With the 58th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X approaching, the nation will soon collectively remember one the most charismatic and empowering figures of Black pride, pan-Africanism, and Black empowerment. For me, his speeches, grassroots work and creation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity helped reveal the interconnected destiny of all members of the African diaspora.
As I reflected on this vital moment in American history, the global media focus happened to be on the historic visit of Pope Francis to various regions of Africa. It was heartening to see the traditional processional dances and rich cultural traditions of the citizens showcasing how jubilant Catholicism can be in the motherland.
In between ceremonies and Masses, Pope Francis engaged in the typical humanitarian diplomacy that pontiffs have performed in the past. He also challenged leaders who would seek to harm the residents of the Mother Continent—including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, where he was visiting. In one example, after landing in the DRC, Francis delivered reprimands about exploiting the continent’s resources.
“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa, it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” he said forcefully.
It was great to see Francis condemn the abuses in the continent, but how powerful of a statement it would have been if one of Africa’s cardinals had issued the same remarks? Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, for example, has criticized “ideological colonization,” but how significant it would have been to condemn economic exploitation and underdevelopment by foreign countries and companies! In some ways, many figures of his rank and status seem to have dropped the ball on issues of self-determination for Africans. This is a tragic setback for true justice.
Francis’ comments are in line with his profound liberation theology views, but Africans and the diaspora can’t rely on the pope to champion our struggle for economic, political, and social justice. Even so, the Catholic Church, in its catholicity and oneness, could be a significant cog in the global movement for Afro-descended communities to fight back against oppression. This movement could not only unite otherwise disconnected voices, but also play a massive role in abolishing false narratives and ill-conceived strategies for advancement.
As the media continues to portray Africa through a lens of abject poverty, unceasing political turmoil, and rampant internecine neglect, global leaders, NGOs, and international agencies like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Health Organization have invested countless resources in the continent. Even with the clamoring response, success in this process has been minimal or non-existent. In fact, financial programs and government aid administered by international agencies have played their own role in the severe underdevelopment of the African continent.
It is also interesting to note the parallels between African nationalism of the late 1950s and 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement here in America. Make no mistake, both social movements demanded social change in how to empower the world’s most despised and rejected class. Both movements gained widespread freedom for their constituents in terms of status, acceptance, and opportunities. However, after sixty years, those gains haven't materialized in substantial progress for African Americans or longstanding economic and social growth for Africans.
With Black spending power in the trillions in America and natural resources and mineral-rich continent being abundant in Africa, the numbers simply do not add up. With our money, highly profitable natural assets, and billions in population, the global Black community should be in a prominent position according to global financial standards.
We can rightfully say that the same systems of oppression, underclass status, and exploitation exist for all of the African diaspora. African and Afro-descended people are being hit on all sides and we have few to no allies in our corner. We have our backs against the ropes and have taken blow after blow, including the slave trade, centuries of enduring bondage, White terrorism, the Scramble for Africa, and continental neo-colonialism.
We are on life support, and the community of faith must play a central role in the recovery. Specifically, the time is now for Catholics of African descent to push for radical unity on an agenda of self-determination and becoming economically centered. The systemic issues all of the members of the African diaspora encounter need to be addressed and abolished by the collective action of dispersed communities.
Western and non-governmental influence cannot be allowed to determine what the African descendants and communities need. Not once have we collectively or as independent nation-states been fully seated at the global economic table to advocate for our multifaceted needs. For the victims to not even be included in the discussions is a paternalistic assault leveraged by global powers to undermine their sovereignty and agency.
The last great grassroots campaign that united the various global communities of African descent with continental Africans was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Garvey was a Catholic. He demonstrated that the endeavor of Black unity can only be accomplished by means of an emphasis on common descent as a catalyst for action.
The global Black community possesses various religious affiliations, nationalities, and languages. To try and organize around them all would be a difficult endeavor because one group would be elevated while others are neglected. As Malcolm affirmed in his “Message to the Grassroots,” our petty differences have to be put aside to focus on the struggle against a common enemy. What he suggested, as did Garvey, was an emphasis on Blackness as the basis for unity in a movement.
Given that Black Catholics have the privilege of being united through the graces of the Church, a considerable amount of the work has already been accomplished. Holy Mother Church has the largest collection of the diaspora, after all. If Western Black Catholics and continental African Catholics created an organization to lobby for the cause of social justice, economics, and protection of their interests, it would amount to monumental representation on the global stage. We could promote Afrocentric solutions to pressing international issues such as healthcare, education, and employment.
Until we achieve this global bond, Masses can be offered for Black unity so that we can obtain grace for this difficult but important journey. Asking the intercession of all the ancestors of the diaspora is also crucial. We need St. Augustine, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Thea Bowman, St. Anthony of Egypt, Blessed Francisco de Paula Victor, the Ugandan Martyrs, St. Josephine Bakhita, and St. Martin De Porres to storm heaven in order for us to continue the fight they started.
Moreover, it would be a powerful testament if Black Catholic clerics displayed similar unity. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the American titan carrying Augustus Tolton’s legacy. Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Haiti, the first and only cardinal from the first independent nation in the Black diaspora. Cardinal Sarah, an orthodox powerhouse of the Church. These and others could be united for the advancement of the economic, social, and political needs of all people of African descent. Ecclesial unity against forces and countries who wish to drain us dry is crucial. Putting aside various differences to be solely concerned with the empowerment and well-being of Black people across the globe is an important step forward.
Since the 1960s, popes have traveled to Africa to address flourishing spiritual growth and humanitarian concerns. These pontiffs have witnessed significant events, such as African nationalism in sub-Saharan countries, oppressed countries successfully rising up against imperialist and colonialist control, and several crises like civil wars and genocides. Pope Francis’ recent visit provides a much-needed incentive not only for Africa to be utilized for the needs of its people, but for greater awareness among the African diaspora of the common Black good.
Strengthened by the Eucharist and with the presence of Christ dwelling within us, our activism as Catholics for basic human rights is a matter of spiritual warfare to topple powers that are contrary to the commandment of love. We’ve seen the Church play a pivotal role in the 20th century against the Cold War and in securing essential human rights like freedom of religion against totalitarian regimes. That same Church can provide the structure for the global community of African descent to organize for their needs. This illuminating ray of justice would have a far-reaching impact on all descendants.
May all the martyrs and holy ancestors of upright heart, who died with the Christian determination to challenge unfairness and inequality, aid the Body with bold prayers.
Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.