Our Messed Up Beliefs About Africa: Heart of Darkness & Black Consciousness

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“Nobody cares about Africans, bruh.”

I read either this exact statement or some variation of it from an African blogger. For the sake of not unjustly exposing anyone to being called out on my blog when they didn’t agree to it, I’ve left out a few details of the statement and surrounding details.

I read the statement, and I didn’t flinch. I didn’t feel a pang of guilt or the defensive need to prove that I really did care about Africans. Some writers and bloggers immediately feel this urge, or a need to prove that Africans are actually the big bad bullies of the diaspora — the “lucky” ones who were “never enslaved” — a historically inaccurate statement, rife with ignorance.

Honestly, the statement was (and remains) true.

“Nobody” in this context was aimed yes, at everybody, but specifically at the larger group of Black non-Africans who discuss “social justice” online. By now, most discussions online regarding colonialism, slavery and the African diaspora have been imbued with a class analysis and an adoption of revolutionary rhetoric such as you might read in history books about Grenada or Cuba.

You read the words “liberation” and “abolish private property” thrown around as well as the words “the West” and “the global South”. Despite the appearance of “woke” behavior and critical analysis about every aspect of society from the cultural practice of female genital mutilation to niche aspects of African American history such as black Wall Street and Henrietta Lacks, there are gaps, huge swaths of emptiness when complex subjects are breached.

Africa, and discussions of African history, politics and influence are largely missing from these discussions. Black people as a whole, it seems, when brought together in online spaces to discuss our differing life experiences seem to have a complicate relationship with the place that arguably ties us all together.

Our blackness and our “Africanness” are inextricably linked, yet if I had to answer whether I genuinely believed most non-African people “cared” about Africa, I would answer with a definitive and resounding “no”.

People do not care about Africa.

Black people have an understandably complex relationship with the continent, and to understand what’s at play, we first need to look at the colonial history that has informed our past and current relationship to the African continent. The good news is, I have some ideas for us — all of us. Whether you’re reading this from the comfort of your spacious urban apartment, or like me, sweltering in the heat of a third world black majority country, you’ll find something here that will hopefully open your awareness to your perceptions of Africa, your implicit beliefs, your prejudices and your biases. I’ll share how I relate to black people from around the globe in a way that validates different experiences without invalidating my own.

I’ll also share why we have such harmful views about Africa, how this is a manifestation of our own pain as a population of displaced people and how we can come to terms with this displacement appropriately. Hint: Occupying land that doesn’t belong to us isn’t the solution.

In King Leopold’s Ghost, black American William Sheppard visits the Congo and he’s one of the most outspoken about the injustices that occur there. Backed by American white supremacists, who were eager to send black people “Back to Africa”, Sheppard wrote extensively about his desire to “return” to Africa (a place he had never been) and wrote enthusiastically about the potential for converting Africans to Christianity and civilizing them.

The extent to which colonized people can not only accept, but perpetrate the views of their oppressors couldn’t be more clear than in reading about Rev. William Sheppard’s response to the Congo. Of course, his views are contradictory too. While his response to the brutality and human rights abuses appeared to have an empathetic base, the conclusions he drew based upon that empathy were decidedly misplaced. “They need colonizers who look like them” isn’t quite the conclusion I can imagine a Baldwin or a Davis coming to.

Our blackness doesn’t give people from the West Indies or America the right to inhabit anywhere in Africa we choose, at any time we choose, nor does it give black people the right to participate or spearhead missions with the intent to colonize local peoples and erase their religious beliefs in the same way colonizing European Christians did.

Reading about William Sheppard opened my eyes to how easy it is for colonized people to become the mouthpiece of their oppressors ideology. If white supremacists agree with your ideas for where black people as a whole should belong, shouldn’t that raise some red flags? (King Leopold’s Ghost)

Unfortunately, many writers and social justice influences today tend not to be much different from William Sheppard when discussing “Africa” and as black folks, our complex relationship to the continent plays a role in why.

I’ve been referring to “Africa” as if it is one place. Despite the convenience of a continental label in simplifying complex ideas, cultures, places, languages and peoples, “Africa” can often be a cop out for specificity that would strengthen a particular point rather than weaken it. Homogenizing the continent for convenience reinforces negative propaganda by forcing a multitude of complex languages, cultures, social practices and beliefs to unite under one idea, making it easier to ignore a diverse and complicated history, influenced both by ethnic affinity groups and European colonization.

We underestimate the continent’s size thanks to the mercator maps of 1569 that continue to govern our perceptions (Source). We ignore the fact that Africa has the most genetic diversity out of any continent on the planet (sorry white people, your thin nose was African first!).

One of the most popular pieces of fiction about Africa, dives into the psychological relationship that Westerners have with Africa. The power in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness lies not in his “accuracy” in describing the human condition nor in some sort of moral righteousness that he deign suggest that he might have once had a notion that the people of the Congo were in fact human beings. The power of Joseph Conrad’s story lies in how perfectly it encapsulates Western ignorance, confusion, desire, racism and xenophobia when it comes to Africa. The terrifying part of this is: black people outside of Africa are not immune from the Heart of Darkness’ grip on our psyche.

My boyfriend and I sat together recently, mugs of piping hot black coffee in hand while I mused, frustrated about the book I’d just read, King Leopold’s Ghost.

What nagged at me had less to do with the colonial violence — if this surprises you, perhaps you aren’t ready for this blog — and more with an internal disruption of my current thoughts and belief system.

“Heart of Darkness is racist,” my boyfriend reminded me.

“I know. It is racist.” (I paused.)

“But it’s kind of true,” I continued, “This is how we see Africa — the whole continent — as some sort of amorphous… heart…of…darkness…”

I’m paraphrasing the insight — and making it brief, I talked his ear off — but the more I considered it, the more I realized I had to share this. I had to admit to myself and hopefully, inspire others to admit that our feelings about where we originate from are not only complex, they’re largely negative.

In Saint Lucia, my education about Africa was nonexistent. I fared no better at my private high school or my private college. In high school, I at least learned more about Mansa Musa, but that’s the extent of what I learned. Religions, ethnic groups, the social conflict of apartheid, the Rwandan genocide and Congolese civil war were all left out of our “world history” education. Africa, as a continent, is omitted from the curriculum.

The largest continent in the world is blotted out from our collective consciousness as if its mere existence was a mistake. While bold history teachers may foray into East Asian studies, African history, religious studies and languages languish within our academic experience. (By college, this was largely due to my specific concentration.)

What is the impact on a displaced population, I wonder, if the history of the place they were displaced from faces such egregious omission?

The “impact” is explained indirectly via Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works. Our narrative of our history and our identity as a people, when left up to our own devices and what material is easily accessible, can be created by the dominant social group and due to lack of better information, we absorb the beliefs and ideology of the dominant social group. This ideology is not in our interests and it’s not in the interests of the African people.

The best example of how quickly a white Western ideology can become engrained in black people is explained in King Leopold’s Ghost. William Sheppard, an African American living in a racism post-emancipation America, visits “Leopold’s” Congo. His thoughts and collective writings introduce his “vision” for Africa. He called for a popular “solution” proposed by white supremacists at the time, suggesting all African Americans return to the Congo, govern by colonial rule, and continue to spread Christianity throughout the region.

His vision for Africa is no different than the white supremacists who dominated his culture. Africa remained a “dark” place to be conquered. The wants, desires and needs of the African people were never a consideration.

How ironic, I thought, that this man could see himself as kin to the folks in the Congo due to skin color, yet his behavior and collective writings reflect someone who viewed the people of the Congo as a group to be conquered and viewed their land as “available” for anyone to lay claim to regardless of their prior connection to it.

Sheppard’s colonial views are not uncommon in contemporary black views of Africa, especially when you’re dealing with folks who are not African. It may hurt to admit that we hold onto so much negativity towards a place we may believe ourselves to love. Yet, how can we consider ourselves seeking “justice” when our view of the African continent is a cheap photocopy of long held colonial views?

In black Western conversation, and in black conversations in the global south, our view of Africa needs to undergo a change that prioritizes integrity and decolonization of our visions of Africa. I have long accepted the fundamental truth that Africa is not “mine”. My ancestors can be directly traced to Guinea, yet, Guinea does not “belong” to me. Seeing yourself as the owner of a place you’ve never been to, whose language you don’t speak, whose people you don’t understand and whose history you’re ignorant to, is nothing but colonial. Is it really so bad for Africa not to belong to you? Does it make a material difference in your life?

What are we really seeking when we (speaking generally) don dashikis, romanticize the African continent or even when we speak negatively about Africa & Africans? Whether we believe our critiques to be valid, where does this negativity stem from? Where does the pain come from? Who put it there?

Every person has a deep desire for community. Our deep desire for belonging stems from the generational pain of the injustice of having our homes stripped from us. We want a home. Many of us dream of an idealized place where we can live free of anti-blackness, an elusive pursuit that you’ll weary of chasing the more you learn about the history of black people across the globe.

This desire for an ever elusive home base can be reduced by strengthening our connection to the present moment, as well as strengthening our connection to our current communities. I can’t spill all the secrets about “living in the present” — I’m far from a zen master and many have done this better than I can. However, it’s been my personal experience that mindfulness meditation can not only reduce anxiety but provide profound clarity in my life — a view backed scientifically. This is a first step to finding the “raw” spots on our relationship to our personal and familial histories.

Is this chick really suggesting we meditate over not knowing who the hell our ancestors are and not having any connections we can trace?

No, I’m not. Calm down. I’m suggesting that a connection to our present communities and our present realities is a better use of our time than fixating on a fantasy that may very well be colonial by its very nature. We can create a home where we are now. Our recent ancestors in the Caribbean have proved that much at least!

Another appropriate way to handle this desire for belonging is through education. Material is difficult to find, and studying a vast continent such as Africa provokes many difficulties. Where should I start? Which countries should I study? Should I learn Swahili? Do I need to visit Africa? Breathe. You don’t need to do everything at once, and education can happen in a number of ways. I recently learned a bit about Malawian culture just from watching a YouTuber who talked about her life growing up in Malawi on her channel. I read King Leopold’s Ghost, and I’m in the process of reading a number of other books on Rwandan history, the history of the Congo and as much precolonial history as I can find. You don’t have to become an expert to find a connection. Reach out.

Connect with something or someone who can teach you, and be patient. Approach the subject with humility.   

Education has the profound impact of changing your perspective, especially when it’s self motivated. You can choose whatever you want to learn and enjoy it. Some people may want to learn about the Orishas. Some people want to learn about King Leopold. Others will be interested in Fulani jewelry or recipes to traditional African foods.

What’s important is not replacing a connection to Africa, or learning about Africa, with the experience of growing up African. Honestly, I don’t think it’s anything we can understand fully! There are so many countries, languages and ethnic groups in Africa and we have been displaced for so many years that this can’t be changed. We can’t go back in time and mend connections that were severed.

I find greater happiness accepting this than fighting it.

Accepting what I can change — my ignorance — and letting go of what I can’t change — slavery in the 1600s-1900s — has done wonders for my emotional and spiritual connection to what it means to be black.

We don’t need to assume faux-African identities, culturally appropriate, or “own” African culture for our connection to exist. It’s there. Learn about the colonial history of Western and Central Africa, and you will see that our connection is there. Don’t take my word for it. Embrace self-reflection, education and honesty about our complex relationship with Africa. Let go of what you cannot change about this. Pursue what you can change with love, open-mindedness and passion.

Approaching education about Africa with respect, humility and honesty can help us build greater connections with people we meet from the countries we wish to connect with. It will help us to learn more, understand our history and others, and we’ll be in a better position to advocate for human rights on the African continent (if that holds our interest) from an emotional state that at least questions the colonial status quo the continent holds in our consciousness.

We can create a world where the people we were cut off from do not feel misunderstood, uncared for and ultimately unloved by people who are proud to proclaim a connection in public, while treating Africa/Africans like a shameful bastard child. It isn’t “pride” we need to seek at all in relation to our African heritage, but humility.

Author’s Note:

Hey readers. If you’re interested in learning more about my education into African history and contemporary issues, comment down below and I’ll consider putting together a comprehensive reading list of everything I’ve read or intend to read on the subjects. Copyright © 2018 West Indian Critic. See plagiarism notice prior to use.

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