“Freedom is coming tomorrow,” sing the young Black people in the South African musical Sarafina!, “get ready, mama, prepare for your freedom.” A 1987 theatrical musical that became a 1992 movie, Sarafina! portrayed South African life under apartheid and Black people’s fight for freedom. This song, “Freedom Is Coming,” gestures toward a freedom that was still to come, a freedom that was not yet there, for Black South Africans. In many ways, such freedom still remains elusive. For many of us Black kids growing up in postapartheid South Africa, particularly in the 1990s, the song “Freedom Is Coming” was the soundtrack of our lives.
I couldn’t get that song out of my head, again, while reading Rinaldo Walcott’s The Long Emancipation. In the book, Walcott draws a crucial distinction between “emancipation” and “freedom.” Emancipation, for Walcott, is always a question of law; as such, emancipation is the beginning of the process that will bring about freedom, a legal foundation on which freedom will be built. Freedom, on the other hand, exists beyond the confines of the law; as such, freedom grants corporal autonomy, which makes way for a complexity and multiplicity of existence and experience for all people.
Emancipation, then, is not freedom. And so, even though Black people have emancipated themselves, there is still no freedom for Black life.
Even with the cessation of overt colonialism and slavery, post–Emancipation Proclamation and post–African countries’ independence, Black life has remained unfree. So much so that, in 2020, there was a worldwide groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white policeman in the United States. The lack of Black freedom is also demonstrated by anti-Black European immigration policies that ensure the death of Africans crossing the Mediterranean in search of livability.
In these examples, and countless others, we see that freedom is not yet here. Like the song from Sarafina! that hopes “freedom is coming tomorrow,” Walcott’s The Long Emancipation speaks of freedom not as a present state, but, instead, as something that is moved toward.
We continue to live in the long emancipation, a time in the postcolonial and postslavery era that witnesses an “ongoing interdiction of a potential Black freedom.” Walcott convincingly argues that emancipation does not make the necessary break with the social relations that undergird colonization and slavery. This break is a precondition for the freedom of Black people.
Emancipation, then, is a compromise, a halfway mark, an incomplete freedom project. And, in many ways, it is so not by accident but by design. Walcott articulates this design most pointedly through Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, who noted that “colonial management coupled with the history of transatlantic slavery produced within Africa the very conditions that prohibited its development on the terms that the West states are the terms of development.” Therefore, the unfreedom of Africans postindependence is by design.
I find Walcott’s idea of a pure decolonial project incisive and relevant. This project endeavors to create new relationalities and intimacies that are formed and practiced outside the bounds of Euro-American colonial logic—a feat that has proven difficult to accomplish. It is a project that understands that European modernity—that is to say, European domination—is built and sustained by global anti-Blackness. Seriously engaging in the invention of Blackness entails being suspicious of simplistic decolonial ideas that hinge on concepts of identity and nationhood that rely on colonial epistemic operations.
For me—writing from South Africa after the Rhodes Must Fall movement of 2015, which was explicitly decolonial—it is beneficial to articulate a pure decolonial project as a politics of thought that aims to complicate identity politics, which at times can be invested in hegemonic systems.
A pure decolonial project that enables a politics of thought is incredibly freeing in the South African context, which tends to be overinvested in identities, some of which are rooted in a history of colonialism and apartheid. This overinvestment in identity, including in South African-ness, also fuels Afro-focused xenophobia. Indeed, such xenophobia in South Africa demonstrates the unfinished nature of our freedom—the freedom that is yet to come. South Africa’s post-1994 democracy and its shortfalls are just one manifestation of Walcott’s “long emancipation.”
Because freedom has not yet come, Black subjects not only in South Africa but around the world continue to be unable to access the category of “human.” In Euro-American conceptions of the human, whiteness is the standard; all other persons are deviant and, therefore, less human. As such, Euro-American ideas offer only limited—that is, not universal—conceptions of freedom. European Enlightenment values cannot be universally applied because the idea of the human, and therefore of freedom, enshrined within them remains insufficient.
The idea of the human in the Euro-American definition cannot contain Black people, as demonstrated by the prohibition on Black life throughout modern history, and the inability to comprehend Black art forms and expressions. Such expressions, historically and in the contemporary moment, have been and often are misread, misrepresented, or completely unseen because a Eurocentric lens, which is almost always anti-Black, is unable to comprehend and appreciate these art forms and expressions. They exist outside the already established demarcations of the human; their appreciation requires an expansive idea of the human.
Black life-forms—the ways in which Black people articulate life through art and many other means (hair, clothes, music, writing), even on sites of oppression—are a refusal. And in their refusal to be contained, Black life-forms hold within them the seeds of freedom to come. Walcott reveals how such seeds must be nurtured throughout the long drought of emancipation, before they can flourish “tomorrow.” Even more profoundly, the potential for Black freedom has consequences that ripple beyond Black people; as Walcott puts it, potentially, “it is a freedom that inaugurates an entirely new human experience for everyone.”
If freedom is something to move toward, what does that movement look like? Such movement, as I understand it, can take the form of thinking differently and reinventing; that is to say, moving toward freedom requires undoing old modes of thinking about the human.
Along the way, we must rethink what “human” really means (such a reactivation might also consider the relationship Homo sapiens have to other living things). Moving toward freedom demands moving away from post-Enlightenment logics that produced the hierarchization of humans, according to which white men are deemed fully human, nonwhite peoples outside Europe, less so.
The movement away from such logics is and has been, to say the least, rather sluggish. Walcott reveals how, since the advent of colonization and slavery, violence has always been the response whenever Black people have pursued and proclaimed freedom for themselves. This is because of the post-Enlightenment logics of “freedom,” which are built on liberalism’s narrative of linear progress. Such logics and narratives limit our understanding of the human; for Walcott, such limitation means that Blackness is always already outside the category of human.
For Walcott, white women, and then white gays and lesbians, were gradually included in this category, in a way that demonstrates the linearity of the progressive narrative. This narrative tells us that progress is linear, that marginalized groups will be “free” one by one, step by step, until, as it were, we reach a state of freedom. Contemporary politics peddle the inevitability of the linear progressive narrative, citing white women’s right to vote and same-sex marriage as examples. But, of course, they are also examples of assimilation.
Moving toward freedom requires undoing old modes of thinking about the human.
The linear-progressive narrative is contradictory when it comes to Black freedom, because, in many ways, according to its own logic, the desire for Black freedom predates other struggles. Yet, Black freedom remains unattainable. This is because Black freedom is refusal—refusal of linear-progressive ideas of perfecting the human, where the conditions of humanity are an impossible assimilation to Eurocentrism.
The issue is that Black freedom is uncontainable. Indeed, “Black freedom is more like a set of eruptions that push against and within how we have come to understand what freedom is, that push against what is often offered to us as a logic of the maturation of human life.”
Freedom, then, has not yet been achieved, or even defined. To reach those goals, Walcott argues, we must reconstitute what it means to be human. We need to expand this concept because, as it stands, Black being exists outside the category as designated by post-Enlightenment logics.
Currently, throughout the world, the hunger for freedom for Black people perversely turns into desire for death: Africans drowning while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in an effort to find dignified lives in Europe serve as a chilling example. Walcott insists on recalibrating the way we understand the human and recognizing that our former idea of the human was formed by history, placing Blackness outside humanness.
The Poetics of Abolition
Walcott challenges us to accept that Blackness is unable to be perfected by and for capitalism—and to recognize that inability as both power and potential. He also shows that indigenous freedom is intricately tied to Black freedom, but that this freedom will not be ushered in by collaborative investments with capitalism. The out-of-placeness of Blackness and indigenous dispossession was created and sustained through capitalism and capitalist-driven slavery. Therefore, there is no path to freedom, Black freedom, that fraternizes with capitalism.
Walcott argues against acceding to European Enlightenment logics, particularly in the ways we think about indigeneity and other forms of being. We cannot fail to critique colonialist capitalism if we are serious about the decolonial project—that is to say, if we are serious about Black freedom.
In fact, as Wolcott makes clear, in Black life-forms, we find ways of practicing freedom that bypass capitalist perfectibility. They demonstrate other ways of being, as Walcott’s deliberation on funk as a mode of thought makes clear.
Walcott understands funk as extending beyond music to a style of comportment and language. Funk encompasses unpredictable ways of being that are not concerned with respectability. It is a way of articulating an otherwise. Funk music is an amalgamation of jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues; in other words, it adopts these genres but denies them at the same time. The sounds of funk are said to rely less than other musical styles on melody and chord progression, therefore breaking the rules of what some consider “good music.”
Like Blackness, funk exists outside the linear. In funk, Black people find autonomy, self-articulation, and expression beyond the given scripts for “Black life.” The funkiness in and of Black life cannot be articulated by Euro-American logics steeped in white supremacy—indeed, the funk of Black life has always eluded these logics.
Yet, such logics are profoundly difficult to avoid. It is difficult to ensure that one’s prescriptions for freedom are not bound up with the very systems that one is seeking freedom from.
In many instances, post-1968 social movements have sought compromises that enable them to participate in hegemonic systems; not to change them, but to belong within them. White women’s campaign for the right to vote in North America and the fight for same-sex marriage demonstrate this fact. While white women gained the right to vote, Black women remained disenfranchised, and had to fight for many more decades in order to vote. The legalization of same-sex marriage—a fight to gain entrée into an archaic privatized middle-class institution—was prioritized over the funding of, and struggle for, other more expansive “care” social programs. In both of these instances, “progress” hinges on assimilation to an existing order. On the other hand, an allegiance to expansive ideas of the human would lead to far more radical freedoms.
In Black freedom lie the seeds that would usher in new ways of being, new ways of articulating what it is and what it means to be human.
The colonial encounter and the movement of Black people through slavery made a new kind of subjectivity come into being. The Black being in the diaspora—using the resources at hand—fashions a self that, in critical ways, challenges nationalistic norms.
In taking seriously the invention of Black people by European colonial expansion, Walcott challenges us to grapple with what this “new kind of indigeneity” produces as it disrupts taken-for-granted ideas of settlement, nationhood, belonging, language, and land. Glaring examples of this new kind of indigeneity are the Black African in the diaspora, the African Indian in Kenya, the white African of South Africa. These examples, and many more, all provide profound challenges to conservative, neat conceptions of nationhood and indigeneity.
The new kind of indigeneity necessitates an attentiveness to extractive colonial relationships, both past and present, in understanding contemporary Black movements and the desire for livability that fuels them. Indeed, as Walcott stipulates, “at the heart of migration and citizenship sit the questions of emancipation and freedom,” because contemporary Black movements have their roots in exploitative colonialism perpetuated by European colonial powers. This exploitation continues in various guises in post-independence African states, compelling people to seek livability elsewhere.
Therefore, there can never be serious debates about contemporary Black movements and the tragedies that accompany them—the Lampedusa tragedy, for instance, when over three hundred African migrants drowned while crossing the Mediterranean—without referencing Europe’s role in creating the foundations for unlivability in parts of Africa and elsewhere.
Engaging with the works of Sylvia Wynter and Frantz Fanon, Walcott issues a call to rethink the post-Enlightenment conception of the human. It is through this reworking that the book elucidates how we might be able to find real freedom. Walcott demonstrates the multiple ways that Black life-forms deconstruct, evade, elude, and surpass limited Euro-American ideas of the human, founded in the Enlightenment and in the post-Columbian colonial project.
In The Long Emancipation, Walcott is committed to the idea of a new humanism, as propagated by Wynter and Fanon, that includes Black beings. In order for us to understand the possibility of freedom, we have to pay attention to Black life-forms, which in their radical existence enable a rethinking of the human and creates possibilities for livable lives, not just for Black people, but for everyone.
Walcott suggests that reconstituting the human, through seriously reckoning with the anti-Black logics of the global order, is the only way to bring about freedom. In reconstituting the human, we recognize that all humans, including Black beings, deserve livability.
In Black freedom lie the seeds that would usher in new ways of being, new ways of articulating what it is and what it means to be human. In Black freedom lie what Walcott calls “pure radical possibilities.” Indeed, in Black freedom lies the freedom of us all. Perhaps—if we heed Walcott’s call and respond to his challenge to think again and again—then, maybe, freedom is coming, tomorrow.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel.