By Farooq A. Kperogi
This week’s ruminations were inspired by two events that occurred in May. The first was an Internet debate I had with a Canada-based Nigerian compatriot over whether or not Obama’s then impending visit to Egypt qualified as his first “African” visit. The second was the suspension of a white Mozambican man from an American university for identifying himself as a “white African American.”
These two apparently unrelated events actually strike at the core of the enduring debate about what it means to be African. Are Arabs and Berbers in North Africa “real” Africans? Can white settlers in Africa ever be “real” Africans? In other words, is blackness, however understood, infrangibly constitutive of Africanness?
My debater from Canada argued that Obama’s visit to Ghana, not Egypt, would be his first visit to Africa or, as he called it, “real” Africa. “I was referring to Obama's first visit to a (sub-Saharan) African country--to see his own people, the real Africans,” he wrote. “By my strict Afrocentric definition, this would not include countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc which, though located on the African continent, are inhabited by peoples of Arab descent.”
Not surprisingly, this view appears to enjoy wide currency among many black Africans. However, the supreme irony of this conception of what constitutes "real Africa" is that the term "Africa" actually originally exclusively referred to the same people and countries that this narrow, simplistic, and exclusionary conception seeks to exclude from it.
The name Africa is a holdover from present-day North Africa's association with the ancient Roman Empire of which it was a province. "Afri" is the ancient Latin word for the amalgam of Berber peoples that inhabited (and still inhabit) what we today call North Africa, and "ca" is the Roman suffix for "land" or "country." So "Africa" is basically Latin for "land of the Afri." In other words, it means land of the Berbers. It was never used to refer to the people of "sub-Saharan Africa" until relatively recently.
After its Arab conquest in medieval times, the entire area comprising western Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and eastern Algeria was also called "Ifriqiya," which is the Arabic rendering of “Africa.” Ifriqiya’s capital was Qayrawan (Kairouan) in what is today central Tunisia. (Under Roman rule, Carthage, also in present-day Tunisia, was the capital of the Africa Province of the Roman Empire).
So, the countries that my debating partner excluded from his notion of what constitutes “real” Africa were actually known and referred to as “Africa” for more than a thousand years before European colonizers decided to arbitrarily extend the name to our part of the world.
I reminded my cyber conversational partner, too, that there were no Arabs in North Africa until about the 8th century. The indigenous groups there, as I said earlier, are broadly called Berbers. Ancient Greeks called them Libyans, Medieval Europeans called them Moors, and they call themselves some version of the word Imazighen.
According to historical records, there were three popes of Berber filiation who came from the Roman province of Africa, among them Pope Victor I who served during the reign of Roman emperor Septimus Severus (himself of Berber ancestry). (Zinedine Zidane, the France-based international football star, is probably the most famous Berber alive today).
It was the Islamization of the people through the invasion of the Banu Hilal in the 11th century that Arabized them. But there are still many Berber cultural revival efforts (collectively called Berberism) fighting to either reclaim (such as in Tunisia and Algeria) or preserve (such as in Morocco and Libya) what the people consider the lost or dying glories of their pre-Islamic past.
And, in any event, Arabs have lived in the continent of Africa in large numbers since about the 8th century and have been referred to as “Africans” hundreds of years before us. We even have Nigerian Arabs, called Shuwa Arabs in Borno State, who have lived in that part of the country since at least the 12th century, that is, hundreds of years before there was a country called Nigeria. I asked my debating partner if he would consider Shuwa Arabs “fake” Nigerians since by his so-called Afrocentric definition of Africans Arabs are not “real” Africans.
Now, "skin color" can’t even be a criterion, much less the sole criterion, for "admitting" people into the “real” Africa, because the "purebred" Berbers of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, etc (the original or, if you will, the “real” Africans) are actually, on average, "white" if we can, for now, arbitrarily deploy blue eyes and blond hair and pale skin as markers of "whiteness."
Several studies have, in fact, shown that there are more blue-eyed and blond-haired people among the Berbers of North Africa than there are among southern Europeans (that is, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, etc). The Berbers, additionally, have more genetic proximity with Europeans than they have with black Africans.
Malcolm X had a poignant, life-changing experiential encounter with the complexity of what it means to be African when he visited Ghana in 1964. In his impassioned Black Nationalist speeches in America, Malcolm had always made glowing and approbatory references to “Algerian revolutionists” (whom he, of course, regarded as Africans) who fought the French to a standstill.
“In Algeria, the northern part of Africa, a revolution took place,” he said in his famous October 10, 1963 speech called Message to the Grassroots. “The Algerians were revolutionists; they wanted land. France offered to let them be integrated into France. They told France: to hell with France. They wanted some land, not some France. And they engaged in a bloody battle.”
So when he went to Ghana (his first visit to Africa), a year after this memorable speech, he sought and got audience with the Algerian ambassador to Ghana. The ambassador turned out to be what Malcolm recognized as a white man—he had blue eyes, blond hair and pale skin. But he was a Berber, a “white” African. And he was just as zealous about pan-African unity as Malcolm was.
But in the course of their conversation the Algerian pointedly asked how a person with his kind of racial and geographic origins fitted into Malcolm’s exclusivist and racialist constructions of Black Nationalism. The formulations of Black Nationalism—and Africanness—that Malcolm had cherished crumbled.
How could someone who looked exactly like the people he called “white devils” in America be an African—and a “black nationalist” at that? This was particularly epiphanous for Malcolm because, not long before this encounter, he had repulsed a conscientious white American girl who’d told him she wanted to join his Black Nationalist movement to fight white racism. He later confessed that his brusque rebuff of the white girl’s sincere offer to join his movement for racial justice in America was one of the greatest regrets of his life.
So, if “whiteness” (or “non-blackness”) is, in fact, original to the conception of “Africanness” why is the idea of a “white African American” such an anomaly? Why would someone be suspended from a school simply because he identified himself as a “white African American”? Well, the converse can also be asked: if whiteness is original to the conception of Africanness, why is it now always necessary to modify “African” with “white” if a non-black African is being identified?
Well, first, what’s the story of the “white African American”? According to ABC News, one of America’s major news networks, a white Mozambican identified as Paulo Serodio said he was harassed and assaulted by his African American classmates at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in the state of New Jersey after he defined himself as a “white African American.” The racial tension that his newfangled self-description touched off subsequently led to his suspension.
Serodio, a 45-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, told ABC News that he is a third-generation African of Portuguese descent and therefore legitimately considers himself a “white African American.”
The truth is that the notion of a white African American strikes the mind as counter-intuitive precisely because over the last couple of decades, the term “Africa” has undergone tremendous notional transformations. In the popular imagination, Africa now evokes the image of “blackness.” The people to whom the name originally referred (whom we would call white by today’s racial typologies) have now been effectively marginalized from its contemporary ideational universe.
There is perhaps no greater proof of this reality than the fact that present-day North Africans themselves concede ownership of the name Africa to black people. In early May this year, for instance, I sat close to a Tunisian lady during a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. In the course of our chit chat, she told me she was “going to Africa” for the first time. I was balled over. When I reminded her that her country, Tunisia, in fact, used to be the symbolic and administrative nucleus of “Africa” for several centuries, she agreed but insisted that black people have now rhetorically appropriated Africa. Perhaps she is right.
But the point of this musing is not to make a case for some romantic geographic African unity or to minimize the well-documented cases of anti-black racism among Arabs about which my friend, Moses Ochonu, has written persuasively, but to call attention to the arbitrariness—-and power—-of naming. As Ali Mazrui once reminded us, even our name was named for us by Europe. “Europe chose its own name, ‘Europe,’ and then chose names for the Americas, Australia, Antarctica, and even Asia and Africa,” he wrote in the book Collected Essays of Ali A. Mazrui. “The name ‘Africa,’ originating in North Africa as the name for a sub-region, was applied to Africa as a whole by European map-makers and cartographers.”
So next time you start arguing about who is a real African and who is not, be sure not to overlook the etymology and history of the term “Africa.” Perhaps it will minify your emotional investment in “Africanness.”