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.
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.
Detour through the United States: the Afropessimist critique ///
In France, the Afropessimist critique carried out by African American intellectuals such as Frank B. Wilderson III, Saidiya V. Hartman, and Jared Sexton, seem to be less known and discussed in Black activist circles. This is not true, however, for Black academics. The 2022 publication of Norman Ajari’s Noirceur, which discusses a wide range of theories and debates generated by this school of thought, will undoubtedly allow for a greater circulation of its content in French and Francophone political spaces in Europe, outside academia.
According to Afropessimist thinkers, the marxist analytic—in proposing an antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as well as the contradiction between whites and non-whites (a classical formulation of anti-racism)—fails to consider the particularities of what they, among many other intellectuals, term as “anti-Blackness.” The latter would be the very foundation that constitutes the modern division between humans and non-humans. Here, transatlantic slavery is considered to be the matrix for the world as it exists today, and its ensuing racialization has constituted the Black person outside of humanity. Thus, the main antagonism that Afropessimism theorizes is between Black people and non-Black people.
In such a context, solidarity and reciprocity would therefore not be possible between Black and non-Black political subjects. The Human, even the subaltern one, could not undertake anything that would consist in fighting negrophobia. If they did, it would mean renouncing what allows them to enter into a humanity defined by anti-Blackness, which according to Afropessimism, does not obey a logic of interests, notably economic ones. This is where the Afropessimist critique differs from marxist analyses, even Black ones that had developed from Caribbean and African thinkers. Indeed, even when rejecting economic reductionism, the capitalist mode of production remains the organizing principle for Black Marxists. Of course, such a general and succinct definition does not capture the breadth of the debates on racism and class within Black Marxisms and beyond. But there is a main difference with Afropessimism, for whom anti-Blackness—and, importantly, not “racism “in general”—is its own finality, since it is the world as it begins and ends. While the genocide of Native peoples in the Americas and the colonization of Palestine are useful for white ideological and material dominance, anti-Blackness, according to Afropessimists, escapes this logic of dispossessing, exploiting and killing for profit. This doesn’t mean that anti-Blackness proceeds from irrationality, but on the contrary, from another form of rationality that revolves around producing the modern Human (non-Black person) against the non-Human (Black person).
Without referring to Afropessimism, French debates about slavery in Libya at the end of 2017 echoed the cry for rupture vis-à-vis an entire world, even for its subaltern and contesting margins. Certainly, the relationship between Black people and Arabs is not similar in the United States when compared to France, for historical as well as demographic reasons, among others. On the one hand, the history of Arab presence diverges in these two countries, in terms of class and origin. For instance, due to its colonial history, Arab (including Amazigh) immigration in France was significantly made up of Maghrebi workers who formed the lower layer of the proletariat. On the other hand, as far as Black people are concerned, the histories of West and Central African immigrants are not comparable to those in the United States. Neither are they comparable to the Black population of enslaved descent in the French context, who, having a significant presence in France, also live in the remnants of the French empire: the so-called “overseas territories.” Nevertheless, despite all these differences, debating slavery in Libya within France has allowed for analyses of the Black condition, where central elements converge with those of North American Afropessimism. With regards to the universality of anti-Black racism, this is the case even among non-white people who are not Black, conceived by Frank B. Wilderson III as “secondary partners” of white hegemony. Furthermore, the very object of the 2017 Black mobilizations, i.e., slavery, could not have been more explicitly aligned with the analytical categories of North American Afropessimist thought—namely, the master (non-Black)/slave (Black) dichotomy.
Indeed, famous Black anti-colonial intellectuals and activists from the Caribbean and Africa, such as Frantz Fanon, Sonny Rupaire, Roland Thésauros, and many others, engaged in practices of solidarity with other oppressed and colonized groups. The Afropessimist approach also diverges from the legacy of the Black Panther Party, and in particular, some of its sections such as the illustrious Chicago one. The Panthers were not under the illusion that racism would automatically disappear through overcoming capitalism—contrary to the color-blind narrative that often mistakes their call for cross-racial alliances as a disqualification of Black political autonomy—but they were convinced that a classless society based on socialist principles was the precondition to annihilating racism. For it was anti-capitalism that they saw as the organizing principle.
Solidarity for oneself ///
Although they are exposed to different forms of racism and stigmatization in France, Black people and Arabs (themselves subdivided by nationality, ethnic, class, and religious fractures) share similar conditions in many areas of life (low-paying jobs, unemployment, police brutality, criminalization, spatial segregation, lack of access to health care and treatments, etc.). Beyond France’s internal dynamics, Africa and the Middle East are the targets of ferocious imperialism, mired in wars for strategic minerals, gas, or oil. All of this offers fertile grounds for Black and Arab alliances.
Yet, this has been proven to not be enough. Coalitions do exist, of course. They can even be very radical in their critique of racism and their capacity to mobilize in large numbers, notably against police killings. Nevertheless, there is a Black movement (with political orientations ranging from the most liberal to the most pan-Africanist of marxist inspirations) that unfolds at a distance from what is referred to as the French “anti-racist movement.” Since the second half of the 2000s, the latter has been renewed by a local version of the “decolonial turn.” It refers to a movement that grew around the Parti des Indigènes de la République, whose main activity is to offer intellectual interventions and theories regarding the fate of the “indigènes” (meaning the non-white subjects) in France. This decolonial movement, specifically, is composed of a high proportion of Maghrebis, which is less true for other anti-racist movements that are more centered around local organizing in the banlieues. This is not to say that there is no Black presence in the decolonial movement, because there are indeed Black individuals who participate in it. They can be activists, media figures, intellectuals, and researchers (such as Maboula Soumahoro, Rokhaya Diallo, or Amzat Boukari-Yabara) who either took a very active part in the decolonial movement, or a more punctual one. But with the exception of the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade, Black political movements were and are still evolving in a dynamic that is their own, with limited exchange with the decolonial movement’s primary focus on fighting islamophobia nationally, and the colonization of Palestine internationally. Paradoxically, this weak presence of Black people, numerically speaking, within this specific milieu does not prevent significant use of references, imagery, and concepts made by famous Black activists and intellectuals. But these Black figures abundantly taken up in their texts, slogans, leaflets, on t-shirts, caps, and other pins, have a particularity: they are (with a few exceptions) located elsewhere, geographically or temporally. In short, they are either African Americans, Africans, or those who are already dead. This was the object of Fania Noël’s criticism of the decolonial movement in April 2017 in Paris, a few months before the rallies around Libya. Her intervention, called “Black Power and Anti-Racism: the Appropriation of African American Struggles to Erase the Struggles of Black People in France,” was held during a conference organized by ASPA (Association Sciences Po pour l’Afrique). She questioned the possibility of existing as Black in the anti-racist movement in France, and therefore, also questioned the political tensions between Black people and Maghrebis.
It would be very difficult to draw conclusions about Africans and Afro-descendants as a social group in France, on the sole basis of an autonomous Black political movement existing. Some Black people are politically active on the basis of their national belonging or administrative situation. The latter, for instance, refers to the very crucial struggles of the sans-papiers (“without papers,” i.e., undocumented workers), who sit at the crossroads of border violence, immigration politics, exploitation, and of course imperialism—which creates the conditions for these massive migrations from the Global South to the Global North. Other Black people are active on the basis of their religious belonging (in organizations addressing islamophobia for instance), or their territorial belonging (in organizations addressing the conditions of racialized working-class neighborhoods). All of these reflect multiracial alliances, even when there is no particular insistence on that point.
Nevertheless, the reality of a self-identified Black movement that flourishes separate from “anti-racism” (and the working-class movement) has many lessons to offer, in terms of understanding the black political body. For those who constitute themselves politically as Black in France, it is a political subject that seeks first to converge with itself. The different versions of itself. Starting with this lingering preoccupation: how can we overcome divisions between Caribbeans and Africans? Such a fracture is not only due to the illustration of a Caribbean superiority complex towards Africans, and of shared prejudices and bias, but also of competing legitimacies between those who come from so-called “French overseas territories” (mainly Caribbeans and people from the Indian and Pacific oceans), and those who are seen as eternal immigrants (mainly Africans). Even though French Caribbeans, meaning those from Guadeloupe, Guiana, and Martinique (referred to as “Antillais”), are racialized as others and inferiors, they are still considered by France as “more legitimate” than Africans (and Haitians, who, interestingly, are not designated as Antillais), who represent a more threatening alterity. This division is not only ideological: there are material dimensions of this (the question of nationality and economic dependence for people of the overseas territories in particular) and it creates very different forms of relationship with the French state. This also creates different terrain of struggles: for instance, the struggle against immigration politics is overwhelmingly composed of Africans, and Caribbean struggles are often articulated with claims for better living conditions on the basis that “they are part of France,” whether in France or in the overseas territories. Adding to the challenge are the conflicts between various nationalities, among Caribbeans on the one hand, and among Africans on the other. Let’s also not forget how religion plays a significant role in raising fences between those racially assigned as Black: the vast majority of Caribbeans are Christians while a significant portion of Africans in France are Muslims. Last but not least, these divisions are produced by different positions in the division of labor, where Africans tend to occupy the lower parts of the workforce ladder and are more discriminated against to access a job, compared to Caribbeans from Guadeloupe, Guiana, or Martinique living in France (for those living in these overseas territories, the situation is different). As a matter of fact, strong and long standing strikes organized by all-Black crowd of workers in the hotel business, cleaning services, or construction work are composed almost exclusively of Africans, to the exception of Caribbeans from Haiti. Thus, people of the French overseas territories and Africans’ relationships to Blackness are different and profoundly shaped by class dynamics.
Therefore, being a Black political subject in France does not raise the same issues as it does for African Americans, although the presence of Black Caribbean and African people in the United States can also lead to somewhat similar concerns about “relations among Black people,” often called “diasporic wars” on social media. But all this still does not compare to the multiple forms of Black presence in the French context that exist for historical, demographic, and imperial reasons—many territories scattered on different continents and having various forms of relationship to life in the “metropole”—that is, the French “hexagon.” Thus, when raising the issue of solidarity, and before one asks whether Black people will engage in solidarity with other groups oppressed by racism and colonialism, many Black French activists will respond that we should first wonder about the conditions of (im)possibility for the Black social group to exist as a Black political body in France. Indeed, one should ask: under which circumstances this can happen, what questions can this Black umbrella encompass, and what questions could be left out?
I am often given examples of African American movements in the United States that show solidarity with Palestine (as opposed to Black people in France). This is usually done without understanding that the translation of the African American social body into a political body (despite all the difficulties linked to racism and poverty) is now comparatively “simpler.” “Now” and “comparatively” are two very important words here. In the French context, a friend told me: “Let’s try to get Guadeloupeans to get along with Martinicans for starters.” This small joke about Caribbean rivalries expresses what I was saying at the outset: national, religious, and community affiliations tend to prevail in the French context, despite the growing politicization of a “Black question” (for ambivalent reasons, that I won’t address in this text). Thus, thinking about solidarity with these subalterns who “in any case, do not like us,” does not seem to be favored by a strong portion of Black activists in France: “Just look at how they treat us here and there.”
Yet, despite all of these considerations, and since everything is always complicated, I do not subscribe to the Afropessimist conclusions about the primacy of a Black/non-Black antagonism to define the world, and therefore not to the idea of an impossible solidarity between Black people and other oppressed groups, on the basis that Black people would always be at the losing end of this relationship. Moreover, while movements that identify as Black may reject alliances with other oppressed people, other Black people, who are politically active on a different basis of identification than Blackness (“banlieusards,” “internationalist,” “marxist,” “climate activist,” etc.), may engage politically in movements that facilitate convergences among subalterns.
U.S.-centrism and the limits of a universalizing theory of Blackness ///
The main problem of Afropessimism lies in the theorization of a universal Black condition, based on the African American experience, and with no regards to people’s relationship to labor and exploitation. I am not resorting here to a recurrent pattern of criticism that consists in reproaching a lack of “complexity” to the analyses with which one disagrees. Everything is always “complex”: it is a truism. What matters is to choose the perspective through which one decides to make a question more complex, according to the task one has set for themselves, and according to the points one wishes to clarify. Thus, I don’t disagree with Afropessimism for theorizing a Black condition and making broad claims that go beyond some details and nuances, since theorizing is always formulating a certain degree of generalized arguments. With regards to the history of slavery and anti-Black ideologies that still circulate and have very real effects today, while also considering the vast intellectual, political, and cultural body of work that has been forged to address the Black condition, it is absolutely legitimate for a school of thought such as Afropessimism to theorize something called “Blackness.” However, depending on the political conclusions it proposes, a theory can be questioned.
The critiques of Afropessimism by Annie Olaloku-Teriba and Kevin Ochieng Okoth make it possible to question its particular framing of (anti-)Black exceptionalism, which for example, minimizes or refuses to think about the relationship between multiple forms of capitalist violence and racialization processes. As a result, this excludes all possibilities of alliances, even with other racially subaltern or colonized people. Admittedly, I do believe, in accordance with Afropessimism, that the transatlantic slave trade created an economy of exploitation and a grammar of demonization that racialized Black people to the bottom of the social order. I also believe this has circulated widely to inform how “the Black person” is seen worldwide. But beyond these broad claims about (anti-)Black exceptionalism, the issue arises when considering how it actually manifests in different places and times. Indeed, if some of the Afropessimist conclusions can be relatively valid for Black people living in North America and Europe, things become drastically less evident outside of the West. Indeed, despite the notable effects of anti-Black racism that can be observed even in a Black-majority country, as shown by the work of Jemima Pierre about Ghana, the social and political dynamics of Afro-Caribbeans or Africans on the Continent escape the Black/non-Black and master/slave binaries. Rather, it refers to national, regional and class issues that cannot be assimilated to those of the Black American experience.
As a Guadeloupean, hence Caribbean myself, I can testify to the fact that leaving for France, and later the United States, completely reshaped my understanding of how racism works. It is here where one of Barbara J. Fields’ recommendations to analyze racism, instead of race, can prove to be very insightful.
For instance, even in the West, Black people’s status in relation to other racial groups does not necessarily indicate a position at the bottom of the ladder, comparable to what can be observed in the United States. Indeed, Roma and Muslim (Arab) populations in France often find themselves the most discriminated against in key areas of life, in addition to being subjected to a media-based stigmatization. Particularly for Arabs, that is unparalleled.
Thinking about how some non-Black people of color in Europe can be subjected to worse conditions of living than Black people of the same context is crucial because it clarifies the logic behind a racialized labor force. As mentioned earlier, despite how Black people from French overseas territories face poverty at home (alongside other non-Black people of color who lives there, such as Indo-descendants and Native people, contrary to the white minority who enjoys a privileged position), they were not assigned to lower layers of employment in France when they migrated in vast numbers starting in the 1960s. They were mostly assigned to low-paying jobs, and very often worked for the French state. Worker-based mobilizations of French Caribbeans as a coherent group in the French “Hexagon” can be found, for instance, in the public sector or regarding paid leave to go back home for the holidays (“congés bonifiés”). Maghrebis and West Africans, on the other hand, formed the lower layers of the proletariat and worked primarily for the private sector. Despite being racialized differently, Arabs and Black Africans shared working conditions and have a long and shared history of worker-based mobilizations articulated with immigration politics, notably in the car industry and the struggle for housing, like in the 1970s against the Sonacotra (a semi-public entity acting as the main landlord for migrant workers). Therefore, the Black/non-Black dichotomy obscures more than it illuminates, in terms of what is at stake when considering the relationship between racism and the class restructuring of French society—after World War II and specifically between the 1960s and 1980s. On the contrary, a “French overseas immigrant/African immigrant” dichotomy can be significantly more pertinent.
This also works on an international level. For example, how can one ignore the massive exploitation of Africans both on the Continent and in the international division of labor? But can we draw conclusions about “Black people” from this? No. This situation does not specifically concern African Americans or French Black Caribbeans who, despite racism, poverty, and the persistence of a colonial relationship, are not the main candidates to serve as flesh to be exploited in the globalized economy. These groups are indeed exploited where they live, but they are not the primary target of imperialist forces that extract people from their regions to subject them to exploitation elsewhere, then follow new waves of immigration and exploitation in the Global North and in booming Global South economies.
Distinguishing the two could force us to be more accountable—“us” being the non-African Black folks—to the ways through which we perpetuate the demonization of Africans, or even some forms of exploitation of the Continent (tourism, NGOs, or various neoliberal agendas). But even this fruitful distinction between Blackness and Africanness cannot distract us from the fact that many non-Black subalterns are, unlike some Black people (from the United States, the French Caribbean, the European Black middle classes, etc.), imprisoned in these international circuits of exploitation. This is the case, for example, of various Asian social groups—regardless of the negrophobia they may actually carry in their understandings of the world, or that may also be prevalent in their countries and very dangerous for those racialized as Black there. An emancipatory critique cannot consider the international dynamics of capitalism as insignificant, in the ways it creates various ways of dispossession and deaths (also in terms of climatic damage). How does the existence of anti-Black racism in Pakistan or in the Philippines, for instance, allow one to be “Human” (by comparison to the so-called “non-Human” referring to any Black person anywhere, including the Black bourgeoisie and middle class of the Global North), when the populations of these countries can be massively thrown into exploitation or death, and to almost general indifference, also undergo the effects of the pollution of the countries of the North?
Conclusion: for a dialectical approach ///
Political solidarities are not a given: they need to be built. They are shaped by different processes. Some alliances are built by identification, even when people’s material conditions are not identical, as can be seen with the importance of Palestine for Arabs in France or for some African American activists, and of course, with the mobilizations of Black people against slavery in Libya. Other alliances are shaped by immediate interest, as is the case between Black people and Arabs against the police in France, and with multiracial workers-based alliances. Last but not least, some coalitions are built by the recognition of a shared horizon, i.e. the fact of privileging political orientations. The latter means sharing an understanding of the world as it has been built and as it exists today, the strategies to change it, and, more rarely perhaps, the outline of a system by which one wants to replace the current order. These different solidarities (which in reality do not exist as entirely separate) produce contradictions that are urgent to hold together while being able to situate oneself politically. As far as I’m concerned, I will use Afropessimism as a reminder to be vigilant about the naivety of colorblind calls for unity that refuse to confront real racial antagonisms, specifically the prevalence of anti-Black racism. In addition, I want to keep engaging with anti-colonial and Black Marxist thinking as a compass to guide collective actions against capitalism and imperialism. This is probably the most important aspect of these discussions: in what ways does a particular theory work, or not, as a tool to dismantle the very basis of our economic and political order? To put it simply: what can we actually do, with the arguments that we make about “the world,” “Blackness,” or any other category? ■