Image Credit: Oladimeji Odunsi


The following is an excerpt from Emotional Justice: A Roadmap for Racial Healing (2022) by Esther A. Armah, reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Loss is an intimate part of global Blackness. Britain was an empire. America became a superpower. Africa had kingdoms. All global Black people lost something through systems of oppression where the language of whiteness ruled under brutal lash, stolen native tongues, and charred skin.

Unfortunately, the issue is that global Black people compare and judge our losses. We tell one another that our loss is way worse than yours. We reach into the wounds of historical untreated trauma, wrap our pain around our mother tongue, fashion an insult, and target it at a man or a woman or child who looks just like us, or a shade of us. We are prosecutors, presenting damning evidence of deficit, intending to diminish and destroy. Devastatingly, we succeed.

Africans tell African Americans, “What do you know of our trauma? You’re not African. You’re American. Why must you always say racism, racism, racism?” African Americans tell Africans in the US, “You’re here! In America! You’re Black! Speak English. This ain’t Africa! You’re taking our jobs; you think you’re better than us.” And back and forth, and back and forth we go. We wound, retreat, and reemerge with fresh insults and unfresh trauma. Such is a lingering legacy of combined anti-Blackness and the language of whiteness.

This is a weaponizing of emotions—feelings of belonging, betrayal, and broken brotherhood—wielded like deadly samurai swords. This weaponizing entrenches historical separation and cultural segregation. What does that look like? Award-winning filmmaker dream hampton’s documentary Let’s Get Free: The Black August Hip Hop Project shows us.

The film is in tribute to incarcerated political prisoners. It focuses on social justice and Black liberation and features African American hip hop artists performing in New York, Cuba, and South Africa. On their South African leg, the artists attended the 2001 World Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa. There was an exchange between African Americans and Black South Africans that reveals this legacy of losses and comparisons.

The hip hop artists sit on a panel behind a desk with mics looking out over an audience that includes young Black South Africans, and international media. The artists share messages of oppression, trauma, and loss stemming from being Black in America. Sections of the Black South African audience, arms folded, faces set, stare at them as they speak.

An African American woman, wearing a bright-yellow windbreaker, mic gripped, addresses the audience: “Coming to Africa, we are African Americans—and we don’t know the African experience. Apartheid in South Africa—it is 90 percent Black; it’s not comparable to the many abuses that we experience in the United States, which is still a majority white country.”

Some of the young Black South Africans roll their eyes. They are becoming agitated. The exchange continues.

Another hip hop artist in shades and a black beanie says, “Us as kidnapped Africans in America, we fully understand our role in Africans’ liberation worldwide.”

After several more statements about oppression and racism in America from the panel and the international media, the Black South Africans grow even more agitated. The mic is finally passed to a Black South African high school student. Hand raised, with pushed-back natural hair and a white T-shirt with a map of South Africa around her neck, she starts to speak. She is angry. She stares directly at each of the artists and sweeps her arm to indicate that her comments are to all the hip hop artists on the panel: “For next time—or any other time—you come, we’re here! And we deserve to be heard! The past injustices that happened to us are still happening to us and are still going on! It may seem that under the banner of this conference everything is fine! Everything is not so well! I am a student—I still suffer to go to school. My parents still need to struggle! How far can you empathize with us? Never. Because what we feel, you don’t feel.”

She hands the mic over, turns her back, turns back around, and crosses her arms facing the artists, face stony. Spotty applause breaks out; it comes from other Black South Africans.

Uneasiness, hurt, anger, and contempt move between the South Africans in the audience toward the African Americans on the panel. The air changes. Violence hovers. Stares are lengthening between panelists and audience members. Murmuring in South African languages grows, choking, accusing. The artists shift in their bodies; they exchange glances, the kind that say, “Shit’s about to go down.”

One of the hip hop artists responds, gesturing constantly with his hands, his voice emotional, passionate: “Listen! I understand what you’re sayin’ ’bout tryna empathize or whateva! But at least you guys still had your language! We don’t even know who we are! Imagine if you didn’t even know who you are? Imagine! You know who you are—who’s your mother, who’s your grandfather, who’s your grandmother! So you have some sense of who you are! We don’t even know who we are!”

In this exchange, shared trauma becomes a litigated history of loss versus loss, of mine is worse than yours, of what do you know about what it is to be my kind of Black. In this case, this emotional litigation is between South Africans and African Americans.

In the documentary, the exchange doesn’t end in a peaceful coming together. There is a drifting apart between the two groups, but the unease, the hurt words, the resentment remain.

This chasm that divides us as global Black people is a supremacy of Black traumas and unheard hurt. Prosecuting loss buries already buried trauma even deeper into global Black bodies—it becomes a coffin that buries us all.

This pain becomes accusation and moves from the personal to the political, from the individual to the institutional. It then travels into our movements that philosophize about a pan-Africanism but don’t recognize how untreated traumas feed an emotional relationship to our Blackness, not an ideological or philosophical one. What that means is that the division, the misunderstanding, the hurt, the anger, the resentment emerge to influence how we work, lead, and build with one another. It becomes a back-and-forth about who belongs where and who doesn’t, what is owed and to whom, and on and on and on. What it does, fundamentally, is divide, and entrench division. It causes us to implode; it causes our movements to implode.


Scars from the Language of Whiteness

These scars are not only between Black folk in America and Africa. A segregated Blackness narrative dominates across parts of Africa too. During my first trip to South Africa, I remember the open hostility, dismissal, and judgment from Black South Africans toward me. I was judged as an African who wasn’t specifically South African. This too has a term, amankwerekwere, meaning “people from Africa.” Sounds strange, right? Especially since I was from Africa, just as they were. The language of whiteness flourished in South Africa too, creating an Africa that was wretched, corrupt, and criminal, and specifically separating South Africa from this “other Africa.” That is why unlearning the language of whiteness is for all of us—global Black folks too. South African writer Sisonke Msimang writes about this in her visionary memoir, Always Another Country.

From Southern Africa to West Africa. In Senegal, a friend shares a story of an incident in Dakar, where a man told her that her Blackness is not his. They have a name for those like her: nnack—when you hear it said, it sounds like someone hawking up phlegm from their throat, ready to spit—it feels as it sounds.

Pause. Breathe. Close your eyes. It is here we so need revolutionary Black grace. What cannot win in our fight for full liberation is a divided, segregated Blackness. We are global Black family. We cannot heal with one another like this. We simply cannot.


Between Us… Black Women and Men

It is between us as Black women and men that these scars show up as generational inheritance. They are wounds soaked in blood, bone, burden, and brutality. Revolutionary Black grace between us is tender territory that must be carefully navigated. For Black women, there is—and has been—an emotional labor engaged in for Black men that is historical, transformative, and traumatic. That labor is how we love one another; it is how we hurt one another—it cannot be how we heal one another.

Emotional Justice requires emotional labor—from all of us. Our freedom movements were the result of the efforts of women and men; that is our history. The erasure train has traveled from Africa to America across continents, cities, and communities, removing Black women from seats at tables of resistance, disappearing our stories, reducing our sacrifice, and diminishing our struggle. Erasure is the language of trauma; it feeds the emotional economy. It does nothing for our healing. Doing this emotional labor is not a question about whether or not we love one another as Black people; it is about how we love one another, and how that love must reimagine emotional labor as part of our collective healing process.

We did not get free alone, we do not survive alone, we cannot heal alone—we thrive together. That togetherness requires a revolutionary Black grace in which emotional labor is recognized, respected, and equally divided. There can be no Emotional Justice among us as global Black people without the equal division of emotional labor.


Honoring Our Journey, Finding Our Connection

We can recognize distinct Black experience without creating Black supremacies. We can honor the specificity and the distinction of a Blackness shaped by America, shaped by Africa and the Caribbean, and shaped by Europe—and how that Blackness shows up in Britain, in France, and in Africa. Each matters. We must recognize how historical oppressive systems had an expansive hand in reimagining our Blackness.

In other words, we can honor our unique and specific Blackness, but frame it in connection with a global Blackness. That globality goes back to Africa, a continent of beginnings and of re-makings, but also one of an enduring land, with myriad stories. Our road to healing as global Black people honors, revels in, and acknowledges—it doesn’t diminish. That is how global Black people unlearn the language of whiteness, develop emotional connections to one another, and replace the emotional economy with revolutionary Black grace.

Global Black people fought for our freedom across Africa, in America, across Europe. We inspired one another. The independence movement of Ghana in the 1950s and 1960s parallels the rise of the civil rights movement in America. In the UK, there were freedom and resistance movements rising up to fight oppression. Courage was all of ours. Leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first post-Independence Black president, and the Ghanaian women who funded the independence movement; Winnie Mandela of South Africa; Malcolm X; and Martin Luther King Jr. were all moved and shaped by a global Blackness. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Nkrumah’s inauguration and spoke of the connection between Blackness in America and what was happening in Ghana, as did Fannie Lou Hamer when she went to Senegal. All of it speaks to the freedoms we fought for and the systems we navigated to survive.

Because of these journeys, revolutionary Black grace honors a Blackness that, yes, has been commodified, criminalized, demonized, deified, desired—but one we must make our own without diminishing one another. This is careful, challenging work. It is a path that covers millions of miles. And it is a practice of healing that evicts a centering of whiteness.

Our Blackness is interconnected, evolving and changing, while the language of whiteness stays the same and has the same objective. This language always seeks to bury your you-ness and create a striving to be more somebody else. In being somebody else, you step away from an interconnected Blackness. No healing, no grace, no freedom comes from that.


Black Privilege Is Not the Answer

The contemporary story of Blackness centers America. That centering has consequences. It leads to a privileging of your Blackness, not connecting it to that of other Black folk in other parts of the world. There is a parallel narrative in places such as the UK, the “You have it better than the Blacks in the USA” narrative. This is a nurtured story, a fiction designed to hold up your Britishness with an exhale of “Thank God we’re not them.” It’s a deadly lie.

We cannot get to healing by walking a path of privilege. We cannot replace white privilege with African privilege or African American privilege and expect to clearly hear one another as Africans and Black peoples of African descent around the world. Refusing to adopt privilege doesn’t mean that our healing journeys don’t include colliding traumas and conflict. They do. They will. There is centuries’ worth of untreated trauma to unpack and heal. But we can’t do that as we have been.

Revolutionary Black grace makes space to shape the conversation, honor the foundation, recognize the tradition, and reimagine our union. That starts by rebuking as lies these narratives of deficit and notions of supremacy—white and Black.


The Emotional, Not the Political

This work is about our emotional connection to our Blackness and to the Blackness of one another. An emotional connection to Blackness is not the same as a political one. Blackness is absolutely personal and political—that is a centuries-long marriage. That’s not what I mean.

You can be philosophically pan-African, but your emotional connection to Blackness is not necessarily about those politics—a politics of possibility and connectivity that unifies Black people from around the world and centers global Blackness. That is a neat, clear philosophy. But your emotionality is not neat; it is messy—how can it not be, given the history and its legacy of untreated trauma? Your emotional connection may have been nurtured by deficiency; by how you’ve been loved; by how you’ve not been loved; by how you’ve been hurt; by how you’ve been treated, rejected, and discriminated against and how you have witnessed that toward family—that, too, is a generational inheritance. All these things shape your sense of self. So you may politically understand, but emotionally respond. That is emotionality masquerading as ideology. And it can fuck shit up. It does. And it has.

We see this in movements whose political ideology aligns, but that still implode. The reparations movement in the US highlights this phenomenon. There are multiple intersecting issues that we mischaracterize as political when they are in fact about the emotional. One of those issues is an ongoing fight to disconnect an American blackness from a global Blackness. That hurts the healing of us as a global Black people. Those advocating that disconnect use tactics of attack, lambasting, and vicious critique—all weapons designed to entrench division. If our aim is to repair what has been broken, lost, and stolen, but our approach is to separate one Blackness from another, then we are engaging the weapons of whiteness while claiming that this is healing. That shit doesn’t work. Not for healing.

There is a trauma among us that goes beyond language. There are connections among us that break down beyond legacy. What also lies between us as global Black people—across North America, in Europe, and in Africa—is a range of emotions: betrayal, resentment, a yearning, an anger, a sadness, a mourning, a magic, a beauty, a belonging, a desire for belonging, the pain of rupture. There is all of this between all of us.

History stripped millions of an identity, but not of a cultural memory. The DNA of the drum creates a global Black drumline, and in it we can find one another, and honor one another’s journey. That is revolutionary Black grace.

The badassness of Blackness is universally understood, from culture, to art, to fashion, to food, to emulated beauty. We are swagger and flava, and all the things. What still connects us is Africa. Our first home. That doesn’t mean we as global Black people all feel connected to Africa. We may not. We do not.

Our Blackness may be connected to our roots in the Southern states or to the history of Chicago or Detroit. It may flex its cultural muscles to soundtracks of London or Nottingham or Birmingham. All of these are part of our Blackness; all must be acknowledged. So this is not about the denial of the geographical spaces and places that shaped you, that you call home.

Home sits uneasy on tongues trained by the West’s particular love language of violence toward Black bodies. America is a superpower—one that understands itself in superlatives: first this, biggest that, big, bigger, biggest, biggerlicious. To be Black in America is to be the descendant of those who built it, and to be simultaneously rejected by it. This does not mean that Black folks in America are not American, or that America is not their home. Absolutely not. They are, and it is. It simply means there is an uneasiness in this relationship to this history within this nation. Poet Hafiyah Geter reminds us that this is “a nation that doesn’t love someone who looks like me.” America’s better self is rooted in Blackness, resistance, movement building, and a refusal to capitulate to the whiteness narrative of beasts and burdens.

Britain was an empire. It’s relationship of superiority wreaked havoc with Black and Brown people. That superiority was a delusion. It manifests in two ways: a constant erasure of Britain’s violence in her former colonies, and a romanticizing of that time as one of a manufactured greatness. This doesn’t mean that Black folks in Britain don’t love where they live, haven’t built homes and family and community. They absolutely do and have. So much of Europe’s wealth and Britain’s power is rooted in Blackness from the Caribbean and Africa.

Finding home within one another means staying when it gets hard and when your soul connects to conflict, not comfort. But making a home takes time and action. It means engaging in an ongoing practice of empathy toward those who look like you—even when they don’t feel you, and you don’t feel them. Revolutionary Black grace means finding homes in and with one another by going on journeys of decentering whiteness and of honoring the full expanse of our Blackness across regions, countries, and continents. Doing that is a practice, not just a philosophy.