The desire for US citizenship was never the sole consideration of African and African-descended people.
“Many of the sociopolitical problems African-descended peoples experience in the U.S. could be solved through political independence and territorial sovereignty.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Edward Onaci. Onaci is Associate Professor of History at Ursinus College. His book is Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Edward Onaci: At the current moment, some of the topics in the national discourse include reparations for African Americans (and Africans throughout the world), new statistics ranking police shooting as a leading cause of death in Black communities, new energy behind prison abolition and ending cash bail, the aging and passing of imprisoned political dissidents (i.e. political prisoners), and how people of African descent should relate to the two major political parties. These topics have a history and have been heavily debated within Black communities. This book on the New Afrikan Independence Movement (NAIM) highlights the ideas from one segment of this on-going discourse, one that we have yet to provide sustained attention.
Proponents of the NAIM have argued that the issues listed above are the result of Black people being a “captive” nation that never has and will not ever achieve the full rights and privileges conferred to U.S. citizens. At the same time, they claim, the U.S. is an oppressive entity founded on settler colonialism, the international and domestic traffic in Africans, and generations of slavery. And it now constitutes an imperial force that harms oppressed peoples throughout the world. Therefore, even as African people in the U.S. discuss and debate the major issues of the day, it is important that they consider self-determination, or the fully informed decision to act without interference, in deciding their political destiny. New Afrikans argue that many of the sociopolitical problems African-descended peoples experience in the U.S. could be solved through political independence and territorial sovereignty. And in exercising self-determination, their people could help destroy global oppression instead of being (un)willing participants in it.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
This book asks activists to learn how people from the previous generations thought about and worked to address the leading issues of the day. Importantly, the nature of the NAIM challenges current-day activists to consider options that may move Black people away from the political and legal jurisdiction of the U.S. nation-state, instead opting for self-government and UN recognition. In addition, this book focuses on the lived experiences of activism. The author hopes that this theme will teach younger activists the importance of intentionally changing their entire lives to fit with the goals of Black liberation struggle, even as they constantly shape and reshape activism and social movement organizations so that they adapt to new realities, learn from mistakes, and attempt to develop fuller visions for the future. For example, how can political activists better integrate environmental justice into their political goals and daily lives?
“NAIM challenges Black people to opt for self-government and UN recognition.”
Because this book studies some of the history and conditions in which activists became political prisoners, developed ideas about reparations, and survived (and fell victim to) state repression, the information and analysis therein may help current-day activists better understand the nature of political struggle. The concept of “protracted struggle” becomes clearer when readers consider the decades of endurance that New Afrikan independence advocates have displayed since the 1960s. During a moment of technologies that provide instant gratification and when interpersonal communications seem to shift away from face to face engagement in favor of social media and other digital platforms, this book should add to discussions about the best strategies for organizing political bases and developing solidarity with allies.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
My primary hope is that readers will “un-learn” the idea that the only political concern of Africans in the U.S. has been to become fully accepted members of a country in which the foundational condition of their presence is captivity and multiple and ongoing violations of their bodily integrity, spiritual and emotional safety, and economic and political wellbeing. Although struggles for the full rights of U.S. citizenship have been a major historic struggle and a privileged idea, the desire for U.S. citizenship was never the sole consideration of African and African-descended people. There have always been Black political and intellectual leaders and everyday Black folk who have demanded, fought for, and attempted to carry out any and every viable act of self-determination. The continued existence of the NAIM helps readers better understand why that is and how people in recent memory have attempted to reframe the goals of Black political struggle in the U.S. and throughout the world. When the ultimate goal is to destroy oppression wherever it exists, as opposed to being in a more privileged position within a predatory polity, then the discourse and actions take on new meaning.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The vastness of my pool of inspiration makes it impractical for me to name specific people. I take inspiration from anyone who has used their ability to produce knowledge for the benefit of historically oppressed peoples. If I had the space to list out all of these people, they would include a number of organic intellectuals, men and women who studied life, politics, art, economics, agriculture, environment, etc. and developed ideas that could help them and their people use the available tools to create better conditions in which to struggle for more power over their own lives.
My list would also include a number of well-known political thinkers and leaders. We can find many of their speeches and essays on YouTube, in books, on blogs throughout the worldwide web. Being a millennial, I was introduced to many of these people through hip-hop culture. DJs, emcees, singers, poets, and beatmakers who were inspired by many of the Black world’s international heroes introduced me to these people and their ideas. Therefore, I am indebted to and continue to gain inspiration from people within hip-hop culture who stay true to the pursuit of knowledge of self, of others, and of our history.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I mention above that captivity, including being trafficked internationally, helped create the daily reality of African and African-descended people not having any control over their bodies and labor, and having to live under laws that explicitly proscribed their human and civil rights to the point that, even with the advent of multiple constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, and the election of an African-descended president, they continue to experience harms that are unique to their history. With captivity being the foundational condition of U.S. Black history, it is important to understand how and why Black people continue to have a deficit of political power. The NAIM asks readers to take seriously the idea that the condition of captivity and its modern-day legacies are not natural and are subject to change. Therefore, the new world that we may imagine does not rely on oppression and control over some by others. We may, and should, imagine a world where there are no dominant and dominated populations, no winners and losers. This book may help readers imagine a world in which historically oppressed peoples are able to exercise power on their own behalf without the influence of forces that will drive them to replicate ongoing, or invent new, forms of oppression. Finally, although my book does not state it explicitly, the world that we may imagine does not destroy the environment to the point that humans drive the next great extinction, unintentionally or as a byproduct of pursuing financial gain.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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