Resisting Inclusion: Decolonial relations between Peoples of Afrikan Descent and Original Peoples
by Moyo Rainos Mutamba
“Black people have been in Canada since 1604. Their contribution to the nation-building process is, however, subject to erasure and their presence is often taken as a sign of trouble, “a problem.” Furthermore, African Canadians, in spite of their long history in Canada are seen as recent immigrants and thus not a part of the historical memory of the nation. Erasing the African Canadian presence retroactively liberates Canada from the context and rich histories of the Black Diaspora, and the Trans Atlantic World.” (Black Canadian Studies Association, 2013)
As evidenced in this conference call from the Black Canadian Studies Association (BSCA), the mythology of the colonial Canadian state, as founded by the English and the French – on the backs and lands of Original Peoples – is being opened up for racialized communities to seek a respectable place in it. The conference call claims that Afrikans played a crucial role in building the Canadian nation state and, therefore, should be included in the national historiography.
Seeking inclusion could be strategic, given the multiple ways Afrikans have suffered within the confines of the colonial state. As the Canadian state consolidates its colonial hold through various juridical, discursive, and coercive means, violence against Afrikans increases. Given the depth of anti-black racism, the expansion of the prison industrial complex that affects many of our peoples, the economic and social deprivation, political disenfranchisement, and the reality that the racist apparatuses of the colonial Canadian nation state have violently erased and made invisible the histories of Afrikan peoples, it makes sense that we might seek freedom via any means possible.
However, the violence of colonial inclusion, perpetuated by this approach for redress, is untenable. The history of Afrikan peoples on this land is not a history of nation building; nor is it is not a history of conquest, displacement, or genocide – the methods in which nation-states are formed. Afrikans, at times, have been forced, to be participants in a colonial project that was and is always intended for the benefit of white settlers. We should not wish to be included in the nation state; inclusion is not freedom. History shows how the white supremacist colonial state of Canada strategically desires our inclusion at times, to further its colonial agenda, only to exclude us to sustain its racist, anti-black agenda. To be included in the nation-state is to be in a colonial relationship with Original Peoples of this land, and inclusion necessarily comes at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. To avoid perpetuating colonial relationships with the Original Peoples of this land, Afrikans need to reflect on our history here, our relationships with Original Peoples and continue working to practice decolonial solidarity against and beyond the nation state.
A history of relationships
Relationships between Peoples of Afrikan descent and the Original Peoples of Turtle Island have deeply entangled historical roots. Though quite contentious, there are historical accounts that suggest that our communities had relationships prior to European colonization of the Americas and trans-Atlantic enslavement of Afrikans. While the history that gets privileged centers colonization and enslavement as the processes that made/make our relationships possible, this approach omits other important narratives outside of these frames of reference. It is true that the concomitant processes of the colonization of Turtle Island – and the genocide of the Original Peoples – and the trans-Atlantic enslavement of Afrikans, forced Afrikans en masse onto these lands. There have also been recent ‘waves’ of immigration from the Caribbean and Afrikan continent – Afrikans fleeing the impacts of colonialism and imperialism in their home lands – and other waves of Afrikans arriving under the notions of ‘better education’, ‘business opportunity’ ’employment’ and tourism.
In each of these scenarios, relationships between Original Peoples and Afrikans are highly mediated by white supremacist colonial institutions. White supremacy has mediated in ways that have materially benefited Afrikans who have played the inclusion game. The allure of material gain has led some Afrikans to align with the Canadian state and seek their liberation through legal, economic and political processes of the state that constitute the network of the colonial apparatus. It is clear that, in these Afrikan maneuverings for inclusion, Original Peoples of this land do not figure outside of rhetorical gestures of solidarity. The doctrines of terra nullius continue to influence how some Afrikans view Original Peoples and their lands. An illustrative example is the call for reparations that is predicated on a belief that it is only enslaved Afrikan bodies’ contributions that provided the capital necessary for the sustenance of Canada and the US; that the current nation states of USA and Canada own the resources that should be used for the reparations. White supremacy has also fed anti-Afrikan racism in some Indigenous circles (Amadahy & Lawrence, 2009). Thus, highly mediated by our respective oppressions under white supremacy, the relationships between Afrikans and Original Peoples of Turtle Island are inevitably complicated. White supremacy looms large in the interactions between our communities. So, how do Afrikans account for white supremacy when they conceive of their freedom on Turtle Island and their relationship with the Original Peoples of this land? How do we build relationships beyond the mediation of the colonial nation state?
Our histories show multiple forms of relationships of solidarity, against and beyond the nation state, that have contemporary resonance for Afrikans and Original Peoples. Original Peoples provided shelter and protection to Afrikans fleeing from slavery (Katz, 2008). A prominent example of this was the Underground Railroad that was supported by Indigenous communities in the north of Turtle Island. While an agreement existed between the British Governor of New York and the Iroquois Confederacy, the Delaware and the Huron, which bound these nations to return freed Afrikans back to enslavement, they did not comply (Katz, 2008). The relations of political solidarity also initiated familial relations that exist in the present, with a significant number of Afrikan-Mi’kmaq peoples (Amadahy & Lawrence, 2009), Afrikan-Haudenosauneee (Madden, 2009), African-Cherokee (Amadahy & Lawrence, 2009) and many more that date back to days of colonization and enslavement and contemporary times.
A multiple set of relations that are key to building decolonial relationships emerge from this brief historical background:
- Common experiences of oppression under white supremacy; particularly, as Sylvia Wynter argues, how the shared slave-ability of Indigenous Afrikans and Original Peoples of Turtle Island – and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples – defined European identity and colonial modernity as we live it.
- Complicity in the oppression of each other both historical and contemporary
- Collaboration and intertwining of each other’s struggles and mutual economic support
- Familial bonds
Relationships, land, and decolonial solidarities
“What seems more important than the semantics about whether or not individuals should be called settlers is the question of the relationships that Black “settlers” have, by virtue of their marginality, with those whose lands have been taken, and what relationships they wish to develop, at present, with Indigenous peoples.” (Amadahy and Lawrence, 2009, p. 107)
I read the quote above as a call for material decolonization. This is a call for a praxis that brings together the ideological and practical considerations of what it means to engage with and in a politics of Indigenous resurgence and self-determination, both for Original Peoples of Turtle Island and Afrikans. The question of self-determination is inevitably a question of land reclamation (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005). Self-determination is also both spatial and epistemological sovereignty beyond the confines of colonial statehood, as articulated by Andrea Smith (2011) who observes, “many Native women activists have begun articulating spiritually-based visions of nation and sovereignty which challenge the nation state form. Whereas nation states are governed through domination and coercion, indigenous sovereignty and nationhood is predicated on interrelatedness and responsibility.” The land on which we carry out our struggles, and the Original Peoples of that land, should be a central aspect of our paths and strategies for our liberation beyond the nation.
While the BSCA call could be read as calling for the telling of subjugated histories within the north of Turtle Island, it is also clearly a claim to belonging within the nation state, a nation state that is not a friend. As Cabral says, “only in stories is it possible to cross a river on the shoulders of a crocodile’s friend.” Racism and colonialism root the Canadian nation state and they continue to sustain it. And, in the absence of radical anti-colonial change, the Euro-Canadian colonial nation state is here to stay. It is these colonial discourses that birth a desire to belong through Afrikan-Canadian nationalisms that seek inclusion into the colonial states.
Inclusion continues to be promoted as the antidote to many of the oppressions that hinder our material wellbeing. It is a corrective philosophy that finds its support in the basic belief that oppression happens exclusively through means of exclusion. Not enough of us have asked the questions: included in what and under whose terms? It is quite clear that inclusion and co-optation have scattered many revolutionary struggles. Additionally, inclusion within colonial nation states entails that those included are included under the terms of those in power. Afrikan liberation through state recognition and inclusion is untenable for the following reasons:
- It forecloses the possibility of telling other histories that do not fit into the narratives of racist, colonial Canada. For example, the histories of anticolonial collaboration between Indigenous peoples and Afrikans become untellable and unintelligible within this frame.
- It recruits Afrikans into relations of oppression with Original Peoples. In fighting for inclusion within the framework of a Canadian colonial state, the presumption is that the Canadian state is legitimate, stable and will/should always exist (Smith, 2011). Seeking inclusion is material endorsement of the continued colonization of this land.
- There are global implications and inconsistencies of Afrikans belonging to a imperialist nation state that continues to support oppression of Afrikans on the continent, in the Caribbean, in South America, as well as here.
- To claim a place in colonial history is to betray the possibility of Indigenous resurgence and self-determination.
If Afrikan freedom struggles on this land are to be rooted in anti-colonial integrity, the Canadian nation state – as the embodiment of colonialism – ought to be the central site of contention, as a frame of solidarity with Original Peoples. Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” is a foundational starting point to think through the basis for relationships between Afrikans and Original Peoples. By understanding how the logics of anti-Black/Afrikan racism, genocide of Original peoples, and Orientalism are all put to the service of entrenching white supremacy, we can begin to understand how white-supremacy strategically pits Afrikans against Original Peoples, and vice-versa. We can see, then, that the process of recruiting us into a colonial relationship with Original Peoples, through belonging, is a relationship we have an obligation to refuse. We can also see that anti-racism struggles that remain bound by political, legal and economic provisions of the Canadian nation state, are nothing but a perpetuation of colonization and the co-optation of our struggles. The only ethical option that remains for Afrikan Peoples is to connect in solidarity with Original Peoples against the logics of colonialism and white supremacy.
Racism, capitalist exploitation, gendered violence, police brutality, and the imprisonment of Afrikan peoples are a result of and integrally constitute the colonial superstructure. As Thobani (2001) explains, “…we have to recognize that there will be no social justice, no anti-racism, no feminist emancipation, no liberation of any kind for anybody on this continent unless Aboriginal people succeed in their demand for self-determination.” The emancipation of Afrikans on Turtle Island is contingent on the Original Peoples of Turtle Island achieving sovereignty and own-determination; our freedoms are folded into one another.
‘Moyo’ Rainos Mutamba is a storyteller, Mbira musician and instructor, gardener, community activist, speaker, workshop facilitator, and researcher. Moyo has facilitated workshops, guest lectured, and worked in communities to address a wide range of social justice issues. He is also a PhD student at Ontario Institute of Studies in Education in the department of Social Justice Education.