Protesters wearing face masks kneel in Dakar, Senegal on June 9, during a rally in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and against racism and police brutality (Picture courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine and SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images)
The week of the 26th of May should have been like any other during the Covid19 pandemic. “Working from home if possible”, “social distancing”, “sanitize”, “wash your hands”. New words and phrases for the so-called new normal. But that week found me still thinking about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing and emotionally spent after the rage and anger had subsided. Little did I or the rest of the world know that yet another black man in America, would lose his life in questionable circumstances igniting protests decrying police brutality in lands across seas he might have never considered crossing, from Germany to Japan to Senegal.
Much of what many would hear about George Floyd at least from here in Kenya was the story of a man moving from his home in Houston to Minneapolis in search of a better life and a break from his past. A man who had become a pillar in his community and church but who despite all his efforts ended up another statistic; an unarmed black man killed by police. As many opined on the entire situation, Trevor Noah’s masterful analysis of the situation emerged and went viral. The ubiquitous presence of the internet even in Kenya’s slums ensured with nothing much else to do what with jobs lost and the ample time to reflect now available, that his death would not go unnoticed by the curious eye.
The black experience in America has been communicated across countries through music and media and with it comes the realities of systemic inequalities because of how black people arrived in America through slavery and were then treated long after it was over. Although most Africans are fully aware of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the civil rights movement and Black American urban culture, the interpretive lens to often piece the American Black experience and history is usually not complete. Case in point, several years ago with my graduation looming a few years after the global recession I had mixed feelings about joining corporate Kenya. To help me in my concerns, I obtained a book that I thought would be an aid for unorthodox career pathways. It wasn’t much later that I realised the book; The Strange Career of Jim Crow was not the career advice book that I thought it was.
With the death of George Floyd, however, has come an urgency to understand even more about what it means to be a black image bearer in America. Although the “black experience” varies from the African continent where black Africans are the majority to other areas of the world where black people are minorities such as in the USA, it has been understood that much of the world the USA included, can be a hostile place for black people simply because history is real and so is the depravity of the human heart which twists the word of God to arrive at strange doctrines such as The Curse Of Ham.
Brutality and Instability
This new awareness especially from Africans is to my mind rather unique. So unique, that it elicited an unprecedented formal response by the African Union’s chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat. It should be noted however that Africans did not protest as a general response to the killing of George Floyd because we suddenly became aware of police brutality as though it does not exist on the continent. Police brutality also occurs in many African countries albeit not as vividly documented as in the USA in recent months and years. Furthermore, we have had our fair share of brutality and instability not only at the hands of police but also through military and armed militia. The war in Darfur though forgotten by mainstream media is still going on. Joseph Kony remains at large. Many Rwandese describe in part, significant local and national events in terms of their chronological proximity to the 1994 genocide. Extra judicial killings in Kenya considered one of the continent’s bastions for free speech still happen.
For millions of millennial Africans these are all either within living memory or current realities. It is for these reasons and more that some African activists while standing in solidarity with George Floyd and his family, equally criticized the AU for rushing to condemn America while overlooking its own record of silence regarding brutal regimes. After all many Africans do live as refugees in many Western countries precisely because they are escaping violence at home. So clearly, Africans were not this time especially taken aback by the George Floyd killing because there is either an overwhelming absence of brutality on the continent or a present compassion for black image bearers in America that wasn’t there before. I do however wish to propose two key factors that made Africans resonate with the George Floyd event in the way we did.
Hope and Agency
Africans have always been a people on the move making homes along the way and trading as well. Whether it’s Bantu migration from West Africa to East and Southern Africa or Nilotic tribes moving from Pubungu Pakwach to Uganda and Kenya or some other migration pattern on the continent. A history of movement is inherent in the African experience. This very act of migration represents hope and agency on the part of the migrant. Hope for a fresh and better start as well as an increased sense of agency whether it’s moving across the continent in rural to urban migration or away from the continent entirely. This agency however is not an expression of individual self-actualization but rather an agency keenly aware of the networked effect of its actions. As mentioned, many Africans live in America as refugees but even more are living and working in numerous industries. With each of these Africans is a direct connection back home on the continent; a connection that passes along stories of what it means to be a black African in a land where one suddenly finds themselves a minority. And though their migrant black experience differs from that of American descendants of slaves, it overlaps in varying extents on account of the colour of their skin.
A strong resonance for me reading and hearing the story of George Floyd was his migration from Houston to Minneapolis in search of a better life and a fresh start while retaining his connections to the place he came from. Despite his action of hope and agency, his life was extinguished on a road underneath the knee of an agent of law and order. Many Africans like myself seeing George Floyd’s life slipping away before their eyes could not help but see a connection here to the same act of hope and agency that we engage in ourselves or hear of from first-hand accounts.
The Shattering of a Myth
The second factor I would propose as having a significant effect on how the George Floyd event was received on the continent was the realization that as an American, George Floyd did not manage to escape the old normal of a pre-covid19 state of affairs. That there are realities that remain to be confronted aside from our individual acts of hope and agency however those acts manifest themselves. For many Africans, the USA remains a land of opportunity despite the rhetoric of Donald Trump. A place where unlike anywhere else, it is perceived that the outcomes of individual agency do in fact come to fruition. America is considered a shining city on a hill where the rule of law is said to prevail and where there is no limit to what one can do to begin a new and fresh life. The formal name for this idea is American Exceptionalism; the notion that America is a type of New Jerusalem and as such the existence of America and the perpetuation of American values is essential to an optimistic world of progress and fulfillment. Finding its origins in Puritan New England and spreading across America, this ideology has spread throughout the world through Hollywood, various media and the rhetoric of some American institutions and people abroad in a globalized world. So ubiquitous is this message that to many, modernization and globalization has become synonymous with Americanization. For many Africans such as myself, seeing George Floyd dying on the street meant that America is not entirely unique in the world and that the processes that safeguard law and order in America such as fair trial are equally capable of being subverted there like anywhere else.
To my mind, the protests on the African continent and quite frankly elsewhere in the world, were not simply an outcry against hypocrisy but the cries that accompanied a shattering of the myth of American exceptionalism. Africa and much of the world had believed in this American gospel and the George Floyd protests were the the many screams of a world having a cold turkey awakening. One in which silence could not be a reasonable response.
So, What Now?
When Jesus spoke of a city on a shining hill, his reference was not to a country that would be conceived centuries later in history but to the people of the covenant of grace who would in their actions be a reflection of God’s love and providence in the world. A people born not of flesh (or even territory) but of the Spirit who like their father Abraham, would look forward to a city not built with hands but whose architect and builder is God.
In a post-George Floyd world disillusioned by the breakdown of the rule of law and teetering on the edge of despair, it is especially important for Christians to engage in works of service while clarifying whenever we can the law and the gospel as well as their underlying components. American exceptionalism may very well be a distortion of Christianity but exceptionalism itself is not unique to America. Every country has its own stories of exceptionalism. Few have had a far-reaching effect as that of the USA. It is a human imperative to love our neighbours, but a particularly Christian imperative to do it in the name of the Triune God. Nevertheless, because of how American exceptionalism came to be and the fact that Christianity is in fact not a Western religion, the work of neighbour-love becomes uniquely heavier on the shoulders of Christians; American or otherwise.
In a post-George Floyd world, a specific act of love that Christians can engage in at present is to untangle the threads that confuse the Christian message with national identity and civic responsibility. Such responsibilities whatever they may be at an individual and institutional level should carry with them a keen awareness that their goal is to undo the works of the devil and in so doing be an avenue from which praise to God may emerge. This involves communicating the unique anthropological truths of Christianity which unite humanity as one while not deriding the fact that ethnic diversity will be gloriously displayed in the New Heavens and New Earth.
As African Christians, we really can engage in multifaceted works of hope and agency in the strength of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of the Father because Christ has purchased it for us. And there is no shortage of work right where we are and wherever else the image of God may reside. May the Triune God be our help for these tasks ahead of us in this unique time of need.