What Lands On Us

An excerpt from Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson's new book, As Black as Resistance, examines diasporic relationships to land.

After Ellsworth Kelly, Concorde I (state), 1981-82

William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi, As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation. AK Press, 2018. 180 pages.
Through enslavement in the Americas and histories of indigeneity and migration on the African continent, Black identity is in many ways inextricably linked to land. Most African people can be understood as being indigenous to Africa to the extent that their origins are exclusively from the African continent. “Indigenous,” however, is usually applied to members of groups and communities comprising nations within (and predating) larger nation-states, and lands of indigenous nations do not correspond to lands enclosed by international borders. Indigenous communities in Africa include the Twa people scattered across the African Great Lakes, Zambia, and western Uganda; the Maasai and Samburu peoples of Kenya and Tanzania; the Nuba people of Sudan; the Khoikhoi (or Khoi) and the San of southern and southeastern Africa; and the Dogon of Mali and Burkina Faso, and many others. As these different peoples experience marginalization from the state, many have sought to establish their sovereignty and protect their individual and collective rights through state mechanisms, transnational bodies (e.g., the African Union’s African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee), and international means (e.g., the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples).

1. See Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997) for a useful description of African socioeconomic transitions and integration into global capitalist systems. The word “communalism” is not used with any intent to idealize or homogenize the array of different precolonial social and political organizations on the continent. While these horizontal structures were common, hierarchies and inequities were also frequent within them (often along the lines of gender and sexual identities).
Prior to the disruption and erosion of African societal structures through colonial incorporation into global capitalism, many of the continent’s societies revolved around land-based and pastoral communalism—they were collectively oriented and based on the idea of community ownership.[sup]1[/sup] Through the forced extraction of Africans during the transatlantic slave trade, blackness has come to symbolize a kind of rootlessness. This mass kidnapping and genocidal trafficking forced the reconstruction of enslaved peoples’ ethnic and cultural identities outside of the lands from which they were stolen. To ensure a cohesive, unified anticolonial struggle and liberation, ethnic identities were de-prioritized in favor of newly rendered national identities. The establishment of a British settler colony in what is now Zimbabwe, for example, saw the consolidation of and drawing of colonial boundaries around Mashonaland and Matabeleland, which were declared British protectorates in 1891.

One function of these borders unforeseen by colonizers was unifying national identity around which indigenous peoples within those boundaries could unite. In the words of nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo, following the delineation of boundaries previously disputed and defined “only by [indigenous] custom,” there was “no reason why all of us should not unite and develop an unquestioned national identity.” In 1977, soon-to-be Zimbabwean prime minister (and later president) Robert Mugabe articulated a similar sentiment, though from a different ethnic position than Nkomo, a Ndebele, naturalizing an essential Shona quality within an apparently historically existent Shona nation. Zimbabwean national identity, however, has never been unquestioned or uncontested, and class, gender, urban-rural divisions and competition, and ethnopolitics continue to fragment notions of “national unity” and shape the contours of national politics. Though formation differed depending on the state and the colonial processes within it and the constructed myth of national identity, a “pre-existing unified ideological or political subject that could quickly be mobilized against colonial rule” prevailed in Zimbabwe and in other African states.

Much of the identity production of Black people in the United States, both from descendants of enslaved Africans (African Americans) and otherwise, has stemmed from a sense of yearning: an attempt to reconcile a diasporic self with roots and a sense of African groundedness, a sense of home space. Certain strains of Black nationalist thought and politics historically (and even presently) have called for Black people in America to go “back to Africa.” This nationalism, driven by logics of land-based reparations for expropriated labor in the United States and abduction from the continent, voids the sovereignty of African states. Black nationalism in the United States can sometimes entail these quasi-settler claims to land, whether through Black Zionist traditions or land-based reparations claims entailing the establishment of a Black nation within former Confederate states. Black Zionism evoked the Exodus story of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt and into the Promised Land, a clear analogy to the Black diaspora’s potential liberation from the subjugation of American white supremacy.

2. “Nakba” refers to the mass exodus and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 following the creation of the state of Israel that same year. In his book Palestine . . . It Is Something Colonial, Hatem Bazian describes the expulsion as “‘an original Zionist sin’ that planned and saw to . . . the expulsion and dispossession of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants and forced them into refugee camps and permanent Diaspora.” In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Oneworld Publications, 2006), Ilan Pappé describes the Nakba as a part of “the inevitable product of the Zionist ideological impulse to have an exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine”: It was an implementation of “the ideological vision of an ethnically cleansed Palestine” that left more than half of the country’s native population (nearly 800,000 people) displaced. Needless to say, the fact that the word “nakba” means “disaster” or “catastrophe” is tragically apt.
Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” politics, for example, emulated the Zionist concept of aliyah, the return immigration of Jewish refugees in the diaspora to Israel. While a tenet of Zionism, it was not established as large-scale until the late 19th century and then, on an even greater scale, after Israel’s creation in 1948. By contrast, Palestinian refugees displaced by the Nakba (1948) or Six-Day War (1967) are not afforded the right of return granted to them under international law.2 Founded in 1968, the secessionist Republic of New Afrika was an organization and social movement founded on the basis of three major goals. Leaders sought the creation of an independent Black nation in the southeastern states (the former Confederate States of America), a nation that would include Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana; $7 billion in financial reparations to Black American descendants of enslaved people; and a nationwide referendum for all African Americans to vote on whether or not they wished to remain U.S. citizens. More controversial than Black secessionism itself is the question of the fate of the Native American communities in those states. Where would their struggle for liberation and autonomous nationhood fit within the Republic of New Afrika framework? Would their sovereignty be erased and subsumed?

“Settler colonialism” refers to the process through which an external force colonizes a space through the establishment of permanent settlements “with the aim of permanently securing their hold on specific locales” through a claim of “special sovereign charge” or dominion over a space. The kind of colonialism that marked the majority of the world was one that necessitated the existence of indigenous communities for a labor force, among other things. By contrast, settler colonialism is a far more invasive mode of colonialism that is marked by the “dispensability” of indigenous communities. It is a “project whose dominant feature is not exploitation but replacement,” driven by a ruling logic of a “sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population.” Settler “invasion is a structure not an event,” Patrick Wolfe critically notes. Examples of settler colonies include the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Israel. The creation of each of these states was predicated upon the displacement and removal of longstanding native communities that existed within the borders of the nation-states. Because Africans were forcibly removed from the continent and trafficked to the United States and did not largely participate in the European process of domination (with, of course, notable exception made for the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, African-American army regiments that participated in the Indian Wars), Black people cannot be considered as settlers in the United States. Though we may participate in ongoing settler processes and ultimately benefit from the elimination of Indigenous people and the expropriation of their land, we are not settlers.

3. On December 10, 1942, a report called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland published by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs–in–exile was presented to United Nations member states. The 16-page report provided details “concerning the mass extermination of Jews in the Polish territories occupied by Germany.”
4. “Self-determining” in the context of white nationalism is placed in scare quotes because the need for white liberation and self-determination within global white supremacy is spurious.
But championing the creation of a Black majoritarian nation-state, where the fate of Indigenous people is ambiguous at best, is an idea rooted in settler logic. Is settler adjacency what a truly intersectional framework and multifaceted approach to Black liberation entails? If we use the creation of the state of Israel as an example, the ultimate reparation for historical violence is the opportunity to become a colonizer and gain proximity to (or entrance into) whiteness. Although popularly positioned as a kind of reparation for the mass murder of millions of Jewish people in the German Holocaust, the creation of Israel was as an act of European anti-Semitism in the eyes of some, including Israeli scholar Ilan Pappé. The establishment of a Jewish homeland meant that antagonistic Western governments—states such as the United States and Allied powers that were aware of the genocidal violence of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution3 but stood idly by and even sought to appease the Nazi government—would not have to receive as many Jewish refugees. Mirroring this in the United States, white supremacists have historically supported the separatist politics of the Nation of Islam. They have seen Black separatism as analogous to the white-nationalist “self-determining politic” of the white-majoritarian United States.4

Of course, these logics of racial self-determination do not operate the same in reverse. Their endorsement of Black separatism is not support for Black liberation but rather an understanding that the self-segregation of the Black community means less labor will be needed to remove racial impurity (nonwhiteness) in the actualization of their fully white ethno-state. Richard Spencer recently articulated his identity as a self-proclaimed “white Zionist,” stating: “I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.” This represents the shared logics of colonization (see, for example, the way that the white Ashkenazi Jewish minority comprise Israel’s power structure) and an ideological alignment between Zionism and U.S. white nationalism. Israeli state politics revolve, ultimately, around the removal and subjugation of the Palestinian people, beginning with the Nakba. The continuation of settler-colonial development in Israel has translated into land expropriation, housing demolition, construction of settlements (contravening international law), ghettoization, and disproportionate state violence against Palestinians. In Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, Robin D. G. Kelley describes the ways in which this liberatory thought is not only “a narrative of slavery, emancipation, and renewal, but . . . a language to critique America’s racist state since the biblical Israel represented a new beginning.” Unfortunately, though, much of Black Zionist thought recreates the logic of settler-colonial entitlements rather than building an incisive and critical foundation upon which to critique settler colonialism and build/repair Afro-diasporic relationships outside of that model. If land-based reparations were to be actualized for Black people in the United States, models for land-based liberation that are not both mindful and critical of settler colonialism would perpetuate the expropriation of land from Indigenous communities still fighting to assert their sovereignties. Black American land politics cannot simply be built on top of centuries-old exterminatory settler logic of Indigenous removal and genocide. Rather, the actualization of truly liberated land can only come about through dialogue and coconspiratorial work with Native communities and a shared understanding of land use outside of capitalistic models of ownership.