Israel, Africa, and Black America

All over the world, moviegoers are raving about the recently released and now one of the world’s top grossing films, Black Panther; not just because of the movie itself or what it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but because of what such a movie represents and how it is shaping a lot of conversations surrounding identity and justice. I personally, as a lot of Black Panther fans, have been thoroughly enjoying interviews of cast members and play-by-play breakdowns by director, Ryan Coogler to get as much insight on the film as possible; everything from the relationships on set, to the symbolism of each scene, to what the movie means for the overall storyline in the MCU. My personal favorite is watching the cast members talk about their favorite moments on set. In the clip, Lupita Nyong’o describes what she very excitedly calls “Pan-Africa.” Nyong’o, along with the rest of the Black Panther cast describe their experience making the movie as something of a glimpse of what a true bridge between Africa and the African Diaspora looks like. The movie for me highlights a conversation that so desperately needs to take place; not one that is black and white, but one that is black Africa and black America.

Generally speaking, the black Africa/black America conversation until now has either been superficial, non-existent, or contentious. In the ’80s and ’90s, the term “African Booty Scratcher” became a popular term that was used to describe black Africans living in America, and most often by black Americans. Conversely, black Africans living in America would tend to use the word “Akata” (a term loosely meaning “wandering cat” or “wandering jackal”) when referring to black Americans. Because of this tension that existed between the adults, the effects were felt the most by the children growing up in shared environments like grade school, for example. This has led to what we have seen more recently in college spaces like Cornell University. In September 2017, Cornell University’s Black Students United demanded for Cornell University to admit less African and Caribbean students and admit more black Americans which, as defined by them, are black people who have been in the U.S. for two or more generations. Now, Black Student’s United has since apologized for those demands, which is all well and good, but we are still left with many questions, none of which can be answered without meaningful interaction between the estranged siblings.

Beneath the T’Challa vs. Killmonger debate are very rich, meaningful, and nuanced dialogue being had between us and our African brothers and sisters, which is a very good thing, but only the beginning to what could be something beautiful and redemptive. The next step is black Americans touring, frequenting, and living life in countries in Africa, but more specifically, in our countries of origin.  Nigerian-American rap artist, Jidenna is another prominent figure in the celebrity space that has been using his platform to advocate for black Americans to have free access to ancestry tracing. Jidenna states that, like Jewish Americans, black Americans need to have what is essentially birthright; a free trip to our country of origin to get a deeper understanding of our roots and strengthen our sense of identity. Jidenna goes on to state passionately that as black Americans, some of the issues we face as a community cannot be overcome by just us, and that we can overcome them with help and resources from other parts of the world, namely Africa. His vision is to fund this project with other affluent singers, athletes, and entrepreneurs. As someone who is deeply rooted in his Igbo roots, being a child of both Africa and America, he sees the grave importance and vast potential of black Americans not only knowing, and not even putting stereotypes to rest, but having a real physical and emotional connection to and relationship with the continent and its heritage.

The only way a community, a family or individual knows how to move forward, is if they know from where it is they came. Black Americans have a rich history of encountering impossible hurdles, facing impossible circumstances, and overcoming. Our story is one of triumph. Our legacy is Frederick Douglass, born a slave who could not read until the age of 12, died a one of the greatest minds in American history, having advised two of our presidents, played a pivotal role in abolishing slavery, and beginning the fight for black voting rights. Our legacy is Booker T. Washington, from slavery to once again, advising two of our presidents, and together with Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald built thousands of schools for black children in the segregated south. The story of black America is the story of the impossible. We can and will never learn enough about our American journey. However, our journey stretches a lot further back than the soil we stand on now. It stretches back for hundreds and even thousands of additional years, and we need to know that journey just as sorely as the one with which we are more familiar. And until fairly recently, because of lost or destroyed slave records, we had a very general if any understanding that we came from “Africa.” We have the tools now to find out from exactly who our people were, who they are, what customs they held, what other adversities they faced, and how they fair today. It is more than fascinating, it is our identity. It is the very fabric of who we truly are. And for an individual who knows who they are, virtually nothing that can stand in their way from changing the world for the better.

What does any of this have to do with Israel?

All of this talk of Africa and re-realizing our roots as African Americans is great and all, but we immediately run into some problems. We know that during the transatlantic slave trade, a large amount of the roughly 12 million enslaved Africans were from west African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. So, for example, if I were to find out that I have a considerable amount of Nigerian in my DNA (which I do), and wanted to go and visit my country of origin, there are large parts of the country I could never visit due to Boko Haram and their conquest to forcibly turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. Israel is actively working with Nigeria to combat the terrorism they face. Though Israel was blocked from sending aid to Nigeria by the U.S. a few years back, in the wake of another tragic kidnapping, Israel reached out another hand to Nigeria in February 2018 unencumbered by the U.S., and was very quickly and warmly welcomed. With Israel’s extraordinarily advanced security and counter-terrorism technology, there is a lot the Nigerian government can gain from this, the most pressing gain right now being their country back.

That is a very heavy example, but that is one of many amazing outcomes of Israel’s relationship to Africa. In Zimbabwe after president Robert Mugabe expropriated Zimbabwean farmlands from white farmers in 2000, the land badly suffered due to poor maintenance and an impending drought. Israel has since been assisting Zimbabwean farmers with drip irrigation technology, and revolutionizing the farming industry for farmers around the world. Not only is Zimbabwe in a much better place for it, but black Zimbabwean farmers are getting the education they need to take care of their land properly. Being in the desert, Israel’s very personal experience with lack of water has made them find innovative and creative ways to produce and preserve it. Because of this, Israel teaches other countries how to do the same.

There are quite literally countless more examples of the Israel-Africa relationship, from solar energy, to organizations like Innovation: Africa; so countless in fact, that one could very confidently say that Israel has done more for Africa than any other country in the world has. And with this Israel-Africa alliance that continues to grow and thrive, there is a theme here; the theme is not one of invading and imposing, but one of empowering and advancing. Israel is not imposing on these African countries to turn them into Israel; Israel is helping Africa to unearth a beauty and strength she already has; a strength that has lain dormant for centuries. From the transatlantic slave trade, to the aggressive colonization by the Europeans, to the enslavement by the Arabs that still exists today, to the corruption that exists within some African countries, Africa has a long road ahead of her to economic and in some cases physical freedom. The more African countries choose to partner with Israel, the more that road will shorten.

Now finally, what does Israel-Africa and Africa-black America have to do with Israel-Africa-black America?

There is an awakening within the black American communities to have a deeper connection to our past that goes further back than the civil rights era and slavery. That awakening has led and will continue to lead many of us to find out where we are from, and not only visit, but be a part of the solution to helping to restore Africa. One of the ways we can help with the restoration, is by black entrepreneurs in the U.S. investing and doing business in and with Africa. We can lend our hands and feet and voice to help right the wrongs that exist in Africa in our time like we did during apartheid in South Africa; we, the people with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Carter Woodson, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Black Wall Street, the Harlem Renaissance, and so much more. We can make real and lasting change in the continent. It is only as we push forward in our search for the whole truth of who we are that we come to a deeper understanding of, and connection to that truth.

Wakanda is a fictional place. It is, however, based on the affluence that Africa once had, and to a degree, still has. Israel is helping Africa to keep what she has, and to take back what was once hers. This heart Israel has for Africa is not a recent event; in fact, it predates modern Israel itself. Decades before Israel was reborn in 1948, one of the fathers of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, stated:

“There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

Source: Golda Meir, My Life, (NY: Dell Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 308-309

Once we realize who we are as the African diaspora, we will realize that we have a lot more in common with Israel than we may have previously thought. We will realize that Israel has a very crucial role to play in this redemptive Pan-African movement, and that we have to play our part as well. With Israel’s help, we can visit all of Nigeria and see it for what it truly is. With Israel’s help, we can visit Zimbabwe and be in awe of its beauty. With Israel’s help, we can see an Africa, free of Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, slavery and organ harvesting. With Israel help, we will see Africa transformed; not restored to her former glory, but transformed into something greater than any eye has ever seen.

About the Author
Joshua is the Director of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI) where he plans events and speaks. He’s a composition graduate of the University of Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. Joshua was formerly IBSI’s Director of Special Events, and planned music performances featuring The Hebrew Project Artists (THP) across the country. Joshua is also a graduate of CUFI’s 2016 Diversity Outreach Mentoring Endeavor (DOME), where he received training in Israel advocacy for diverse audiences. He was chosen to travel to Israel twice; once as part of CUFI’s millennial outreach, Israel Collective, and again as part of a music performance with Victor Styrsky’s Wild Branches & Friends. His other musical endeavors include writing for the Boston Pops, and music directing for other artists. Joshua is also a featured author on a collaborative book called 'Israelophobia and the West: The Hijacking of Civil Discourse on Israel and How to Rescue It' by Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs official, Dan Diker.
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