Updated: May 26, 2020
Blackness without Borders (BwB) is a series of articles, essays and artworks that help us understand Blackness outside of national parameters. Through the unity of our diversity, B.A.S.S. exists as a fluid and transcultural representation of Blackness. BwB will serve as an archive of our work to interrogate the power of solidarity and our efforts to chart our trajectories for radical futures.
Artwork by Elsie Ayotunde Cullen
A Double Consciousness
Blackness has been described as a double consciousness - a concept that operates in a space between identities that are often constructed as discrete. As African bodies in a Western or non-African context, Black people often inhabit an inbetweenness that defies narrow definitions of ethnicity or nationality (Du Bois 1994; Basu 2017). While an essentialist approach to identity, that works to classify cultural groups by specific properties or attributes, often dominates the discourse (Singleton 2006:260), Blackness without Borders celebrates ambiguity.
This state of ambiguity is not exclusive to Black people in the West. As humans, we operationalize fluid concepts of being in our efforts to construct a sense of self. It can be said that all identity is the result of positioning ourselves within the narratives of the past and is thus always constructed from memory and fantasy. British Historian Paul Gilroy writes that identity is, “an outcome of shared and rooted experience tied, in particular, to place, location, language and mutuality” (2004:100). Thus, every individual works to understand their present selves through a combination of historical processes.
However, what is particular to the Black experience in the West, is the way in which the Transatlantic slave trade separated people (physically, mentally and spiritually) from their own histories and cosmologies, and created a situation in which new identities were forged in reference to an imagined past and situated in a present context. The Transatlantic slave trade initiated a new trajectory of identity production, a process that is never actually complete (Hall 1994:392-6). Exile, be it from an ancestral or personally inhabited homeland, provokes the creation of a new identity (Kasfir 1999:191). Frustratingly, African Diasporic identity necessitates the creation of a sense of oneself in another society’s history - a borrowing as a result of displacement (Basu 2017:2). Remembrance and Diasporic longing is at the crux of this formation. But for many Black communities of the West, centuries of ostracism and spiritual colonization create a situation in which Blackness is often sourced from a constructed cultural memory rather than a grounding in lived experiences or landscapes.
Despite this violent chaos and disruption, we continued to be beautiful. The Transatlantic slave trade created an environment in which syncretism, assimilation and creolization was nurtured (Hall 1994:401). Africans became Caribbean and created forms of living while being systematically oppressed. This is the global trend of Black genius. We devised new forms of communication and interaction for solidarity and survival. These “ways of belonging” (Levitt & Glick-Schiller 2004:1010) were a means to enact a new identity and demonstrate an embodied and conscious connection to the group. Through this, Blackness allows its hosts to “describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence” (Hall 1994:403). And It was Africa that sustained this existence.
Because of this tumultuous history, Blackness is modernity. The Transatlantic slave trade was a massively consequential historical phenomenon that shaped a globally connected extranational modernity. Similarly, the colonial and postcolonial migrations of Africans to the lands of colonial powers, concreted Africa into the cultural systems of the West. Jamaican-born British sociologist, Stuart Hall writes, “in the history of the modern world, there are few more traumatic ruptures to match these enforced separations from Africa” (1994:395). The reverberations of these transoceanic migrations and geopolitical expansion created the colonially (dis)ordered world in which we live (Harrison 2007:383). Thus, modernity should not be narrowly comprehended through the lens of the nation-state. A border-defined approach to understanding the repercussions of such a process will be persistently inadequate and diminish one’s ability to investigate the contemporary, which was yielded from a multifaceted and global past.
“And It was Africa that sustained this existence.”
Blackness without Borders
Blackness, as an identity, represents a syncretic transcultural manifestation of daily practices and languages that defies the pervasive notions of cultural or racial purity. Blackness exists and thrives in countless ethnic and geographic contexts. Thus, Blackness is extranational and transcultural. The nation-state paradigm fails to adequately capture this complexity (Levitt & Glick-Schiller 2004:1006). The descendants of peoples who migrated as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade, the historical process of much of the Diaspora in the Americas and Caribbean, often are unable to identify with the postcolonial nation-states of modern Africa - as many of the polities did not exist at the time their ancestors landed in the New World. Thus, African Diasporic identity is not necessarily connected to discrete national identities, but instead regions of the continent that help one understand their being outside of the white-supremacist hegemony in which they live. As Sidney Mintz explains, “people in chains must deal with living meaningfully in one place, and with their chains, at the same time” (1998:119).
This double consciousness that defines Blackness was famously described as facing two ways at once by American sociologist and historian, W.E.B. Du Bois (1994). The Black body in the Western world looks in one moment backwards to their ancestors in a foreign, at times imaginary, homeland, and in the next moment looks forwards to a future in the Western world. The Black body is both European and African, and at the same time neither of the two, as it works to simultaneously straddle two identities that have been historically constructed as exclusive.
But the spirit of pilgrimage remains vivid across the Black world. Our souls yearn for reunification. This phenomenon is evidenced by various back-to-Africa migrations of Black people from the Americas and Caribbean to settlements in Sierra Leone, Ghana, The Gambia and Liberia (Gilroy 1993:15). A desire to return to a land that was never lived in by communities of the Diaspora elucidates the transcultural positioning of many Black communities. Paul Gilroy frames this concept through the idea of the Black Atlantic, a border-defying system of cultural exchanges. Gilroy urges us to look at the Atlantic Ocean as the transcultural sphere of interaction that shaped modernity. The body of water nurtured a conglomeration of historical processes that created new Black identities and encompasses the homelands and ‘newfound lands’ of their settlement. Through this, we understand Blackness, Diaspora and Pan-Africanism to be symbolic and referential to a global African heritage. But also this framework acknowledges the heterogeneous manifestations that resulted from variable contexts and historical processes. Blackness is a unity of diversity.
“Despite the disruption of the Transatlantic slave trade, the subsequent years of oppressive chattel slavery, and the pillaging of the continent, Africa remains the foundation of Blackness.”
The Unity of Diversity
Collective identities have the tendency to manifest as methods of political thinking. Notions of identity are often invoked to bind individuals in solidarity for social action. Gilroy defines this as political kinship (2004:106,110,133). A core principle of Black solidarity is the notion of a shared culture, a “collective one true self’ (Hall 1994:393). Despite the disruption of the Transatlantic slave trade, the subsequent years of oppressive chattel slavery, and the pillaging of the continent, Africa remains the foundation of Blackness. And resistance is the principle that defines much of an experience that unites a diverse constituency within Blackness.
Through the use of expressive culture as language, Black creatives materialize their transcultural identities as a means of enunciating their humanity despite the oppression they face. Artists employ visual vocabularies that allow for identities to be communicated. As these aesthetic languages relate to history, Black artist-intellectuals often create works that represent their “search for a useable past” (Kasfir 1999:196). Modernist art movements such as AfriCOBRA of the United States, Négritude of Senegal, and the Natural Synthesis Movement of Nigeria represent the formulation of aesthetic languages for the conversation of Blackness.
A transnational framing of African heritage is at the core of the Black & African Solidarity Show (B.A.S.S.). As a community of creatives, we’re motivated to celebrate the transmission and present-day manifestations of African heritage across the globe. We believe Africa to be the primary shaping force of our realities and thus, as an organization we place Blackness and African Heritage at the forefront. Through an understanding of our shared pasts, we can use the entanglement of history and the contemporary to stimulate activism and political change. Our mission is to Hold Space for Black Joy and dialogue between Africans and those of African-descent in the Diaspora. To accomplish this, we’re committed to presenting Black and African identity as a diverse and multifaceted union. Blackness necessitates the creation of space without boundaries. B.A.S.S. aims to nurture environments in which art and creativity can be a tool of resistance, healing and solidarity. Our history is our future.
Basu, P. 2017. The Inbetweenness of Things. The Inbetweenness of Things: Materializing Mediation and Movement between Worlds /edited by Basu, P., pp. 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.
Du Bois, W. 1994. The Souls of Black folk. New York: Dover.
Hall, S. 1994. Cultural identity and diaspora. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader / edited by Williams, P. & Chrisman, L., pp. 392-403. London, Harvester and Wheatsheaf.
Harrison, F. 2006. Commentary: Building on a Rehistoricized Anthropology of the Afro-Atlantic. Afro-Atlantic Dialogues/ edited by Yelvington, K., pp. 381-398. School of American Research.
Kasfir, S. 1999. Contemporary African Art. Thames and Hudson: London.
Mintz, S. 1998. The Localization of Anthropological Practice: from area studies to transnationalism. Critique of Anthropology, 18(2), pp.117-133.
Singleton, T. 2006. African Diaspora Archaeology in Dialogue. Afro-Atlantic Dialogues/ edited by Yelvington, K., pp. 249-287. School of American Research.