‘I can’t breathe’

By GOSNELL L. YORKE, Zambia Times, June 16, 2020

AS ONE who hails from the Caribbean in the African diaspora, currently lecturing at the Dag Hammarskjold Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (DHIPS) at The Copperbelt University (CBU), and married to a Zambian, I join countless others around the world (including here in Zambia) in denouncing the tragic and needless killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, the African-American, who died at the hands (make that: the knee) of a Euro-American police officer who kept pressing his left knee to the neck of a defenceless Floyd who frantically begged for his life in repeatedly saying, “I Can’t Breathe”.

Joining my denunciation of the “Floyd fatality” are also some prominent persons and others. I think, for example, of Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In terms of the UN as a whole, this denunciation is also consistent with the fact that, after some protracted and persistent advocacy on the part of many in the African Diaspora such as Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of Zambia (UNZA) equivalent, namely, the Caribbean States-owned The University of the West Indies (The UWI) and Chair of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, the UN decided to declare the current decade, The International Decade for People of African Descent. The Decade runs from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2024.

Not to be overlooked is our own DHIPS as an Institute here at CBU as well. Named after the second Secretary General (Swedish) of the UN who lost his life on Zambian soil (Ndola) in September 1961 while on a UN Peace Mission to next-door DRC (as it now is), DHIPS was officially established with the full backing and blessing of the Zambian government.

Over the years, there have also been recorded incidents of Euro-police brutality in places like the UK, France and Canada. As for Canada, this is so in spite of Canada’s commendable national policy, since 1971, of “Multiculturalism within a Bilingual (English and French) Framework.” To his credit, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has already gone public by using the Federal Parliament as a Forum within which to issue a strong anti-racism Statement in light of the Floyd affair.

Embedded within all such human rights-violating Euro-police incidents is the message that, for some of our Euro-descendant colleagues, the ideology of white supremacy/superiority and African inferiority still prevails. This is a most pernicious ideology that we find being defended by some of their natural and social scientists, historians, philosophers and even Christian theologians of yesteryear. And sadly, this mind-set prevails in spite of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and other related Instruments which boldly declare that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights based on the conviction that the fundamental human right is the right to be human. For such White supremacists, African or Black lives still “don’t matter”.

For such, justification is further sought in the false perception of Africa as a “failed continent”–a continent known only for its seemingly incessant intra-state and ethnic conflicts; its diseases, disasters and deaths; its lack of so-called development; its presumed pathological dependency on the goodwill of donors and other perceived shortcomings.

What such racially motivated White supremacists fail to consider and concede is that, and in the memorable language of one of our own outstanding Caribbean scholars, the late Walter Anthony Rodney, who once taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, is that we are really dealing with about how, historically, Europe underdeveloped Africa by unconscionably robbing Africa of its rich and various resources—both human and natural. Or, no less true in my considered opinion, it is really about how Africa has helped to overdevelop Europe and its European offshoots across the Atlantic such as the USA and Canada.

Much of this pernicious misperception of Africans further stems from the fact that our ancestors were taken against their collective wills from across the continent in their millions by various European colonial powers and then enslaved in the Americas for some four hundred years. And there, they were coerced into toiling either in their masters’ homes as house slaves (African women) or on various cotton, rice, sugar, tobacco and other plantations as unrewarded “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (mostly men). That is, Africans—be they here on the continent or there in its diaspora and constituing what UNESCO now rightly refers to as Global Africa, are still not considered worthy of the dignity and respect which all human beings, made in the image of God, both desire and deserve.

This being the prevailing state of affairs, I would also wish, in closing, to commend the African Union (AU). Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chair of the AU Commission, has since joined the global chorus of voices by issuing a Statement denouncing the inhumane killing of Floyd. Granted, Floyd, like the rest of us, had his own faults and failures, some even attracting criminal sanction. Nonetheless, he still symbolises the larger existential life-and death crisis facing all of us as Africans. In a stiflingly globalised world in which profit maximisation prevails usually at the expense of the vulnerable poor and driven by a neo-liberal economy that tends to disfavour the Global South, those of us as Africans can each justfiably exclaim, as Floyd did, that “I Can’t Breathe.”

The commendation of the AU is also consistent with the AU’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as with the AU’s laudable mission and mandate as a whole. Lest we forget, Floyd was actully murdered on Africa (Freedom) Day–on May 25. From its early beginnings, the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), formed in 1963, adopted an anti-racism position in Egypt at its Meeting in 1964–the very year, for example, of both Jamaica’s and Zambia’s independence from British rule.

Further, in 2003, the AU amended its Constitutive Act in its attempt to make the African Diaspora its Sixth Region alongside the “BIG Five” Regions on the continent. And beyond that, the AU has also extended an invitation to its global Diaspora to contribute both minds and means to the further development of Africa, our Motherland, so that, in time, we can each cease and desist from saying, “I Can’t Breathe.”

The author, who teaches in the Dag Hammarskjold Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, The Copperbelt University, is a former honorary consul (diplomat) of his Caribbean State (the Federation of St. Kitts-Nevis or St. Christopher-Nevis) to the Republic of South Africa. He is also the Central and Southern Africa (except for South Africa) Coordinator for Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race.

Drop us a line!

Get in touch with us!