As readers are undoubtedly aware, the United States is in crisis – an overt, undeniable crisis that grows directly out of long-term crises that many Americans were and are all too willing to overlook or deny. The United States was built on slavery and oppression, and this country, my country, is riven with grotesque inequalities that are both long-standing and freshly visible amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have catalyzed a new wave of protests. But the core demands – for the state to stop killing and abusing citizens, above all black citizens, and for the country to dismantle systems of racism, exclusion, and inequality – are not new. I support the protesters unequivocally and I condemn state violence against both protesters and against African Americans generally.
My plan, vis-a-vis blogging here, is to continue to cover events in the Sahel as I normally would. In the Sahel, crises are continuing and unfolding as well – a human rights crisis amid widespread abuses by security forces, a security crisis amid substantial violence by jihadists and militias, a public health and economic crisis accelerated by COVID-19, a food security crisis, and on and on. All of those topics merit attention and analysis now as always.
Within the wider world of African Studies, there are some commentators who do the noble and vital work of calling out and lampooning the most egregious instances of racist narratives about Africa. There is no shortage of such narratives. Yet focusing on the worst caricatures of Africa has rarely been my approach here. I view this blog as being anti-racist in a more subtle way, namely that in my view it is an inherently anti-racist act to write about other societies in a straightforward, non-sensationalized (anti-sensationalist?) way, to try to take them on their own terms, to draw heavily on local journalism to try to understand events and actors. My core approach would be the same whether this was a blog about the Sahel, or about Southeast Asia, or about Norway, or about Ohio; the Sahel just happens to be the part of the world I’m most interested in. I’m not saying that this blog is an activist project or some beacon of anti-racism; it’s just a place for analysis and I don’t think there’s anything noble or ignoble about that. But there are a lot of commentators out there in American and European media, still, who do not meet the minimum bar of talking about Africans as human beings. I want to do what I can to depict the Sahel as three-dimensional, and to the extent possible model the kind of analysis I think is most humanizing.
The crisis in the United States has also generated a conversation, more honest than I have ever seen before but still deeply flawed, about hypocrisy, injustice, and racism in American foreign policy. Here is the optimistic version of that conversation, from Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations:
Representatives of the United States can acknowledge that our society is not free from oppression without suggesting that oppression is acceptable anywhere. They can acknowledge all of the truths of our own experience, even the ugly ones, without abandoning our principles or embracing a purely transactional diplomacy grounded in the most narrow idea of self-interest. They can exercise American leadership not grounded in a façade of perfection, but in a steadfast belief that our society is a partner to others around the world in the pursuit of justice and dignity for all people. Waging that struggle with humility and clarity and honesty will make for not just a stronger America, but stronger, more resilient, and more stable American partners.
I would go much further. The United States government has on many occasions been the author of injustice and violence in many foreign countries, and my government has far too often supported and tolerated abusive regimes and rulers elsewhere, including in Africa. The many tragedies created and abetted by U.S. foreign policy have been just as systemic as the tragedies created and abetted inside our own country. I have met well-meaning public servants from numerous sectors of the U.S. government, but all of their dedication to making the world a better place does not cancel out the fact that the system within which they operate remains unjust, weighted as it is toward violence and domination.
This moment demands introspection and action from everyone, no matter where they sit. For my own part, every institution that I have ever been a part of has its own ongoing reckoning to make with its institutional participation in oppression and racism, from Northwestern to the State Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to Georgetown to the University of Cincinnati. Just last year, my university decided to remove the name of a slaveowner from a building and a college – the college in which I teach. Decisions like that are hopefully a step toward more comprehensive reckonings, not just with the past but with the present.
I’m not even sure how to tie this post together, much less how to address the problems in my own society. My overall point is that if I maintain a certain normalcy here at the blog, that doesn’t mean that I’m working with blinders on. I feel guilty, in fact, over how paltry my efforts are in other spheres, including in my own small town in Ohio – although as one of my dearest teachers said to me the other day, focusing on that guilt doesn’t really help much, and I would add that it can be self-indulgent to dwell on one’s own feelings of guilt. The coming weeks, then, will – in sha Allah – bring more posts here but also, mostly in other venues, more outspokenness on my part. As various academics have pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the justification of “I’ll wait to speak my mind until I get tenure” is flimsier than ever now. So I and others, even if we’re relatively low on various career ladders, have to ante up more.