The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race

The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race

by Jemima Pierre

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What is the meaning of blackness in Africa? While much has been written on Africa’s complex ethnic and tribal relationships, Jemima Pierre’s groundbreaking The Predicament of Blackness is the first book to tackle the question of race in West Africa through its postcolonial manifestations. Challenging the view of the African continent as a nonracialized space—as a fixed historic source for the African diaspora—she envisions Africa, and in particular the nation of Ghana, as a place whose local relationships are deeply informed by global structures of race, economics, and politics.   Against the backdrop of Ghana’s history as a major port in the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent and disruptive forces of colonialism and postcolonialism, Pierre examines key facets of contemporary Ghanaian society, from the pervasive significance of “whiteness” to the practice of chemical skin-bleaching to the government’s active promotion of Pan-African “heritage tourism.” Drawing these and other examples together, she shows that race and racism have not only persisted in Ghana after colonialism, but also that the beliefs and practices of this modern society all occur within a global racial hierarchy. In doing so, she provides a powerful articulation of race on the continent and a new way of understanding contemporary Africa—and the modern African diaspora.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226923048
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/10/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Jemima Pierre teaches in the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

Read an Excerpt

The Predicament of Blackness

Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92303-1

Chapter One

Of Natives and Europeans: Colonialism and the Ethnicization of Racial Dominance

[T]he racial category "black" evolved with the consolidation of racial slavery. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans whose specific identity was Ibo, Yoruba, Fulani, etc., were rendered "black" by an ideology of exploitation based on racial logic—the establishment and maintenance of a "color line." ... With slavery ... a racially based understanding of society was set in motion which resulted in the shaping of a specific racial identity. —Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States

The premier Gold Coast nationalist [John Mensah] Sarbah by ethnic identification was Fanti; colonial legislation enacted in 1883 also classified him as a Native, one of several million such in the Gold Coast (and beyond). —Kwaku Korang, Writing Ghana, Imagining Africa

olonialism is one of the elements that subtends the construction of white identity. —Richard Dyer, White

This chapter's epigraphs refer us to a particular consolidation of identity that results from the interrelated histories of the transatlantic slave trade of Africans and the formal European colonization of the African continent. The first epigraph charts how various African groupings were, through capture and enslavement, rendered "Black"—racialized through cultural and social distinctions into a scarcely differentiated mass. The second epigraph points to how African groupings were, through colonial legislation and practice, rendered "native"—a dual process of first constructing and then flattening ethnocultural difference and belonging into a racialized collectivity. This racialized "Black" and "African" collectivity was then contrasted to a racialized White European colonial power. Thus, the third epigraph demonstrates the other side of the racializing coin—the homogenization of European groupings and the making of colonial Whiteness. In juxtaposing these epigraphs, I am explicitly marking the overlapping processes of a racialized New World "Blackness" and a continental-colonial "nativeness," processes constructed through and against those of the "Whiteness" of the broad imperial project. The delineation of these overlapping processes also serves to make the obvious, though underexplored, link between the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism—two key moments in the long historical arc of European empire making. By examining the various ways that European empire making created and then variously confronted the "native question," I capture the local dimensions of the global designs of the coloniality of race and power (Mignolo 2000).

The legal and de facto construction of nativeness was a key structuring principle of the local racial terrain forged under colonial rule in continental Africa. Nativization was racialization. My discussion here follows a particular historical genealogy that presents the establishment of formal colonialism in the Gold Coast/Ghana—and West Africa more generally—as the foundation both for the consolidation of racial/civilizational distinctions and racial rule, and the structuring of a local racialized cultural and political terrain from that moment to the present. This analysis takes as a point of departure Mahmood Mamdani's contention more than a decade ago (1996, 1999) that the contemporary moment in Africa is informed by the core structural legacy of the colonial strategy of "indirect rule." Indirect rule was in fact the establishment of formalized racial thinking rationalized through the practice of apartheid. Thus, apartheid—"with its racially-defined democracy alongside its ethnically-demarcated Native Authorities" (1999, 862)—is neither exceptional nor solely a South African predicament; rather, it is the generic form of colonial rule in Africa. In the Gold Coast, as in other European-controlled territories in Africa, racialization was embedded institutionally, built into the particular structure and practice of colonial rule. The making of the native depended upon the racial configuration—both through official recognition and artificial invention—of a loose constellation of mutually exclusive and antagonistic "tribal" groupings. This fact affected local identity and politics in profound ways. Tribal affiliation, as opposed to a comparable racial distinction based on Black subordination and White advancement, was the overwhelming fact of life for the average colonized African. Significantly, the joint processes of "native" and "European" identity making were such that the active production of racial ideology on the ground was rendered simultaneously absent and imminent.

The formal nativization of African identities was a result of a shift in British colonial ruling policy and concomitant Europeanization. Under indirect rule, colonial policy racialized the African as native, crucially displacing a prominent local professional elite of so-called Europeanized Africans. Alongside this displacement was the practical enactment, on the ground, of the social, political, and juridical racial and cultural apartheid that separated natives from Europeans. Thus, the official procedures and consequences of indirect rule allowed for the consolidation of a thoroughly racialized social and political structure in the Gold Coast. This same structure would, ironically, create the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a collective and "national" racial consciousness—intellectual and political movements from Pan-Africanism to anticolonial nationalism and independence. It would also inform the ongoing contradictions between this racial consciousness and enduring ethnocultural loyalties that persist even in the present moment.

This chapter interrogates the structure of colonial rule—indirect rule—as an important racialization process in the Gold Coast/Ghana. Indirect rule enabled the implementation and development of a particular set of new racial, ethnic, and cultural regimes throughout the West African territories ruled by England. I begin with an examination of indirect rule's general features, particularly the simultaneous making of "natives" and "Europeans" through the pattern of differentiation based on assumptions of radical racial and cultural difference. There are, of course, many important projects of structural racialization (and racism) in the colonial Gold Coast. These range from discriminatory economic practices and political mandates to African-specific educational policies that depended on the belief in African intellectual inferiority. I briefly review two of these projects here. First, I examine the political and economic practices of the colonial state and concurrent demise of the class of African educated commercial and professional elite. Second, I look at the establishment of apartheid through urban planning and residential segregation. While the scope of this discussion does not permit an exhaustive treatise on all colonialist racializing processes, these examples serve to reveal not only the inevitable hierarchical racialization of the local community but also the consistent efforts of the colonial regime at consolidating Whiteness. The chapter ends with a contextualization of this discussion of nativization and racialization by prefiguring the trajectories and tragedies of postindependence reform.

The Modes of Colonial Power

The categorical distinctions between "native" and "nonnative" represented a fundamental method of ordering colonial society. These distinctions were conceived in terms of absolute physical difference within a racial frame and consolidated through cultural discourse, legal practices, and social convention. Official and unofficial colonial correspondence about Africa is replete with references to "the natives." From deliberations on the "native question" to disputes over how to define a native, such conversations point to negotiations around particular distinctions of race, culture, and hegemonic power. One of the clearest descriptions of the African subject population, the natives, comes from a commissioned survey of "race relations" in the colonies toward the end of British rule. Referring to the various British colonies on the African continent, the document reports that there is an overlap between the use of the terms "native" and "African," against those of "European" and "nonnative." While there was great variation in how the terms were applied in distinct spaces, the authors came to the following conclusion: " The normal meaning of 'Native' or 'African' is therefore seen to be a member of an aboriginal African tribe or community who lives among and follows the customs [italics added] of such community." In particular, "native" not only indicated a strictly biological identity, but such reference was only significant inasmuch as it was linked to a distinguishing set of cultural practices and customs. "Native," therefore, is more than just a category marking a subject of rule; it is a distinction of ethnological proportions linking beliefs about the subjects' physiological, emotional, and mental character to, ultimately, capacity for rule.

Through colonial discourses about the native and practices of native making, the institutionalization of racialized rule came to be hidden beneath local articulations of power. Colonial domination in Africa was distinctive. It was the site of a significant shift in British colonial policy from the "zeal of a civilizing mission" to a hegemonic cultural project of incorporation, "harnessing the moral, historical, and community impetus behind local custom to a larger colonial project" (Mamdani 1996, 286). With the expanded focus on the notion of the "customary," we see the marshaling of indigenous culture (real, perceived, and invented) for authoritarian rule. In dealing with the "native question"—that is, the most effective way for a small of number of conquerors to rule a majority—colonial powers followed two paths: direct rule and indirect rule. Direct rule came first and was aimed at providing a small local elite access to European "culture" and "civilization" in return for strong allies in the colonial enterprise. Indirect rule, on the other hand, was premised on the perceived diffusion of colonial power through "native custom." Thus, where direct rule sought to "shape the world of the elite amongst the conquered population, the object of indirect rule was to shape the world of the colonized masses" (Mamdani 1999, 865). And indirect rule emerged as a way to reform the contradictions inherent in direct rule—how to justify the exclusion of the small elite group of subjects who, by virtue of their cultural assimilation into "European civilization," expected to be granted full "civilized" rights. Indirect rule shifted this concern and instead established the legitimacy of rule through the incorporation of the masses through what was considered their own organic institutions.

Key to this incorporation, and to indirect rule, was the configuration of racial and ethnic (or tribal) identities—for Africans as well as for Europeans. The colonial state had a two-tiered structure: on the ground, the subject population was ruled by a constellation of ethnically defined native institutions that were, in turn, supervised by nonnative/European officials "deployed from a racial pinnacle at the center" (Mamdani 1996, 287). But this two-tiered rule constructed and reproduced these two sets of identities in a dual move for Africans. In the first instance, there was the distinction between native and nonnative (or European)—and later, others such as those of "Asiatic origin"—that was based on notions of absolute racial and cultural difference. In the second movement, the native, while categorically representing the racialized mass of subjects under rule, was further subdivided into distinct (and presumably culture-bound) tribal and/or ethnic groupings. The native in this configuration was actually fragmented from a singular subject group; in practice, each ethnic or tribal group was understood to be governed by its own set of rules framed under its specific cultural patterns, however defined. Moreover, tribal or ethnic identities were associated solely with the natives. The European, in fact, was racialized but not ethnicized. The native, on the other hand, was both ethnicized and racialized—but her racialization was subsumed under her tribal/ethnic affiliations. In this social patterning, there emerged a dual set of consequences. Whereas the European/nonnative political, cultural, and civic identity presented itself as a singular racial power controlling the group of natives, the force of this power was diffused through the various cultural "authorities" of the native tribal groupings. In practice, this worked through the distinctions between "civil society" and "customary society," juridically enacted through notions of civil law/rights and customary law, respectively.

Similar to native identity, customary law was not singular; it was a set of laws based on a varied set of customs and practices believed—and often rendered—by colonial authorities to be customary. Each tribe purportedly had its own set of customary laws that would be enforced by its own colonially established "native authority." What "customary" meant, how the native authority enforced a set of customary laws, and how these were set up against the "civil society" comprising the European group all reflected the solid racial structure of colonial power as well as assumptions of the native's cultural alterity. Also at the heart of this structure was the dual system of justice and punishment, one set for the colonial rulers and one for the native authorities. The power of the native authorities was seen to reside in the chief, the authoritarian ruler and enforcer of tribal customs (Crowder 1968; Killingray 1986). And unlike civil law, customary law was never written6—the colonial-sanctioned native authorities had full control over the interpretation of "customs." Most significant, however, was that the crude violence of colonial rule was also disseminated through the native authorities, and "custom" became the language of force in everything from land distribution to forced labor and direct taxation to the colonial state.

It is important to highlight the overlapping, and at times unstable, inflections of race and culture at the heart of the decentralized rule of the colonial state through indirect rule. The split between the Native Authority and civil or colonial authority—a clear legal and political distinction—was racially framed and based on a crude biological understanding of race as encompassing physical, somatic, genetic, and cultural differences. Europeans—and, later, Arabs and Asians—were considered racially distinct from the subject "tribal" African populations. Indeed, by the time of the formal colonization of continental Africa, scientific racism and ideas about the African or "Negro" had already been consolidated from the early period of the transatlantic slave trade and the establishment of chattel slavery in European colonies in the New World. In late nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury thinking, this biological and racial distinction was also a cultural one, and it would define political status since race identity was assumed to determine behavioral as well as cultural tendencies (Stocking 1992). If the native was rendered racially distinct from the European ruler, it also meant that she was culturally distinct, further marked by the difference between "custom" and "civilization."

In particular, assumption of British national, racial, and cultural superiority provided clear justification for its imperial ventures in Asia and Africa. This sense of superiority had been honed through justifications for British plantation slavery in the Americas, rapid industrialization, and a growing nationalism that was linked to imperial conquests. By the time of Britain's formal conquest of parts of the African continent, English beliefs about the native's retarded development were commonplace. For Frederick Lugard, the chief architect of indirect rule, colonial control depended on the absolute racial difference between the White European and the Black African. And Africans were naturally predisposed to occupying certain positions in the hierarchy of human evolution and civilization (Tafwo 2010). Lugard believed the "typical African" to be a "happy" and "excitable" being, "full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music.... His mind ... far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animal's placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the stage he has reached'" (Lugard 1922, 69). Britain's dual mandate therefore was to impart culture and civilization to the African "primitive" while availing itself of the continent's resources, which such "primitives" were incapable of managing.


Excerpted from The Predicament of Blackness by JEMIMA PIERRE Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface Acknowledgments Introduction
ONE / Of Natives and Europeans: Colonialism and the Ethnicization of Racial Dominance
TWO / “Seek Ye First the Political Kingdom”: The Postcolony and Racial Formation
THREE / “You Are Rich Because You Are White”: Marking Race and Signifying Whiteness
FOUR / The Fact of Lightness: Skin Bleaching and the Colored Codes of Racial Aesthetics
FIVE / Slavery and Pan-Africanist Triumph: Heritage Tourism and State Racecraft
SIX / “Are You a Black American?”: Race and the Politics of African-Diasporic Interactions
SEVEN / Race across the Atlantic . . . and Back: Theorizing Africa and/in the Diaspora
EPILOGUE / Writing Ghana, Imagining Africa, Interrogating Diaspora

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