Emma: On Turning Dubliners into Pan-Africanists

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.


Hi Emma, I am an Afro-Irish of Nigerian ancestry who recently moved to London. As a Pan-Africanist, there in me lies a feeling of trepidation as I feel that a myriad of young people of African descent in Ireland, especially in Dublin, are not conscious or so-called “woke”, compared to what I am experiencing in London. What do you think we can do as Pan-Africanists to wake up the masses?

Like, many of my peers in their late teens or early twenties are not aware of great men like Thomas Sankara, Jerry Rawlings, Kwame Nkrumah, Callie House, Fela Kuti, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Marcus Garvey, Sojourner Truth and so many more. At times I feel like they do not care.

Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Do you think parents should take responsibility to cultivate their children’s erudition, or young people themselves have to educate themselves about their history? Just like Irish history is instilled in Irish children in the school system, thus they know their heroes such as Padraig Pearse, Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, etc.

First of all welcome to London. I hope you’re enjoying it!

We are living in exciting times as a collective political awakening takes place not only across the African Diaspora but amongst marginalised and oppressed groups more generally.

While this is a welcome development, it could more cynically be argued that a sort of “fake woke” activism is currently on-trend, as a result of which a lot of current protestations can feel performative at best.

Occasionally, I doubt many more people are “woke” than they were 20 years ago, it is just that now more people profess to be. Or at least rock the slogan T-shirt.

Undoubtedly, black political action amongst young people is far more organised in the UK than in Ireland. This is a result of numbers, but also due to the relative comparably short length of time that there has been any sizeable black youth population in Ireland.

As the black Irish population becomes more established, I imagine we will see a direct effect in political action. Remember people who are third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation – as many Black British people are – will have significantly different experiences than those of the first generation.

Ireland also has a pretty revolutionary history and a generally anarchic streak, so for me it would be exciting to see those sensibilities informing black Irish thought and activism and distinguishing it from other European articulations.

One can’t assume that most parents are going to be familiar with all of the individuals you list. I would expect that those who are would indeed pass that knowledge on to their offspring. But often as a teenager there is nothing as off-putting as your aul pair hyping anything to you.

For those that don’t know, Pan-Africanism is a worldwide intellectual movement which ams to encourage and strengthen solidarity between all people of African descent. The ideology asserts that the fate of all African peoples and countries are intertwined. At its core Pan-Africanism is “a belief that African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny”.

One might well think, okay, but what the hell has any of this got to do with Ireland? Well quite a lot actually. Leading black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois expressed solidarity with Irish revolutionaries fighting British imperialism.

“The white slums of Dublin represent more bitter depths of human degradation,” wrote Du Bois, “than the black slums of Charleston and New Orleans, and where human oppression exists there the sympathy of all black hearts must go.”

To the black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1916 Rising was seen as a powerful and inspiring symbol of anti-colonialism. Irish revolutionaries such as Roger Casement were celebrated by the likes of Marcus Garvey himself, who in fact added a green stripe to his Universal Negro Improvement Association uniform as a signifier of solidarity with Ireland, highlighting the fact that the Irish struggle was part of the same fight for freedom as the one being waged by the “400,000,000 Negroes of the World”.

In my own school days, despite my passion for history, I remember often feeling extremely disconnected from what I was learning. I think this was the combined result of so often feeling excluded from Irishness, and having teachers who were generally boring af – and that much could be done to make the material come alive more.

I remain ambivalent about ideas such as Black History Month, which ultimately present black history as something “other”, rather than part of an intimately interwoven shared, collective past.

I think the education system would be much better served by engaging with our de-colonial history, situating Ireland’s past in the context of other colonised countries like Nigeria, Ghana or India, in order that we better understand the parallels between our respective histories.

This would have a far greater impact of race relations in the country today than any Black History Month. I would be adamant that Padraig Pearse, Michael Collins and others are as much a part of our cultural legacy, because we are Irish, but also that the history that includes them, does not foreclose the inclusion of some of the names you mention.

Certainly including figures like Pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of Congo, would make sense within such a framework, and more generally these are men whose legacies should be far better known, especially as we struggle to achieve means of governance which are fair and egalitarian, and which take care of the most vulnerable in society.

If I had to identify one single source as my greatest inspiration and well of knowledge, it would be black literature. I would wholly advocate for the inclusion black writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, not just for Black students but because all students would benefit immensely from exposure to their sublime writing, as well as their enduring insights into race, gender and sexuality.

One last note: you might notice that I don’t use the term Afro-Irish. I have reservations about it if I’m honest. This operates on multiple levels. First of all in the UK the term Afro-Caribbean has been largely dispensed with, replaced by the term African–Caribbean. The argument being that “Afro” is reductive – that is, evocative of a hairstyle or hair texture rather than a vast and diverse continent.

Secondly, I don’t want to prefix my Irishness. While I identify as black, I also identify as Irish, not half Irish, not Afro-Irish but IRISH. Full stop. We are not duty-bound to adopt the categories of the US borne out of historic and social reasons very different to our own.

I’m really glad you asked these questions though. I appreciate your passion and commitment to the cause. Keep up the good work, and I’m sure your example will continue to inspire others.


Every two weeks, Emma Dabiri will field your questions on race and identity in contemporary Ireland. You can send her your questions through this form.

Author:

Emma Dabiri: Emma Dabiri is an Irish-Nigerian academic, writer, and broadcaster. She is currently a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and is working on her first book.

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