In the West, ‘culture’ is strongly associated with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, associated as it was with the profits from enslavement, slavery, genocide, mass killings and so on, was profoundly racist, dividing the world into the ‘sacred space’ of the white world wherein democracy, civilization and culture thrived, and the ‘profane space’, in which the sub- or non-humans of the rest of the world are condemned to exist and who can be subjected to barbarism, genocide, slavery, terror, invasion, regime change, and all manner of inhumanity (see Dominico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter History).
Speak of culture in the sacred space, and images of art, music, literature, museums, concert halls, fashion, poetry, festivals, and so on are evoked. Crucially, there is an implicit acknowledgement of the evolving nature of culture, that constantly develops into the new, while never forgetting its (albeit, censored) history. Working class culture, black culture, feminist cultures, cultures of resistance are, if at all, resentfully and occasionally acknowledged, but are not seen seriously as being part of the culture of the sacred space.
In contrast, culture in the profane space is considered to be something fixed, as ‘traditional’, belonging primarily to ‘tribes’, something that fixes people forever in an imagined past, as something quaint, but essentially lacking in the sophistication of the culture of Enlightenment. It represents the lesser human, the under-developed being. This perception of culture is not limited to the West and its media and the entourages of the development and aid industries. It is also the perspective that the African elite and middle classes perceives culture. For them, culture is a longing for all things admired in the sacred space, especially in a period of globalisation and the proclamation and hegemony of (neo) liberalism.
As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “…it is all too true that the major responsibility for this racialization of thought, or at least the way it is applied, lies with the Europeans who have never stopped placing white culture in opposition to the other noncultures.”
Such a perception of culture in Africa has to be seriously challenged. Culture is not static, but evolves constantly. The best of culture is, I would argue, transformative. It connects us with and helps us recognize the existence of our collective spirit, a material aspect of human beings (an aspect too often neglected by the Left). When culture inspires us, it helps us to deepen our sense of our collective being, of the possibilities that lie within us, of our possibility to invent what it means to be human.
The hundreds of years of enslavement and slavery, colonial conquests with their associated genocides, mass killings, torture, imprisonment, rapacious dispossessions, and forced labour, were all possible because Africans were considered non-human or, at best, sub-human. While under colonialism we were considered uncivilised and childlike, today we are considered ‘under-developed’, in need of the West to develop us, in need of being saved. The ‘White Saviour Complex’ persists, and cannot continue without the existence of victims that need saving, so victimisation is an essential part of the development and aid industries.
But the essential aspect of the process of dehumanisation involves systematically detaching us from our culture, from the consciousness of our spirit. As Amilcar Cabral put it, it is easy for foreigners to impose their domination, but domination can only be maintained by ‘permanent and organized repression’ of the cultural life of the people concerned. ‘In fact, to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize their cultural life.’
So if the history of domination involves the dehumanisation of African people, then the essence of emancipation and freedom must be to counter that process and to assert anew our humanity. Central to that must be the reconnection with the buried spirit, to release it, and to use that to invent what it means to be human. Culture is an essential way in which we can get hints at what it might mean to be free.
Culture is, thus, a weapon in the struggle for freedom. As Cabral puts it:
... culture is an essential element of the history of a people. Culture is, perhaps, the product of this history just as a flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and reflects the organic nature of the society. ... Thus it is understood that imperialist domination, by denying the historical development of the dominated people, necessarily also denies their cultural development. It is also understood why imperialist domination, like all other foreign domination, for its own security, requires cultural oppression and the attempt at direct or indirect liquidation of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people.
For culture to be transformative and emancipatory, does not mean that we only recognise it as such when it takes the form of ‘protest’. This reductive approach would ignore the way in which music, poetry, art and all forms of culture can inspire us, can help us discover feelings, ideas, consciousness that we may not have been aware of. The best of protest music or art is that it opens the doors to the capacity to invent the future, not merely complain about the past or the present.
Readers may recall how the Kenyatta regime took the bulldozers to annihilate the peoples’ theatre at Kamirithu that Ngugi wa Thiong’o helped to inspire, and for which he was cruelly imprisoned. The Kenyatta regime well understood the dangers of what happens when people find themselves inspired by their rekindling the spirit of collective imaginings. For many of our neo-colonial regimes, there is a profound fear of the kind of centrifugal forces that become released by creative cultural development. On the contrary, there is a strong tendency to seek to define culture in fossilized forms that imprison people into ‘tribe’, formations that were frequently the inventions of the colonial powers. With their popular credibility declining as a result of the reversal of so many of the gains of independence during the last forty years, our elites seek more and more to create and nurture tribal antipathies. And in so doing, there is a recourse to mimicking the ways in which the west portrays Africans as primitive beings with a non-evolving culture, dancing embarrassingly to the rhythms of white tourist perceptions of culture.
As Losurodo points out, the liberal conception of humanity has been deficient from birth. In the context of the current period of the globalisation of capital, its growing dependence on dispossession, invasions, bombing of civilians, regime change, and frank racism and colonial exploitation, capital and its associated culture of the sacred space shows itself increasingly to be inhuman. To counter that tendency, culture forms an important weapon that helps to rekindle our realisation of our humanity, and stimulates us to realise that there are possibilities for inventing what it means to be human.