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Myth of the Color Line: An Essay by Kabu Okai-Davies

Image: Chrisena Allen via Flickr
Image: Chrisena Allen via Flickr

In launching the groundbreaking work, The Souls of Black Folks, in 1903; W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American historian and scholar, pointed out that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” More than one hundred years later, we are still grappling with the strange and inhuman conditions of color as a factor of race relations. In re-reading this prescient statement by DuBois, set against the backdrop of the history of the West and its relationship with Africa and the Diaspora, it has become clear, more than ever, that we cannot discuss the humanity of the African/African-American so far as the pejorative word “black” is used in any form of public or private self-reference. The historic evidence shows that blackness disqualifies, blackness degrades, blackness denigrates; blackness is comparable to a state of nothingness. When blackness is used to proclaim social and political power, it is not only rhetorical in context; it is empty and illusive in content. We have reached a new threshold in history and our children are desperately calling for a way out of this quagmire of racial hate, prejudice, mistrust and fear. The fatal incidents of racially motivated acts of police brutality and violence, killings and the mass demonstrations for justice in America are testaments to this fact.

Blackness blindfolds. It shrouds the vision of those who make claim to an identity that is clothed within the black veil of history. Blackness functions within the victimized identity of the self. It has placed the African on the psychological periphery of history, sapping all our psychic resources of hope, undermining our visions of the future, subverting our sense of confidence to take control of our destiny. Blackness is robbing Africans of the will-power towards self-determination. Blackness as a basis of self-reference paralyses the human psyche; it induces fear in the mind; it weakens, makes you weary and wretched.  Blackness evokes hatred and provides Whiteness the senseless justification for brutality, the false and shameless sense of racial self-importance, superiority and authoritarian right to rule over others.

The greatest historic mistake African/African-Americans made was in believing and defining our history by skin color. Blackness is emptiness, it has no essence.  Blackness veils the humanity of Africans behind the black curtain of shame. Calling ourselves “blacks” automatically places the humanity of African people on the blacklist of history.

Hence Black history and Black Africa becomes synonymous with Black Friday, Black October, Black Saturday, Black Plague, Black Monday, Black Magic, Black Star, Black Witch, Blackball and Black Death. In the end the African ceases to be a Being, but an object. Until the color of our human skin is of no more significance, the African body will be reduced to an objectionable black body, despised, dispossessed and disposable as an object of shame, humiliation and denigration. What we as African people in Africa and in the Diaspora have failed to understand in the linguistic structure of the English language is that, the word black connotes all that which is ominous, shameful, dire, disgraceful, failed, wrecked and dirty. Our persistent use of the word black for self-reference poisons the atmosphere of any form of public discourse about identity and reinforces the degrading status of the African before the world. It shows that Africans have failed to understand the consequence of using such a word as a basis for self-association. Just as African-Americans shamefully and disgracefully use the N-word as a term of endearment and affection, the use of blackness gives evidence to the fact that African people have an illiterate understanding of the philosophical and historic implications of how words define and determine the destiny of a people. If anyone would bother to conduct the deep research into the meaning and origins of the word black, they would come face to face with the deep metaphysical and psychic implications of the uses and misuses of the word black as it implies, exists and functions within the context of the English language. No people in their right mind should allow themselves to be black-mailed or black-listed.

Shakespeare reinforces this ill-fated notion of blackness, in Sonnet 147:

My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are

At random from the truth vainly expressed,

For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell and dark as night,

My love is a fever, longing still.

Shakespeare illustrates his sense of illness, disease and death in his reference to black, playing on the meaning of the dark complexion of his mistress in the poem. If we have any sense of consciousness about who we are and what we want to become, people of African descent must now take full responsibility for the price we are paying for our history. The statement that our personality determines our personal circumstance demands that we change our personality. Otherwise, the bleak black road of history on which we now travel shall lead to perdition, pogroms, persecution and pain of Biblical proportions. Heaven forbid we repeat Hebrew History. What if another charismatic demented demagogue steps on the stage of history and takes over the reign of world power, we can only imagine the consequence of what might happen if we continue to insist on our blackness. Blackness has betrayed us. Blackness has placed Africans on the defensive side of history. Blackness is nothing but a rhetorical response to White supremacist theories. It has become tantamount to the black flag of doom and the destructive fear of hate in history.

For the past six hundred years or more, Africans and Europeans have defined their relationship by the troubled paradigms of fear, hate, rape, shame, prejudice, domination, slavery, colonialism, subjugation, apartheid, exploitation, brutality, vulgarity, and mutual self-demonization and dehumanization. This condition continues to be defined by the powerful lies of history that claims that some people are black and others are white. This is the most dangerous, poisonous and toxic condition that has brought humanity to the brink of a new crisis that will tear whole nations and civilizations apart.

The deep problem of race as a tragic condition of human life is in the classification of people as “black” and “white.” The idea of blackness and whiteness denies us the virtues of our humanity. It dehumanizes both the African and the European. No one is either white or black. These racial labels are highly loaded with the blooded memories of slavery, segregation, Jim Crowism and Apartheid. They are burdened with the historic memory that reminds us of our wounded past, the shameful experiences of humiliation and pain. It evokes within the mind of the European truths about the corresponding shame of slavery, the lies of racism and the guilt of historic brutalities perpetrated against people of African descent. The idea of whiteness has become the representation of hypocrisy. Whiteness is a fraud as much as Blackness is a lie.

These racial epithets have become the means for the entrenchment of invisible walls of segregation, discrimination and self-hate on both sides of the racial divide. Africans cannot afford to be black anymore; neither can people of European ancestry continue with the lie of whiteness. Blackness creates the psychic veil that blindfolds the imagination and prevents Africans from seeing the possibilities of their vision of the future.

Whiteness creates the mental state of denial, a false and an unjustified sense of self-righteousness, racial arrogance and demented sense of superiority complex. African-Americans leaders, public speakers, preachers, politicians, academics, artists, writers, intellectuals and newscasters must immediately cease calling themselves and their people blacks, and Europeans or Caucasian-Americans must desist from referring to themselves as white.  We are human, let us engage with each other from the humanity of our being and bring an end to this inhuman and divisive rhetoric of racial self-referencing based on the classification of people as black and white.

If we are to create a new symphony of human harmony, it cannot be orchestrated on the negative paradigm of blackness and whiteness that claims that being white makes you right and being black makes you bad. The symphonic harmony of future race relations must be composed on the musical notes of diversity, fraternity, egalitarianism, multiculturalism and humanism.

The belief that all men and women are created equal should not only be true on paper, it has to be real in practice. The world has become too complex to define the nature of our human condition in terms of black and white. Everything has changed. Africans and Europeans have to change their relationship with each other, not by the rhetoric of racial self-justification, but by a human dialogue of reason, enlightenment and understanding. We must know that our humanity is more important than our complexion; that the essence of our character is the basis of our humanity, not the color of our skin. Skin is superficial, character is content and in this day and age, content is king and skin is a slave.

In view of the rising tide of Islamic State sponsored terrorism, clothed within the totalitarian black flag of hate, mindless violence and demonic rage make it clear that, African-Americans can no longer make claim to the rhetorical idealism of black power and blackness. Black lives do not matter because in retrospect we have come to know that black is not beautiful and black power is the power of death. Death is black and ghosts are white. Hence as humans, we become trapped within the fenced cemetery of self-hate, clothed within the black garment of death and the fear of imaginary ghosts. Racism is the haunted ground of all our shame, fears and the guilty memories of the past. If we are to find freedom from fear, shame and guilt, then we must go on a new quest in search of true knowledge about ourselves and who we are. For it is the power of knowledge that makes humanity free, because knowledge in itself is freedom and power.

Therefore if we are to go forward in faith, we must first demystify color as a basis of self-reference in order to reconcile the contradictions of our histories. We can no longer continue defining ourselves by the epithets and labels of color; it has brought us to a dead end of historic attrition. If decent minded people of African and European ancestry are to find a way forward, then we must unite philosophically, in the spirit of humanism, as people with a common course, towards mutual enlightenment and the advancement of learning. We must develop a new literate consciousness of ourselves through the medium of global cross-cultural understanding, by listening to each other, reading our literatures, sharing our stories, dreams and hopes. We must learn to heal the wounds of our histories and stitch together the fragmented fabric of our lives, mend our broken hearts by the power of love and togetherness, and build a new future based on truth and reconciliation.

In an age of multiculturalism, globalization and mass international migration, no one deserves to be labeled or classified by the color of their skin. We all have the moral and mutual responsibility to protect human rights and liberties and live together under the democratic rule of the law where all are treated equally before the law. As free citizens we can no longer live under the tyrannical reign of racism, bigotry and prejudice. No one deserves to live or die, driving on the roads in fear because of their skin color. No one has the right to kill another because their race and uniform makes them to assume that they have the right and authority to kill in the unjust name of the law.

Let us therefore give unto Europe what belongs to the European, and to Africa what belongs to the African. Henceforth, we must call ourselves by our true names as Africans and Europeans; not by the false and fraudulent perceptions of ourselves based on the imaginary color of our skins.


Image: Chrisena Allen via Flickr

Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies is an African-Australian playwright, novelist and poet from Ghana. He is the author of Long Road to Africa, Curfew’s Children and Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing - UC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Writing - School of Arts and Humanities at ANU and the 2015 Alumni Award Winner for Excellence, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. (Editor: Dr. Okai-Davies passed away on February 17, 2017, after a battle with cancer. He was a good friend of Africanwriter.com).


  1. I have never read anything more pitiful than this essay. Yes, pitiful. Pitiful because the writer looks out at the world with the eyes of oyinbos…or Europeans. if you prefer that word.
    Here in America African people use the English language very, very differently than you seem to do. If you were here at my house and several friends came by to have a good conversation, I don’t think you would understand the full meaning of the words and sentences. You most likely would get a vague and distorted idea of what exactly was said. You would miss the subtle tones and complex semantics of American African English. There are times when most white people have trouble understanding what Africanamericans are saying. Most black people switch to a form of English that whites can understand. On the other hand black people can speak in a way that is , for the most part, unintelligible to whites.
    Your opinions are profoundly EUROCENTRIC! Black certainly can mean different things to different people. But so does white.
    Black means African. African means, primitive as in prime. First , origin of humanity and civilization, birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,birthplace of music according to the Congolese,,,cradle of spirituality. Rich black soil, sweet black berries, black soul music, blacker the berry the sweeter the juice..a beautiful black woman…the black land KMT, ancient Egypt…
    Please read the works of Cheikh anta Diop and Theophile Obenga. You should read the works of those African scholars for a start. There are many, many more black writers who can help you escape from your “colonial mentality”.
    Remember that imperialism was not only political, military and economical- it is also spiritual mental and cultural, in your case we might be able to add linguistical
    Wake up my brother!
    We define BLACK for ourselves.

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