by Lisa Insansa Woods

A misleading image presents itself within certain areas of Black power discourse. It is the gilded image of the Black royal or the ancient African empire, manifesting within popular culture as a vision to aspire to. The recent release of Beyoncé’s Black Is King brings the subject back to the forefront of the public domain, presenting a glorification of Black royalty in the matrix of the Black liberation struggle.

This idolisation does not fit a revolutionary paradigm, but, rather, strives for “advancement” in line with a white supremacist world. It honours the western concept of civilisation as a system that oppresses others: there would be no monarchy without subjugation, no “great” empire without violence and theft.

It is a red herring to suggest that Black people can achieve freedom through these means. Freedom comes from equality and autonomy, not through the adoration of unequal African kingdoms or visions of Black nobility. To achieve emancipation, Black people must look beyond this white supremacist paradigm and towards a new world order, look away from the ostentatious materialism that defines a bourgeois class and push for an anti-capitalist future, one where true democracy exists.

there would be no monarchy without subjugation, no “great” empire without violence and theft.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate, for example, Ancient Egypt’s innovation in areas such as mathematics, astronomy, written language and medicine; but let’s not look at it as a solution or aspiration for our future.

Instead of looking at the highly stratified societies of Ancient Egypt, Great Zimbabwe or the Ethiopian empire as the zenith of Black culture, why not amplify more egalitarian values in history, such as pre-colonial African communalism and the philosophy of Ubuntu.

African communalism refers to the structure of some pre-colonial African societies (emphasis on “some” as to make sure that we’re not homogenising the rich African continent, or even homogenising all these separate communal cultures). It was not a perfect system – there is no perfect system – but it embodied values such as decentralisation of power, community resolution, collective ownership of the means of production and consensus in decision-making, resembling the non-hierarchical structure of anarchism.

In their book African Anarchism, Sam Mbah and I E Igariwey write:

Among the most important features of African communalism are the absence of classes, that is, social stratification; the absence of exploitative or antagonistic social relations; the existence of equal access to land and other elements of production; equality at the level of distribution of social produce; and the fact that strong family and kinship ties form(ed) the basis of social life in African communal societies.”

Similarly, Ubuntu (see below), a philosophy with its roots in the Nguni Bantu languages of Southern Africa, is a call for community solidarity and symbiosis between one another. Ubuntu translates as: “I am because we are.” Although the word has been commodified and overused in the last few decades as to dilute its meaning, at its base, Ubuntu rebukes a society of individualism, seeing the power of collectivism instead. Therefore, the philosophy stands in sharp contrast to the rugged individualism of neoliberal capitalism.

Whilst we should look to the past for inspiration, it is as clumsy to deify pre-colonial African societies based on communalist structures, as it is to paint Black empires as utopias. For example, we cannot ignore gender imbalance in some forms of communalism, manifesting within polygyny culture, as well as external tension with other tribes/ethnic groups.

Ultimately, we cannot rely on past models of society as blueprints for our emancipation. What we need to do is construct our own model of a new world that benefits us, whilst accurately analysing and understanding systems that have come before us. We must smash through the colonial gaze that fixates on a bourgeois agenda as a measure of progression and focus our critical eye instead on real social advancement.

Our Blackness is worth more than the confines of a socially stratified structure. Down with visions of Black royalty and up with a community-powered future. 

Featured image ‘Ethiopian princess arrival in Thebes from Histoire de l’art Égyptien (1878) by Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879)’ CC BY 4.0 Rawpixels

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