ADOS and American Exceptionalism in Africans

ADOS and American Exceptionalism in Africans

It now seems to be a ritual: when a new movie is announced with story, cast, and production crew primarily made up of Africans, a boisterous debate ricochets around the Blackest parts of social media: who made this, who’s in it, and is it for us?

For many African people living in the US, the response is always a resounding “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” (Credit to Issa Rae) For as long as we’ve been captives on this territory the majority of our people have expressed some form of intrinsic nationalism – a kind of instinctual proto-African nationalist sentiment. Certainly not necessarily or even usually revolutionary in outlook, but strong enough and consistent enough that it means there is usually a feeling of immediate bond and belonging when we see, are among, and are in community with our own people.

“I’m rooting for everybody Black” is a clear expression of this intrinsic African nationalism. It is a sentiment that says I see you, you are me, we are the same, we’re in this together, and ain’t this some bullshit. It’s a way to recognize our unity and our humanity in a society that would see us dis-unified and dehumanized. It is a wholesome kernel of something that can be built upon, something that can be identified and developed into liberatory and revolutionary ideas, given the right sort of effort, nurturing, and context.

But for a small but growing number among us – it’s hard to say how many exactly but one hears from them more and more all the time – the response to something as innocuous as a shallow Bonnie and Clyde retread with a kick ass soundtrack and a glistening glittering cast is enough to launch an acrimonious existential debate about who is WE exactly. And who is not. 

It’s likely that if you’re an African reading this and active on the internet, you’ve heard of ADOS already. Maybe you’ve come across a proponent in person as well. I have. If you’re not familiar: ADOS stands for American Descendants of Slaves. It is a narrow nationalist movement of African people whose ancestry – like all of ours – begins in Africa, but who, maybe nine or ten generations back, had ancestors enslaved in the US.

To them, this history of enslavement, exploitation, and indignity on stolen Indigenous land under American chattel slavery represents a distinct and distinguished lineage that sets them above and apart from the entire rest of the diaspora and the continent – masses they often discuss in resentful and covetous language that is not unlike something you’d hear on the O’Reilly Factor or a right wing XM talk radio show. The originators of what has become known as the ADOS movement are a duo named Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, each with their own peculiar history which makes one wonder how they found themselves the ideological figure heads of so ignoble a movement. 

Yvette Carnell draped in an American flag
Yvette Carnell

Carnell is a former Democratic Party policy wonk turned anti-immigrant far-right crusader with dubious alignments with outright white nationalist organizations. The crux of her contributions to ADOS are rabid fever dreams about the scarcity of resources available to her ‘tribe’ and the chattering African hordes coming for what’s rightfully hers. To hear her speak on Africa and Africans is to hear an utter unfamiliarity and contempt – a carefully practiced arms length distance from which she regards them with the eyes and tone of a muted beige colored female version of Jordan Peterson. She DEMOLISHES them with FACTS and LOGIC – trotting out stories of Nigerian slave traders, Ghanaian billionaires, and Somali pirates as evidence that an entire continent full of people who look like us are coming to cheat us out of what’s really ours. 

Moore is the more muted of the duo and seems to provide most of the RAW DATA (he says this a lot) upon which they claim much of their antipathy hinges. He is best known for an actually-not-terrible theoretical framework known as the “Decadent Veil.” The Decadent Veil is the idea that the systemic underdevelopment and impoverishment of poor and working class African people living in the US (specifically ADOS, though there is no segment of African people in the US or anywhere that has escaped underdevelopment from capitalism) is hidden from mainstream attention by the over the top glitz and glam of the African petit-bourgeois and bourgeois – celebrities, basketball stars, and pop stars, and rappers turned business moguls and CEOs. 

Through his analysis of the “Decadent Veil,” Moore explains that the apparently vast material wealth of these members of the African upper class in the US obscures the dire material conditions of the comparatively much, much larger African underclass. This celebrity spectacle and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a vanishing few of us together act as The Decadent Veil. That ‘veil’ prevents decision makers in positions of power from seeing, developing, and applying solutions that will specifically address the conditions of poor and working class Africans in the US. 

As I said, it’s not bad. It’s in fact a rudimentary form of class analysis that sidesteps relationships and contradictions between classes (and thus a larger critique of capitalism) to focus on the material impact of income inequality. The concept is something of a gateway drug to a larger understanding about the capitalist roots of inequality and class structure and for that reason it is useful, even for folks like me who don’t subscribe to ADOS on any level. 

If that was Moore’s only contribution that wouldn’t be so bad at all, but just like Carnell he comes with his own particular strain of chocolate xenophobia. He’s the one in the duo most likely to come for a Queen and Slim or a Harriet or a Jordan Peele’s US and ask why these filthy perpetrating Africans are pretending to be ADOS. He’s also claimed to be genetically closer to European settlers in the US than to African people on the continent or in the rest of the diaspora and he maintains a semi-permanent hater posture towards Africans who deign to travel to the continent to rediscover their roots. 

The ADOS movement – once confined to YouTube shows that pulled a few hundred viewers at best – seems to have risen to a larger platform and prominence over the last couple of years largely on the strength of the culture wars produced by Moore’s narrow nationalist movie takes paired with Carnell’s scarcity complex politics. Many debates have erupted across social media platforms about Africans from the continent, UK, or Caribbean coming to the US and stealing those “Good” American (usually racist and stereotypical) movie roles our ancestors here apparently fought so hard for. The outrage that Moore and Carnell are deftly able to spin up around each movie they set their eyes on, combined with the tendency of African people to heavily engage pop culture aimed at us on social media, has created ripples of influence for the ADOS movement across the internet. We are at the point where even if you as an African person aren’t following the ADOS movement directly, you’re still likely to come across memes or screenshot tweets referencing it’s politics and ideas, whether you recognize them as such or not. 

If you, like me, are an occasional when-I-have-access-to-cable hate-watcher of reactionary European political shows of the sort you can find on Fox News or satellite radio then you’ll know culture wars are often a tactic used to advance specific political ideas and objectives. Particular ideas about how people should move in the world and what they should think and who they should fear. Carnell and Moore deploy them in precisely this way. From the rants about Black Brits stealing our jobs they are able to pivot smoothly into dark tales of a diaspora and continent wide conspiracy of dispossession targeting ADOS – and the viewing public that got sucked in by a righteous dragging of a snobby Nigerian actress on Twitter is taken along for the ride. 

At the core of the ADOS movement is a belief that Africans around the world flock to the US because the particular civil rights struggle of ADOS has created an economic and creative zone of opportunity that will allow those foreign Africans to realize the American dream and get a cut of institutional wealth without having to work for it. Put another way: the belief is that there is a chunk of the US empire that rightfully belongs to ADOS and that all African immigrants – and it’s particularly African immigrants that the suspicion and ire is reserved for  – no matter where they come from in the world, are coming here to steal it. Because they hate us. 

If this is sounding familiar to you, you were likely paying attention during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or at any random point during about 500 years of US history. The fear and demonization of the  African other is a colonized people’s remix on a distinctly white supremacist idea at the heart of European settler-colonial capitalist liberal democracy. The idea that everything here is all ours and we gotta build up walls to protect it from THEM. Those foreigners. Those hard Rs. Those Africans. 

In a people that, as previously discussed, often feels a great intrinsic connection to each other, the development of such a politic feels wrong and jarring. To hear racist anti-African words fall from African throats, mouths, and lips strikes you as quite wrong at first. Then you see how many views the YouTube videos have.  

It would be comforting to believe that Moore and Carnell are an aberration – a creation of a particular context and point and time – but an examination of the development of the US as a settler state and eventually settler empire makes it clear that an aberration they are not. It is not a coincidence that these particular politics of exclusion, scarcity, enclosure, and exceptionalism developed in the context of an empire which paradoxically developed a self-image of rugged self-reliance and superiority while forcefully cultivating a relationship of parasitism and forced dependence with the rest of the world. Though Africans in the US can be best understood as a captive colonized nation within a giant genocidal settler empire – like the many Indigenous nations or Puerto Ricans or Chicanos who are trapped here along with us – we have to realistically face that we have been in this empire being steeped in settler-colonial and capitalist and white supremacist ideology for a long long time. It makes perfect sense that there would be segments among our people that would begin to internalize the mythology and rationalizations of this place and taking it a step further, would begin to movement build around it. In fact, I would argue that a close examination of the African political movements of the past few decades indicate that it’s far more than just ADOS folks who have internalized the BS.

Excerpt from Malcolm X's Ballot or the Bullet speech.
Malcolm X in the Ballet or the Bullet

But it’s important to recognize that it is BS. There is no claim for slavery that Africans in the US have that would need to exclude Africans from the rest of the diaspora. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a global system that drastically transformed conditions in places as far flung as England, France, Congo, Angola, Brazil, Honduras, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Canada, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Louisiana. The enslavement of African people all over the world combined with the dispossession and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere created the conditions – and the seed money – for the global spread of capitalism. Additionally, the mass kidnapping of African people from the continent was directly responsible for creating the conditions that led to the European (and then USAmerican) conquest of Africa and that conquest has led to a modern condition in which the foundation of the entire global economic system – all of the material wealth of the West – is based upon the exploitation and continued colonization of Africa. 

Without even getting into how ridiculous it is to claim a distinct lineage for Africans enslaved in the US when the nature of the slave trade here saw our ancestors being shipped freely back and forth between European colonies in the Caribbean and in the US South, one simply can not isolate a ‘justice claim’ that covers *solely* Africans in the US because the systems of first chattel slavery and then capitalism have always been intentionally global in scope. The same private corporations and rich planter families that were buying and selling our ancestors on this land were investing in extractivist enterprises, plantations, and settler colonies in Africa and throughout Central and South America. And the modern descendants of those same corporations and planter families are still looting Africa and the entire diaspora today! And the same nations that bought and sold us – that created and maintained the trans-Atlantic slave trade – have military bases all over Africa, looting and bombing, right now. 

The only difference between us is boat stop.
The only difference between us is boat stop.

Beyond those fundamental contradictions – the particular position of African (and Indigenous) people in this context, in this empire, and in the West as a whole – forever outside the boundaries of formal citizenship and even the category of human – means that we are waging a fundamentally different struggle from one that has its focus on ‘loving America enough to change it’ or ‘building a more perfect union.’ The idea of a movement claiming to be for our liberation jumping headlong into American nationalist identity as a tactic is baffling.  African and Indigenous people had to get crushed to the ground so the American identity and the United States could be born – the victory of the American so-called Revolution required our utter defeat. The United States could never have been founded without annihilating violence against us and could not be sustained without continued annihilating violence against us and our lands and the rest of the colonized world so that idea that we could make something with that rot at the root into something fundamentally different through transfiguration or vigorous self-isolation from people suffering from the same thing just doesn’t compute. 

The history of the United States is NOT the history of African people here or our struggle. The history of the United States is the history of our systematic dispossession, murder, and dehumanization. We have a history of struggle that exists in open opposition to and at times entirely independently of this place! Though ADOS seeks to wrap itself in the US flag in order to claim a chunk of blood money they believe themselves entitled to, there is absolutely nothing that requires the masses of Africans here to take on the history of this straight pox upon the world as our own. 

Within this context, on this land, there is precedent for successful revolutionary African organizing for self-determination and multi-racial/multi-national class struggle but it’s not to be found in the vast raft of lies Americans tell themselves. It’s to be found in our resistance to American empire –  in the stories of maroon colonies, uprisings of our enslaved Ancestors, and centuries of Indigenous resistance. There were even (a minority of) working class Europeans and Jewish people in there too if you need that. But the point is that we don’t actually have to look toward settler-colonial expansion and genocide, nor do we have to wrap ourselves in a flag, nor do we have to break from Africa and the rest of the diaspora in order to find what we need to liberate ourselves and get what we and all Africans everywhere are rightfully owed. I don’t even know why we would want to when our ancestors were so lit here.

 “The Cocoon of Dread”, An 1831 engraving of Nat Turner’s revolt.
“The Cocoon of Dread”, An 1831 engraving of Nat Turner’s revolt.

The fact of that matter is that there’s no ballot measure or non-violent direct action or petition or YouTube channel or policy change that’s gonna change the past and present and future till it burns fact that the US has to enslave African children (still) and starve indigenous people to death (still) and steal from and exploit every form of life imaginable in order to sustain itself. I think the disconnect is some of us understand this intrinsically and some of us don’t. Some of us see it happening and some of us don’t. The historical record is clear, though. There was murder, rape, terror, Nazi BS in this place from the beginning. The Constitution was like ‘white looting rapists only 4eva 1776’ and that’s still who’s running this place – and in the larger world built in the place’s image by force – 400 years later.

I do not believe that most supporters of ADOS set out with the intention of engaging in the kind of settler-colonial centering and anti-colonial struggle erasure that I’m calling out. I’m pretty sure that very few  African or colonized people would ever intentionally do such a thing. But as I mentioned earlier, since we live in a settler empire it’s actually extremely understandable that we would take on aspects of the ideology, history, political strategy, and mythology of settler-colonialism as our own without seeing it. It’s kinda like how living under capitalism can turn even the most community minded person into an alienated individualist if they’re not constantly engaged in individual and collective struggle to prevent that.

The issue I have – and the issue with ADOS – is that people, even a lot of colonized people, don’t unpack and process the implications of that. The implications of being steeped in this place. They either take up the rhetoric of American nationalism and exceptionalism uncritically or, even if they’re radical, anti-capitalist, internationalist – they’re just like that’s a silly critique or no of course I don’t do that. Even though one would have to be like a miracle person not to do so in this context.

A lot of us don’t seem to understand the implications of being steeped in a system like this on a daily basis for years on end. We’re just like ‘Africans are gonna save America!  We’re Americans not Africans! More perfect union! Listen to Black women about voting to save the empire! Buy land! Seat at the table! Secure the bag!’ without questioning the fundamental nature of what we’re so committed to saving and who has to lose out and die to save it. These sentiments are everywhere – from the far-right in ADOS to the center-left and left like the BLM and Movement 4 Black Lives organizers who are coalescing around Sanders and Warren.

The casual, unthinking, American exceptionalism, the shifts towards passively or actively aligning with or rationalizing imperialism, the investment in the mythology and thus potential of liberal democracy (the same liberal democracy that was developed while our ancestors were being bought and sold by the  originators) – it’s common as hell across all wings of the African liberation struggle in the US. It’s part of the reason why I think the M4BL didn’t really go anywhere but straight into bourgeois electoral politics. There is an investment in this place that’s not being challenged and it’s that investment that allows openly xenophobic movements like ADOS to rise and spread.

We have to unpack this shit. We have to struggle against it. We have to let go of our attachment to USAmerican identity, USAmerican exceptionalism, and USAmerican empire. As a collective and as a people.

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Onyesonwu Chatoyer is an African woman marooned in the United States, organizing to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. She is an organizer with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the All-African Women's Revolutionary Union, an editor with Hood Communist, and also serves on the national committee of the Venceremos Brigade.