There are many Black people living in the US who are hesitant to reject the title “American”. Not because they believe their existence to be anything other than that of a colonized person living inside the empire of the world, who has never been offered the full rights of citizenship that the white ruling class has retained for itself. But because they take great pride in the homes and cultural creations that Black people struggling in “America” have created over the years. And in many ways, I agree. We materially do not have anything else. But that doesn’t mean we can’t!
This is not intended to be a fight about names. I believe Black people have earned the right to call ourselves whatever we choose. I personally identify as an African person living in the US. I do not believe that slavery and colonialism are strong enough to break my connection to the land from which my people came. I know that the people enslaved here in the US and around the world were African. Nothing will ever change that. They were people with their own languages, their own religions and belief systems, and their own ways of thinking about love, life, death, and family. They were African. Period. Some today in the US call themselves New Afrikan. Some are holding out for something else. I just want us to be honest about what it means, knowingly or unknowingly, to align ourselves with “Americans”.
The primary reason I do not identify with “Black American” as an identity is that “American” is not a legitimate identity. The continent we live on in the US is called “The Americas.” There’s a “North America”, a “Central America” and a “South America”, and while they are all settler designations imposed upon this land, the idea that one group among those designations gets to refer to themselves as THEE “Americans” is tied up in the material reality that the US does indeed control everything around it like the empire that it is. It’s US exceptionalism and imperial logic on steroids. If we are the “Black Americans”, then what are Black Colombians, Venezuelans or Brazilians? Of all the Africans born and raised in the Americas, how does the designation only fall upon us? One of the most eye opening experiences I’ve had in life is visiting Cuba and meeting an African there giving a tour of the San Severino Castle Museo, a former dungeon for holding enslaved Africans that was later repurposed to imprison patriots of the Cuban revolt against the Spanish. During our tour, she stopped and said gently to a large group visiting from the US “I know that you all call yourselves Americans, but across Latin America and the Caribbean we are clear about the fact that you are just one kind of American.”
There’s no such thing as an American. The concept of “one America” is not real, it’s a white supremacist fantasy. We have to be firm in saying and understanding that the US is a settler-colonial state that should have never existed. The land we live on is stolen and it will always be considered stolen until it is returned to its rightful owners. There can be no compromise on that position. To declare anything to the contrary, would be to participate in the fallacy of liberalism. Taking this historical fact to its logical conclusion, if “American” is not a valid identity, it’s a loser strategy to attach our identity and destiny to this dead end in any way. We are Africans. Our captives are Europeans. And the land we stand on belongs to a variety of different indigenous nations whose historical development has been stunted by colonialism. Therefore, our work (particularly as revolutionary Pan-African socialists) is not to further embed ourselves into the fabric of “America.” Any desires to fulfill the “American dream”, “restore the soul of this nation”, or “make ‘America’ a better place” only serve to co-sign the legitimacy of this genocidal death camp. These impulses do not honor the enslaved Africans who were forced to build their own prisons, they only honor our individual desires to be exceptional and lead better lives at the expense of the rest of the world. ‘America’ is illegitimate and we must reject it outright.
So what does this say for Black people born in and living in “America”? Are we unable to have pride in the legacy we have built here? Of course, we are! Because even though “America” is not real, our reality as African people is. African people, all of the world where we have been scattered and torn into a diaspora, have retained such rich cultures and traditions. This is especially true for the African people trapped in the US— the core of the world empire. Our communities are real, unlike the state that surrounds them. They are the representation of a stolen people, building community on stolen land that has relegated us to the status of colonized people. Baltimore club music is African culture. Motown, which was started in Detroit, is African culture. Box braids and collard greens are African culture. The thing keeping so many of us latching on to the idea of being “American” is that we fear being detached from our cultural artifacts, but the truth is that these things have been African all along! The only part the US played in making us who we are was its brutal oppression along the way. Everything else was already inside of us. There is no way to deny that. So much of our hesitancy in identifying with Africa and the rest of its diaspora is rooted in ignorance, shame and insecurity, stemming from non-stop conditioning that we’ve never been “African enough”. We are just as African as a Zimbabwean, a Jamaican or a Haitian.
These insecurities often devolve into what are known as “diaspora wars” which cover the gambit of “Who does X better”, “Who did X first” and “Who actually owns X”. But the sad and pathetic truth about it all is that none of us own anything. We don’t own our music, we don’t own our memes, we don’t own our food traditions and most importantly, we don’t own our land. Africa itself is a continent full of neo-colonized countries that were carved up and created by the West, and still in many ways, are beholden to the West and its corporations today. The islands of the Caribbean are crippled by cycles of debt created by IMF/World Bank loans and overrun by US tourism. Black communities in the US are occupied by police and controlled by banks. None of us own a thing.
If I kidnap you and a friend and keep you in my basement, it doesn’t matter what kind of traditions you come up with down there in the basement to pass the time. You will never own them, I do. When you look at the nature of all setter colonies around the world, they’ve have never had their own identity, hence the need to steal from the cultural traditions of the colonized nation they sit upon. Israel is a tacky mess with hideous and cheap architectural practices and a Frankenstein monster of a language that they keep trying to pass off as “indigenous”. All of it’s staple cuisines are stolen and repackaged Palestinian dishes. And what have white settlers in Azania/South Africa ever contributed to the world? The US doesn’t have a cultural identity outside of the things it can steal, and that is why it preys on the genius and ingenuity of working class African people across the US. That’s why hip-hop is synonymous with big budget motion pictures. That’s why Ebonics has become “Gen Z lingo”. That’s why Gullah Geechee culture is being rebranded as something “uniquely American”. Our cultural products are stolen, marketed and forced upon the rest of the world in a way that only an empire could, and at the end of the day we get nothing in return. Black culture in the US can never be respected as long as the US itself exists. He who owns the land makes the rules, and in the order of today, that’s the West and it’s bloodthirsty corporations. It makes the infighting among African people look really bleak when understood in the proper context, but it also shines light on why we fight to own and control any aspect of our identity that we think we can.
What our ancestors based in this country have fought and died for has never been about creating ‘America’. It’s always been about our right to live free and determine who we are, for ourselves. We have been robbed of that opportunity for our entire existence on this land. The African revolution in the US is incomplete and it will remain that way as long as we continue to see ourselves as subjects of the empire fighting for civil rights in a settler colony.
Revolution is inevitable. It’s going to happen whether we personally decide to take part in the process of building it or not. It is, of course, selfish to leave all of the labor of building revolution to the generations of Black people who are to come after us, but do not be mistaken — your refusal to participate in revolution will not stop it from happening. And when that revolution begins, as has been the case in all of human history, Black and other colonized people will be the ones who will deliver it. And however many years it takes for us to fully realize revolution, our progeny will read recounts of how black Chicago was the epicenter of training guerilla warfare tactics. They will read stories of how Black mothers in Portland banded together to arm their communities after establishing a city-wide system of self-reliant childcare. They will read stories about how queer Black folks in Atlanta, Norfolk, New Orleans, Memphis, Raleigh, Charleston, and Jacksonville came together to establish a food co-operative so big, it sustained a revolution. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will whisper and yell about how their colonized ancestors liberated the land in so-called “America” and joined the struggle to liberate Africa, the land from which we came.
The contribution to the culture created by displaced African people living in the US will be bigger than lemon pepper wings and timbs (even though both of those things are great too!) We are talking about the total liberation of a society, the return of land to a people who were almost genocided out of existence, and the development of new ways of being, living, and loving for us, a people who have been robbed of everything. It will be bigger than jazz or trap music. It will be bigger than the Harlem Renaissance or the Civil Rights Movement. It will be bigger than gospel or ballroom. Our hoods will be immortalized forever. History will sing of us. And it will NOT be because we were proud “Americans”. It will be because we understood that to love ourselves truly meant to organize and struggle for the end of “America”. The whole thing. And we will recreate. We will build. Maybe here. Maybe somewhere else. We will borrow from the old and we will innovate anew. Our story has only just begun.