Article begins

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” provides guidance to navigate the intensity and confusion that underlies the ornamental surfaces to which race gets attached. To address the puzzle of studying Blackness outside of the United States, I take my cue from Hurston to consider different modes of how it feels to study, talk about, and live Blackness in the Middle East and East Africa as a Black American anthropologist. It is incumbent to address the violences levied against people racialized as Black while also reflecting on the unexpected ruptures in Blackness that appear globally. What follows are reflections on moments when the presumed smoothness and modularity with which Blackness seems to move and appear globally appears instead, borrowing from David Scott’s, Refashioning Futures, as an argument with conflict, intensity, and instability.

One of the most challenging elements of being a Black American researcher in the Middle East and East Africa is maintaining the coherence of one’s identity. Suddenly, your passport precedes you. From the border security agent, to the taxi driver, to the cafe where you finally find something to eat, everyone seems to know that you are an American. They know how expensive that plane ticket was. They can tell you’re an American just by how you walk, talk, and move your body. “No!” You scream. “I am Black! Plymouth Rock landed on us!”

The navy-blue passport looms too large. “I’ve never actually seen one up close,” an interlocutor in South Sudan said after asking to see mine. “I’ve heard on the inside cover it says, ‘God Bless America, master of the universe, all riches and honor come from you.’” He asked me to read the inside cover. When he did not find the sentence he was searching for, he looked up with disappointment. “No, it’s not written in there,” I responded. “But Americans do like to think they rule the world.”

When talking about race during fieldwork in East Africa, I have been confronted with how profoundly difficult it can be to talk about Blackness when Black is not a minority signifier there. Moreover, the stable platform of one’s own Black identity that facilitated such conversations at home may not fit in your checked luggage. When you leave the United States, you are Black, but when you arrive in the field, the people you encounter presume you are something other than what you feel yourself to be.

In Nairobi, an interlocutor from South Sudan once asked me, “What kind of Black American are you?” I understood the question metaphysically: What contribution to the struggle for Black liberation have you made? But he meant the question literally. I was too light-skinned to be recognized by him as Black without further explanation. In the same conversation, there was another interlocutor from South Sudan, who spent his youth in Washington, DC, and whose political perspective he traced to the early years of so-called conscious hip-hop in the United States. This second interlocutor replied, “Blackness is a worldview, not a color.” In that moment, his response provided temporary relief and a suture to reconnect who I felt I was and who I was seen to be.

That misrecognition, however, has followed me as I have moved southward up the Nile from Egypt to South Sudan. My commitment to forging common understanding—on which to ground what Blackness is, what Black subjectivity is meant to signify, what stability Black consciousness offers, and toward whose liberation Black radicalism galvanizes one’s activity—has ebbed and flowed with each border I have crossed. The task seems to be to reflect on the shifting capacity of and expectation for Blackness to represent a fundamental alienation from the status quo, whether revolutionary or not.

One element of my work is the study of racial formation in a place with people who would be racialized as Black in the United States. Yet, the racial category Black is, of course, not the emic term. What are the stakes of studying Blackness among people who don’t identify themselves as Black? This particular analytical practice seems possible only with Blackness. The moral-political valence of understanding Blackness and anti-Blackness seems to supersede the alternative ontologies with which people might otherwise understand themselves and their relationship to the world. It seems that that is how we became Black in the first place. Some people called other people Black who called themselves something else. If people who seem to look Black don’t call themselves Black, then—perhaps through reference to O. J. Simpson’s oft-quoted line—this becomes false consciousness and denial.[1] What about refusal? Is refusal itself a privilege not afforded to people racialized as Black?

At another instance in Nairobi, I was sitting with an interlocutor from Mombasa, a city on the coast of Kenya. He was listening quietly as I disparaged someone for not referring to themselves as Black.

“How foolish! How irresponsible!” I remember saying. We have a duty to be Black, I implied with my monologue.

Then he interjected. “Why should I refer to myself as Black?” He asked me as if cross-examining me at the trial of whether Black studies is relevant in Africa. I sat in silence and listened. “I have never had to say I was Black on any government form!” he continued. “I have never had to use it when I registered for school, when I vote, when I go to the doctor, in no instance am I ever asked to identify as Black, so why should I? I don’t need it. We don’t need it. We know our tribe, where we come from, Blackness doesn’t do anything for me.” He stopped to take a breath.

All I could do was reflect. Why does US scholarship maintain a monopoly on analyzing and understanding what race is and how it works? Are there openings for scholars of race based in North America to recognize expertise elsewhere?

How are we supposed to identify ourselves? Am I supposed to declare, “I am an American!” No, that doesn’t feel right. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X too early in my life for that to feel like a viable option. When I first traveled to Cairo, I believed there was an internationalist experience waiting for me. I thought that what I would experience would resemble the narrative of Malcolm X. Instead, I found myself in taxis in Cairo with drivers incessantly asking me where I was from.

“African American?” they would ask. “Where exactly in Africa?”

“I don’t know, but that’s not the point,” I would insist.

They would ask for my last name in an attempt to place me historically and geographically. I found myself trying to explain to drivers what exactly it meant to be a Black American. At first, the experience would start with me desperately reaching for the Arabic-language vocabulary to explain the ontological condition of Blackness in the New World. The driver would stare blankly into traffic waiting for me to say something that made sense. Upon realizing this, I would change course and tell him that my mother is Egyptian and this is why I had my father’s name and not hers. I said I had grown up in the United States and had come back to learn the Arabic language and how to practice Islam. This story was easier to explain than my ontological displacement and objection.

Credit: Zachary Mondesire
Street art in downtown Khartoum (Sudan), 2019.

It was in Cairo that I first witnessed the visceral racism of the Arabic-speaking world. I walked with my Sudanese (before partition) interlocutors amid racial slurs hurled at them in a working-class neighborhood at the edge of Nasir City, where they lived. I could hardly bear young Egyptian men yelling “Chocolata!” (Chocolate!)at us. To those young men, it must have appeared like an Egyptian person (me) was walking among a group of dark-skinned people from Sudan. At that moment, I assumed the privilege of being recognized as the normative identity so I faced them. I felt I was being a good ally. “Do you have a problem!?” I yelled. The young men responded with menacing stares and screamed back at us, “keep your eyes forward and keep walking!” My friends told me to calm down. They had to live there long after I left.

On the one hand, some heroes of the Black Internationalism of the past were intellectual, spiritual, and political celebrities, and treated as such on their travels.[2] On the other hand, the awkwardness and discomfort of international racial misrecognition have appeared in less popular autobiographies such as that of Langston Hughes, Louis Lomax,  and Richard Wright’s record of his time in Ghana. It is painful to let go of the heroic arch of sacrifice and redemption that makes persistent suffering seem to mean something. It seems empowering to imagine struggle as though it were a race to the top, the ascent of a mountain. We may lose comrades along the way to the peak, which may yet still be out of reach, but we soldier on because that mountaintop appears to offer eternal rest and reward. Yet, there is joy in the embrace of life as struggle, not as competition but as cooperation and as mutual aid.

I chose my research trajectory because I am a Pan-Africanist! I’m here because I am a Black International! Dubois was buried in Ghana. Maybe I will be buried elsewhere too. Where is the Fanon reading group? Where can I sign up to join the FLN? That mural of Nyerere is inspiring! There are a lot of photographs of the past that float around in your head and get stitched together into a fuzzy collage of afros, raised fists, sunglasses, and black leather jackets. Then you get off the plane and you have to get in line with the other US passport holders at the immigration counter.

A hotel concierge in Nairobi once told me, “We have one of your countrymen at their hotel right now as well, maybe you two will get along.” When I met him, the alleged co-expatriate had just come back from volunteering at a baby elephant sanctuary.“I’m not sure we’ll get along. That conservationist stuff is so neo-colonial,” I say to myself as I roll my eyes internally. Don’t these people know there’s a copy of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in my suitcase? I chatted with the elephant enthusiast over dinner. It turned out he had a copy of Rodney too. 

Another hotel staff member asked me, “Why are you in Nairobi?” I told him it was because I was going to South Sudan. “Oh, are you in the military?” He asked.

“No, I’m a researcher,” I responded. “Well, in South Sudan they are very Black.”

Surprised, I asked, “Aren’t you also Black here?” He responded, laughing, “Ok, but they are really Black!”

Often, it seems like studying Blackness discursively incarcerates you in the English language. You’re so busy trying to translate Blackness, whiteness, or race itself that you forget to think about what the term means in the context right in front of your eyes. So, Blackness itself gets taken for granted, and when you write something you recruit from your audience the preexisting racial fantasy, the caricatures that always already distort social and political life to help make sense of the world you’re describing.

Credit: Zachary Mondesire
A boda-boda driver in Juba (South Sudan) at night.

Occasionally, you are confronted with a daunting conversation with the African scholar who does not agree that either race or Blackness is relevant, accurate, or operative in the context you’re thinking with. The world shifts under your feet when you imagine your audience to be not only your interlocutors but the scholarly community in the place you study. Convincing the white liberal scholar in the US university that race is central is a much easier task than convincing the continental African scholar, jaded by US American intellectual hubris. Perhaps, they think ethnicity and class are more accurate terms. Perhaps they accuse you of importing North American or US tropes onto contexts where they have no stable anchor in social and political life. You recruit your intellectual repertoire to assist you. But what about colonialism?! Imperialism has not stopped! It has merely changed form! White supremacy is alive and well! “Yes,” he tells you, calmly, “the European and North American expats come here to make a life for themselves with bloated salaries and tax avoidance.” Damn! You’ve been outmaneuvered, your anti-imperialist stance cut off at the ankles. The final blow has yet to land. The question he wants answered is: What have these governments done since the British left, and what will you, my dear US researcher, do for us with your research? Moreover, who is paying for you to be here anyway? All you can do is stammer, blush, and hope a coherent response dribbles out in the language you have learned to conduct fieldwork.

The experience of studying Blackness outside of the United States isn’t limited to being outside of the United States. Eventually, you have to come back. Now, you’re a Black American studying Black people not just on the other side of the Atlantic but on the other side of the African continent! That is to say, you begin to bump up against disciplinary boundaries. You encounter limits both of the place of Africa in the study of the African diaspora and of the persistent nationalist discourses of the Black studies project as Jemima Pierre and Rinaldo Walcott have shown. You find that Africanist anthropology in North America has privileged white scholarship. An age-old problem! In the 2018 African Studies Association (ASA) presidential address, then ASA president Jean Allman insisted on a retelling of the founding myth of African studies in North America as not rooted in Melville Herskovitz’s (1941) anthropology of New World cultural survivals from West Africa but rather in W. E. B. Dubois’s anti-imperialism and the generation of Black political scientists at HBCUs who were also challenging the imperialist paradigm of international relations. The task of finding interlocutors at home pushes you outside of disciplinary boundaries. Yet, the cracks seem to be plastered over as soon as they appear. The boundaries of intellectual discipline seem to always eventually become rigid.

If only we could all get together and discuss our vision of social change and liberation. If we have yet to be liberated from the fundamental racial antagonisms, will we still be Black after we are? Will there still be Blackness in our decolonial futures? Is anything ever going to structurally change or are we stuck describing an inescapable quagmire?

Meryleen Mena and Annika Doneghy are section contributing editors for the Association of Black Anthropologists.

[1] In a 1996 interview with journalist Bryant Gumbel, former NFL player O. J. Simpson said “I’m not Black, I’m O. J.” in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the vulnerabilities of Blackness through his accumulated wealth.

[2] Namely, figures such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.


Zachary Mondesire

Zachary Mondesire is an assistant professor of international relations at the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies. His current research program includes a book manuscript that addresses the post-independence moment in South Sudan, following the sons and daughters of South Sudan’s struggle for cultural and political autonomy whose task is to make sense of decolonization as a set of practices and policies to be held accountable in the service of a newly self-determined nation, rather than an abstract horizon yet to come.

Cite as

Mondesire, Zachary. 2024. “Reflections on Global Black Dis/Connection.” Anthropology News website, January 8, 2024.