Race politics in Ghana

Historian Jemima Pierre argues that Whiteness serves as a reference point for Ghanaians’ notions of beauty, Blackness, and power, but Ghanaians remain blind to this.

Jemima Pierre, author of 'The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race.'

Jemima Pierre, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, has written an ambitious book in The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (University of Chicago Press 2012). She engages Ghanaian and African diasporan constructions, perceptions, and performances of Blackness and Whiteness in contemporary Ghana. By doing so, she brings anthropology into an ongoing conversation on race within African studies dominated largely by historians and South Africanists from a variety of specializations.

The book, she says in her preface, is an “ethnography of racialization that insists on shifting the ways we think about Africa and the history of modern identity” (xv). She argues that the process of racialization within the framework of global white supremacy links continental Africans and people of African descent in the diaspora. Race matters, to Pierre, and she culls ethnographic material from her two decades of research in Ghana that belies its irrelevance in every day urban Ghana.

She was inspired to write this book, Pierre tells us, by the failure of African and African diaspora studies scholars to “fully appreciate the sociohistorical reality of Black identity formation on the African continent and its articulations with global notions of Blackness” (222). Actually, there is a wealth of impressive scholarship that directly or indirectly addresses race and related issues in Africa. More on this below. Still, Pierre’s observations provide a rich and textured documentation of the meanings and expressions of blackness—and, ultimately “Whiteness”—in early 21st century Ghana. The predicament, she suggests is that Whiteness serves as a reference point for Ghanaians’ notions of beauty, Blackness, and power, but Ghanaians remain blind to this and the framework of global white supremacy that has contributed to the social and political structure of their society.

As a historian of Africa, I found Pierre’s effort to provide an alternative to the romantic readings of Ghana’s late colonial and early independence periods particularly noteworthy. In the chapter “Seek Ye First the Political Kingdom” Pierre argues, in short, that the nationalists, Nkrumah among them, failed to dismantle the racialized structures of imperialism. Rather than revolutionary or dramatic change they settled for safeguarding their positions of power. “Nkrumah and his political party, the CPP,” writes Pierre, “made compromises that reflected the contradictory nature, and compromised position, of a nonrevolutionary transition mediated by and through the terms of the former colonial master” (48). She strips some of the veneer from Nkrumah’s pan-Africanist, revolutionary façade and describes decolonization as more politically and culturally conservative than radical. The ruling Convention People’s Party, she rightly states, spent more time consolidating power than uprooting the remains of the colonial system. This is not merely history, she suggests, because the consequences of these choices had implications for present-day Ghana. While not necessarily original—she does not claim that it is—this is a wonderful point of departure to revisit Ghana’s nationalist period.

Pierre is strongest with her interpretation of her interviews on discreet issues, which expose individuals’ or small groups’ unconscious racial reading of a practice or people. Throughout chapter four, to offer one example, she unpacks skin bleaching and associated ideals of beauty among those who do and do not practice it. Skin bleaching, she explains, “actually reveal common ideas about the transnational significance of race” (103). This discussion and a brief etymology of “mi oburoni”—my white/light person—as a term of endearment demonstrates the degree to which the Ghanaians Pierre came into contact with imbibed whiteness and/or light skin as preferable to the darker skin of most Ghanaians.

As a work of anthropology this book captures a slice of Ghanaian views within a specific historical moment. But the slices will look different as we move away from the coast to explore how urbanites in the interior cities of Kumasi and Tamale conceive of the intersection of blackness, beauty, and power. I suggest that a broader geographical and historical framework would complement Pierre’s ethnographic analysis and align her study more closely with its aspiration to document racialization in urban Ghana. This would include accounting for the diversity of African responses to the European imposition of a racialized power structure. For example, along the coast from the closing decades of the nineteenth century through World War II, the so-called colonial African elite in Accra and Cape Coast vigorously debated the meaning of race and the colonial state’s racist practices. Indeed, colonial era Africa-run newspapers are replete with African critiques of racism and colonial rule in general.

Pierre’s neglect of this history leads her to overstate the power that Europeans exercised. Outside of urban areas, where far fewer Africans lived, until the closing decade of British rule colonial administrators had mixed success in their efforts to assert control over the Africans that they counted as colonial subjects. Moreover, the chiefs through whom administrators sought to incorporate local societies within the empire were frequently overthrown, undermined, and/or ignored by their so-called subjects. In short, local individuals and groups under colonial rule exercised far more control over how they defined themselves and their political environment than such terms as colonial rule, white supremacy, and subject imply. It is important that we do not silence the agency that Africans—commoners, royals, and employees of the colonial state—exercised in day-to-day affairs lest we foreclose on the possible meanings of racialized power and its limits.

My reading of Pierre’s book prompted me to imagine new directions for thinking about blackness, difference, and power in Ghana. Without a doubt, racialization on its coast bares both the silent and more palpable imprints of “Whiteness” and the legacies of European colonial rule. However, there is a different picture in the country’s north. Northerners commonly speak of the lighter brown skin of many Fulani as attractive for reasons not related to colonialism or white supremacy. Considering the differing north-south dynamic in Ghana and elsewhere on the continent calls upon us to explore how we might push beyond privileging the coast and Europeans to frame our understanding of Ghanaian and West African conceptions of race, power, beauty, and Blackness. To what extent does northern Ghana’s more Sahelian cultural and political orientation offer a counter or alternative paradigm for the West’s imprint on the coast?

Pierre is the exception among anthropologists in forcefully tackling a comprehensive study of race in Ghana. As more anthropologists follow her lead, the rich historical scholarship on race—in its myriad iterations—in Africa will enliven their work. One example is A Different Shade of Colonialism, in which Eve Trout Powell masterfully illuminates the confluence of European and Egyptian colonial projects in Sudan and the consequences for Sudanese articulations of power, ethnicity and racial difference. In Past Times and Politics by Laura Faire, local conceptions of race, particularly blackness, define the social status of the enslaved and their descendants in Zanzibari society. In a less direct, but still noteworthy manner, in Native Sons Greg Mann unpacks the intersection of conceptions of race, citizenship, and nation in post-World War II Mali. Most recently, Jonathan Glassman’s magisterial War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Colonial Violence in Colonial Zanzibar centers African and Indian Ocean derived meanings of race and racial difference for understanding relations among individual and groups of Africans on the Swahili Coast during the European colonial period. These are mere samples from a dynamic body of scholarship.

Notwithstanding its limited historical and cultural context and geographic scope, Jemima Pierre’s book is a welcome addition to an important field within African and African diaspora studies. It sheds new and important light on the contours and limits of European imperial power in Africa, and demonstrates the challenges of upholding social categories in a forever and rapidly changing social and political environment. Most important, Pierre helps deepen our understanding of confluence of race and power as a global phenomenon.

* Ben Talton is an associate professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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