‘Blackness’ is a white European invention that makes sense in America but is lazily applied in Europe.
One of the books I've finally got round to reading since I have so much time to stay indoors now has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half Of A Yellow Sun.' I am about 30% through it, and it's honestly one of the best historical fiction novels about Nigeria that I've ever read. Well-written, brilliantly researched and filled with a great cast of characters all living in Nigeria during the tragic Biafran war – Nigeria's first and only civil war.
There is a scene in the novel, and I won’t go into too much detail for spoilers, where an Igbo academic explains that the purest form of a Nigerian’s identity is essentially their tribe. The whole concept of 'blackness' is the invention of white Europeans who colonised and enslaved Africans.
It was a revelation in the book that hit me, and I had to re-read that part several times to digest it.
And I had to agree with the statement. This term ‘black people’ only exists outside of Africa. The entire concept of ‘blackness’ has not only robbed so many Africans and Caribbean of their true heritage, but it has effectively confined people with melanin skin and restrict us economically, socially and even culturally.
The very idea of blackness is probably the worst thing to happen to people of African descent.
Blackness was inevitable in America. But in Europe, it’s just lazy and dismissive
What it means to be a ‘black person’ is different across the diaspora. In my view, this concept of ‘blackness’ created by white Europeans has different connotations in America and Europe.
In America, the label of ‘blackness’ is inevitable. The children of African slaves who were shipped to the Americas have sadly lost any real connection to their African heritage. If you were to ask an African American where they are from, they would say from "New York" or "California." What else could they say? They see themselves as American. Since they have melanin-rich, brown skin, which signals their African heritage, they have been collectively labelled as African Americans, which they have proudly adopted. How else would you describe the population of people in America with African heritage who no longer have a link to Africa and, even if they do, it’s tenuous at best.
Even if an African American were to trace back their ancestry and head back to whatever country in Africa their ancestors came from, they would still be African Americans. You wouldn’t call them American Nigeran or an American Ghanaian unless their parents migrated to America during this century, so the connection to their motherland has not been tragically robbed from them.
But the idea of a collective ‘blackness’ in the European side of the diaspora doesn't make sense in the same way it does in America. In Europe, people with melanin-rich skin are very aware of where they came from in Africa or the Caribbean. Unlike African Americans, there is no disconnect to their African or Caribbean heritage.
In modern Britain, the term 'Black British' sounds odd to me now. A British Jamaican and a British Nigerian, the latter I identify as, are not the same, even if our shade of skin might be. Many, if not all, of the third and second generation of black people living in the UK today, have parents who had migrated from one of the former commonwealth colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. These children heard Yoruba, or Twi or Jamaican patois and ate African or Caribbean food at home. They heard, even if they didn't actively listen, to the African or Caribbean music from their motherland. It’s why Afrobeats, the popular music genre created mainly by the third- and second-generation European Africans, is so heavily influenced by music from the motherland. That kind of African influence is barely present in the R'n'B and Hip-Hop genre created by African Americans.
The term 'black people' to describe people with African heritage living in Europe is plain lazy. Instead, I would use the prefix 'British' in front of their place of origin or ancestry—for example, a British Nigerian. But the phrase 'black people in Britain' doesn't make much sense to me anymore. What exactly do you mean by 'black people' in a European context? It makes sense to use that term in America, but in Europe, it's just condescending. ‘Black people’ in Europe are not homogeneous in their culture the same way African Americans are in America.
Tribalism is the trustiest form of the African identity
This idea of blackness is ultimately a by-product of the transatlantic slave trade carried out by White Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, African Americans are reduced to being 'Black people' because their link to their African lineage has eroded over centuries. But it's important to remember that 'blackness' is not the identity of Africa's children.
Tribalism is the most authentic identity of every brown person whose ancestry begins in Africa. Even Nigerian nationality is a construct from the minds of white Europeans. My real identity, one that white European hands have not moulded, is British Yoruba. Both my parents are from the Yoruba tribe, so that is what I am. White Europeans did not create the Yoruba language and its customs. It is pure African culture.
Of course, I understand that using the term 'black people' or 'Black British' is a much simpler way to group various ethnic minorities. And I agree in that context. It would be a headache trying to group people by their ancestral tribes on a hospital form. I still label myself as a 'Black British' author because it’s easier for my author brand. But what is important is that I remember who I am. I will not allow myself to buy into the white European construct, especially in Europe, that I am just a "black person."
A recent friend of mine sent me this YouTube video of a white filmmaker named Michael explaining why white pride does not exist because there is no such thing as white culture. Michael argues that there is only white ethnic culture (e.g. German, Italian, Polish etc.), but there is no overall white culture. However, in his view, there is such a thing as a universal black culture because black people have collectively suffered under racism, systematic oppression and universal slavery.
To some extent, I agree with Michael’s well-articulated answer (he’s definitely allowed to spud me). However, for me, where he loses me is when he says a black culture exists because of black people's collective suffering. When he said this, I had to wince uncomfortably. I get where he is coming from, and I understand its well-intentioned, but equating black culture with black suffering is not only very harmful, it's a typical narrative driven by white people. Unfortunately, it's one which black people have dangerously convinced themselves to be true.
Let me break it down.
Slavery is not black culture. It’s black history.
In America, slavery will always be the needle that stitches the African American identity. As everyone knows, the ancestors of African Americans were kidnapped, gagged and chained. Ripped away from the African continent, these African slaves toiled and served under white masters for over hundreds of years. Almost 300 years after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, its legacy and long-lasting and damaging ramifications are still deep-rooted in America.
But is this black history or black culture? The dictionary definition of culture is:
“the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”
If we take the above description of culture as gospel, what are we implying if we believe that black people's enslavement is part of black culture? African Americans' subjugation and the systematic racism that hinder their progression cannot come under black culture. The slave trade was an entire ecosystem created by white people to profit from the bodies of African men, women and children. It's an unfortunate part of African American and black history, but it is not black culture.
Whenever I see a white person say or imply that slavery is black culture, I can’t lie, I do get triggered, and I am not a fan of that word. Slavery is black history, but it doesn’t make it black culture. For example, the Nazis and the Holocaust atrocity are part of German history. Still, I am sure if you asked most Germans today, they wouldn’t associate such horrific acts of human brutality with German culture.
In the same way, we should not be slapping slavery under the black culture label. I see many well-meaning white people and even some black people do this. Do you want to know why it has me worried?
Because if we do this, black culture becomes one focused too much on black people's suffering under white Europeans rather than a celebration of black people’s art, music, African history, clothing, various African ethnicities, and the fantastic food. Of course, the history of slavery will always influence black culture, but it's not representative black culture.
Black people did not create the transatlantic slave trade, and most did not profit from it. It was designed, enforced and exploited by white Europeans. Black people have made the best music on earth, delicious food, the best clothing style, and some of the world's best entertainers and sportsmen. That is black culture. Black people in America and worldwide should celebrate that as our culture and not our dark history written by white Europeans. Slavery and colonialism might unite black people under a shared history but it does not define black culture.
“Youths are the life blood of any nation.”
― Ifeanyi Enoch Onuoha
When we think of a nation’s future and possibilities, we always look to its next generation of leaders. The next 50 years of the world's current democracies will not be directed by those currently in power but by the generation below them. Future advancements in technology, medicine, and the arts will come from the millennials.
For Nigeria, it's the millennial generation that many hope will finally lift Nigeria out of the darkness of poverty and into the light of prosperity.
But political protests such as the latest #endsars movement, and the terrible bloodshed that followed, has got me questioning if the job of saving Nigeria is too big for Nigeria’s youth to accomplish given Nigeria’s history and the mentality of Nigeria’s political body.
A nation governed by leaders who are at odds with its youth
Violence in Nigeria is not unique to Nigeria.
All democratic nations on this Earth went through a history of civil war before they became the functioning societies they are today. You could say it’s democracy going through puberty. Take America, for example. It is considered the greatest democracy on Earth – ignoring a particular blonde-haired president - and was once bitterly divided between the northern and southern states. It wasn’t until the end of the civil war in 1865 that it became a unified America. Even today, the George Floyd protests reminded us that America is not as unified and advanced as Hollywood movies would like us to think.
Nigeria, being a relatively new democracy compared to America, has gone through its periods of violence. Assassinations, coups, and bloody military rule dominate every chapter of Nigeria’s 60-year history as a democracy.
Yet Nigeria still doesn't feel like a democracy that has come out of its puberty phase. The powers that be who govern the country were all involved, in one way or another, in the previous violent and corrupt governments of Nigeria’s past - this is a significant problem for Nigeria's youthful population. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president since 2015, was the ringleader in the military coup d’etat of 1983 where he became Head of State. He was also involved in the Biafran War as a soldier.
Men of war often dominate Nigeria's political class. These men come from a generation where Nigeria was a bitterly divided nation with long-established tribal and religious divisions. Due to globalisation and a more pronounced western influence, Nigeria's educated youth do not have this same appetite for tribal hostility and iron-fisted governance that those in power still clearly have in their heads. Also, young Nigerians are pursuing careers which are more creative but also they are more tech-savvy than the previous generations. They are also more open to giving women more opportunities in the workforce – again, a western influence.
But Nigeria's leaders are not swayed by any westernised thinking which puts them at odds with Nigeria's youth. The youth-led protest against Nigeria’s now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is not just a protest against a brutal government organisation but a repudiation of the government’s old-school ways of brutal governing.
In western democracies, its leaders will overhaul entire policies if the youth cry out in protest. Just look at the British Conservative government’s U-turn around free-school meals when 23-year old footballer Marcus Rashford publicly criticised the government’s policy. It could never happen in Nigeria. Cries from the youth are falling on deaf ears as Nigeria's leaders show blatant contempt for the youth and their westernised mindset.
A nation with too many identities and fractions
Dealing with a government ruled by heads of state who do not share its youth's vision for the nation is just one issue. In Nigeria, you have many who are educated. You also have many who are educated to poor standards or not even at all. And this is against a backdrop of tribal underrepresentation in government and religious conflicts which create a north and south divide.
Nigeria has one of the largest populations in the world. Yet a staggering 10.5 million children are out of education. Even if you are educated to a degree level, you face grim prospects. 2.9 million Nigerian graduates and post-graduates are unemployed and 13.9 million people aged between 15 and 34 years are unemployed.
Poor education and an economy unable to meet the demands for jobs are compounded even further by the religious divide still present in Nigeria, particularly between the south and north of Nigeria, and the dominance of mainly three tribes in Nigeria – the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani.
There are over 400 languages in Nigeria, but only these three tribes are represented in government and given a higher status than any of the other minor tribes. In the background, the north is still dominated by fundamentalist Muslims who oppose any western ideologies, feeding the growth of militant Muslims such as the Boko Haram that the Nigeria government has struggled to eradicate. I doubt Nigeria's youth would be able to sort out this myriad of problems.
Corruption is a Nigerian state of mind
Corruption has become synonymous with Nigeria. Putting aside the 419 jokes, everyone universally acknowledges that Nigeria has a serious problem with corruption. In 2018, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 148 in a list of 180 countries considered corrupt.
The duplicity in Nigeria is not just a disease that lives in the minds of those that govern Nigeria but is part of the nation’s mentality. Fraud, extortion, coercion and abuse of power – these are practices carried out in every class, from the poor to the rich. Nigeria's young are trying to carve out legitimate businesses, but how can they be successful entrepreneurs in a land where contracts can be ignored, and regulations are only enforced if you have deep pockets. In Nigeria, the law can be bought.
It is this state of affairs that discourages many young Nigerians in the diaspora, myself included, from returning to our motherland to build businesses over there. While western democracies also deal with corruption to some extent, it pales in comparison to the rampant criminality that bleeds into every aspect of Nigerian society.
The long game
Nigeria's youth are caught in Nigeria's violent sea of deep-rooted problems and have a long time to wait until the sea has calmed. How will we know when that has happened? Only when the older generations of Nigerians have become too old to govern the country and the millennial generation can now take their positions in government.
But even when that happens, governing Nigeria will still be such a gargantuan task.
With a population of well over 190 million, almost six times larger than Ghana's population, Nigeria is almost like several countries forced to become one nation. All Nigerians can hope for is that, over the next few decades, the various tribal divisions and religious differences will become less important as the national identity of Nigeria becomes the dominant mental state of the population. You cannot govern 195 million people if they only identify themselves by their tribe and religion with their nationality as an afterthought.
The most important job of Nigeria's youth will be to unite all the tribal and religious factions under the Nigerian nationality, so everyone in Nigeria views themselves as Nigerians with every tribe feeling they have a real stake in the direction of the country. I would be lying if I said it would be easy, and perhaps only the passage of time will make it a reality.
Right now, Nigeria's youth can only wait. But that doesn’t mean waiting in silence. They must continue to protest and call out injustice, corruption and the brutality that blights the nation. Even if the job of saving Nigeria is not necessarily one in which they can carry out right now, it doesn’t mean they cannot start preparing themselves for it.
As someone who loves history (I sometimes wish I had studied it at Uni), I try and see how the past has knitted the fabric of our present and possibly our future to.
Take Brexit. If you’ve been following it (how could you not, it’s bloody everywhere), there has been much discussion around the Irish backstop. I am not going to go into detail (you can learn about it here) but the significance of the Irish backstop is rooted in the British colonisation of Ireland.
When you look at the history of the world, particularly that of British colonialism, you notice a familiar narrative. I've been looking into Nigerian's modern history (for a book I plan on writing one day), and it's striking how the colonisation of Nigeria (or more accurately, the British lumping together of various ethnic tribes in the Niger River) and Britain's settlement in Ireland bare three striking similarities.
1. Both countries divided into two opposing regions because of British colonisation
During the Berlin Conference in 1884, the prominent European nations, overexcited by imperialism like it was a new hobby, carved up the continent of Africa like they were sharing a pie, albeit one filled with resources like oil. In this ‘Scramble for Africa,' Britain effectively took control of the Niger River region, ruled it indirectly and split the various indigenous groups into two – the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate.
By dividing Nigeria like this, Britain unwittingly created an unbalanced country. The South became richer, boasting a mostly Christian populace consisting of the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic group (although they are various other ethnic groups.) By contrast, the North, which is dominated mainly by Islam, is poorer, consisting of the Fulani and Kanuri ethnic group who speak Hausa. The Muslim-dominated North, some critics argue, was much more resistant to European influence because of their firm adherence to Islam.
Since becoming independent in 1960, there has been much civil unrest and conflicts between Nigeria’s Northern and Southern tribes, stopping Nigeria from fulfilling its potential. Because the British haphazardly created the country with little regard to the very different ethnical groups, a united Nigeria was always going to be difficult to achieve.
Centuries before Nigeria’s creation, Ireland was Britain’s first colony. Before British colonisation, Ireland was staunchly Roman Catholic. To increase its control over Northern Ireland (known as Ulster), Britain sent Protestant English and Scottish men to settle in the area and eventually they outnumbered the Catholic Irish.
But Britain’s colonisation of Northern Ireland created a region divided between the Protestants (loyal to Britain) and the Catholics (who wanted an independent Irish state). Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics.
In 1921, 39 years before Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, and after many battles and bloodshed over hundreds of years, Ireland gained its independence from Britain by effectively splitting into two countries – Republic of Ireland (an independent nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK). But while 78% of the Republic of Ireland is mainly catholic, Northern Ireland is almost evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, creating hostility and resentment, similar to the Christian and Islam divide in Nigeria.
2. A major civil war has taken place in both countries which can be linked back to British Colonisation
The bloodiest and fiercest civil war in recent Nigerian history was the Biafran War that lasted between 1967-1970. When Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, it was a country loosely glued together by Britain and fraught with rivalries between its various tribes. There was a period of tribal tensions followed by a military coup in 1966 by the Igbo, leading to another counter-coup from a northern-led rebellion and then subsequent massacres of the Igbo people. Against this blood-stained backdrop, an Igbo-majority declared its independence from Nigeria, claiming Biafra as their new home. The prospect of Nigeria splitting into two, in a fashion similar to Ireland, resulted in a civil war between the Nigerian army (later supported by the British Army who supplied weapons) and the Biafran army. Although Nigeria was victorious and the country remained unified, there were over 100,000 military casualties, and between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died of starvation.
When it shaped Nigeria, Britain had ignored the ethnic composition of the various tribes within the Niger River region, inadvertently planting the seeds that would become of the roots of Nigeria's most tragic civil war to date.
Although Northern Ireland’s civil war, ‘The Troubles’, was not as cataclysmic as the Biafran War, it is no less tragic. Lasting between the late 1960s and coming to a fragile truce in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement, The Troubles, like the Biafran war, was territorial rather than religious. It was a battle between the unionists, who were mostly Protestant and wanted to Northern Ireland to remain as part of the UK, and nationalists, a Catholic minority who wished for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland thus uniting Ireland. Causalities from the war, mostly concentrated in Belfast although it did spill into England, exceeded 3,600 with as many as 50,000 suffering serious injuries.
"Similar to Nigeria, where the Christian-dominated Igbo and Yoruba Southern tribes had a better quality of life than Islam-dominated Northern tribes, in Northern Ireland, the Protestants had better jobs and better opportunities than Catholics. "
Unlike Nigeria, Ireland was ruled directly by the British through the insemination of Protestant Brits and Scots. But this divided the region, causing conflict over centuries as the Irish Catholics effectively became marginalised in their own land while the Protestants prospered. It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British.
3. There are still ongoing divisions in both countries because of British colonisation
During my recent trip to Belfast for a Christmas party (side note: I don't think you'll ever taste a pint of Guinness as smooth and pure as they come in Belfast), I took part in a tour showing the locations that played a significant role during The Troubles. I was startled that the division between Protestant and Catholics, while no longer inciting outright violence against each other, was still present in the hearts and minds of the populace. There remains a physical manifestation of the divide with the "peace walls." These are 25-feet steel walls that stretch across the neighbourhoods in Belfast, separating the Nationalist Catholics and the Loyalist Protestants living in the area, mitigating any hostilities.
In Nigeria, the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the North and the South, Christians, and Muslims, is still evident, leading to current conflicts. The rise of the violent terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Northern Nigeria, is seen as retaliation and intolerance to Britain bringing its Western sensibilities and Christianity to Nigeria.
"It is not surprising that the Irish Catholics could not cooperate with Protestant unionists as they fundamentally wanted different outcomes for the future of Northern Ireland, with the former wanting a complete separation from Britain. Nigeria had a similar scenario with the Southern Igbo tribe fighting for a united Biafran republic that was separate from Nigeria - a country manufactured by the British. "
I am by no means suggesting that if Britain had never colonised Nigeria or Northern Ireland, then both countries would never have experienced any kind of deep-rooted divisions and violence that have blighted them over the past 100 years. That wouldn’t be true. Tribes within the Niger River region were fighting each other and selling each other into slavery long before the British came with their Bibles and rifles. However, Ireland has been stubbornly resisting English colonisation as far back as the 16th century.
If you take anything away from this article, I hope it’s an understanding that the past will always provide a canvas in which the present and future will be painted on. As Northern Ireland faces the prospect of Brexit and Nigeria readies itself for its 2019 General Election, it is essential to look at how these two countries were moulded by British rule in the past, to help us determine how they might shape themselves in the future.
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