Banner photo: Jaden Smith at AFROPUNK Paris 2015 via Mathieu Bitton
In July of 2016, the streets of Paris resonated with an affirmative cry born on the other side of the Atlantic. Thousands of protesters came together after the death of Adama Traoré, a young black French man who died in a Parisian suburb after being stopped by the police for an identity check. His family’s sadness intertwined with the despair and anger of protesters tired of going through the same macabre scenario too many times. Every month in France, these recurring scenarios look desperately familiar — and have for decades: An intervention from the police takes a tragic turn, a man dies, the police hides behind a legitimist version of the story relayed by the media and politicians. This tragedy could have happened in Ferguson, in London or in São Paulo, and the same slogans would have resonated in the streets of these other world metropolises.
“Black Lives Matter!” The rallying cry was born on the Internet, coined by three American activists. It was born during a time when — for the first time in our history, thanks to the power of social networks — it has become possible to chant the same slogan in unison, across borders. The previous century may have witnessed the emergence of another Pan-African movement to build a borderless black solidarity, but that dream rarely transcended intellectual circles and never came to fruition. In fact, the liberation of people of African descent is still being discussed using terms inherited from that movement. And though the passage of explicitly racist laws may have subsided, threats against the rights of minorities, and of black people in particular have not.
By Rokhaya Diallo*, AFROPUNK Contributor
In the United States, President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech ended with his infamous pledge to “Make America Great Again,” words that were also at the center of the Republican candidate’s presidential campaign. This idea that the United States once offered their inhabitants a now-lost glory is based on the omission of historical facts. Indeed, whom was America “great” for before? For the slaughtered Native Americans? For segregated Black people? For exploited Latinas? For Asians put in internment camps or banned from the country? There’s only one demographic for whom the past of the United States wasn’t one of oppression, the only group fighting for the America of the past. The symbol of an African-American family “arrogant” enough to dare to live in the White House, defying the stereotype of submissive Black people, exacerbated their panic around identity.
It’s a panic also gaining traction on our side of the Atlantic, one that takes the form of a new theory in France: the “Great Replacement.” According to some nationalist theorists, our country is going through a process by which populations of African descent (especially Muslims) who live in France are multiplying in order to replace the population “of origin” (read “white”). This supposition has been met with irrational acceptance in far right-wing circles, feeding into a growing public alarm.
These fears most notably manifest in the popularity of the Front National, which, with 25% of the votes at the last national EU election, made France the country with the most far-right-wing members of the European Parliament. And though the whole world rejoices over Front National leader Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the second round of the country’s presidential election, the results are actually one more step towards Le Pen’s normalization in our political life. The Front National’s tally was historic: 10.6 million French voters cast their ballot for a party founded on racist and supremacist ideas. This trend will most likely continue to impact policies created by the parties in power, who will, as they’ve done in the past, try to appease this nationalist electorate.
The rest of the continent is also going through its own deep worry due to the series of tragic terrorist attacks in recent years. In France, these attacks have resulted in the creation of a liberticidal and near-permanent state of emergency, which further exposes minorities to police brutality.
And yet, to counter these challenges hanging over black people’s physical and psychological safety in the world, new avenues of resistance have emerged. If African-American struggles reverberate in the streets of other big cities, it’s because the strength of hashtag activism popularized by Millennials has imposed its own voice, despite rules dictated by mainstream media.
Members of this generation seem far less afraid to affirm their complex individualities — even if it means shaking the traditional foundations of African-American activism. They define the parameters of their struggles, and use digital tools that encourage a collective approach, making providential charismatic hero-figures obsolete. Women and members of the LGBTQI community, erased from American civil rights history by a convenient amnesia, now unapologetically impose their leadership in black movements. Black feminists, a group whose actions in the 70’s French feminist movement were deemed forgotten, are now front and center with a new term that surfaced on social networks: Afro-Feminism. Through their struggles, they are redefining the priorities in the discussion and fight for women’s rights, emphasizing standards of beauty that defy dominant norms.
For example, the celebration of natural black hair, developed through a Trans-Mediterranean and Trans-Atlantic dynamic, has become a conduit for the proposition of alternative aesthetic models, taking on a diverse variety of forms. From music productions by American artist Solange Knowles, to the petition launched by South African students in a Pretoria high school against rules prohibiting them from wearing their natural hair, to the hundreds of bloggers and Youtubers who celebrate their black beauty and share advice via dozens of languages throughout the world, the demand to celebrate the black body without denaturing it has been unanimous. It’s a will also presented in the silhouettes that anonymously walk the streets of numerous European, African and American countries.
This international digital black movement allows young people around the world to be inspired by models that the Internet gives them access to — often from afar. Networks rearrange borders and give unprecedented echo to the aesthetic and political models of groups that are usually marginalized. Yes, we are witnessing a conservative reaction; but never in history has the circulation of cultural productions and the sharing of political strategies been so fluid.
Social networks have remapped a geography that can only be an ally for marginalized groups. Africa — the continent that former French President Nicolas Sarkozy described as inhabited by people who never “made it into History” — is front and center in all conversations regarding digital communications. Now, on the continent, there are many uses of smartphones that don’t even exist in Western countries.
In spite of the barriers that many Western powers try to erect, Afro-Descendants migrate and settle in every country of the world and their offspring are becoming legitimate citizens of these countries. Many of them are what some scientists are calling Third Culture Kids (TCK). They are raised in an environment different from that of their parents and are able to move between societies, thus creating a mix of cultures. These children of immigrants have remarkable assets at their disposal, giving them the opportunity to travel from one continent to another with adequate understanding of all local stakes. Afro-Descendent TCKs have enormous potential that can be an invaluable source of creativity. Festivals like AFROPUNK showcase musicians who unapologetically use elements from their diverse backgrounds, and every year shatter the boxes in which Diaspora culture is lazily placed in. This Afro-Dynamic cultural production is an essential contribution to the multi-secular struggle aiming to liberate black people.
In the marketplace, this shining culture has become increasingly sought-after, and there have been many attempts to capture it, diverse forms of appropriation by white creators unduly profiting from the work of Afro-Descendants. It’s a common practice in the fashion world, for example, where Fashion Weeks around the world keep excluding black designers, but allow the largely white chosen few to showcase collections that are thinly veiled, uncredited theft. Yet the Internet has also allowed black fashion designers who are ignored in the mainstream to gain visibility, getting rid of middlemen gatekeepers. Today, we are witnessing a creative profusion from artists who proudly position themselves at the crossroads of their cultural heritages.
What’s now at stake for Afro-Descendants is the re-appropriation of their own cultures — demanding the credit, recognition and benefit that they are due. To counter the different types of violence that affect them, it is necessary for black people of the world to think about the urgency to fight for their safety on a global level, but also to think about this struggle in an intersectional way, alongside issues surrounding the exclusion of immigrants, refugees, differently abled people, women or people in the LGBTQI community.
Justice for all is the demanded utopia of a generation for whom inclusion is non-negotiable. Never in the history of humanity has anyone had such a large choice of tools and means to re-formulate the debate on their own terms. It is now time for them — for us — to tell the story. With our own words. From our point of view. And to change history’s course if necessary.