When it comes to solidarity’s blindspots, a first step consists in transforming “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns.” This is why we commissioned regular Funambulist contributors Zoé Samudzi and Anaïs Duong-Pedica to reflect together on these blindspots, in particular, the limited consideration of Black Atlantic epistemologies for Oceanian Bla(c)kness and its inseparability from indigeneity.
I’m spending the end of the year with a friend who loves Mariah Carey and so I am writing to you with one of her Christmas playlists playing in the background. I hope that this email will find you rested and warm despite the sub-zero temperatures in both the places we find ourselves. Just before everything closed ahead of the Christmas weekend in Finland, my friend and I went to the anarchist café in Turku to check some of the books in English they had received ahead of the holidays. Having in mind this exchange, I remembered that this was also a space where I saw someone read yours and William C. Anderson’s As Black as Resistance a few years ago. One of the many things I appreciated when I read it myself was your engagement with settler colonialism in the chapter “What Lands on Us.” It echoed conversations that I was having with friend and colleague Milka Njoroge, a relation we share, on Black indigeneity, including the erasure of African indigeneity, Bla(c)k Oceanian indigeneity and the equation of Blackness with rootlessness in the Black Atlantic.
In the piece you wrote on U.S. exceptionalism in The Funambulist n° 41 Decentering the U.S., you mentioned the tendency “to export and analogize domestic patterns of racial formation or state politics to make sense of racecraft or other political events abroad.” You also gave the example of the maxim “anti-Blackness is global,” which often fails to account for the ways in which anti-Blackness may be structured beyond trans-Atlantic slavery. You then pointed to Blackness on the African continent and in the Pacific with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in so-called Australia, Indonesia-occupied West Papua, as well as other Melanesian people, such as the Kanak people in French colonized Kanaky/New Caledonia, where I am from.
How did you first start thinking about Blackness in the Pacific?
I actually had your piece in mind when I recently read Veronika Kusumaryati’s paper on #PapuanLivesMatter, which “discusses the specific context in which protests under Papua Lives Matter emerged and its relationship with the global Black Lives Matter movements,” but especially and essentially in the U.S. In its focus on Indonesian anti-Black racism, the paper mostly evacuates the question of settler colonialism, only to address it shortly in a paragraph at the end, conceding that “Papuans argue that anti-Papuan racism has shaped Indonesian nationalism and state formation and that racism is part and parcel of Indonesian colonialism.” Aside of this important acknowledgement of West Papuan activists’ own analysis of their situation, the fact of merely seeing West Papuans as Black, rather than Black Indigenous people, and focusing on Indonesian racism divorced from an analysis of Indonesian settler colonialism erases West Papuans’ struggle for sovereignty and the political demand of independence encapsulated in the “Papua Merdeka” (Free West Papua) movement. In doing so, it transforms this anti-colonial struggle into a question of mere inclusion in the Indonesian polity.
The Indonesian state has long used its own history as a Dutch colony as a way to delegitimize West Papuan protests and resistance. For example, Kusumaryati writes that West Papuan’s identification with Blackness and Black politics and, therefore, affirmations of racial difference are considered to be a mere legacy of Dutch colonialism. Likewise, in “Blinded by Bandung?” Quito Swan explains how in the 1950s, “Sukarno framed his claims to West Papua as a struggle against Dutch imperialism,” which meant that West Papuan voices were silenced during the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia, and that Bandung supported Indonesia’s position on West Papua. Today, Bandung is still seen as a symbol of Afro-Asian unity and solidarity. There is no denying the imperial projects of Europe and the U.S., but what happens when we are not attentive to the ways in which histories of Western racism and colonialism can be and are co-opted for colonial and racist nationalist agendas outside of the U.S. and Europe?
Wishing you a smooth transition to the new year, as well as strength and courage for the work ahead of you!
A happy new year to you! I’m not much for the Gregorian calendar and this fabrication of newness when the year rolls over (I appreciate Gramsci writing that “the date becomes an obstacle […] that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold along the same fundamental unchanging line, without abrupt stops”), but still, I’m hoping this year begins on a better foot than the previous year ended on.
To answer your question, I ended up thinking about blackness in the Pacific in stages. First, as a first-generation American and a diasporan from a part of Africa that was not directly affected by the transatlantic slave trade, I sometimes grew frustrated at the way that the Atlantic overdetermined and structured our discourses about the genealogies of blackness globally (it, of course, makes sense if we’re thinking about the western hemisphere specifically). I later read Michelle M. Wright’s Physics of Blackness, which helped provide language about blackness that interacts with but is not inextricably bound to Middle Passage epistemology—a mutable conception of blackness dependent upon time and place, a when and where is blackness instead of just a what, per Wright.
After that, I started interacting more with Australian Aboriginal and Pasifika history and thought: K’ua K’ua/Kuku and Erub/Mer Destiny Deacon’s 1991 show “Blak Lik Me,” the etymological history of the Melanesian islands (French naval officer Jules Dumont d’Urville’s anti-blackness is literally in the name!), the ways that the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia was expressing identical grievances about police murder and incarceration as black indigenous people. But I don’t think I began really thinking about blackness in the Pacific beyond Australia until after reading the interview that Léopold did with Quito Swan in the 39th issue of the magazine about the ocean and then reading parts of Pasifika Black. Though I knew about the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, it was the first time I started seriously contending with the legacy of the Bandung Conference and how the possibility of a Pan-Africanism or global blackness was forestalled by “post-colonial” —or, at least, post-Eurocolonial—Indonesia’s framing of West Papua’s occupation as a continuation of anti-colonial activity.
I want to be careful to also not foist an overdetermined blackness onto West Papuans in order to not produce the kind of perverse “political blackness” that we see in the United Kingdom. It was concept that had its utility as British Asians and black British people (particularly Afro-Caribbeans) were organizing against state violence and racial discrimination in the 1970s and 1980s; but as there have always been black Brits critical of the idea, it has increasingly fallen out of favor because of how it obscures the particularities of anti-blackness for people racialized as black. But I have to return to the “Black Lives Matter” clarion call sounded by Papuans and the familiar cries of police brutality laid atop ongoing calls for independence as an occupied Black indigenous people. And through that frame of U.S.-centric overdetermination to that Kusumaryati paper, there’s a paper called “George Floyd in Papua” by Karen Strassler about Steven Yadohamang, a young deaf-mute Papuan teenager who was similarly restrained on the ground by two Indonesian police, one with a boot to his head (which in turn was reminiscent of the image of Obby Kogoa’s horrifying arrest in Central Java back in 2016 in which he was dragged by his nostrils). Fortunately, he survived—there was “only” a boot on his neck for 12 seconds compared to the fatal 9 and a half minutes that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s.
The photograph and its clear resonance circulated widely and is reproduced in the piece (it’s displayed, without warning, upon opening the article, which I really don’t like). The paper asks “what happens if we shift our vantage point on Black Lives Matter from its presumed center in the United States.” It describes the means by which Papuans make their suffering legible by drawing upon internationally circulated images like the paradigmatic image-event of George Floyd’s documented murder whose broadcasting across social media turned the tragically quotidian event of racist police murder into a watershed moment of national and global protest. She quotes Papuan activist and scholar Elvira Rumkabu who says: “In Papua, we have a lot of names like George Floyd. […] Papuans share the anger of black Americans […] and we are demanding now that people around the world, but especially Indonesians, realize we have the same suffering here” (emphasis mine).
She lends one single sentence to the entanglements of blackness and indigeneity even as she rightfully claims that Papuans are not just imitating black Americans: “While Papuans have long identified as Black and with global anti-racist movements, as will be discussed below, Papuan resistance also takes form as an indigenous struggle for self-determination against a colonizing power.” “Also” does a lot of unfavorable work here and she makes the same reduction as Kusumaryati does it the paper you mentioned:
I don’t want to keep rambling, but my question is what does it mean to un-foreclose Papuans and the rest of the black Pacific from global blackness? In your more personal context, what does this look like for Kanaky and other French overseas territories?
True, meaningful, and useful solidarity, I think, rejects the need to frame struggles through only their similarities: to filter the political articulations of peoples in the black Pacific through the semiotics of black America. Solidarity as opacity, following Édouard Glissant, means we take these black Pacific claims as they’re presented without confining them to a legibility, even as it’s clear Papuans strategically deploy commonalities with black Americans so they can be brought into an anti-colonial black fold from which they’re otherwise precluded and rendered invisible. Generous interpretation and translation is the nucleus of solidarity.
Sending my love,
Our conversation has made me think of Joy Lehuanani Enomoto’s brilliant paper “Black is the color of solidarity,” whose title is inspired by a verse in Teresia Teaiwa’s poem “Mela/Nesian Histories, Micro/Nesian Poetics.” In it, Enomoto writes about Blackness grounded in the experience of Pacific peoples and how, in this context, international solidarity is built from a pan-Melanesian center. Your last questions about solidarity also led me to think of an ongoing conversation that I have been having with a friend of mine in Kanaky, Agnès Delrieu, on the topic of settler solidarity with the Kanak people. She is herself in conversation with Florenda Nirikani, a Kanak pro-independence militant and educator, as well as a common friend. Both Agnès and Florenda organize within the CEMÉA (Centre for Active Education Methods Training) and are involved within the pro-independence political party Union Calédonienne.
It is through knowing Florenda that I realized the prevalence of using Pierre Declercq’s definition of “Kanak” by some pro-independence parties and groups in Kanaky. Declercq (1938-1981) was a white French (born and raised in France) educator who worked in Kanaky. He committed to the anti-colonial struggle, first through being active as a labor union representative and then as a pro-independence politician within the Union Calédonienne, of which he became the secretary general in 1977. This was a time when many non-Kanak were leaving the party as it pronounced itself pro-independence and became more pro-Kanak. He was assassinated in his home in September 1981, and the Union Calédonienne described him as “the first white martyr of Kanak independence.” This would not be the only act of settler terrorism perpetrated in Kanaky, but many said that local politics changed after his assassination. Today, Declercq’s assassination is commemorated every September 19th by those who are familiar with this part of history. As a non-Kanak, it seems to me that unless one is socialized in pro-independence political circles, this is not common knowledge, and certainly, it is not a historical narrative that is learned through the French education system, which is an institutional site of settler colonial power.
Nowadays, Declercq is mostly known for his definition of “Kanak”, which you’ll even find printed on t-shirts:
“The term Kanak does not designate an ethnic group nor a race. The objective of a Kanak society means the construction of a multiracial and fraternal people in solidarity. This does not mean that the future society will be entirely Melanesian. The right to difference will be respected but we will ensure that this does not lead to a relationship of domination of one ethnic group over another.”
Of course, we need to understand that this definition makes sense in a context of an Indigenous people’s struggle for independence: “Kanak” here can be read as deployed as a national category. This is exemplified by the pictures shared by people commemorating Declercq’s life and political struggle with photos of themselves holding signs such as “I am Kanak of French origin,” “I am Kanak of Wallisian origin,” “I am mixed-Ni-Vanuatu-French of Kanak nationality.” Those who are Kanak will refer to themselves as Indigenous but of Kanak nationality. Some, like the Mouvement Nationaliste Indépendantiste Souverainiste, have also deployed this definition in the context of the increasing use of the notion of “Caledonian people,” reminding that there is no such thing as a “Caledonian people” and that those who describe themselves or are referred to as “Caledonians” are part of the Kanak people, thus re-establishing that there is only one Indigenous people in Kanaky. The existing fabric is the Kanak people and social organization, from which a Kanak society should emerge in the resistance against French settler colonialism and through decolonization.
However, if independence or the creation of the state of Kanaky is our political horizon, I often find myself wondering to what extent this is at odds with political projects that reject the nation-state. At the same time, I find so much resonance between Kanak political writing and philosophy and other radical projects. For example, when Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou wrote in 1981 that Nouméa, the urbanized capital of New Caledonia, is “the absence of the meaning of life” in that it negates the collective, I thought of Marquis Bey’s identification of the critical praxis of anarcho-Blackness as a “commitment to a political endeavor proliferating life, where no life is said to be found.” This commitment to life is articulated in various worldwide social justice movements.
You mentioned political Blackness in your previous letter, and I thought of conversations I had with Agnès about the ways in which Declercq’s definition can be perceived by outsiders, especially those more familiar with the context of Turtle Island and Hawai’i where “playing Indian” is a way for settlers to indigenize themselves. However, it’s important to say that, in Kanaky, no one “plays Kanak.” Kanak culture and identity are not seen as desirable by non-Kanak, because Kanak are racialized as Black. This racialization notably rests on the Western historical construction of the “ignoble savage” of Melanesia, in opposition to the ”noble savage” of Polynesia or North America. It is precisely this call for non-Kanak people to gather behind a Black Indigenous people historically constructed as undesirable and outside of humanity that makes Declercq’s proposition groundbreaking. This, however, demands the cultivation of a political consciousness grounded in ethical relations and attuned to the ways in which power affects our experiences. Daphne V. Taylor-García, also building on Glissant, explains that affirming opacity requires “[being] open to the unknown, [understanding] that the unknown is paradigmatic to what is known, and [holding] a commitment to be responsive and responsible to those seen as fundamentally invisible: disposable or irrelevant.” It’s interesting because being open to the unknown is also what decolonization demands.
I often come back to something Chandra Talpade Mohanty said in a keynote she gave on “Borders and Solidarities: Insurgent Feminism in Pandemic Times” in 2020, about how we need to be fluent in each others’ histories. (I like her reference to “fluency” because we are also talking about translation here!) I think about this at the level of Kanaky in terms of how settler colonialism silences our histories and stifles our relations, but also internationally, because, as we’ve seen, some political struggles become only legible through the prism of other, more dominant, movements and histories. In a convoluted way, I’ve told you this story because it does not neatly match the semiotics of Black nor Indigenous America.
You ended your last letter by stating that “generous interpretation and translation is the nucleus of solidarity.” I think I agree with you in the sense that translation is essential to building political relationships. How do we create the conditions for new possibilities through translation?
With gratitude for the intention and love behind your answers,
I’m sitting with the title of that paper, “black is the color of solidarity.” It reminds me of the ethos of the South African Black Consciousness Movement. Theirs was a notion of blackness reflected by the decolonial political imaginary of a subjugated people that was both particular to the conditions of anti-black apartheid and in deep dialog and solidarity with other black/African nationalist movements on the continent and throughout the African diaspora. It was metaphysical as well as material, placing the specificity of anti-apartheid and anti-settler colonial struggles into solidarity-nurturing dialog with regional and other global movements.
Steve Biko wrote that oft quoted line that “being black is not a matter of pigmentation” but a “reflection of mental attitude.” Once again, I don’t want to give credence to the ascription of all resistive non-whiteness as black in the way political blackness often carelessly does, but it feels like there’s a useful analog here with how Declercq defines “Kanak.” It is, at its best, a designation that seeks to unify islanders around an anti-colonial project of indigenous self-determination in a way that embraces the multiethnic and multiracial character of the island without flattening into a liberal sameness. Like you, the national question as a statist question is worrisome; Declercq’s rallying definition of Kanak as a national identity grows complicated as it seems the horizon of the anti-colonial movement may well be a nation-state. As a non-Kanak person, it isn’t my place to say whether or not statehood should be the ultimate expression of Kanak political sovereignty, but as we’ve seen from the several decades since African states’ independence from European colonial powers, the Westphalian state is hardly a decolonial resolution. The continental transformation from nascent free socialist states into political entities captured and suffocated by neoliberalism is what gives me pause about any suggestion that the vehicle for Kanak sovereignty is the nation-state. But I will say that there is something quite beautiful (with the necessary caveats you’ve made) about the expansive potential for solidarity when political identity is defined by one’s orientation towards a political horizon rather than simply identity itself.
Perhaps part of the reason that the black Pacific exists beyond the scope of global blackness, particularly a diasporic blackness structured by Atlantic trade, is because protectiveness around a racialized blackness defines it through Afro-descendancy. The stakes and dynamics are very different from “playing Indian” but there are also deceptive performances around blackness. So while being territorial makes some contextual sense, how does this foreclose our ability to see other black people and black resistances? I’m appreciative of what Robbie Shilliam describes, at the very beginning of the first chapter of The Black Pacific, as a “decolonial science of ‘deep relation’”: a kind of “relationality that exists underneath the wounds of coloniality” that perpetually attempts to and often succeeds at “segregating peoples from their lands, their pasts, their ancestors and spirits.” He goes on to say that, like many other global indigenous communities, Pasifika peoples deploy deep relation to “repair colonial wounds,” and that these relational principles “are firmly embedded in particular locales and peoples yet at the same time proffer general principles of engagement without laying claim to abstracted universals” (emphasis mine).
I share these fragments by Shilliam to illustrate some of what seem to be practical similarities between black indigenous Pasifika peoples and Black Consciousness as practices of relation and orientation, and also because I think deep relation can help us cultivate some more expansive understandings of blackness’ globality. The largely non-indigenous African diasporic blackness in the United States—which I’d describe as the hegemonic center of black cultural production in the imperial core—obviously has a different history and trajectory from the bla(c)k indigeneity in Kanaky, West Papua, Torres Strait Islands, and the rest of Melanesia, as well as Australia. But despite these critical differences in histories, the global protests of 2020 illustrated a shared experience of abjection: police brutality and incarceration, resource deprivation, dispossession, premature death.
Fortunately, though, blackness is not just about these common violences even if it is these imposed imperial racializations that first named and subordinated us as “black.” And despite the particularities of our different experiences, deep relation, what feels like a synonym for solidarity, can be derived from our shared but still context specific political horizons of black liberation. The black international coheres vision of a fight against colonial violence, whether from European or North American police and the states that deploy them, corrupt African leadership colluding with western states, or the Indonesian occupation. French colonial rule must be dismantled, and also the state has always been anti-indigenous because, as J. Kēhaulani Kauanui writes about Kānaka Maoli in Hawai’i, indigenous sovereignty as routed through or defined by a state is always constrained by Euroamerican legal frameworks and/or international law. In the case of Kanaky, France would ultimately be the arbiter for independence.
In a similar way that Declercq’s definition brings Kanak and non-Kanak alike through ethical relation, embracing an opacity in how we understand global blackness—i.e. refusing homogeneous treatments of black suffering and liberation alike—necessarily demands the development of a political fluency and, at the very least, a curiosity about one another’s struggles. To answer your question, possibilities emerge through our humble recognition that we don’t know and cannot possibly know all the idiosyncrasies of every one of the world’s black struggles. But we can allow our cartographies to be more spacious so our transnational solidarities can include and consider more global possibilities. That feels like a very good start.
My love from rainy, cloudy Berlin,