The fiftieth anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King jnr coincides also with the golden jubilee of the birth of the Organisation of African Unity that marked the beginning of a long and difficult walk from bondage towards freedom. This journey encountered many disappointments, reversals, utter scandals; but it also had its many achievements and victories.
Both continental Africa and global Africa’s journeys to emancipation from the vestiges of slavery, colonialism and imperialism remain in progress. They are perhaps at the most crucial juncture where they need a new impetus. Africa must look back in order to look forward; it must look into its past with future orientation, at least to draw inspiration for the road ahead. The past is a rich heritage from which to learn.
Thabo Mbeki’s proposition that this, the 21st century, will be Africa’s century remains true. African intelligentsia on the continent and in the diaspora in past centuries argued strongly for Africa and Africans everywhere in the world to reclaim the humanity stolen from them by the system of racism that cast all non-white people into a zone of non-being, into social death. They worked hard to demonstrate that Africans are not just humans, but that they contributed immensely to human civilisation, though imperial designs later narrowed this into a civilisation made by only one region of the world, the west.
King’s speech crowned a phase of reawakening among descendants of slaves forcibly removed from Africa to help build the great cities, industries and societies of North America. The surge of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was just one in a number of successive epochs in the global African renaissance. King’s famous speech had echoes of many inspiring speeches in this age-old struggle for humanity. It echoed WEB du Bois’s exclamation in 1905 that, “We will not be satisfied to take one jot or little less than our full manhood rights.” It echoed Prixley ka Seme’s 1905 dream that “The African people, although not a strictly homogenous race, possess a fundamental sentiment which is everywhere manifest, crystallising itself into one common idea … [t]he regeneration of Africa … a new and unique civilisation is soon to be added to the world.” A sense that Africa’s future is archived in its glorious and not so glorious past is a common refrain in the dream.
In the “I have a dream” speech, King underscored three truths about this struggle, especially in the US. The first was the hypocrisy of the world system that is founded on enlightened principles of freedom and prosperity, but denies others the same right on the basis of racial supremacy. In his case, the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and the constitutional rights was not extended to Africans in the US. He likened this to a bounced cheque.
The second is the logic of gradual civilisation of one by the other, that was based on unsaid prejudice, the idea that Africans will only slowly work their up a fictitious ladder before they enjoyed full humanity. This suggested to be human is to be white. This is fundamental flaw of the dominant understanding of development, presupposing that one race is a standard for others to reach. The dream rejected this.
The third was that the suffering of the downtrodden, the Africans in this case, had built in them a certain level of resilience, faith and creative energy for the continued struggle.
On this basis, King suggested, the dream became clearer by the day. The “I” in his statements was, of course, a figurative for the many whose spirit of hope and faith caused them to march to Washington, refusing to allow fear of violence and retribution to cow them. The dream was not just their emancipation from racial domination and capitalist exploitation, but was more importantly for the birth of a new society marked by opportunities for and harmony among all. This was a truly revolutionary idea for it would have been expected that the oppressed would desire to avenge their suffering by becoming new masters. Instead, they desired to be humans, living harmoniously with others including their former oppressors on the basis of quality, truth and justice.
King suggested that when this is done all of humanity would be free at last. This is also very interesting for it meant that the oppressor was not free until the oppressed was emancipated. So, they conceived of a freedom for all. This has been an enduring philosophical underpinning of pan-African struggles for emancipation. It is to build a harmonious world as both Seme and King saw it. This humanistic desire is apparent in many struggles of liberation in Africa which sought to create new societies rather than a mere swopping of roles. There are exceptions, of course.
This question of redemptive emancipation remains dream deferred. It explains the plight of Africans throughout the world. It is trapped in the persistence of a world system that is built on the distinction between Euro-American core and the rest as peripheries, the dominant and the dominated, the oppressor and the oppressed, and the exploiter and the exploited. It is entrapped in social murder that left many Africans without confidence, self-esteem, a clear identity and a stone of hope.
The challenge, therefore, is to use the commemoration of the King’s speech to strengthen the humanistic struggle for emancipation of Africans and other subalterns across the world and the birth of a just, equal and humane society. Each individual must consider how they contribute to bigotry and structural injustice that King riled again, and how they could contribute to freedom for all. The dream lives on.