Who Are Africans?

Published on 29th June 2010

If we are unclear about identity, we will be unclear about everything else. - Kimani Nehusi

In our contemporary times, we have to accept that identities and terminologies change as circumstances change. The definition of an African is very simple; however, the social and cultural implications of that definition are complex. In Africa's ancient history, the term 'African' would have had no meaning, people defined themselves as members of kingdoms and nationalities. With greater interaction with non-Africans, Arabs and later Europeans, the sense of an African identify started to take root. 

"We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us" - Chester Higgins Jr. 

The appreciation or relevance of Africaness is located in the face of a multi-racial world. The primary function of defining African identity is first and foremost an exercise in political self-interest and African agency. The power of definition must remain with the majority and today “African” is a term used to super-umbrella all the indigenous ethnicities of the African continent and their modern-day descendents in the Diaspora. Hence, being African cannot be defined by Europeans or Arabs, in the same way Africans play no part in the definition of "Who is a Jew" or "who is a Caucasian." Whiteness is defined via a process of exclusion rather than inclusion. While Blackness is an all-inclusive term, a kind of non-white box, which as Fanon said, came into being at the colonial moment. The very modern formulation of African identity was paramount in Europe's interest for targeting African people to serve as slaves and colonial subjects. However, the irony does not end there, because as soon as this very identity starts servicing a stronger global African block, then it is challenged by the same people who for centuries profited from it.

"All non-African females are descendants of L3 line from Africa, and males have Y chromosome M-168"

The common retort to African identity is nested in the genetic revelation that we are all "out of Africa." However, modern race did not exist when we "all left Africa." Moreover, no ethnic European walked out of Africa and into Europe, it was pigmented people who were transformed and genetically altered to give rise to modern races. This process was over millennium in accordance with the environmental conditions in the specific geographies: White skin in Europe, stocky bodies in the mountains of Nepal. Out of Africa has nothing to do with race, it has to do with genetic science; race is a social reality in human behavior. 

Even if we look deeper into genetics; where did Europeans become European? In Africa or in Europe? Where did Chinese become Chinese? In Africa or in China? Living for 20,000 of years in Europe created the modern European with unique gene mutation, which occurred only in Europe, as a branch from the gene pool of the Central Asia stock. These mutations were in direct response to the climate and events of Europe not Africa. Because if we use this argument then we could also say that, we are all single cell organisms because that is our common origin. The African is the result of a parallel response to the climatic conditions of Africa. While Africans were continuing to respond to the African environment, the modern day European was doing the same, but in Europe.

"White" depends for its stability on its negation, "black." Neither exists without the other, and both come into being at the moment of imperial conquest. - Franz Fanon 

The debate of Africaness must shift; expand, refine itself, but all the while keeping itself anchored in a fundamental link to the historical Africaness. The 21st century definition of African identity is expanding to include new values, which embed the best African characteristics therefore servicing stronger Pan-African identities. Enriching the paradigm and sourcing from the diverse and complex forms of the global African cultural personality. None of this includes changing water into wine or White people into African people. Exceptions must not be used to defer the formations of solid definitions nested in self-interest.

No definition can ever be 100% accurate in every instance in our complex societies. There is an increasing trend to use terms like the complexity of African identity as a way of thwarting the discussion from producing any conclusions. This trend stands as an opposition to the concept of African Union. Just because something is complex, difficult does not arrest the attempt at a resolution, nor should it interrupt the broader agendas of a single African identity which umbrellas the complexities surrounding the global African identities.

To be continued

By Owen 'Alik Shahadah
Scholar, Film maker and Pan - Africanist


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