The November 14th bombings in Paris – leaving more than 150 people dead – generated a tsunami of reaction from people and governments throughout the world.
Much of this setiment ranges from outrage against fundamentalist Islamic group “Isis,” government air strikes against Syria (considered an Isis stronghold), and displays of sympathy and solidarity from citizens the world over.
It is this last dynamic, the display of sympathy and solidarity – in particular that from American Blacks – upon which this essay will focus.
For the record, I am and have been an unashamed advocate and organizer for Black people my entire adult life. My preoccupation and vocation is and continues to be the total empowerment and liberation of Black folk in America and across the Diaspora.
This does not preclude me however from being compassionate and humane toward non-African people. As a general rule, I do not celebrate or trivialize those victimized by bombings, shootings or other acts of violence, political or otherwise.
Therefore when I learned of the recent politically-motivated acts of violence in Paris I like many was disturbed and alarmed. Many of those victims had no involvement in the political affairs which arouse the resentment of Isis.
And yet, as a political Black man concerned with world events, I also agree with brother Malcolm’s indictment of “Chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm issued this controversial statement in response to a question concerning the assassination of president John Kennedy. His statement earned him the continued scorn of white America and led Elijah Muhammad to suspend him as National spokesperson and minister in the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm’s statement -while venemous and indifferent to some – was actually spot on. He simply reminded us that a nation bent on violence and destruction will inevitably confront these twin tragedies itself. The Bible words it this way: “What a man soweth, so also shall he reap.” Our contemporary culture adds, “What comes around, goes around.”
We Black folk living in the belly of the (imperialist American) beast, are always faced with the tensions of expressing what we authentically feel, saying what we believe the empire expects us to say out of patriotism or fear of reprisal, and knowing the difference. We want to seem like dutiful Americans in moments like this. We want others to validate our humanity. In short, we want to be perceived and accepted as “good Americans” (a term that honesty seems contradictory sometimes).
To achieve this, we support the empire and its interests/values even when doing so contradicts with our own.
All over Facebook, Black folk are using a special filter that colors their profile picture with colors of the French flag, in a symbolic display of sympathy and solidarity for their recent tragedy.
I am no gatekeeper or dictator of people’s emotions or displays of sentiment. As far as I’m concerned, Black folk have the right to their feelings, including those with which I disagree. At the same time, I have the right and responsibility to offer my critical perspective to broaden and (in some cases) refine our sentiments.
With this in mind, I offer the following: We can show symathy for innocent victims of bombings in Paris without showing sympathy for France the nation/empire. In fact, I strongly encourage Black folk to adopt this position.
Lest we forget:
- France was one of the European powers that divided Africa at the Berlin Conference of the 19th century. In fact it was the second largest colonial empire in the world at one time. It used military might and deception to colonize Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Sierra-Leone, to name a few.
- Beginning in the late 17th century, France also colonized a portion of the island Hispaniola, (which in imperialist fashion, it renamed “Saint Dominique.”) The almost 800,000 Africans that France brought to the country accounted for nearly one-third of the entire TransAtlantic slave trade. At one point, much of the world’s sugar and most of its coffee came from the exploited labor of Africans in Haiti.
France like the rest of those nations involved in colonizing, enslaving and brutalizing Black bodies and minds, is and will remain accountable for these prolonged crimes against humanity that remain unresolved. I therefore sympathize with the innocent victims of violence in Paris, but vehemently refuse to recognize or parade the French flag in show of solidarity.
I take this position with full knowledge of the important role France played as a refuge for Black writers, intellectuals and entertainers during the 20th century. This relatively short display of humanity in the nation’s history doesn’t begin to compensate for or negate its far longer and more lasting imperialist and racist legacy. One might argue that providing a safe place to earn a living for a handful of Black musicians and intellectuals, was literally the least France could do for Black people. And for those who view France as a citadel of progressive thought or practice concerning Black folk, think again.
Besides, who cries for or makes restitution for the millions of Black folk whose blood and labor made French, European and U.S. wealth possible? For the Black folk assaulted or killed by racist police every 28 hours in the United States? Or the millions of indigent, unemployed, incarcerated, Black folk in the U.S. living without adequate medical care who suffer slow agonizing deaths every day?
Given the unparalleled tragedies visited upon my people for centuries, which continue to this day, perhaps people all over the world should make their Facebook profile pictures RED, BLACK and GREEN! Afterwards, those same people can follow up by supporting a global movement for reparations from every nation involved in exploiting Black labor and ingenuity.
This shameful and unequal display of global empathy or outrage for some victims of violence over others, points to the insidious manner in which race literally colors our global sense of empathy, outage and indignation. When Kenyans were murdered, celebrities didn’t interrupt their concerts to discuss it; talk-show hosts didn’t pay tribute during the taping of their shows; No one wore Kenyan flags or modified their social media in symbolic solidarity…
I conclude with a powerful testimony from my friend and University of Tennessee professor Bertin Louis (Author of “My Soul is in Haiti“):
Moments such as these reveal the invisible architecture of global white domination with different institutions that structure the domination. It reveals hierarchies of privilege and the countries of the West benefit from this (global empathy when tragedy occurs in France) and people of African descent are squarely at the bottom of these hierarchies. We can also see how their power distorts our realities. It makes the mass deaths of people in France seem more important than the mass deaths of people in Kenya, Lebanon, and other parts of the world that go underreported. This is why there is outrage when killings happen in France but little outrage when it happens somewhere else that was dominated by a European colonial power. Their power renders other deaths irrelevant, even in the minds of people of color. The fact that there is not equal outrage for the deaths for people in Kenya, Lebanon, Haiti and elsewhere is a reflection of these power relations that keeps people who look like me in oppressive contexts. The mass killings and other forms of violence against other people of color around the world continues to be normal. It is a Monday. It is a Tuesday. It is a “Oh there’s another genocide in Africa. That’s messed up. What’s for dinner?” It is a “Cholera has killed over 9,000 people in Haiti and the UN is responsible. I have to go pick up my dry cleaning.” No outrage. There’s no outrage because our lives have little meaning to those who profit from your oppression and subjugation. And one last thing. As a proud son of Haiti you will never see me fly a French flag. I cannot be in solidarity with the French state until they treat Haitians as their equals. The French cannot teach me, or the rest of the world, a thing about human rights. Haitians and black people are the ones who can teach them about what it means to be fully human. You are in no position whatsoever to dictate to me what human rights are. You cannot teach me about human rights while you have your foot on my neck. Pay Haiti overdue reparations and treat Haiti as an equal. That will show me that you respect Haiti. You can be empathetic with victims of mass violence and be against the myriad forms of violence (debt, airstrikes, laws, policies) that the French state perpetrates against its former colonies. You should not be sympathetic to empire. At all. –
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.