Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Black Lives Matter: Black Solidarity; Myth or Reality

The issue of the centring of the Black resistance struggle, through the Black Lives Matter movement around Black America has raised a heated debate on twitter.  The debate is that Black Lives Matter effectively focuses on Black (hetero-male) lives, which erases not only the lives of Black women, LBGTQ and so forth, in America, but also the Black diaspora; in the UK, France,(rest of Europe) etc, Brazil (South America), and so forth. This debate began as a result of a discussion around police brutality, and the statistics of deaths in police custody (I’m not here to clear up the who said whats, I want to discuss Black solidarity).
This centring of Black America in the Black liberation movement is not new. What have to do is to understand why Black America, historically, has been centred, and no is not through the wishes or desires of Black Americans themselves. The centring of the Black Americans happens mainly as a result of two factors. The first reason is globalisation and U.S. cultural imperialism. Black America is a sub-group of the American society and has had an overwhelming cultural influence in the U.S; in music – Hip Hop, Rock and Roll, Blues etc – literature, drama, theatre, movies and television, and sports, which has had a global impact due to American hegemonic imperialism, and the fact that the United States were able to make so much money from Black America.  
The second reason is distraction. Here in the UK, and in a lot other western countries; particularly those in Europe, we mainly learn about the Black civil rights struggle in our education system, as opposed to the domestic struggle, which has a two-fold effect; primarily it provides a single narrative and disconnects it from the rest of the Black diaspora. For example, they’ll teach you about Martin Luther King, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (which we should all deservedly know), but they won’t teach about how King went to Ghana for the independence and inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah as the first President of Ghana, in order to organise politically (which we should all deservedly know too). The other effect is that often case America is used as a comparison to highlight, seemingly, how much worse Black people are treated in America, because their oppression was legislated and more tangible; Jim Crow, police brutality, etc, and how we should not complain if we are Black in the UK, France, or any other diaspora outside of America.
Another point to make is how sometimes we, the Black diaspora outside of America, internalise this centring of Black America, and re-perpetuate American exceptionalism, through no demand of their own. We too often use AAVE/Black American slang, we used to rap in American accents, and even dress similarly. Much of this is due to global representation of a singular Blackness – those of Black America – and how it has impacted us both on a positive and negative.
The question of Black American solidarity with the rest of the Black diaspora is one that is very quickly and easily answered. There are countless examples where historically Black America has shown solidarity with the global Black diaspora and the continent of Africa, and this relationship has been reciprocal. Here are some examples:

Malcolm X: In 1964 Malcolm X visited Nigeria where he was initiated in the Yoruba tradition, and given the named “Omowale” meaning “the child (who) has come home”.  In a letter written whilst he was in Nigeria, X says here in Africa, the 22 million American blacks are looked upon as the long-lost brothers of Africa. Our people here are interested in every aspect of our plight, and they study our struggle for freedom from every angle. Despite Western propaganda to the contrary, our African brothers and sisters love us, and are happy to learn that we also are awakening from our long "sleep" and are developing strong love for them”.
Furthermore, in another speech to the youth in Mississipi youth in December of 1964 (when Malcolm returned from his African Sankofa journey) he made the following statement: “in my opinion, the greatest accomplishment that was made in the struggle of the black (wo)man in America in 1964 toward some kind of real progress was the successful linking together of our problem with the African problem, or making our problem a world problem”.
Malcolm X also came to Smethwick, UK (not London!), to organise and fight against the racism and oppression experience by Black people here.
Namdi Azikwe and Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria and first President of Ghana, respectively, both studied at Lincoln University, which is a Historically Black College/University (HBCU).
W.E.B Du Bois, Phd, Writer Educator, Scholar, founder of the NAACP,  spent the remaining years of his life in Ghana, working as a special advisor to Kwame Nkrumah. Du Bois also organise the first Pan-African Congress in London, 1919.
Kwame Toure, formerly known as Stokely Carmichaeal, originally from Trinidad in the Caribbean, was a revolutionary civil rights (Black Panther Party) and pan-African activist (AAPRP – All Afrikan Peoples Revolutionary Party) married South African singer Miriam Makeba in 1968 and relocated to Guinea where he became an aide to Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure.
In 1935, a number of African Americans volunteered to fight in the Ethiopian resistance war against Italian colonialism, many of whom would later re-settle there or eventually pass away.
And to finish with another poignant example, a persona favourite of mine: Jean Grae’s (African American rapper/MC) verse in Black Girl Pain –

This is for Beatrice Bertha Benjamin who gave birth to Tsidi Azeeda
For Lavender Hill, for Khayelitsha
Athlone Mitchell's Plain
, Swazi girls I'm repping for thee
Manenberg, Gugulethu; where you'd just be blessed to get through
For beauty shining through like the sun at the highest noon
From the top of the cable car at Table Mountain
; I am you
Girls with the skyest blue of eyes and the darkest skin

For Cape Coloured for realizing we're African
For all my cousins back home, the strength of Mommy's backbone
The length of which she went for raising, sacrificing her own

The pain of not reflecting the range of our complexions
For rubber pellet scars on Auntie Elna's back, I march
Fist raised, caramel shining, in all our glory
For Mauritius, St. Helena; my blood is a million stories
Winnie for Joan and for Eadie, for Norma, Leslie, Ndidi
For Auntie Betty, for Melanie; all the same family
Fiona, Jo Burg, complex of mixed girls
For surviving through every lie they put into us now
This worlds yours', and I swear I will stand focused
Black girls, raise up your hands; the world should clap for us”.

These are examples that easily accessible and researched, which shows us the strength of solidarity. And that historically, Black America has not centred itself in the struggle by choice, but when we have been most successful is when we have been connected and unified. Also, it is important to critique each other, as well as ourselves. I strongly believe we must self-critique if we are to move forward. Hence, if we are to question Black America and the centring of the struggle – via BLM – to domestic Black American issues, we have to also ask ourselves in the remaining Black diaspora, how much we centre ourselves and place our own issues above that of our brothers and sisters on the African continent. We protest about Black deaths in the U.S., and in the U.K, but what about Brazil, where the biggest Black diaspora is found, approximately 120 million, and where on average, a Black person is killed by police every 7 hours? Or Congo, where earlier this year, over 400 bodies were found in a mass grave outside Kinshasa believed to be the bodies of protesters who went missing from protests earlier in the year? 
The point I am making, and I hope that this is the message that is left with whoever reads this post, is that the same system that oppresses and allows the indiscriminate murder of Black people in police custody in the U.S., Brazil, U.K, France, and the rest of the diaspora, is the same system that oppressors our brothers and sisters on the continent. And that we have always had greater success in self-determining our existence when we have connected the issues that we face, rather than divided them. 
If we are to be successful once more, which is inevitable, we must critique each other, yes, but in love, and organise to connect with each other, which is so much easier to do given the facility that is provide with modern technology.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

World Fellowship Centre and the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat

World Fellowship Centre and the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat

I flew into Boston international airport last week Monday night, and eventually would reach the World Fellowship Centre in Albany, New Hampshire in the early hours of Tuesday morning where the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat would be taking place for the week. I was asked to run a couple of workshops focusing around art and activism, and writing. I was really excited to deliver this workshop. I was well prepared for this, but not for what else would unfold.

I woke up Tuesday morning at the centre where we were staying. I had yet to meet anyone else apart from the two guys from the retreat who came to pick me up at the airport, and neither of them where anywhere to be seen. So I showered and dressed then went for a walk around. There are lots of activities going on at the WFC, and a lot of other families and groups are around taking part in different things. I still had yet to see anyone I knew, but what I immediately noticed was just how friendly everyone who I didn't know was. There, you could not pass someone without them, or yourself, saying “good morning/how are you?” And not the ‘give me the short answer I'm busy’ very London-esque type of greeting, but the genuine kind. The kind of greeting that felt as though if you were having a bad day, you could tell that person and they would listen and support you. I found this bizarre and although I firmly believe in this aspect of human interaction, acknowledging each other's existence, being so heavily entrenched in a London/metropolitan hustle and bustle culture leaves you with very little energy to practise it as it is so unenthusiastically reciprocated.
The morning greetings from the people I had yet to know instantly surprised and uplifted me. There would be more. I continued to walk around and take in the beautiful scenery.
It was breath taking. The sun shone in clear sky through the trees and lit the grass with a golden glow. The awe inspiring mountain in the backdrop, and the fresh fresh air, all around a spacious campsite, which, to complete it, had a basketball court to the side. It felt personally designed.

 I finally met with the Kimpa Vita Institute retreat organisers and participants and was introduced. For those who do not know, the KVI is an organisation that helps to educate, organisation and train young Congolese into becoming leaders within the community, empowering them with the knowledge and the skills to empower others. (If you would like more information please visit - http://institutkimpavita.org/)
There was an anticipation when I arrived, one that I also did not expect. I was introduced and asked to say a little bit about myself and answer some questions that everyone had been asked, the kind that evoked memories of home. It was quite personal, and had to bring up memories that I do not get the opportunity to think of regularly.

At the WFC everyone has dinner collectively at the main canteen. The food is organic and fresh. And it tastes good! People are encouraged to sit in a group different to the one that they are with so they can interact with others and engage. There are usually announcements held during dinner to inform people of activities around the centre should they wish to get involved. Andy, who is one of the day to day managers of the WFC, usually makes the announcements. Andy is a softly spoken man but his voice captures the room, bearded with a 1990s style cap, clear frame glasses, and a t-shirt that always some kind of meaning, he is never without his wit and humour. That night he gave a brief history of the WFC, which was outstanding. Essentially the WFC’s motto is “where social justice meets nature”. It was founded in 1941 by utopian socialists with the ethos ‘in times of war, prepare for peace’ and is an “independent, very not-for-profit” organisation. It has had to fight to stay open. Many times has it been attempted to be closed down by the U.S. Government. But it remains standing today because of the will of the people.
(If you’re interested and would like to know more, please check out worldfellowship.org)

Everyone I came across there was socio-politically aware and that way oriented, whether it was on issues regarding racism – which was the discussion on the first night I arrived but missed – immigration and refugees, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Congo and the mineral conflict war, and so forth. If the people did not know about the issue, they wanted to know and educate themselves, as well as show solidarity and support. It was incredible to see the kind of people that we could all be if only we showed compassion and humanity. One of the other talks that surprised me was “I’m a white and progressive; I don’t need to worry about racism” – which amazed me, and is a discussion that I’ve not witnessed anywhere else, that is to say, a majority group actively combatting their own privilege.
You really feel the humanity in such a space and it inspires you as to how our communities could be.

The KVI put on a presentation to the rest of the WFC explaining to people a bit about the history of Congo and different surround issued. I read the poem tell them (they have names) to close. It was so well received. I could feel a tenderness in the air. As I sat back down, I noticed across from me sat a woman who had her hands to her face as she wiped her tears. Seeing her cry made me cry and there we were, being human.

I delivered my workshop on art and activism the following day. It was incredible. Essentially, the focus of my workshop was on how art is humanising, and this is the reason why in conquest violence was not enough; they would also destroy or steel your art, your literature, burn down your libraries and cultural institutions. If imperialism, colonialism etc, was just about violent domination, this erasure would not be necessary. But thus is the power of art – by which I mean all expressions – it humanises.  I showed examples of how art has consistently been one of the strong forms of resistance, and spoke about how it is important, arguably now more than ever, to write our own stories. The discussions and conversation that came of it was very progressive.

There was a film screening that night which centred on raising awareness of the experience of refugees in the New Hampshire area. It showed the reality of their experiences; otherness, racism, internalised racism and self hatred. A really thought provoking debate was had afterward.

The following day we continued with the workshops but had the opportunity to also go on an excursion. We first went for a hike through the woods which eventually brought us to the beautiful lake. We then went canoeing on the lake. It was huge. This was also my first time canoeing. Some people decided to go on, others stayed on sure. After a battle with my ego, I dug up some courage and decide to do it. Bare in mind, I haven't swum since my teens and I have never actually canoed. I’m a city boy through and through. I got in tentatively, rocking at first but then slowly regaining stability and then eventually mastering – in the most amateur fashion – the row.  We made our way around the small island in the centre of the lake, and as I looked up the mountains played a beautiful illusion as if they were moving to the side. It literally looked liked it was moving, a few others could see it, but not all. We went around and made our way back safely to shore, I kept my hat on the whole time and did not capsize once! Another achievement all on its own. 

The excursion continued. We made our way to have lunch by the river where there was built a beautiful wooden 19th century archaic bridge and a beautiful stoned river beneath.
Then came the grand finale. We got in the van and drove approximately 15 minutes to the mountain peak where I would be delivering another workshop, this time on writing and story telling. As we arrived, I looked up and was immediately captivated in a time suspending awe. I felt a familiarity, a déjà vu, as if I had been here before. Not only been here but known here. I delivered the writing workshop and had to stop intermittently just to make sure that this was actually real. It was breath taking. One of the most beautiful things, was that not only were so many of the participants able to write their pieces and share, but one in particular wrote what turned out to be a full length poem that told an enthralling story. The memory of the writing workshop on the mountain will be one that I will always treasure.
I felt really connected with everyone in the group in a way that words do not suffice to say. It was as if there was some intrinsic experience that we all connected to that made us feel each other's humanity, something that was both in the past and present, as well as the future. It was the true definition of community = common unity, and it manifested in so many beautiful ways.

We returned back to the WFC for “Fun Night!” which was the centre talent show. There were many talented performers from young children, and teenagers, singing, dancing and playing instruments, to adults doing the same. I was starting to be known as the resident poem, and so I was requested to perform a couple of pieces, and to my joy I did. To honour a request, I performed refuge and please do not run, fly to the audience cheering “FLY!” Every time I directed them with a flying motion. It was beautiful. And just to top it off, everyone finished the night dancing “ya mado” a popular Congolese song and dance.

There were so many people who could relate to my poems and supported my book WORD and said that it was exactly what they needed, without knowing that they needed it. I had so many beautiful life enhancing conversations (Edy, Andy, and the stars, much love to you). I may be returning sooner than I know.

The following day included workshops, activities and programmes, each more engaging than the last. I had a really profound conversation with an African American elder and Congolese elder who had both been part of the movement in their own respective ways. I was told about the speeches of Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement and how King was very active and centred around economic empowerment, which we really don't get told about, as well as what life and Congo was like underneath Mobutu’s dictatorial regime and how it went from 1 Congolese France being worth 2 U.S. Dollars, to current state of economic depravity we are witnessing today. Also about the hope for the future and the incredible potential that the country has.

The retreat came to an end on Sunday morning, and after a ceremonial conclusion, we made our respective journeys back to our cities. The most beautiful thing about this trip is that everything came as a surprise. Each day unfolded something more beautiful, something that helped you to hold onto life a little bit more and make you more resolute on your purpose and passion. I was at peace and purpose here. It was something that I loved that brought me here, and though I was nervous of what could happen, given the relative recent history of the U.S. particularly in regards to police brutality etc, however the WFC provided such an enlightening progressive narrative, one that countered the divisive propaganda we experience in the media.

In essence, the WFC and KVI reminds us that when we are in touch with our humanity, and we live for it, we can create and maintain communities that live for and support each other's causes. I saw the true meaning of humanity and solidarity here, one that will inspire not only my return to the WFC/KVI once more, but also to seek, create and connect with other places in the world, or in our own communities where such an ethos and culture can thrive. And I would encourage anyone to do the same.This is the very definition of self determination. Empowerment comes from within, from what you build up among you and put out there.

Here are some more pictures for you to enjoy. 

(this is where the writing workshop took place)