New Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global Apartheid, edited by Leith Mullings, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, 334 pps., paperback.
City University of New York Graduate Center professor, Leith Mullings, has put together a unique work. Although published in 2009, I just recently read it and it was more than timely. With 2011 having been declared by the United Nations to be the Year of the Afro Descendant, New Social Movements in the African Diaspora could not have come out at a more appropriate moment.
Mullings introduces the reader, through this marvelous collection of articles, to what one might think of as the pan Africanism of the 21st century, or at least a major slice of it. The articles provide both historical background as well as contemporary analysis of the African Diaspora and particularly the social movements that have emerged within it over the last twenty or so years.
The scope of the book is quite broad. One of the most interesting sections, and something about which I had known nearly nothing until reading this book, concerns Africans on the islands of the Indian Ocean. While we often hear about locales such as Diego Garcia, we may know about the US military bases there. But the issue of land loss by Africans is something that is never discussed in mainstream media, let alone the demand by the African population for the right to return.
One of the challenges for the African Diaspora concerns the nature of the struggles in which we engage. In light of the fact that, by definition, we are not native to the lands where we were transported, yet at the same time have been residents of those lands and contributors to their development in many case for centuries, is our struggle for land? For equal rights? For some other formulation of social justice? For all of the preceding?
This issue is one confronting Afro-Latinos at this very moment. Take, for instance, Venezuela. The administration of socialist President Hugo Chavez led a constitutional change in order to directly address the grievances and demands of the long oppressed and marginalized indigenous populations. While the Chavez administration has also been attempting to address demands of Afro-Venezuelans, the situation is far more complicated. Among other things, Latin America has a tremendous history of denial of its African heritage. Yet the denial is a complicated one. In a visit to Venezuela in 2004, I ran right into racial denial, including among otherwise radical activists. This denial took an interesting form that would seem paradoxical, at least from the point of view of an African American (USA). I and my delegation would be told that there were no racial problems in Venezuela. At the same time, we would often be told that “…we [Venezuelans] all have some African in us…”
Coming from a white person in the USA, a statement such as the one we heard in Venezuela would be close to a revolutionary proclamation, but in a Latin American context it actually had a different implication. In essence it suggested that there was no particular racial/ethnic issue when it came to Afro-Latinos. They were simply part of the stew. This might have been pleasant for some to hear, except that when one goes up the economic ladder in Latin America, those at each rung tend to be lighter and lighter. Unless one wishes to argue genetics, there is a structural problem of white supremacy in existence, but one that looks quite different than one might find in the USA. Compounding this is that there are geographical sections of Venezuela, and for that matter other Latin American countries, which are overwhelmingly Afro-Latino. Should such sections have some sort of territorial autonomy as a means of addressing the oppression that they have received over the centuries? Or does such a demand miss the mark entirely?
New Social Movements in the African Diaspora helps to provide the context and analysis to better understand the challenges facing the Diaspora, such as those just described in Latin America. Yet the importance of the book goes beyond this one point. Mullings and her authors help the reader to understand that the actual natures of struggles, whether in Europe, the Indian Ocean, Latin America, the Caribbean or the USA, are each quite different and must be analyzed with an emphasis on these particularities. At the same time, there are transferable and generalizable lessons.
One of the lessons is the importance of understanding racism and racist oppression as systems of both suppression and social control. In each segment of the Diaspora, race has been used as a method of both exploiting the labor power of the African population and dividing up the laboring classes. This looks different in each setting. In the USA, for instance, the settler-colonial elite had no interest in the development of a mulatto or mixed population for purposes of social control and instead saw to it that all those with an ounce of African blood were classified as black and enslaved. In Latin America, on the other hand, the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists spent an inordinate amount of time dividing up the entire population by gradations of skin color, thereby creating a system of what one might call ‘multiple suppressions.’ This system ensured a racial classification for all with so-called pure European being at the top and so-called pure African and Indigenous, of course, being at the bottom.
A second lesson is that there remains a critical importance to race consciousness. In part as a consequence of the nature of racist oppression and racism as a system, a progressive, if not, radical interpretation of race consciousness is critical. Part of this centers around reestablishing one’s humanity but it also concerns a matter addressed by several authors in New Social Movements in the African Diaspora, i.e., the tendency for the anti-racist struggle to be subordinated by and to other social movements.
A third lesson is the question of coalition or bloc-building. This is an issue that I wished New Social Movements in the African Diaspora had spent greater time addressing, in part since it relates to the issue just mentioned. While the book focuses on the movements of African peoples, the question that confronts each such movement is its relationship to other social movements in the fight for power. Some years ago, while serving as president of TransAfrica Forum, I had the opportunity to meet with various Afro-Colombian activists visiting the USA. What struck me is that in most cases there was an ambivalence on their part towards relating to other social movements and political forces in Colombia. While this was understandable in light of the tendency of many Colombian groups to ignore the Afro-Colombian condition, it nevertheless raised the question of the actual objectives of the Afro-Colombian movement and how they tied into, or were divorced from, larger issues of social transformation in Colombia.
New Social Movements in the African Diaspora needs a broad audience. This is not a book to be restricted to academia. The issues it addresses and the scope of the book make it an important tool in thinking through the nature of the struggle for global justice and, specifically, what that should mean when seen through the eyes of the children of Africa.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president ofTransAfricaForum and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice(University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.