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Agents of Colonialism vs. Tools of Colonialism1
In dealing with colonialism, we must consider the scope of what can be colonized. The conventional wisdom is that colonialism only relates to land and by extension the original occupants of the land are suppressed. We must understand that slavery is a manifestation of colonialism. Thus when you enslave people, they are alienated, not only from their land, but from themselves as a human being.
As the European colonized Africa, they also determined how they wanted to use their colonial subjects. The result of their decisions was to ship some of their subjects to their colonies and subjugate the others who remained in Africa. This is one process of colonialism with different consequences. To make what happened to Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora a separate phenomenon is to perpetrate a false division which creates space for someone like Lickers to conclude that Africans in the Americas can be called settlers. J. Sakai’s Settlers, The Mythology of the White Proletariat, buttresses the aforementioned point when he notes:
Amerika imported a proletariat from Afrika, a proletariat permanently chained in an internal colony, laboring for the benefit of all settlers. Afrikan workers might be individually owned, like tools and draft animals, by some settlers and not others, but in their colonial subjugation they were as a whole owned by the entire Euro-Amerikan nation.2
The profundity of Sakai’s statement should not be overlooked. He is defining how colonialism manifests itself for Africans whereby we are used as objects to fortify settler society. Consider the example he gives:
John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, may have presented Afrikan troops with a banner – which praised them as “The Bucks of America” – but that didn’t help Afrikans such as Captain Mark Starlin. He was the first Afrikan captain in the Amerikan naval forces, and had won many honors for his near-suicidal night raids on the British fleet (which is why the settlers let him and his all-Afrikan crew sail alone). But as soon as the war ended, his master simply reclaimed him. Starlin spent the rest of his life as a slave. He, ironically enough, is known to historians as an exceptionally dedicated “patriot”, super loyal to the new settler nation.3
The historical record is clear. As an African, the settler used your existence in the service of their own settler nation. Captain Mark Starlin thought he was an agent of colonialism, but he later found out he was a tool. Shout out to all “African-American” politicians!
A perfect example that runs analogous to Starlin’s case is those Indigenous nations known as the “First Civilized Tribes”. These were tribes that were deemed civilized by Anglo-European settlers. Let’s use the Cherokee as an example, here we had a people that had converted to Christianity to prove that it was “civilized” (same as the African colonial subject was made to do), and even enslaved Africans in some instances. But at the end of the day, this did not prevent the Indian Removal Act Of 1830, culminating in the genocidal Trail of Tears. The point is that the African in the Americas and the Indigenous of Turtle Island, are colonial subjects.
A Complete Decolonization
A true understanding of colonialism helps us understand the parallels between the African and Indigenous people of the Americas. The political implications of this understanding can culminate into a political project that aims to truly decolonize the Americas. Author Leslie Silko in her novel Almanac of the Dead, writes about the colonial subjugation of both the Indigenous people of the Americas and Africans. Throughout the novel she discusses how African and Indigenous people of the Americas have the same struggle to decolonize. In her reference to African and Indigenous people of the Americas, she refers to the two as “tribal people”, not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense of oneness that African and Indigenous people share culturally, which is one reason why our colonial subjugation has such striking resemblances.4 To reject this premise is anti-dialectical and, in lay terms, defies common sense.
The nation-states of the Americas are European constructs born out of settler colonialism. While it is obvious European colonialism has devastated the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, ignoring the status of Africans in the Americas as colonial subjects will never provide a sufficient analysis to truly DECOLONIZE THIS!
- We must make a distinction here between the functions of an agent vs. a tool. An agent has the ability to act in the world in order to achieve a specific goal either set by themselves or a person/group they represent. A tool is a person who has been reduced to an object which is used by the agent and/or the represented group for said groups’ objectives. To be clear, the white, working class can be labeled as agents of colonialism in service of the white, ruling class under the banner of white nationalism. The African and other oppressed nationalities were used by both the white, working and ruling classes for the goal of building whatever settler colonial/colonial entity they envisioned. This is clear when we see how both the white, working and ruling class form a united front when oppressed people gain consciousness and struggle to be agents who represent our interests (think about the platitude the white left always uses “We are all in the same boat. Don’t divide the working class by seeking your own selfish interests. We must do what’s best for everybody.” Everybody always means them!). This understanding is instructive for colonized peoples; as it teaches us that we can only become agents when we consciously resist domination—from the colonial right and left—and pursue our particular needs as a unique people within the human family. Resistance does not include seeking more inclusion and/or higher positions within the colonial system. Whenever a colonized person obtains higher positions, they are still controlled by the colonizer and are therefore an upgraded tool (i.e. you go from being a screwdriver to a high powered drill!!). Consider the white backlash Obama was confronted with during the Henry Louis Gates incident; why else would he need to bow down to a white cop who was supposedly his subordinate?! He is the Black & Decker drill, pun intended. ↩
- J. Sakai, Settlers, the Mythology of the White Proletariat: The True Story of the White Nation (Chicago: Morningstar Press, 1989), 9. ↩
- Ibid., p. 19. ↩
- One of the ways she expresses this oneness is through her character Clinton, “Clinton wanted black people to know all their history; he wanted them to know all that had gone on before in Africa; how great and powerful gods had traveled from Africa with people. He wanted black Americans to know how deeply African blood had watered the soil of the Americas for five hundred years. But there had been an older and deeper connection between Africa and the Americas, in the realm of the spirits. Yet for a while, it must have seemed to the Africans who had survived ocean crossings that their gods had indeed forsaken them. The Spanish plantations and mines of Hispaniola had been a fate worse than death for the Caribbean tribes, who had deliberately died rather than live as slaves. African slaves had been shipped in as replacements for the Indian slaves, who proved to be nearly worthless. From the beginning, Africans had escaped and hid in the mountains where they met up with survivors of indigenous tribes hiding in remote strongholds. In the mountains the Africans had discovered a wonderful thing: certain African gods had located themselves in the Americas as well as Africa: the Giant Serpent, the Twin Brothers, the Maize Mother, to name a few. Right then the magic had happened: great American and great African tribal cultures had come together to create a powerful consciousness within all people. All were welcome-everyone had been included. That had been and still was the great strength of Damballah, the Gentle. Damballah excluded no one and nothing.” Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of the Dead (New York: Penguin Books 1992), 416. ↩