Global Blackness, Class Politics and the Dilemmas of Solidarity



In this reflective text, Joao Gabriel analyzes the limits of both the universalizing form of Blackness that conceptualizes a world approached solely through the Black/non-Black binary, and multiracial alliances formed against capitalism that tends to minimize the specificities of racial antagonisms. To build solidarities, he argues, these globalizing theories need to be anchored in specific contexts, and racism needs to be understood in its relation to the international division of labor, leading to envision racial identities as an expression of class politics.

Gabriel Funambulist 2
View of Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. / Photo by Joao Gabriel (2021).

On November 14, 2017, a CNN report by journalist Nima Elbagir sparked a global outrage, showing African men being sold at an auction in Libya. In France, where I was living at the time, people of African descent, in particular, vigorously addressed this issue. Multiple rallies were organized in different cities, following the call of prominent Caribbean and African cultural and political figures. Most of the people who took part in the rallies were Black, but it was clear that the mobilization had gone beyond the traditional political spectrum. Activists or not, those present were those who identified with the victims of this auction. The calls to demonstrate, the slogans and the signs all testified to this. Whether they had origins from the Caribbean or Africa, protestors, therefore, took to the streets as Black subjects against what was then designated as “modern slavery.”

Despite a long and well-known history of Black intellectual engagement in the French context, such as Negritude, the focus on Black identity is not necessarily standard when we pay attention to the various political ways of organizing by people of African descent in France. This struck me, especially in a city like Marseille, where I lived and was able to measure how national (Comorians, Senegalese…), religious (Muslims, Christians…) or regional (Caribbeans, Africans…) affiliations were often prevalent in comparison to identifying as Black. This is one of the differences with many activist circles in Paris whose centrality, both nationally and internationally, often obscures what emanates from the so-called “provincial cities”—a problematic designation in itself.

Beyond slavery, political mobilizations following the CNN report were also an opportunity to address anti-Black racism more broadly, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Social networks, broadcasts, and community newspapers have been spaces for intense exchanges on the specificities of the Black condition, which is marked by dehumanization no matter the side of the globe. Many voices insisted on this point: France, the United States, or more broadly, the West, are not the only places where Black people are oppressed. All these debates among Black people on global negrophobia also spurred conflicts between Black people and Maghrebis in France. It was not just a matter of Black French people identifying with the fate of other Black folks in the so-called Arab world, but a matter of seeing in those realities over there, an exacerbated form of what was taking place here in France. The Black person in France could, in a way, almost substitute the Black person in Tunisia or Lebanon. It was no longer just a question of recognizing oneself in the other, but of being that other: localized manifestations of the universal Black being, one could say.

What was even more interesting, was the political dimension of these discussions. Indeed, on the part of Black activists who took part in them, one critique often came up: while Black anti-colonialists and pan-Africanists have historically been in solidarity with the struggles for Palestine (which is central to Maghrebi struggles in France), Black people hadn’t received support in return. According to them, there was not much solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles that specifically concern Francophone West and Central Africa (“Françafrique”), nor with the fight against anti-Black racism in the so-called Arab world.

Two elements were thus at the center of these debates held in the wake of the Black mobilizations around Libya: the issues of reciprocity and centrality in the politics of solidarity. In other words, who is or isn’t in solidarity with whom, and under what conditions do certain struggles come to be considered priorities, or even held as symbols of the struggle against imperialism?