. J.G. Christaller translates oburoni as “European, white man; mulatto”, and aburokyiri as “the (...)

28Whilst Albert always looked out for the slightest sign of racism abroad and at home when dealing with “expatriates”, he was willing to believe in the genuine (prejudice free) friendship of his non-Ghanaian friends. When he was in a teasing mood, I was his “Oburoni” (European)35 – a verbal provocation I would answer with “Obibini!” (African), and that always triggered a lot of laughter; but he did not take lightly to anyone calling our children “Oburoni pete!” – a derogatory Akan colloquialism opposed to Oburoni fitaa or “pure Oburoni”, literally meaning “vulture foreigner”, sometimes used to point a finger at children born from interracial marriages.

29Interestingly, aborɔfo (plural form of oburoni) has been said to refer by some scholars to “wicked people” and by others to “people who came from beyond the horizon”, depending on the etymological speculations of the school of thought relied upon. According to the authors of a recent linguistic data analysis, the meaning of both Akan names, oburoni (pl. aborɔfo) and obibini (pl. abibifo), still keeps changing, and their polysemy hints at historical and societal changes in contemporary Ghana, under the influence of migration and globalization:

  • 36 Bosiwah, Abrefa & Asenso 2015: 6.

It [oburoni] could be used to mean affection – example: me dɔfo buroni (my true love). It is ‘Westernized’, ‘acculturated’, ‘enlightened’ or anibue, wapow, onim de. Oburoni also refers to any foreigner, especially those with light complexion: Ghanaians use the term to describe Syrians, Lebanese, Chinese, etc, as aborɔfo. Additionally, Ghanaians use oburoni as a designation for ‘bi-racial’ Ghanaians and light complexioned Ghanaians. Oburoni may be used to describe anyone who is visiting Ghana from overseas, including African Americans and even Ghanaians domiciled overseas. This one has nothing to do with skin color, but much to do with living overseas. Of late, [...] an African American is an America obibini, a Black Brazilian is a Brazil obibini, and so on. People, who speak with British, Canadian, American accents [...] whether they are Jamaicans, or Ghanaians, may be described as oburoni /aborɔfo36.

  • 37 The adjective kɔkɔɔ designates “red, yellow, with their several tints of shades”, according to Chri (...)

30I frequently experienced the mischievous song, rattled by little ones, who followed me in villages in the Ashanti and Brong Ahafo Regions, cheerfully welcoming the “foreigner” in me with their repeated: “Oburoni Kɔkɔɔ37, Makye!” (literally “Yellow / red skinned foreigner, Good morning to you!”); but there was never any trace of dislike or hatred in their outburst.

Anti-racism and diversity: constructive answers to an uncompromising black british voice

31Indeed, if color were considered “a fact, not a fate” by adults, to paraphrase Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his third Reith lecture on Mistaken Identities at the British Council in Accra in October 2016, if it were discussed outside the hateful rhetoric of “racial fixation” or “colorism”, there could be hope for a future where “race would not determine everything”, where respect would be shown to everyone – whatever color or race (or, for that matter, gender, or religion) he or she were identified with. “We can escape Otherism. We must give children tools to resist it”, the philosopher told former President John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor, in answer to the latter’s remark, on the day of the lecture, about the fact that, through globalization, “more and more people are beginning to see that we are all the same”.

32Appiah’s lecture was built around the extraordinary life story of the first African Dr. of Philosophy, Amo from Axim, who had been taken overseas at a tender age, in 1707 (maybe as a slave, even though there is no certainty about the circumstances of his departure to Europe on a boat belonging to the Dutch West India Company). Under the patronage of Duke Anthon Ulrich Wilhelm of Brunswick von Wolfenbüttel who had received him as a “gift”, he was baptized, treated like a family member and educated at the highest level; he studied law, medicine and astronomy, wrote a dissertation on The Rights of the Moores in Europe (Dissertatio inauguralis de iure Maurorum, 1729) and a thesis On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind and its Presence in our Organic and Living Body (De humane mantis apatheia, 1734). The Duke’s “experiment” with Anton Wilhelm Rudolf Moore (as Amo was named at baptism), conducted before the transatlantic slave-trade was in full swing, was most successful. It proved that, contrary to the general view in those days, a little Nzema boy immersed in18th century European scholarship was perfectly able to gain the highest qualifications in Western universities. But, apart from references to him by l’Abbé Grégoire, much silence surrounded his life, since those involved in the infamous trade were in need of self-justification, and his work has been mainly lost to posterity.

  • 38 This § is, for the most, a summary of Appiah’s 2016 Reith lecture, Mistaken Identities (3) - Colour(...)

33Be that as it may, we know that Amo went back home in 1747 and died later in Shama, possibly, suggests Appiah, because of the rise of color prejudice during the second part of his stay in Europe. He might have wanted to escape the “racial fixation” which would last until today, leading to the more and more tumultuous contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. This was originally a “multicultural movement”, according to Appiah, born in the American context, where black lives continue to be seriously disrespected and threatened. It is a movement that actually, from the beginning, insists the “bi-racial” British-Ghanaian and now American philosopher and cultural theorist, meant that “All lives matters38”.

  • 39 Gregory 27 August 2020.

34In 2013, the # BlackLivesMatter hashtag was triggered by the acquittal of the man who had killed 17-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin in Sanford, Florida. It gained momentum in 2014 during the Ferguson “Hands up, don’t shoot” uprising in Missouri, following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer. It gained global attention after George Floyd’s murder by asphyxiation under the pressure on his neck by a police officer’s knee, in Minneapolis, in May 2020. This triggered global demonstrations and the removal of statues of historical racists. As I am writing this page, there are riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back in broad daylight by the police as his sons witnessed the tragic event. Protesters are supported by a “display of collective power” by tennis players and athletes from the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, all boycotting their clubs’ games – a reminder of the iconic Black Power salute, on the 1968 Olympic podium in Mexico, by the American sprinter John Carlos. Carlos offers the following comments on the boycott: “It is not about Black Power. It’s about people coming together, humanity coming together. Understand? [...] I’m proud of them. [...] And remember this. They’re stepping back from something they love. They’re stepping back from a situation where they may have turmoil relative to their contracts and commitments. But all that s-t goes out the window, man, when you get to the point where you have to scream, “Oh f-k39”.

  • 40 Appiah Spring 1997: 638.
  • 41 Cf. (for instance) Appiah, 1992, second chapter, “Illusions of Race”.
  • 42 Eddo-Lodge, 2018 expanded edition [2017]: 87.
  • 43 Cf. Iqbal, 21 June 2020.
  • 44 Eddo-Lodge 30 May 2017 .

35In the face of this dangerous escalation of racial tension and violence all over the world, I persist in holding on to the measured and scholarly approach to “systemic racism” offered by Kwame Anthony Appiah. I prefer to join the ranks of Appiah’s “cosmopolitan humanists”, declaring: “We do not have to deal decently with people from other cultures and traditions in spite of our differences; we can treat others, decently, humanly through our differences40”. His equanimity is undoubtedly linked to the fact that, as he himself acknowledges, even though he was frequently called “nasty names” over the years, he was “raised in circumstances of enormous privilege” (both on his Ghanaian father’s side and on his British mother’s side) and was therefore in a way protected from the worst. I am still inclined to think that the proposals of this contemporary humanist41 are more likely to shake the conscience of those one of the confrontational voices of “Black britishness”, Reni Eddo-Lodge, describes as the complicit “stony faces of disbelief”. “White privilege”, she states in a blog post, “is one of the reasons why I stopped talking to white people about race42”. That famous post became the title of her 2020 bestselling book which gained traction in a “bittersweet moment43” prompted by the viral circulation of the video recording of George Floyd’s murder. In 2017, the year the book was originally published, she explained in a Guardian column her “emotional disconnection” with “the vast majority of white people”: “I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of color articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us44”. The hard line Eddo-Lodge continues to take results in an uncompromising division of humanity into two groups – “white people”, the Others, and “persons of color”, “Us” – incapable of communicating.

  • 45 Cf. Bunbury 25 July 2017.
  • 46 Cf.
  • 47 Bunbury 25 July 2017.

36Ignoring the fact that, apparently, it was not meant for my waxed ears, I decided to read this provocative book, written by a young woman writer, born in London to Nigerian parents and raised single-handedly by her mother (a care worker) after her father left their home45. She characterizes herself on her webpage as “a London based award winning author and journalist” whom “you might find reading (obviously), cycling, buying nail polish or trying to find good coffee46” – never hinting at any meaningful trace of her Nigerian heritage. She grew up, we learn, unhappy about her mother’s “very simplistic” advice: “you need to work twice as hard as your white counterparts”. Her anger, which might have been triggered by what she considers to be her mother’s acceptance of a system she refuses to comply with, is palpable in a 2017 interview, as she sits in a London café, about how she moved from feminism, to intersectionality and black feminism, to an analysis of structural racism and active anti-racism: “Reni Eddo-Lodge is actually agreeably cheerful”, notes the Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Stephanie Bunbury, adding: “But there is no getting away from it: she’s incontestably a woman, she’s black and she is calmly, persistently and unquenchably angry47”.

37What particularly puzzled me, when reading her book, was the uneasy manner in which, in the middle of her vehement argumentation about “the necessity to see race” in relation to “white privilege”, Eddo-Lodge broached the subject of “mixed-race” relationships in contemporary Britain:

  • 48 Eddo-Lodge, 2018 expanded edition [2017]: 102. Emphasis mine.

In Britain’s biggest cities, she writes, mixed-race friendships are now routine rather than controversial. But an increasingly mixed-race Britain makes race relations more complicated, not less. Although nowadays people are much less afraid of living with and loving each other, the problems of racism aren’t going to go away. Despite all the joys and teachable moments of living cheek to cheek, mixed race children are not going to end racism through their mere existence48.

38Eddo-Lodge explains that her reservations about what she considers to be a “complication” in the race issue are based on discussions she had with her “mixed race” friends, whose parents had often been unwilling to prepare their children for the predicament they would have to face – namely being treated as “black” in British society, notwithstanding one of their parents’ “whiteness”.

  • 49 Akala 2018 : 1

39Again, I would like to contrast this new generalization with a counter example, from another “black British” activist, Akala (the stage name of Kingslee James McLean Daley), who combines his work as a hip hop artist touring the world with writing. In his partly autobiographical 2018 book, Natives. Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, he tells us very candidly about his Scottish – English mother, who never married his British – Caribbean father (they separated before he was born). His mother raised him single-handedly, but in much less privileged circumstances than those in which Eddo-Lodge grew up in: “We often depended on state benefits”, he writes, “we lived in a council house, I ate free school meals49”. She had been disowned by her racist working class father (who tried to discourage her from going to the university, since that was for “posh people”). Supported by her teachers and encouraged by her “black mentors” in her son’s “black family”, this “white British” woman registered for a degree in Caribbean history. Having been made aware by Uncle Offs (to whom the book is dedicated) about the fact that, despite his light skin, her son “would be dealt with and received in [...] [British] society as a black boy”, she enrolled him and his siblings in the local pan-African Saturday Winnie Mandela School, in Camden, where they lived. Akala recalls:

  • 50 Ibid. : 43.

At first the school was not sure, as we would be the first ‘mixed’ kids to attend. Other black parents fought for us and told the school that it was no use complaining about ‘confused mixed-race youts’ (a cliché in the black community, tragic mulatto) if, on the occasion that a white woman did actually want her children to learn about their black heritage, the community refused to help. I’m pretty sure that, had it been my dad trying to enroll me, there would have been no issue50.

  • 51 Cf. Ray 2015.

40It looks like (since both Eddo-Lodge and Akala resort to it freely, even though Akala adds inverted commas) “mixed race” remains a commonly used expression in the UK. I wish it could be avoided altogether, since it inevitably brings to the fore echoes of the eugenic ideology of blurring, confusing, or staining a “pure race” with “mixed blood” which, as we know, historically led to the legal intolerance of interracial relationships – in the Code noir regulating French colonies; in the British colonial rules against interracial concubinage and marriages51; in the post Civil War Jim Crow laws in America; and in the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in Apartheid South Africa. The same categorization and imposition of a racial hierarchy led to the practice of “racial passing” in America, which Philip Roth (among others) fictionalized in The Human Stain (2000), and to the “white bias” in the Caribbean, vividly exemplified by Akala’s own “colonially educated black” Jamaican grandmother, who refuses to accept that “her roots lie in Africa”:

  • 52 Akala 2018 : 161-162.

‘High color’ as status and privilege has deep roots in the color codes of law that governed all slave colonies, he explains, and thus the reality of light-skinned privilege still plagues Caribbean and Latin American societies to this day. The reproduction of anti-black sentiment in majority-black countries may well seem paradoxical to many, but [...] race is a very pliable idea and societies change for the better only very, very slowly. Centuries of blackness acting as a signifier of non-human chattel slave status and as a badge of dishonor are still being wrestled with every day52.

41In order to definitely rid ourselves of this still deeply rooted and harmful misconception, we must find more meaningful ways of naming people, whose plural or diverse belonging is and should be perceived as a source of enrichment for themselves and for the world around them. It seems to me that this very idea was at the core of a self-portrait by the then Senator Barack Obama, in a “Speech on Race” he delivered on the 18th of March 2008 in Philadelphia, during the presidential campaign:

  • 53 Transcript (extracts). Emphasis mine.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomb assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I have gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents. [...]
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that
out of many, we are truly one53.

42The oneness (and implied greatness) talked about here are those of a nation, of the United States of America, but also of a man, proud of his diverse belonging, who feels whole and complete – indeed quite the opposite of a “half breed” (as “mixed race” persons were named in the past).

43To take the issue of diverse identity further, let me delve now into another remarkable book I recently discovered, which shed an original light on biracial and multicultural consciousness over twenty years ago. James McBride’s “Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother”, The Color of Water (1996), touched millions of readers’ hearts. This personal testimony in two voices (James McBride’s and Ruth McBride Jordan’s – born Rachel Deborah Shelsky in 1921) tacks back and forth in time, and gradually reveals the admirable story of a Jewish mother’s childhood (she was two years old when her family migrated from Poland to America) and of the successful outcome of her two interracial marriages. Her twelve children all went to colleges and graduate schools. Her first marriage was to James’ father, Rev. Andrew D. McBride, a preacher who started the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook (Brooklyn), and died of cancer before James’ birth. She later married Hunter L. Jordan, a furnace fireman, the son of a black railroad brakeman and of a Native American woman, who raised James and the five other McBride siblings as well as six of his own.

  • 54 McBride 1998 [1996] : 22.

44McBride emphasizes with much humor the manner in which this slightly eccentric woman, his mother, dealt with race and color: “She couldn’t stand racists of either color”, he notes, “and had a great distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich whites by putting on airs and ‘doing silly things like covering their couches with plastic and holding teacups with their pinkies out’54”.

45The title of the book arises from a conversation he had with his mother as a little boy, after a Sunday church service. She apparently could not care less about being the only white congregant in the assembly, or that she was the only one who cried (out of happiness) each time her favorite hymn, What a Friend we have in Jesus, was sung. That day, on the way home, he asked his mother whether God was black or white:

  • 55 Ibid. : 39.

A deep sigh. “Oh boy...God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color”, she said. “God is the color of water. Water does not have a color.

46The narrator describes himself as a rather shy and passive young child, who first did not react, when being called a “nigger” in the classroom; his attitude pushed his brothers who, unlike him, thrived on black consciousness, to bully him at home in order to toughen him up, which only made him feel more miserable. So the day he read a book about a “tragic mulatto”, he avoided his siblings and turned to his mother for help, and she answered with her habitual “crazy logic”:

  • 56 Ibid.: 70.

Anger flashed across her face like lightning and her nose, which tends to redden and swell in anger, blew up like a balloon. “Where’d you read that?”
“I read it in a book.” [...]
“Don’t read that book any more” She sucked her teeth. “Tragic mulatto. What a stupid thing to call somebody! [...] Don’t ever use that term.”
“Am I black or white?”
“You’re a human being,” she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!”
“Will I be a black nobody or just a nobody?”
“If you’re a nobody,” she said dryly, “it doesn’t matter what color you are.

  • 57 Ibid.: 72.

47Ruth McBride Jordan was certainly not blind to racism; in fact, she was deeply angered by it. But she was convinced that, since racial (like religious) prejudice was so deeply entrenched in society, to give her children the possibility of a successful life (in which they would be resilient and resistant, capable of facing harsh realities), she had to concentrate on their education, on opening their minds’ horizon. “We thrived on thought, books, music and art, which she fed to us instead of food”, remembers James McBride who now understands that, actually, “[t]he question of race was the power of the moon in our house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable57”.

  • 58 Ibid.: 158.

48His major personal crisis, as a young adult, hit him in Boston, in the 1980s, when “caught between the worlds of black and white”, he could not decide whether he wanted to be a saxophonist or a writer58. So he left Boston and went to Suffolk, in search of his mother’s Jewish past, which she mysteriously kept to herself. He eventually unearthed the reason why she made the radical decision to run away from her home in Suffolk and to marry a black man, in Harlem. She did so in order to escape from the claws of her abusive father, Rabbi Shilsky, even after having been warned by her family members that, from that moment onwards, she would be dead to them – and indeed they sat shiva for her and, years later, she was not allowed to visit her dying mother.

49All through the formative years of his life, whenever in crisis about his identity, he did what his mother had done, he “fled to the black side”. When he entered the world of journalism, he understood what it meant to grow up in “white privilege” – even for those, among his colleagues, who grew up poor (but white) in Mississippi and claimed “I was raised with nothin’ and went to Harvard anyway”; and so, out of rebellion against the system, he started quitting one job after another and disappearing in the New York music underworld:

  • 59 James McBride has, since then, acquired literary fame by publishing: Miracle at St. Anna (2003), So (...)
  • 60 McBride 1998 [1996]: 205, 208. Emphasis mine.

I was a giant, roaring, musical riff, screaming through my soul like a distorted rock guitar with the sound turned all the way up, telling me, Get on with your life: Play sax, write books59, compose music, do something, express yourself, who the hell are you anyway? There were two worlds inside me trying to get out60.

50By unearthing his mother’s roots and making her face the ghosts of her past, McBride finally found himself, at the end of a bumpy road. Somewhere in the middle of the book, he describes his mother’s violent outburst against a white racist merchant (she flung a bottle of milk at him) and remembers how he “wanted to sink into the floor and disappear”. Walking home, holding his mother’s hand, he “thought it would be easier, just being one color, black or white”:

  • 61 Ibid.: 78 & 79. Emphasis mine.

I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy was black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul61.

51Coming into the world in Apartheid South Africa in 1984 (a year after Akala, in the UK), explains Trevor Noah, out of a forbidden relationship between a black woman, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, and a white Swiss German man, Robert, meant that he was, literally, Born a Crime (2016):

  • 62 Noah 2016: 21.

In any society built on institutionalized racism, he explains, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unrest, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason62.

  • 63 Ibid.: 67.
  • 64 Ibid.: 73.

52In America (and in the UK), Trevor Noah would have been called and treated as “black”, but in Apartheid South Africa, people were classified either as “black”, “white”, “Indian” or, in his case, “colored”, and forced to live in separate categorized locations. As a young child, Trevor saw his father regularly, but he grew up mainly with his mother and her family; and his mother was a special woman, daring the world and the system: she wanted her son “to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone63”. She taught him English, bought him books, with one single objective: to free his mind. When apartheid gradually ended, she moved out of Soweto with him, wanting to get away from all those who used to call her a “prostitute”, for having had a child with a white man, into a colored suburb on the East Rand, Eden Park, where they stayed for some years. There, they owned a tiny house and an old rusty Volkswagen. With her rickety car, Trevor’s mother would drive her son to places black people never went to, refusing “to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do64”, without a care for those who thought she was “crazy” to give her son false hope, since, according to them, he was never going to leave the ghetto anyway.

  • 65 Ibid.: 120.
  • 66 Ibid.: 121.
  • 67 Ibid.: 117.

53But in their new neighborhood, making friends proved difficult, and, looking back, Noah realizes how well the apartheid project of divide and rule had worked. The so-called “colored people”, the “almost white” or “almost boss” (amperbaas in Afrikaans), who had been, for long, denied the rights of “white” people but given privileges that “black” people did not have, had been “brainwashed into believing that [their] blood was tainted”. This resulted in many “colored people” attempting to (literally) “get promoted as white”, according to a completely absurd definition of a white person, supposedly: “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a colored person; or is generally accepted as a white person but is not in appearance obviously a white person65 ”. In Eden Park, some people disliked Trevor for his blackness (he wore an Afro and spoke African languages) and called him a “Bushman”; others hated him for his whiteness (he went to an English private school, spoke perfect English, and hardly any Afrikaans, “the language colored people were supposed to speak”66). He was “the anomaly” wherever he and his mother lived, even in the colored neighborhood they had moved into: “In Eden Park”, he writes, “everyone looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different67”.

  • 68 Ibid.: 140-141.

54As he grew up, in order to survive, Trevor became a “cultural chameleon”, blending into any group, being “everywhere with everybody68”. When black people started integrating white suburbs, his mum bought a house in Highlands North, making him, this time, the only non-white kid in the whole neighborhood. His only possible friends there were the children of the black maids, who had been allowed to stay in the quarters where their mothers lived. He went to school, to Sandringham, with one of them, Teddy, and they became thick as thieves, playing tricks together; and later, just before matriculation, he discovered life “in the hood” with his friend Sizwe who lived in Alexandria (Alex or “Gomorrah”) and started his own “life of [petty] crime”, selling pirated CDs – at that point, he was planning on entering the university and needed money for tuition. His original binary worldview (good guys vs. bad guys) changed all of a sudden “in the hood”, where “gangsters were your friends and neighbors”; everyone living there was, to some extent, involved in crime for survival, and depended upon it:

  • 69 Ibid.: 209.

The hood made me realize, explains Noah, that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate69.

  • 70 Ibid.: 243.

55His mother, of course, hated the dangerous environment Trevor was getting himself into. So, when at about nineteen he got pulled over by the police, driving an unregistered car from his abusive stepfather’s garage, he was so scared about the consequences that he chose not to call home and ended up in jail for a few days, until his hearing. That week felt “like an eternity”, and discouraged him from carrying on a life which would definitely lead him to real prison. And when he came home, his mother who had actually bailed him out, taught him a final lesson: “The world doesn’t love you”, she declared. “If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you70”.

  • 71 Ibid.: 251.

56At that point of their lives, this strong disciplinarian of a woman, who had prepared her son for the terrible injustices he would have to face in the poisoned political system they were living in, in South Africa, had paradoxically become the victim of a centuries old patriarchy. She eventually married her boyfriend, from Tzaneen, who insisted that she show him the respect due to a Tzonga man – but how could this “free-roaming spirit”, who had not given into the terror of apartheid, accept to submit to a “tradition of women bowing to the men71”? When her husband Abel got into the habit of beating her violently while in a drunken stupor, even hitting her with a bicycle one day, Noah could not understand why his mother stayed with him. So he left and started his own life, becoming a famous comedian, touring the country and the world, hosting shows on television and on the radio. Years later, his half brother called him to tell him that the inevitable had happened: Abel had shot their mother in the head. Yet she was miraculously saved – the bullet had not destroyed any vital part of her brain, and she recovered; her only “insurance”, at that point, was Jesus, as she put it. She had given up her health insurance, and, had it not been for her eldest son’s success in the world, the hospital bills could not have been paid. And this is where Noah, “born a crime” in South Africa, concludes the story of his mother’s life, in gratefulness.

The fire now?

  • 72 Christina Sharpe, Foreword: “Heat and the Burdens of the Day”, in 2018, Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury, (...)

57The veil of silence around what it means “to be black in the world today” is being lifted, more and more dramatically, the world over: in the US, since the May 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as in Europe and on the African continent. In response to the multiple conflagrations of the decade, – “Brexit, Trump, Kenyan ethnonationalisms, deportation flights, ‘Punish a Muslim Day’, the British Government’s purposeful destruction of documents of the Windrush generation and their pursuit of deportation, Go Home vans, the horrific Grenfell fire, drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, Black people detained, murdered”, Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge edited a collection of essays of Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence (2018), announcing The Fire Now. A poem by Dionne Brand served as an epigraph to the foreword by Christina Sharpe: “what brutal hours, what brutal days”, exclaims the poet, “placing the reader in the midst of momentous violence. [...] in the midst of brutality – quotidian, spectacular, cellular, organized and on-going – against Black and Blackened people everywhere in the world72”.

58While protesters and activists controversially topple statues of prominent colonial agents and of notorious promoters of racial segregation and apartheid, a new generation of black writers (historians, journalists, essayists, poets, novelists) is shaking the world with an uncompromising voice of truth, about the immigration conundrum and the challenges faced by “people of color” everywhere. One such voice is that of Lemn Sissay, a BAFTA nominated writer and broadcaster, taken (“stolen”) from his Ethiopian mother at birth by “The Authority”, in Wigan, and placed (“imprisoned”) in the British care system:

  • 73 “Immigration R.S.V.P.” (extract), from Sissay (2016), reproduced in Sissay 2019: 207. (n.b. BAFTA s (...)

...You’ve flooded yourself with foreign good,
But foreigners you tell me are bad.
You say you’re afraid that they’ll overrun you,
But I’m afraid they already have

  • 74 Cf. Schelzig 1 June 2020 & Hoobler 10 June 2020.

59In Nashville, a statue of Edward Ward Carmack (1858-1908), a “prohibition martyr” (he was shot in 1908 by a political adversary), was toppled in May 2020. This American senator and editor of the Memphis Commercial is known for having endorsed the lynching of three black men after they opened a shop, and for having vilified the pioneer journalist, suffragist and civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, forcing her to flee to the North. It is noteworthy that, just as the segregationist politician’s image has been tarnished, Ida B. Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020, “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching74”.

  • 75 Dargis 21 October 2005; cf. also the controversy around Hergé (Georges Remi)’s Tintin au Congo (193 (...)

60British filmmaker, Peter Bate’s 2005 documentary, Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, showed how, under Leopold II’s command, “soldiers [were] engaged in what would now fall under the definition of genocide”; yet, despite the discrediting of this monarch, whose funeral cortege was booed, statues of him were erected throughout Belgium, which for the narrator of the story, remain purely and simply “monuments to a nation’s denial75”. In June 2020, in Antwerp and Brussels, statues of Leopold II (1835-1909) were covered in red, burnt or brought down by demonstrators who could no longer accept that this King, who ruled Belgium during its brutal colonial activities in the Congo, be memorialized as a hero.

  • 76 16 July 2020.
  • 77

61In July 2020, a bronze bust of the British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), was decapitated on the slopes of the Table Mountain in Cape Town; the same bust’s nose had already been cut off in 2015, with the words “racist, thief, murderer” painted on the monument, and was later restored; but protesters walking under the banner “Rhodes must fall”, never ceased to argue that “the towering Rhodes statues were symbols of oppression, and grew to encompass institutional racism and a lack of racial transformation76 ” and could therefore not be tolerated in the South African landscape any longer. The same controversy has been going on since 2016 in the UK, and Oxford University set up an enquiry into the potential removal of the statue displayed on the Rhodes Building, in recognition (as said on the inscription) of the Victorian imperialist’s “generous munificence” – the £ 100,000 he left Oriel College in his will. The fate of the statue is yet to be decided (the enquiry’s verdict is expected by January 2021). A temporary notice was added in 2016, to clarify the College’s position on Rhodes, namely that: “Many of Cecil Rhodes actions and public statements are incompatible with the values of the College and University today. In acknowledging the historical fact of Rhode’s bequest, the College does not in any way condone or glorify his views or actions77”.

  • 78 Cf. also Otele 2008.
  • 79 Malik 16 October 2020.

62These acts of destruction were those of desperate “people taking matters into their own hands”, comments Olivette Otele, the first black woman historian in the UK. Born in Cameroon, brought up in France, she was recently appointed to teach the history of slavery at the University of Bristol – a city whose connections with the transatlantic slave trade had been the focus of her PhD thesis at the Sorbonne, Mémoire et politique. L’enrichissement de Bristol par le commerce triangulaire, objet de polémique (2005)78. Having herself been a witness to the slave trader Edward Colston’s bronze statue being pulled down and dragged into the Bristol harbor in June 2020, Otele believes that it should be taken into a museum in its present deteriorated state, with its scars and dents; in an interview around the publication of her forthcoming (and now published) book, African Europeans. An Untold History (London, Hurst, October 2020), this African European historian, interested in links between memory, geopolitics and legacies of French and British colonialism, declared that “[i]t would be interesting to see those moments within the body of the statue, as long as we have it somewhere it can be contextualized. It’s part of the history of Bristol79”.

  • 80 Olusoga, quoted in Brown 7 October 2020.

63Counterbalancing the destruction of monuments to heroes of the British Empire who should no more, according to the protesters, figure ostensibly in the public space as if their achievements were praiseworthy, several black artists are taking part in the English Heritage project, designed to highlight overlooked black figures in British history over the centuries, with the hope that their work would enlighten British people about the long established (and often positive) black presence on their soil. This is precisely the topic of Otele’s most recent book, quoted above. For instance, basing her painting on a photograph taken by Camille Silvy in September 1862 (now at the National Portrait Gallery in London), the Nigerian artist, Hannah Uzor, produced a portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Aina, as she was originally called, was born in a Yoruba dynasty in 1843, captured and enslaved by King Gezo of Dahomey in 1848, and received from him as a “gift” for Queen Victoria by Captain Frederick Forbes who took her to England on his ship, “Bonetta” (thus her new name). There, the little slave girl was adopted by the Queen as her goddaughter, given an appropriate education and included in important royal family gatherings, until her approved wedding to a Yoruba merchant, James Pinson Labulo Davies, in 1862, with whom she settled in colonial Lagos as Sarah Davies. She represented, according to David Olusoga, “the biographic shorthand for the perceived accomplishments of Britain’s civilizing mission80 ”. Uzor’s art piece, on which the young lady appears in her wedding dress, was unveiled at the Queen’s seaside home in Osborne on the Isle of Wight on the 7th of October 2020, where it would remain for the duration of the Black History Month in the UK.

  • 81 Busby 2019: 199.
  • 82 Motune 10 February 2020.

64Andrea Levy’s voice left the black British literary scene much too early, when she died of cancer in 2019, aged 62. Her masterpiece, Small Island (2004) which won important prizes and awards, and was adapted for the BBC television in 2009, marvelously rendered the fate of Jamaican British people of the so-called Windrush generation. Her own parents belonged to this set of immigrants from Jamaica to the Mother country, after World War II. As underlined by Margaret Busby in her groundbreaking anthology, New Daughters of Africa (2019), Levy “grew up in what was still a very white England” and, “in her mid-thirties, she began writing the novels she had always wanted to read, that reflected the experiences of Black Britons81”. Her husband, Bill Mayblin, explains the suitability of the British Library as the new home for her archived notes, letters and drafts: “Not only had the Library greatly helped her research as a writer, but because much of her work examined British colonial history – a history full of omission and injustice – it seemed fitting, and somehow just, that her archive should finally find a home in a truly national institution82”.


  • 83 Pitts 2020 [2019]: 30.

65Amongst the younger generation of gifted black British writers, Johny Pitts, a photographer and broadcast journalist, who grew up in Sheffield under Thatcher as the son of a white working class mother from Northern England and of an African American actor and singer from Brooklyn, recently published a travelogue, entitled Afropean. Notes from Black Europe (2019). As part of the “generation of mixed race children living on the continent with a somewhat alternative black European identity83”, he ponders, as he arrives at the Gare du Nord in his five-month Black European Odyssey and sees two Senegalese men tidying up the carriage and exchanging pleasantries in their “creolized French”:

  • 84 Ibid.: 33.

...I’d just entered a geographic landmass in which I would be a foreigner in every capacity. Was there really a cohesive idea of a black Europe I might find some sort of solidarity with? Everything suddenly struck me as an abstraction: who was ‘black’? What was ‘Europe’84?

66A feeling of loneliness was overtaking him; and it seems that, for a long time, he had actually been struggling with various forms of alienation in his personal life at home and was hoping to meet people he could really identify with:

  • 85 Ibid.: 72.

I’d wanted to encounter the black diaspora in Europe for years, but in the end it was the loneliness that pushed me, he writes. I felt I wasn’t black enough for my old black friends, not white enough for my old white friends, not working class enough for my old area in Sheffield but not middle class enough to survive cliquey London. I suppose, he adds, I really set out in search of a tribe that might feel like home85.

  • 86 Ibid.: 2.
  • 87 Wright, quoted in Pitts 2020 [2019]: 44.

67Pitts explains that he did not invent the label he used in his book’s title, Afropean, which first appeared in the early 90s in the music and fashion spheres. He chose to use it as a progressive self-identifier, originally “as a utopian alternative to the doom and gloom that has surrounded the black image in Europe in recent years86”. On a tour of Black Paris organized by an African American academic he took part in, during his first day on the European continent, he was reminded that he was following the steps of a nineteenth century African American traveller, William Wells Brown, who had escaped slavery in his twenties, and ended up giving lectures in Europe and writing books, such as his Three Years in Europe (1852). During a walk through Neuilly, inhabited in the 1940s and 1950s by well-to-do African American intellectuals who had given up their own racially prejudiced country, Richard Wright’s praises about this cosmopolitan and welcoming “adopted city” equally came to mind: “Naturally”, declared Richard Wright, “in such an atmosphere there is no race tension or conflict. Men are not prejudged here on the basis of their skin or nationality, and I have never heard a Frenchman tell anybody to ‘go back where you came from’87 ”.

  • 88 Pitts 2020 [2019] : 70.
  • 89 Ibid.: 50-51. Emphasis mine.

68In the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, a place of desolation and degradation, Pitts would soon come face to face with today’s reality: disheartened children of immigrants, living in the “country they were born in but were being rejected by88”. This scene contradicts the favorable impression of a privileged African American sojourner of Paris and French people. Nevertheless, these kind of reminiscences continue to favorably influence the mind of African American tourists. Pitts soon felt estranged from his tour companions, who instead of enjoying the final stop of the guided tour, Little Africa (the name given to the Château Rouge and Barbès – Rochechouart areas, whose streets and markets are animated by an Afro-French population made up of West and North African faces), went into a state of cultural shock and suddenly conducted themselves with a “nervous haughtiness”, when he, who grew up in Firth Park and now lived in Peckham, felt totally relaxed. He disliked the straight forward racism of Jimmy who exclaimed: “Look at the way they dress – it’s because a lot of them are stupid [...] That’s why Africa is so messed up, because they’re corrupt and ignorant”. He abruptly left the Senegalese restaurant they had entered for lunch, declaring “I bet the hygiene is poor”. Pitts was sorry to have witnessed this gross display of prejudice by an African American “brother”, who, despite his own experience of discrimination as a descendant of slaves, was himself locked in a “cage” of racism against his African and African European “brothers and sisters”. Jimmy was thus sharing “a prison sentence alienating those who hold these attitudes from the beautiful diversity of the world”. From then onwards, Pitts understood that, in order to find answers to his “situation as a black man in Europe”, he had to pursue his journey solely “along an Afropean axis89”.

  • 90 Ibid.: 58.
  • 91 Ibid.: 59.

69Between his disappointing group tour and his unnerving stay in Clichy-sous-Bois (a complete “war zone”), Pitts spent a few days in a hostel in Montmartre as an Afropean flâneur. He had a few interesting encounters on a leisurely walk along Paris’ romantic boulevards, writing notes and taking photographs of monuments. He first met a group of African and Indian hawkers, selling miniature Eiffel Towers and other knick-knacks on the Esplanade, who quickly packed up, when they saw the police arriving, “chasing a young African man, who was eventually wrestled to the ground violently, [...] handcuffed and carted [...] off90”, a scene he took some pictures of to the annoyance of the representatives of public order. On the most wealthy avenues of the city, he eventually saw “a group of well dressed black men and women walking as if they were on a mission” – which they actually were: the famous perfumer, Jean-Paul Gauthier, had had the gall to declare, on a French primetime news program, that he had “worked like a nigger [on his new fragrance]” and this group of about five hundred black people had gathered in protest in front of the Guerlain store on the Champs Élysées. This “elegant manifestation” of francophone artists and intellectuals, such as Rokhaya Diallo, Ananias Léki Dago, or Isabelle Boni-Claverie, as well as students and social workers, declares Pitt, “was the more positive interplay of cultures I’d originally been hoping to find, people who were at once French and black and yet represented something that didn’t lend itself to hyphenation. They were people for whom ‘Afropean’ was a new configuration of ideas, connected to Africa and Europe, but transcending both”. They were, in a nutshell, “second-, third- and fourth-generation faces of multicultural Europe; sons and daughters of post-colonialism, or perhaps decolonialism91”.

70But let us abandon Pitts, the enthusiastic Afropean traveler, to his existential search for Afropea here, and hope that he does eventually, in his life, stop feeling constantly somewhere on the margin, or in-between opposite worlds.

71For, if we listen carefully to the British Caribbean playwright and poet, John Agard’s most famous satirical poem, there is no “half-caste” human being in the world:

  • 92 From “Half-Caste”, a poem introduced in the GCSE British exams’ program, and published in Agard 200 (...)

Explain yuself
what yu mean
when you say half-caste...
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at yu wid the keen
half of mih eye
an when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand...

72And I very much hope that my own Afropean children, Elsa Akosua Peprah, Colette Yaa Tiaaka, and Didier Kofi Sarpong, will also find their own place, and make a name for themselves in a world they are meant to enrich by their plural identity, by their incredibly diverse heritage.

73I am myself still looking for closure, for reassurance, for guidance, in the face of the gloom surrounding me in France, as I end this personal homage to Albert, this gift to our children... Were he still sitting by my side today, attentively listening to news on the radio, barely two weeks after a history teacher was gruesomely murdered by a religious fanatic in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in the middle of a menacing second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, the day after a self-proclaimed electoral victory in Côte d’Ivoire, as I write the world bracing itself for the still uncertain results of the American elections, Albert might temporarily abandon his favorite song, Satchmo’s What a Wonderful World! and, instead, join Stevie Wonder, begging us, from the bottom of his heart:

  • 93 Stevie Wonder, Love’s in Need of Love Today (extract), from the Album Songs in the Key of Life (197 (...)

Love’s is Need of Love Today...
Don’t delay
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
Before it’s gone too far
Gone too far
People, you know that
Love’s in need of love

74Strasbourg, Wednesday the 4th of November 2020

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Books and articles

Agard John, 2004, Half-Caste and Other Poems, London, Hodder & Stroughton / Hachette UK.

Akala (a.k.a. Kingslee James McLean Daley), 2018, Natives. Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, Two Roads, UK.

Angelou Maya, 1978, And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems, New York, Random House.

— 1987 reprint [1986], All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, London, Virago Press.

Appiah Kwame Anthony, 1992, In My Father’s House. Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, New York, Oxford University Press.

— 1997, Cosmopolitan Patriots, Critical Inquiry 23, Spring (3): 619-639.

— 2016, Mistaken Identities (3) – Colour, presented in Accra, at the British Council, The Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 4 podcast, October,

Baldwin James, 2013 [1953], Go Tell It on the Mountain, New York, Vintage Books.

— 2001 [1956], Giovanni’s Room, London, Penguin Books, with an introduction by Caryl Phillips.

— 1993 [1963], The Fire Next Time, New York, Vintage International.

— 1970, An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davies, written on the 19th of November 1970, published in The New York Review of Books on the 7th of January 1971,

Bancel Nicolas, Blanchard Pascal, Bortsch Gilles, Deroo Éric, Lemaire Sandrine (dir.), 2002, Zoos humains. De la vénus hottentote aux reality shows, Paris, La Découverte.

Blight David W., 2018, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York, Simon & Schuster.

Bosiwah Lawrence, Abrefa Kofi Busia, Asenso Charles Okofo, 2015, An Etymological Study of the Word “aborɔfo” (Europeans) and Its Impact on the Akan Language, International Journal of Applied Linguistics and Translation 1 (1): 1-7.

Brown William Wells, A Fugitive Slave, 1852, Three Years in Europe, or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met, London, Charles Gilpin & Edinburg, Oliver & Boyd.

Busby Margaret, 2019, New Daughters of Africa, Oxford, Myriad Editions.

Christaller J. G. (Rev.), 1933 (2nd edition) [1881], Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tshi (Twi), Basel Evangelical Missionary Society.

Dei-Anang Michael, 1964, Ghana Resurgent, Accra, Waterville Publishing House.

Douglass Frederick, 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Boston, Anti-Slavery Office.

— 1852, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, address delivered in the Corinthian Hall, at Rochester, New York, on the 5th of July 1852, in Philip S. Foner (ed.), Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, Chicago, Lawrence Hills: 188-206.

Eddo-Lodge Reni, 2018 expanded edition [2017], Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ellison Ralph, 2001 [1952], Invisible Man, London, Penguin Classics.

Gobineau Joseph Arthur de, 1853, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, Paris, Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères.

Higgins Chester Jr., 1994, Feeling the Spirit. Searching the World for the People of Africa, New York, Bantam Books.

Johnson Azeezat, Joseph-Salisbury Remi, Kamunge Beth (eds.), 2018, The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence, London, Zed Books.

King Jr. Martin Luther (Rev.), 1963a, I Have a Dream, Speech Delivered on the 28th of August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.,

— 1963b, Strength to Love, New York, Harper & Row.

— 1963c, Letter from Birmingham Jail, in Clayborne Carson (ed.), 1998, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York, Warner Books:187-204.

— 1964, Why We Can’t Wait, New York, New American Library, Harper & Row.

Levy Andrea, 2004, Small Island, Great Britain, Review.

Mcbride James, 1998 [1996], The Color of Water. A Black Man’s Tribute To His White Mother, New York, Bloomsbury.

Noah Trevor, 2016, Born a Crime. Stories from a South African Childhood, London, John Murray.

Otele Olivette, 2005, Mémoire et politique. L’enrichissement de Bristol par le commerce triangulaire, objet de polémique, thèse de doctorat sous la direction de Jean-Claude Redonnet, université Paris 4 Sorbonne.

— 2008, Histoire de l’esclavage transatlantique britannique. Des origines aux prémisses de la colonisation, Paris, Éditions Michel Houdiard.

— 2020, African Europeans. An Untold History, London, Hurst Publishers.

Pitts Johny, 2020 [2019], Afropean. Notes from Black Europe, Penguin Books.

Putnam Walter, 2012, “Please Don’t Feed the Natives”: Human Zoos, Colonial Desire, and Bodies on Display, The Environment, FLS, XXXIX: 55-68.

Ray Carina E., 2015, Crossing the Color Line. Race, Sex and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana, Ohio University Press.

Roth Philip, 2000, The Human Stain, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Sarpong Peter Kwesi (Rt. Rev.), 1998, Dear Nana. Letters to my Ancestor, Takoradi, Franciscan Publications.

Senghor Léopold Sédar, 1980, La Poésie de l’action. Conversations avec Mohamed Aziza, Paris, Stock.

Sissay Lemn, 2016, GOLD from the STONE: New and Selected Poems (Canons), Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

— 2019, My Name is Why, Edinburgh, Canongate Books.

Whitehead Colson, 2016, The Underground Railroad, London, Fleet.

Articles and pieces published in Newspapers and/or online (in chronological order)

Hughes Langston, Laughers [first published as “My people” in the June 1922 issue of The Crisis Magazine, the official publication of the NAACP],

Du Bois W.E.B., Ghana Calls, poem dedicated to Kwame Nkrumah, 20 February 1963, Ghanaian Times,

King Jr. Martin Luther (Rev.), Why the Negro Won’t Wait, Financial Post, 27 July 1963.

Dargis Manohla, The Horrors of Belgium’s Congo, Film Review, The New York Times, 21 October 2005,

Obama Barack, Speech on Race, Transcript, The New York Times, 18 March 2008,

Lubabu Tshitenge, Maya Angelou’s Meeting with Africa, 16 December 2011, theafricareport,

Eddo-Lodge Reni, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, The Long Read, The Guardian, 30 May 2017,

Renold Caroline, Chichi Alessandro, Renold Marc-André, January 2013, Case Sarah Baartman - France and South Africa, ArThemis, Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva,

Banbury Stephanie, Reni Eddo-Lodge and the Question of Structural Racism, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 2017,

Bichler Camille, Pourquoi Tintin au Congo fait-il encore polémique aujourd’hui ?, France Culture, 23 January 2019,

Jordison Sam, Giovanni’s Room May be about White Men, but Prejudice Is Central to the Story, Reading Group books, The Guardian, 26 February 2019,

Motune Vic, Windrush writer Andrea Levy’s Literary Archive acquired by British Library, The VOICE, 10 February 2020,

Schelzig Erik, Should Toppled Carmack Statue be Repaired at the Tennessee Capitol?, The Tennessee Journal, 1 June 2020,

Hoobler Jim, Who was Edward Carmack, and Why Is There a Statue of Him at the State Capitol?, Tennessee State Museum, 10 June 2020,

Iqbal Nosheen, Eddo-Lodge Reni, “The Debate on Racism Is a Game to Some and I don’t Want to Play”, Interview, The Guardian, 21 June 2020,, South Africa: Cecil Rhodes Statue Vandalized, 16 July 2020,

Gregory Sean, Why Jacob Blake’s Shooting Sparked an Unprecedented Sports Boycott, TIME, 27 August 2020,, Oxford Inscriptions: Cecil Rhodes Statue on Rhodes Building,

Brown Mark, New Portrait of Queen Victoria’s African Goddaughter unveiled, The Guardian, 7 October 2020,

Malik Nesrine, Otele Olivette: “Discussions of Cancel Culture Are Very Middle Class. Activists Just Survive and Support Each Other”, The Guardian, 16 October 2020,

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1 Appiah 1997: 638.

2 Baldwin 1993 [1963]; Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury & Kamunge (eds.) 2018.

3 King 1963a (extracts).

4 Blight 2018.

5 Douglass 5 July 1852 (extracts). Emphasis mine.

6 A poem in the public domain, first published as “My people” in the June 1922 issue of The Crisis Magazine, the official publication of the NAACP.

7 Henri Louis Gates, Jr., quoted by John Callahan in his Introduction to the 13th anniversary edition of Ellison 2001 [1952]: xv.

8 Ellison 2001 [1952] : 3.

9 Ibid. : 343.

10 Ibid.: 575.

11 King, final § of “Loving your Enemies” (in 1963b), a sermon originally delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas 1957.

12 Cf. King 27 July 1963 & 1964.

13 King 1963c (extract).

14 Baldwin 1993 [1963]: 63.

15 Ibid.: 59.

16 Ibid : 71.

17 Ibid. : 73.

18 Terms used by Baldwin himself to describe his life between his two “homes” (America and France). Cf. The National Museum of African American History & Culture website,

19 Cf. Jordison, 26 February 2019.

20 Baldwin 1993 [1963]: 105-106. Emphasis mine.

21 Baldwin, 7 January 1971 [19 November 1970] (extract).

22 DuBois 20 February 1963 (extracts).

23 Lubabu 16 December 2011.

24 Angelou 1987 [1986] : 81.

25 Ibid. : 147-148.

26 Angelou 1978 (eponym poem, extracts).

27 Higgins 1994, Introduction (extracts) & back book cover.

28 Cf. Akala 2018, from “Interlude: A guide to Denial”: 31 & 33.

29 Dei-Anang 1964 : 200.

30 Ibid.: 204.

31 Senghor 1980: 27. Translation mine.

32 Cf. Bancel, Blanchard, Bortsch, Deroo & Lemaire (dir.) 2002.

33 Putnam 2012: 55.

34 Renold, Chichi & Renold January 2013.

35 Rev. J.G. Christaller translates oburoni as “European, white man; mulatto”, and aburokyiri as “the white man’s country” in his Dictionary..., 1933 [1881]: 54.

36 Bosiwah, Abrefa & Asenso 2015: 6.

37 The adjective kɔkɔɔ designates “red, yellow, with their several tints of shades”, according to Christaller, 1933 [1881]: 243. “Akwasi the Red (Akwasi Broni)” is also the manner in which Rt. Rev. Peter Sarpong designates the European Christians, who converted his ancestors, making Sunday (kwasiada) the day of God’s worship (1998: 9).

38 This § is, for the most, a summary of Appiah’s 2016 Reith lecture, Mistaken Identities (3) - Colour.

39 Gregory 27 August 2020.

40 Appiah Spring 1997: 638.

41 Cf. (for instance) Appiah, 1992, second chapter, “Illusions of Race”.

42 Eddo-Lodge, 2018 expanded edition [2017]: 87.

43 Cf. Iqbal, 21 June 2020.

44 Eddo-Lodge 30 May 2017 .

45 Cf. Bunbury 25 July 2017.

46 Cf.

47 Bunbury 25 July 2017.

48 Eddo-Lodge, 2018 expanded edition [2017]: 102. Emphasis mine.

49 Akala 2018 : 1

50 Ibid. : 43.

51 Cf. Ray 2015.

52 Akala 2018 : 161-162.

53 Transcript (extracts). Emphasis mine.

54 McBride 1998 [1996] : 22.

55 Ibid. : 39.

56 Ibid.: 70.

57 Ibid.: 72.

58 Ibid.: 158.

59 James McBride has, since then, acquired literary fame by publishing: Miracle at St. Anna (2003), Song Yet Sung (2008), Good Lord Bird (2013), Five-Carat Soul (2017), Kill’Em and Leave. Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (2016) and Deacon King Kong (2020).

60 McBride 1998 [1996]: 205, 208. Emphasis mine.

61 Ibid.: 78 & 79. Emphasis mine.

62 Noah 2016: 21.

63 Ibid.: 67.

64 Ibid.: 73.

65 Ibid.: 120.

66 Ibid.: 121.

67 Ibid.: 117.

68 Ibid.: 140-141.

69 Ibid.: 209.

70 Ibid.: 243.

71 Ibid.: 251.

72 Christina Sharpe, Foreword: “Heat and the Burdens of the Day”, in 2018, Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury, Kamunge (eds.) 2018: xvi, with an extract of “Ossuary 1”, a poem by Dionne Brand, from Ossuaries (2010): xiv.

73 “Immigration R.S.V.P.” (extract), from Sissay (2016), reproduced in Sissay 2019: 207. (n.b. BAFTA stands for British Academy of Film and Television Arts.)

74 Cf. Schelzig 1 June 2020 & Hoobler 10 June 2020.

75 Dargis 21 October 2005; cf. also the controversy around Hergé (Georges Remi)’s Tintin au Congo (1930-1931), which is completely tainted by the colonial racism of the time of its writing, analyzed by Camille Bichler (23 January 2019), an article prompted by the cartoon’s latests reedition in its original form by the Éditions Moulinsart.

76 16 July 2020.


78 Cf. also Otele 2008.

79 Malik 16 October 2020.

80 Olusoga, quoted in Brown 7 October 2020.

81 Busby 2019: 199.

82 Motune 10 February 2020.

83 Pitts 2020 [2019]: 30.

84 Ibid.: 33.

85 Ibid.: 72.

86 Ibid.: 2.

87 Wright, quoted in Pitts 2020 [2019]: 44.

88 Pitts 2020 [2019] : 70.

89 Ibid.: 50-51. Emphasis mine.

90 Ibid.: 58.

91 Ibid.: 59.

92 From “Half-Caste”, a poem introduced in the GCSE British exams’ program, and published in Agard 2004.

93 Stevie Wonder, Love’s in Need of Love Today (extract), from the Album Songs in the Key of Life (1976).

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Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, « The fire now? A Meditation on Shattered Dreams of Racial Harmony »Journal des africanistes, 90-2 | 2020, 178-217.

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Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, « The fire now? A Meditation on Shattered Dreams of Racial Harmony »Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 90-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 28 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Christiane Owusu-Sarpong

Associate professor, Kwame Nkrumah University of science and technology, Kumasi, Ghana (1979-2002)
Independent researcher and translator since 2003

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