Black History

On Black Cultural Memory

2023 marks the third year since the brutal murder of an African American man (George Floyd) sparked a global movement defending Black lives. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which left a large portion of the world’s population in ‘lockdown’, the world had witnessed how Floyd passed away on camera while pinned under a police officer’s kneecap. The video footage of Floyd’s death rapidly circulated on social media platforms among and beyond Black users until it made daily headlines around the globe. It gave a new momentum to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, initially founded in 2014. The trending hashtag #BlackLivesMatter mobilized protests and political engagement around the world, including in Belgium, the site of my own research on Black cultural politics. My work explores how Afro-diasporic notions of blackness and cultural legacy, and the ways we remember them, extend beyond personal histories, cultures, and memories. Together, these histories, cultures, and memories create what I have called a ‘Black Cultural Memory.’

Still from Black Speaks Back, Zwarte Ibis: The Spirit of Black Intimacies, 2024.

Floyd’s death resonated deeply, not just for those within the borders of the United States but for Black individuals worldwide. In Belgium, Black activists and student organizations used digital support and social media to amplify cases such as that of Sanda Dia and Moïse ‘Lamine’ Bangoura, shedding light on how Black lives do not, indeed, seem to matter here either. Dia’s tragic death, caused by student hazing, and the violence he suffered, were minimized in legal proceedings that favored economically privileged white students. Bangoura’s life was taken during a routine debt collection inquiry when eight policemen held him in a suffocating chokehold. Both incidents exposed the systemic disregard for Black Lives in Belgium’s economic, legal, and institutional structures.

The hashtags #JusticeForSandaDia and #JusticeForLamine tied these cases to a broader struggle, drawing parallels with the tragic fate of African American victims of state violence and white supremacy. A speaker on a panel I organized for a platform I run (Black Speaks Back) even stated that every Black person died with George Floyd. This sentiment underscores how Black struggles elsewhere can feel personal and intimate. I observe this personal connection in the narratives of African American activists and scholars who speak of the experiences of enslaved Africans as if they were present, personally involved. I hear it in Hip Hop and Reggae music, in which the struggle, as well as the survival and resistance of enslaved and colonized ancestors, are remembered, contemplated, and celebrated. I am reminded of that ongoing history through the chants of Ivorian Reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, who sings in Mangercratie (1996, Epic Records):

Ils nous utilisent comme des chameaux
dans des conditions qu’on deplore.
Ils nous mènent souvent en bateau
vers des destinations qu’on ignore.
Ils allument le feu, ils l’activent
et après, ils viennent jouer aux pompiers.
On a tout compris.

(tr: “They use us like camels
under deplorable conditions.
They often take us by boat
to destinations unknown.
They light the fire, they activate it
and then they come to play firemen.
We got it all figured out”).

Tiken Jah Fakoly’s music transcends colonial borders, evoking not only the lives and struggles of his own ancestors in Ivory coast and west Africa, but of many across the Afro-diaspora. Through his music, he remembers these experiences as if they are part of his own heritage, despite having no direct cultural links to the Americas and the history of the transatlantic slave trade. He remembers and understands the patterns and structures of domination (‘we got it all figured out’). It is precisely this practice of remembrance that sparked my interest to further explore Afro-diasporic methods of recollection.

A Black Gaze

More than once, I’ve been told by white family members that I was just looking for something to make a fuss about. According to them, racism and antiblackness were not serious issues in Europe, let alone structural ones. But if I looked hard enough, they said, they certainly will become real and structural.

In A Black Gaze. Artists Changing How We See, Black feminist theorist Tina Campt explains how we become affected by encounters with images if only we move away from perceiving them through imposed cultural frameworks and ‘feeling rules.’ According to sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, such rules are in fact socially shared norms that influence how we want or try to feel emotions in certain social contexts. When we start listening to images, we are provided with a trace of their original utterance. This ‘cultural listening’ – or Black Gaze – helps us reclaim an erased history of dispossessed peoples, including those who were colonised, enslaved, and marginalised. Through this practice, instead of looking for something to make a fuss about, I may have experienced a glimpse of this ‘Black Cultural Memory.’ Maybe, to echo the words of Fakoly, I ‘got it all figured out.’

Black Cultural Memory involves a cultural framework of listening, looking, and sensing that makes us remember experiences that may not directly be ours but are significant for the way we navigate a world shaped by race and racial domination. Such political uses of history, culture, and memory are not new inventions. The theory of ‘linked fate’ recognises the widespread feelings of interconnectedness that individual African Americans experience with the broader identity group. And although theorised as a critique of Eurocentrism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said saw how particular knowledge, attitudes, and frameworks of reference form a cultural archive that shape a collective sense of self.

Unlike ‘white’ cultural archives, Black Cultural Memory does not have an agenda of domination. It is a living archive; an open-ended cloud that treasures memories of shared and interconnected histories that may not be perfectly uniform – at times even contradictory or messy. However, access is not automatically granted, or even a given for all people who happen to be racialised as Black. After all, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ‘all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk’. People choose to embrace a Black politics, and with that a Black collective identity. Access to Black Cultural Memory takes a sensibility of some sort. It takes a consciousness – a Black consciousness – which can be triggered by an event, an encounter, passed down by education, or distributed by digital media technologies that have in recent years added a new dimension to the way cultural signifiers and modes of Black being are transmitted.

Black Consciousness

At its core, Black consciousness represents a profound understanding of how the existing sociopolitical and cultural system has been constructed through an anti-Black white power structure, which continuously perpetuates domination over Black populations. Black consciousness has been the driving spirit behind various Black political movements emerging from the 19th century onwards across the Western hemisphere and on the African continent. Black political and pan-African movements, including the Rastafari, Négritude, and Black Power movement, have been deeply rooted in this critical perspective. Anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko encapsulated this critical awareness with the term Black Consciousness, defining it as not merely an intellectual concept but an ‘attitude of mind and a way of life’. Philosopher Lewis Gordon characterizes Black consciousness as a disruptive force that enables Black individuals to critically examine both history and the prevailing white power structure. This profound understanding has attracted attention and controversy from white cultural critics and politicians who associate Black youth’s embrace of Black cultural politics with a polarising ‘woke culture.’ Black consciousness serves as a unifying force, allowing Black individuals to come together and respond to the pervasive influence of white supremacy as a cohesive group. This unity may sometimes be founded on an imagined or symbolic sense of community, but it remains a powerful catalyst for mobilization and identity.

Diaspora Literacy

Research on Black consciousness has offered valuable insight into the types of knowledge that sustain self-esteem, cultural knowledge, and collective identity among Black individuals. But instead of defining a rigid set of knowledge that constitutes “Black consciousness”, my research aims to enrich our understanding of Black cultural knowledge by exploring what a variety of Black individuals and groups have found it important to know and to remember. Literary scholar VèVè Clark found that shared lived experiences have enabled Black individuals to develop a ‘diaspora literacy’: a skill to “read” across a wide array of African and African diaspora cultural texts. In my work, these texts (literary, visual, digital, ‘critical fabulation’) form the archive that is Black Cultural Memory. In practice, diaspora literacy can involve remembering atrocities in the so-called Congo Free State through the lens of the history of lynching and the treatment of enslaved Africans in the USA and vice versa. Diaspora literacy activates memories of the transatlantic and Arab slave trade through the trafficking of Sub-Saharan Africans in present-day Libya, and vice versa. Diaspora literacy entails remembering minstrel shows and their progeny in the Zwarte Piet tradition in Belgium and The Netherlands and vice versa. Diaspora literacy can also involve remembering the words of Bob Marley, Tupac, or Lucky Dube through cases of state violence against Black people.

The deeply unjust murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in the US evoked among many Black people not only a profound sense of déjà vu (already seen), but of déjà vécu (already lived). They served as reminders of historic and ongoing injustices faced by Black people and have become part of a collective reservoir of cultural memories and historical narratives that bind Black communities across the globe. They have found a permanent place in our Black Cultural Memory.

Photo credit: Yassine Atari, Black Speaks Black, 2020.

With thanks to Mathieu Charles, Tunde Adefioye and Rachel Gillet for engaging with earlier versions of this text and for helping me sharpen my thoughts and writing on the topic.

This piece contains excerpts from the author’s article in African Diaspora, which can be read here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *