Black Is King: The Case for Pan-Africanism
Like many people across Africa and its diaspora, I recently watched Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Black Is King. As a Ghanaian-American living in South Africa, and an African studies student, I am always interested in stories by and about Black people. To my eye, Black Is King is a stunning visual representation of numerous African cultures. From the iconic hairstyles of the Fulani, to the Ndebele art made internationally famous by Esther Mahlangu, to Dogon indigenous astrology, Black Is King is a Pan-African offering. Its Pan-African ethos was particularly explicit in the juxtapositioning of the Ghanaian flag—displaying its Garvey inspired black star—and the African-American flag.
Since the trailer for Black Is King first aired, the visual album has inspired numerous think-pieces, critiques, accolades, and accusations. The global attention paid to the work is undoubtedly in part because of the power of Beyoncé’s stardom; to quote her own “Formation” lyrics, “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” But, the response to the album is also due to a broader conversation: the unfinished one between people of African descent globally. Central questions in this conversation are who is African? What is Pan-Africanism, and what should it look like today?
In many ways, the early 1900s to the 1970s were the heydays of Pan-Africanism. This period saw the creation of the Pan-African Congress, which was the impetus of Alice Kinloch, a South African activist, and Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian lawyer. This era gave rise to Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association, one of the largest Black mass movements in history. This was a moment in which African and Caribbean decolonization movements reached their climaxes, and the majority of countries in these regions gained their independence. The formation of Pan-Africanism created an ethos that articulated the unity of Black people globally, called for solidarity, and asserted that our social, economic, and political fates were inextricably tied together.
This era largely focused on the political—or legislative—issues of decolonization and civil rights. With these secured, the urgent tone and tempo of conversations around Black struggle and solidarity waned; due to internal factors affecting Black entities and external assaults. Yet, the desire for Black people on the continent and in the diaspora to see themselves portrayed positively and authentically, to have Pan-African engagements in the social and cultural realms, has not waned. Which is one of the reasons Black Is King has generated so much discourse, much like Black Panther, the 2016 blockbuster film, did before it.
Before I go any further, one caveat: despite the desire for holistic portrayals, for too long, images of Black people have been stereotypical caricatures, sometimes by design, as in Birth of a Nation, and sometimes by default through an acceptance of the status quo. These problematic depictions, which have a bearing on how Black people are perceived and engaged in daily life, found expression in everything from, The God’s Must Be Crazy to the recently retired image of Aunt Jemima. While there has undoubtedly been an improvement over the years, the body of positive, holistic, Black imagery is not what it could or should be. Because of this gap, often, expectations of what a book, film, or visual album can offer outstrip what is possible in any given work. The challenge is to create the conditions for more of us to tell a multiplicity of our stories. So, please do not read this as a declaration that Black Is King is the definition of 21st century Pan-Africanism; instead, my point is that the international dialogue around the album is one of many indications of a renewed interest in Pan-Africanism and Black identities.
This renewed interest in black identities and collective action is timely and necessary. Despite the legislative wins of the last century, anti-Black racism remains rampant globally. The recent killings by state officials of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States and Colins Khosa in South Africa are just one manifestation of this anti-Black racism. Other demonstrations were pronouncements by the 45th American president about “shit hole countries” and the inhumane treatment Black migrants in Europe and Asia too often receive. As in the last century, Black people are still subjected to oppressions that require a united response.
Beyond responding to the real and present danger of navigating the world in a Black body, there is also an opportunity for contemporary Pan-Africanism to advance the work of the last century, and to create more avenues for dialogue and exchange between people of African descent on the continent and in the diaspora. While I have used the terms interchangeably (which gives some indication of my orientation), if contemporary Pan-Africanism is to successfully support our social, cultural, and economic development, there are some difficult, but necessary conversations that must be had. Among the many questions that we must answer is what makes someone Black, African, or a person of African descent? Are they one and the same? Following this question is one of who has the “right” to tell Black or African stories? And finally, how do we deal with matters of power and privilege within a global Black community? What access is made available or denied based on our nationality, skin tone, language, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, or economic status?
As is the case in any relationship, the answers—and in fact, the questions themselves—will evolve. The critical issue is to remember that Pan-Africanism is a relationship, one that is worthy of interrogation, examination, and reinvention; and one that, if cultivated with grace, can be mutually beneficial for all of us. Black Is King is one more medium through which to cultivate this conversation.