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UPDATING THE BLACK STRUGGLE

Recently The Economist - which these days could simply change its name to The Businessman - wrote: "Portugal was the first African colony in Europe." Blacks in the Diaspora are tired of the Brazilian-style "marginalisation" which they have suffered from for much longer than the term has internationally been applied to Africa.

To paraphrase the early 20th century comment, "the darkest thing about Africa is our ignorance of it", I begin this chronicle by recognising that the darkest thing about the "black experience" is still our ignorance of its diversity and evolving new issues. In this respect, even some black people fall victim to long accepted simplifications. To start with, the experience of white racism is itself varied according to political, chronological evolution and geography.

The majority of Africans during the colonial era probably never came into contact with white people, except colonial administrative officials or missionaries of old. From slavery times, Africans tended to seek refuge inland, as far away as possible from the coastal areas where white traders, like crabs on an immense rock, clung for their coastal traffic.

For most Africans, racism was an abstract political, social and economically devastating consequence of Western European imperialist hegemony. Hence the fact that none other than Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Literature Prize-winner, whose work and lifelong political stand I so much admire, could be so dismissive of Negritude, which he regarded as redundant as Tigritude.

Coming from Nigeria, by far black Africa's most populous country, such comment might seem proudly appropriate. But then if tigers in the wild might sense they are different from other bigger and smaller animals, it is certainly in captivity in zoos or circuses that they might wonder to whose species their uniformed guards or captors belong to inflict such cruelty on them.

Negritude, "black power", and other more or less transient concepts are characteristic of the enforced Diaspora in the Americas, just as the martyred Steve Biko in apartheid South Africa campaigned for "black consciousness". They are echoed amongst black immigrants in Europe or wherever blacks had to endure varying degrees of discrimination, hypocrisy or casual "marginalisation".

I dare say we have come a long way since black men and women slaves in chains must have felt like tigers in cages, or under the whips in South Africa, where black consciousness has given way to black majority power. Racism was rooted in humankind's irrational past as much as in the vagaries of more recent political and social abuse and exploitation. The fact that it is now being replaced by Islamophobia, including perhaps amongst US black soldiers, only confirms its transient nature. In this respect, I am only too happy to note that black rights movements in Brazil - trying to make up for lost time - are now the vanguard of black thinking on the subject.

Well aware of the inter-relationship between the questions of class and race, or the old stereotype and fallacies of Portuguese/Hispanic concepts of racial tolerance; or their British/American equivalents of "liberal" multiracialism, Brazilian black leaders are now addressing the residual, but nonetheless deeply important psychological delayed effect of centuries of white imperialist supremacy: namely the fact that, again initially in the Diaspora, there is a cult of "whitening" in Brazil to beat the incredibly steep "hierarchy" of colour.

In the USA, with the emergence of a black middle class and a longer and freer campaign for black advance, there is perhaps more respect for blackness than is the case in Brazil. The cult of "whitening", until recently confined to domestic multi-racial markets, has increased in the age of globalised TV.

Curiously enough, American TV channels, notably CNN, count medicated fade cream producers as sponsors of their Africa programmes. Even the hair straightening industry, although less conspicuously, has also been growing. Such a social phenomenon is more important for its psychosocial significance insofar as it evidences the traumatic consequences of centuries of imperialist and colonialist enslavement and oppression, than its lasting political importance.

Again, so big and strong is mother Africa with its 810 million people, that it can afford to look condescendingly upon and overcome such transient vagaries of her millions of children forcibly led astray by the white masters of old. At this stage, however, there is no doubt that the development of Africa and the assertion of black people in the Diaspora, are intertwined issues in the cause of black Africa revivalism. Hence the care with which blacks in Angola and Brazil watch the evolution of their increasing cultural and political relations - blacks are tired of the Brazilian-style "marginalisation", which they have suffered from for much longer than the term has been applied internationally to Africa.

I happen to be a white man by birth, but my attachments were and are to the majority peasant and oppressed Portuguese class I descended from. I was sent to be a "white" settler in Mozambique and in the process make up for my lack of formal qualifications and jump straight into the colonialist middle class - much, of course, at the expense of the oppressed African natives, peasants like my family.

Instead of accepting the tacit deal, I rebelled. I soon realised that my black class equivalents did not even qualify for the status of poor - they were natives, just one degree above slaves, but still serfs. It became apparent that as they had to learn the Portuguese language to serve them at home or at work, they were like silent shadows everywhere observing the whites as a civilian occupation force. But they had ended up knowing more about the white colonisers than these knew or cared to know about them.

I used to laugh together with Africans at the concept of "racial tolerance" - tolerance to Africans in their own land? What kind of virtue was that? And when the Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freire, having sold out to Portuguese colonialism, visited Mozambique in the early 1950s, we also laughed at the premises of his reasoning.

For their time, in relation to the "white world" - then as still now, so backward in understanding the intertwined issues of class and race - Freire's 1940's theories might have appeared striking. He was, after all, refuting the contemporary Aryan purity ideals of Nazism et al. But his comparison in negatives was a matter of academic erudition, not real life. The African natives did not and could not travel abroad to learn of such comparisons, they reacted in their own place and in their own time to the racialism they knew.

When, after escaping PIDE state police control in Lisbon, I managed to come to London (initially intending to go to Brazil) I could not even understand the concept of "white liberal" applied to my fellow British and South African freedom-fighters. Liberal struck me as a concept too far short of class solidarity.

I also believed that despite its affinities, Africanist struggles had specific differences with Marxist or Soviet inspired movements. Karl Marx never travelled outside Europe and his prodigious feat was to come so near to the realities he did not know of or account with. If imperialism with capital is exploitative, imperialism without capital - such as the Portuguese - was even worse. Moreover, the plight of Africans under colonialism was too urgent to wait for the, eventually never attained, "world revolution".

Right at the beginning of my candid statements, I must have shocked my otherwise sympathetic British platform supporters or audiences in London's meeting rooms. "I am so Portuguese" I said and wrote, "that three of my grandparents were illiterate. We see the issues of Angolan and Mozambican independence in terms of class and not of race." And this is how my first book, Portugal and its Empire, published in London in 1961 opens:

"They [the Portuguese] had an idea of an immense Empire overseas, somewhere in remote Africa, Brazil and India, for it had been from amongst the numbers of their ancestors and relatives that the Kingdom had picked the craftsmen who built the armadas of the navigators and recruited the sailors and soldiers for its successive wars of conquest, occupation and repression. But the nearest they had got to the gold and riches of this fabulous Empire had been in the capacity of domestic servants and stable-keepers in the houses of retired and visiting overseas lords."

All along, as the Portuguese ruling class made friends with their West African counterparts in the slave trade - when single male peasants were exported to Brazil or Angola essentially to "whiten" or incredibly, in the case of Africa, attempt to balance the demographic disparities - class and race exploitation run parallel.

Finally in the anti-colonial wars (1961-74), when Portuguese and African peasants were conscripted to fight and kill each other, the whole thing collapsed. I knew and I plotted personally with leaders of the African movements - Amilcar Cabrai, Eduardo Mondlane, Agostinho Neto and Jonas Savimbi, being the best known internationally - over a simple, common cause.

That cause being: if without dictatorship and censorship there could be no Empire, the national colonialist dictatorship would have to go. It has gone now for 30 years, almost as long as the Salazar dictatorship or the Third Portuguese Empire (1932/68) lasted and passed into history.

Recently The Economist, which these days could simply change its name to The Businessman - wrote: "Portugal was the first African colony in Europe." They must vaguely be aware of the now dwindling class duality in Portugal. But as a Portuguese, I think the comment is too clever by half. If they meant that, always small and poor, Portugal can only have a subordinate role with Africa; a Portuguese peasant is entitled to ask: "What is wrong with having black bosses if one is to have bosses?" It is after all, the colour of money, not of skin that counts. And this is a concept of racial equality that only peasants, free from the vices of middle class racialism, could understand.

Antonio de Figueiredo


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