A Commentary on the African American and Oromo Movements
By Taylor Washington
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization is a riveting and eye-opening explanation of the African American and Oromo movements. Professor Asafa Jalata is able to objectively and clearly explain the origins, differences, and similarities between these two movements. As an African American, this book challenged my view of Black nationalism and helped me to understand how different movements are strategically marketed as a way to disrupt and divide the African American movement. In addition to expanding my understanding of Black national movement, Jalata also introduced me to the Oromo movement and its complexities. Through an analysis of both movements the book is able to show me how Black movements can be different in their origins and functions but similar in their delivery of power to black people.
The first point of information that stood out in Jalata’s work is his use of the word apartheid. The first sentence on page 23 of the book is the first time that I encountered the phrase American apartheid. This was shocking to me as I am a product of American schooling. In America, the terms slavery and apartheid are never discussed together, usually the word apartheid is reserved for discussing South Africa. By using the term apartheid, Jalata is able to shed light on American hypocrisy. The US shamed South Africa for their continuation of racist policies and social practices when they themselves have never stopped practicing racist policies and social practices. The term slavery has the connotation of being a stage in history that has been corrected. While historically and systematically the residue of slavery has yet to be washed away, Americans seem to think that because it has ended everything associated with it has come to an end as well. The word apartheid signals a continual institutional and social oppression of Black people. When looking at the continuation of Black oppression in both America and South Africa the only difference is that in South Africa is was more acceptable to be openly racist. Both systems had a broken and biased criminal justice system, created a lower caste for Blacks, and saw the formation of white terrorist organizations. While it is obvious that South Africa is still more overtly racist than America it does not negate the racial oppression that is woven into the being of America. By using the phrase American Apartheid, Jalata put words to the American phenomena that is bigger than slavery.
One of the biggest revelations that I had from reading this book was an understanding that the Civil Rights Movement was a part of the African American nationalist movement and not a separate movement. Being an African American, it was strange that even in my own community we did not discuss the Civil Rights movement as a part of the Black movement. Jalata explains that there are three parts of the African American nationalism cultural, reformist, and revolutionary. Cultural nationalism in its best form is displayed through Garveyism, the Pan-African movement, and the Harlem Renaissance. The Civil Rights movement embodies the reformist section of African American nationalism. The goal of the Civil Rights movement was to reform American society to allow the social and political freedom and inclusion of Black people. The movement not only reformed society through desegregation, it also reformed the make up of the Black community. The Civil Rights movement created a space for organizations to grow and a space for Black intellectuals to succeed. It also led the way for people to become more militant when the movement came to an end with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. That militancy turned into the third faction of the African American nationalist movement, revolution. Revolutionary nationalism is most notably known as the Black Panther Party. Along with other groups that formed, the Black Panther Party advocated for anti-racism and anti-integration. The revolutionary movement pushed for Black independence and autonomy from white America. Together, not separately, these sections of Black history make up the African American movement. White people have strategically singled out the Civil Rights movement from the movement to divide and separate the Black community. The Civil Rights movement was also singled out because it can be used to reinforce the caricature of the good Negro. The good Negro is not violent and asks to be treated like a human, he does not demand it. Removing the Civil Rights movement from the Black national movement continues to divide the Black community today. Within the community it seems as though if someone leans more towards the revolutionary movement, they are too Black and deemed violent. Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization showed me that separating the Black movements does nothing but separate the Black community, only when we can see the value in what each movement contributions, then can we fully understand the magnitude of the African American nationalist movement.
One of the most interesting facts I learned while reading this book involves understanding the structure of the Oromo kinship system. At first glance the Oromo kinship system can seem intimidating and overwhelming however, it is very easy to understand if explained properly. The largest group in the network is called the gosa. Under the gosa there are subdivisions called moiety, sub-moiety, and qomo or clan. After the subdivisions there are lower branches called the mana (linage), balbala (minor lineage), and the warra (extended family). Above all there are two moieties that Oromo’s identify with, Barentu or Borana. This family structure is not too different than that of African Americans. Of course, the Oromo kinship structure is more organized and that is due to them being able to stay within their culture during their oppression as compared to the forced formation of the ethnonationality that is African American. In both kinship networks there is importance placed on knowing who you came from in order to know who you are. The difference lies in the Oromo’s ability to actually trace their lineage and the African American’s inability to know more than a few generations back due to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The importance of extended family is not lost on either group. In my family extended family is very important and we stress the importance by having family reunions. The structure off our reunions reflects the structure of the Oromo kinship system. For example, I am a member of the Washington family, but we attend the Waller-Richman family reunion. My qomo or clan would be Waller-Richman, while my mana or linage would be Washington. Understanding how similar the African America and Oromo kinship structures helped me to further understand just how much African Americans kept the culture and traditions of Africa alive. I would have never guessed that my family structure would be so globalized, but it comforts me to know a little part of my world is a part of the shared Black/Pan-African experience.
What I most admired about the Oromo people lies in their decision to choose a different religion than their oppressors, the Ethiopians. Oromo’s largely chose to practice Islam not Christianity. I admire this choice because African Americans chose to accept the religion of their oppressors, Christianity. I do not understand how an oppressed people can accept the religion of the people who are mentally and physically terrorizing you. Choosing a different religion than your oppressors gives the oppressed a type of autonomy that is not afforded to those who accept the religion of their oppressors. When African Americans chose to become Christians, it essentially created two types of Christianity. It created a religion of dominance for white Americans and a religion of liberation for African Americans. White Christians used the Bible as a justification for slavery and terrorism against Black people. Black Christians used the Bible as an escape and in some sense a source of self-worth. African American slaves saw heaven as a place of escape and something to strive for in their eternal state of abuse. They found self-worth in the fact that many of the sacred and important people and places in the Bible were African or in Africa. Even though African Americans had a different view of Christianity, they still validated the whites in their decision to enslave them by endorsing their religion. When the Oromo’s chose Islam over Christianity, it showed their complete resistance to their oppressors. If you have nothing in common with your oppressors, it is easier to resist and organize as a people. Having the same religion opens the door for oppressors to claim that the oppressed should be additionally indebted to their systematic oppression because it gave them religion and therefore civilization. In the end the Oromo’s choice of Islam helps them cultivate a closer community because they are not hindered by multiple competing interpretations and have a sacred space that is completely separate from that of their oppressor.
The final reactions I have towards Jalata’s Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization, is one of surprise at just how different the Oromo movement is from the African American movement. The Oromo oppression is different for a variety of reasons. The most distinct difference is that other Black peoples have oppressed the Oromo nation. Before reading this book and taking this class I thought racism was purely a phenomenon that existed between different so-called races. When I learned that the Ethiopian oppressed the Oromo I was shocked. It taught me that racism is a bout power first and race second. The minority oppressors also dominated the Oromo compared to African Americans who were oppressed by majority colonizers. When there are less ruling members than subordinates the type of ruling displayed tends to be more harsh and that can be seen in the domination of the Oromo people. Another difference lies in how long the Oromo oppression has been going on. The oppression of the Oromo people has been happening or a little over a century. Comparably this is not a lot of time as African Americans have been experiencing oppression for the past 3.5 centuries. Also, the context of oppression is different for both groups. African Americans were taken from Africa, placed in a foreign country, and forced to learn and speak a foreign language. Oromo’s had a very different experience. They experienced oppression on their own land which was a major advantage in being able to maintain their culture and language. While their language was banned from the public spheres and schools, Oromo’s just learned the dominant language while keeping their native language. This was a huge part of maintaining their culture as they were able to tell stories and sing songs of their ancestors in their native tongue. Another difference in the two movements is that the African American struggle and oppression has been acknowledged from the beginning of their oppression, which means African slaves had global sympathizers. Knowledge of the mistreatment of the Oromo people has been and continues to be actively repressed. Ethiopia actively denies that Oromos are being oppressed and works to keep out media who might be looking for the truth.
In conclusion, Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization by Asafa Jalata was a wonderful read that made me more aware of what the African American struggle is and how it compares to other Black struggles. Jalata was able to show me the inner working of the African American nationalist movement and made me understand that there is more to the story than what is taught in school. I learned that American Apartheid is a great term to explain what happened to enslaved Africans in America and how it continues to affect them today. The book exposed me to the systematic separation of the Civil Rights movement from its place in the African American nationalist movement. I was educated on the similarities and complex differences between the Oromo and African American kinship networks. I realized how much I admired the Oromo people for choosing a different religion from their oppressors. Finally, I came to understand just how different the African American nationalist movement was from the Oromo nationalist movement. From context, duration, to their ability to control their culture and language, and many other reasons to show that the Black struggle, while an international experience of the diaspora, is not uniform but valid all the same. In the end, Jalata’s book is a wonderful resource for people looking to learn more about the African American and Oromo peoples. His work perfectly illustrates the intersectional and contrast of the two movements and why it is important to study both.