This post was originally published in March 2016.
Angela Kimata, Joy Chepkorir, Oliver Maina; I’ve carried their names in my breast alongside those more familiar: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and now, Jamar Clark. This is the heavy toll of being Kenyan and a Kenyan in America, of being both African and black in America. It has meant a connection to multiple tragedies playing out simultaneously and resulting in the loss of black lives nationally and globally.
With one exception, America and its people knows and responds to one half of my tragedy. The other festers like a half-forgotten sore; ignored until it begins to itch and we slowly recall the wound that created it. There is a hierarchy of suffering, one that we all knowingly or unknowingly partake in, that places black lives in the West – in my case, the U.S. – on a higher pedestal than black lives in the Global South – the Kenya, I left behind.
Kyriarchy, a term originated by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, is useful in explaining my diaspora experience that results in dual disenfranchisement as a black person living in the U.S, and further as an African-identifying black person. Fiorenza first introduced the term in an attempt to explain how systems of oppression and intersectionality play out beyond patriarchy. It is a neat word for defining how multiple systems of domination function in social systems to both privilege and disenfranchise an individual at the same time. As such, by living in the U.S, my marginalization as a black person is privileged through the proliferation of discussions surrounding Black Lives Matter, race and equity; and in the same breath disregarded as a black person from the African continent.
This kyriarchy is what accounts for the crisis in my heart as I witness one half of my suffering as a black person privileged and greeted with protests and demands for change, while the other half is buried away in a far away place. It accounts for the meteoric rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, while African Lives Matter (ALM) as a hashtag to build a social justice movement around sputtered and failed to launch. And why the slaughter of dozens, then hundreds, and even thousands, by radicalized Islamic terrorists on that continent I call home fails to be newsworthy, while Black Lives Matter has ridden the trend of popularity since its ascension in 2014, despite a significantly lower body count.
Black Lives Matter concerns us, the U.S public by its admonition that we do not place equal value to people we consider part of our society, people like us. Not those Africans in a far away continent who are not like us. A statement that in three short words challenges the American public’s notion of the uniquely American Dream and American exceptionalism. Yet, I am both part of the American public and that distant place.
Black Lives Matter, for me, is not simply about racial justice and equity on American soil, but extends globally to the blood drenched soil of African nations who through global policies and inaction have been told repeatedly that their lives do not matter. To be clear, this kyriarchy privileging one tragedy over the other is not limited to white America but in fact the general public’s perception of African tragedies, and informed by the socialized idea of places in Africa as localities of perpetual suffering. An image largely owed to the media’s historical and current depiction of the continent and its people, as well as the very real issue of classism.
“Race, in combination with class, is especially powerful at removing certain kinds of people from the scope of our empathy and interest…” (Rebecca Traister in her essay ‘Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?’)
When Americans speak of Africa, they often speak to an entire continent as a singular destination or principality where certain things are happening, rather than speaking to any of the 54 individual countries who carry within them the histories and cultures of even more kingdoms and chiefdoms that pre-date colonialism. The image of the continent is one bookmarked by dusty children, rampant poverty, wild untameable animals, and distended and diseased bodies who need food and medicine. Its problems likewise, exist in not in the realm of modern countries and democracies grappling with modern issues, but instead are of a separate African essence. The credence given to the complexity of issues facing black America is not awarded to the very real and deeply complex issues facing Africans as a result of colonialism and its modern child, Western imperialism. Africa is to be saved, not understood.
This is what accounts for the blatant ignorance I encounter in my daily life as an African in the diaspora and the failure of the world to respond to Africa’s tragedies at the hands of armed thugs. It is why Americans of all racial backgrounds will remark at “how articulate” I am as if in surprise that that place could produce someone both smart and well spoken. It is why a look of disbelief settles over these same Americans faces when I detail my childhood; where they expect deficiency, they find a middle to upper class childhood, rich with otherworldly experiences that often rivals their own.
This image of “other parts of the world” (in comparison to the American Dream) and classism means that the U.S and the American people are primarily concerned with issues that affect people like them; Kenyans, are not people like them, African Americans are. The weight of this duality of existence is very real as I too partake in the kyriarchy by my lived existence in the U.S. I am complicit in the naming of one injustice and the forgetting of another. As I write missive upon missive of the injustice of being black in America, and rally behind BLM as I have never rallied behind anything or anybody else, I am failing to tell the world about the injustices of being African in the World, of being a Kenyan in America.
This is why African Lives Matter may never take flight. And this is why I carry their names, Angela Kimata, Joy Chepkorir, Oliver Maina alongside those other more familiar ones. If I remember them, even if this American world I live in does not, then their lives did matter, then African Lives DO Matter.