Sandow Sinai

On Returning Things to Their Proper Places


by Lawrence Lemaoana

My name is Sandow, which in Dagbani means “guest” or “stranger.” Traditionally, all Dagomba babies are named Sandow or Sanpaga for the first week of life, after which they have a naming ceremony and get their “real” name. I am the third generation of Sandow, from a lineage of guests. I am separated from Dagomba history and tradition. I never learned the stories and neither did my father, who had to leave our ancestral home of Tamale at 13 due to financial hardship. He lived with his brother in Kumasi, which is in the Asante kingdom, and where Gur peoples were a minority.

Arriving at my identification with Dagomba folklore, then, was something of a haphazard process. My immigrant parents, for all their chutzpah, were lacking in their understanding of race relations in the US, and as a child living and schooling almost entirely with whites I had very few Black elders to educate me. Fortunately, I’m a transsexual, and found kinship of a different sort; the queers taught me Marxism, the Marxists taught me Black politics in the US, and I was able to spiritually return to Africa as a self-conscious political choice.

* * *

Every year, the Dagomba of Northern Ghana celebrate the Bugum Chugu, or Fire Festival. The traditional story goes something like this: long ago, some king’s son was playing with his friends, and he sat and fell asleep. When night came and he did not return, the king sent his warriors to look for him by torchlight. When they found him under a tree, they knew the child-stealing tree was evil, so they took their torches and “shamed” it and resolved to commemorate the event annually.

Though the Bugum Chugu is at least 800 years old, likely predating even the foundation of the Dagomba, it’s easy, and very much within the boundaries of indigenous African epistemologies, to retool this as a colonization metaphor—the king is Africa, his son is Africans, the tree is Europeans. His warriors are us: the militants dedicated to shaming the tree. This is doubly inscribed by the king’s namelessness. The oral histories of the Dagomba remember the names of all past chiefs; their names signify their materiality and identify them socially within a lineage. For this king to be nameless makes him outside history; his name is unknowably prehistoric in the same way as all indigenous African history is often unknowably prehistoric in the collective imagination of the Black diaspora.

There is, though, a counterdiscourse. After chief Naa Zangina converted most of the Dagomba to Islam in the early 18th century, an alternate version of the story emerged, one which relocates the story to Mount Arafat. In this version, one of Noah’s sons failed to board the ark, and the people holding torches must find him after the flood. This story suggests, as some Muslim Dagomba believe, that the Dagomba are not of African descent, but Arab. The symbolization of anti-colonial resistance is similar, and the replacement of the evil tree with a great flood has particular resonance with the Middle Passage, but this story subjugates the mutability of oral history to Quranic authority. This history is grounded in a concrete material realm. The king has a name.

Already, this figures a political contradiction in Dagomba ethnic identity, one that is not just a struggle between Indigenous and Islamic cultural narratives and practices, but between two epistemologies, two (loose) frameworks under which truth claims about history, cultural origin, and authenticity can be made. One faction identifies the Dagomba as authentically rooted in Africa, in the mysticism of an abstracted African indigeneity; the other, as diasporans, late to arrive in Africa, in the concrete mythos of Abrahamic descent. Both are constituted by their contradictions: on the one hand, authentic Africans who can’t name their lineage prior to the founding of the medieval kingdom of Dagbon, and on the other a longer and more solid historical lineage, but one that originates outside the African continent. This contradiction poses problems for the warriors—those Dagomba interested in identifying with figures like the torch-bearing people of the Bugum Chugu as cultural ambassadors, agents of anti-colonial resistance, and preservers of tradition. And this is all to say nothing of the global Dagomban diaspora; before we can evaluate if we want to make a cultural return home, we have to figure out what home we would return to.

* * *

When I was a child, corporal punishment was a regular component of my household structure. It was always my dad; my mom, even when thinking it necessary, preferred to weaponize my dad as a threat rather than do it herself. At the time, my dad was therefore the primary object of my resentment, and any negative emotions I had about my mom interpreted her not as an active agent of violence against me, but as a passive one; I blamed her not for telling him to hit me, but for allowing him to. As of the time of writing, I haven't really ever spoken to him about it at length, and as a child I was too afraid to ask. I did, however, ask my mom why it was necessary. Her answer, when it transcended the “he does it because he loves you” cliche, was twofold: first, that however much it affected me it was nonetheless loving because it was much gentler than the punishments he had received from his own father, and second, extrapolating from that, that it was characteristically “African discipline,” an explanation I think is very common among children of non-white immigrants to the US.

Well into my 20s, I told this story to a friend, an Africanist anthropologist, who said, “That's not real. There’s no such thing as ‘African discipline.’” I learned from this that this myth of “African discipline” was racist both to my dad and to me. The racism to my dad is more obvious: it both fully subsumed his individual agency to his culture and flattened his culture into something both monolithic and intrinsically violent. The racism to me, which was very formative to my childhood understandings of race and ethnicity, was much more subtle; it taught me that I am not African because any culture where that violence is universal is not one I want to identify with, and because the culture I actually experienced social life in, that of the US, was one where that violence was not universal. And it was precisely in this conversation that I began to realize that African culture in general, and Dagomba culture in particular, was something that wasn't foreclosed to me, and that it was something I could and actively wanted to be a part of.

* * *

Let’s talk about the Bolsheviks.

Leon Trotsky makes a peculiar intellectual shift in The Permanent Revolution. His “theory of permanent revolution,” first outlined a couple decades prior to that particular text, is not, on its face, an argument about ideological or cultural struggle; rather, it is about addressing the needs of the socialist project in the face of the particularities of uneven capitalist development across the world. In Capital, the prototypical progression follows a simple formula: under feudalism, there are a spread of classes all under the rule of the aristocracy; some of them unite under the banner of the emergent bourgeoisie (merchants and proto-capitalists) to overthrow the old order and establish a bourgeois democracy; the other lower classes consolidate into a single proletariat, which (fingers crossed!) overthrows the bourgeoisie and reorganizes society.

History, of course, is never so neat; in Russia, China, and most of the colonized world, socialist movements in the proletariat happened before, rather than after, the peasantry was proletarianized. So permanent revolution is, first, constructed to oppose stagism, where a bourgeois revolution establishing capitalism is first required, after which the proletariat can take power. As Trotsky defines it:

The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to this concept, means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in complete liquidation.

By the time Trotsky writes The Permanent Revolution, however, the October revolution is a decade passed, and Trotsky is not answering “how do we make a revolution?” so much as “how do we keep one?” It is at this point where Trotsky expands and revises the concept; if the revolution has to keep going until it is completed, Trotsky tells us, it has to keep going until it is completed everywhere. Permanent revolution is now not only in opposition to the vulgarities of stagism; it is in opposition to Stalin’s consolidated doctrine of “socialism in one country.” It is internationalist and universalist, and this universalism is realized in true Hegelian-Marxist dialectical fashion through the Aufhebung of particularism, the working-through and transcendence of the historical minutiae of class composition in specific countries. And at last we emerge on the other side of the desert and the ideological stakes of the national question are revealed:

The theory of socialism in one country, which rose on the yeast of the reaction against October, is the only theory that consistently and to the very end opposes the theory of the permanent revolution.

The attempt of the epigones, under the lash of our criticism, to confine the application of the theory of socialism in one country exclusively to Russia, because of its specific characteristics (its vastness and its natural resources), does not improve matters but only makes them worse. The break with the internationalist position always and invariably leads to national messianism, that is, to attributing special superiorities and qualities to one’s own country, which allegedly permit it to play a role to which other countries cannot attain.

It is worth noting that it is not the messianism that is central to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin; it is specifically the messianism’s national character. The communist Isaac Deutscher, a prolific writer on Jewish identity who was also Trotsky’s close friend and main biographer, makes the point that Trotsky, too, was messianically driven—“Indeed, two rival and quasi-Messianic beliefs seemed pitted against one another: Trotskyism with its faith in the revolutionary vocation of the proletariat of the West; and Stalinism with its glorification of Russia’s socialist destiny.”

Stalin, however, was the more vocal of the two about the ethno-specific identification of his messianic subject of history, with tragic consequences. By the time Trotsky wrote The Permanent Revolution, he had been exiled from Russia as a political dissident following an infamously anti-Semitic smear campaign. Stalin went on to make increasingly overt denunciations of the “rootless cosmopolitans” in Russia, and when his government attempted to evacuate Jews from Poland on the eve of World War II, the Jews refused his offer; “Why should we,” the reasoning went, “take the word of the anti-Semite Stalin over the great Jewish nation of Germany, which gave us Marx and Freud?”

Trotsky is, intentionally, tight-lipped about the cultural-ethnic constitution of his revolutionary proletariat; to tie socialism to a specific nation or ethnicity is anathema to his universalist spirit. But if, as both Deutscher and Stalin tell us, Trotsky’s thinking has a quintessentially Jewish character, perhaps we might re-read Trotsky with Jewish eyes; if the “national socialism” promoted by Stalin “rose on the yeast of the reaction against October,” then Trotsky’s nation is constituted by those who have developed a taste for unleavened bread.

This conception of Judaism defines the culture not by shared racial characteristics, nor by religious traditions, but rather precisely by their oppression and consequent rootlessness. Matzo is the “bread of affliction,” eaten to remind Jews of the escape from slavery and their decades of wandering in the desert. Torah says the people had to wander in the wilderness until a generation born into exile could arrive in the land of Canaan; the exile, it would seem, is the point, the great Jewish national tradition.

But Trotsky, like many of the prominent Jewish Bolsheviks, tended to disavow the Jews and oppose the autonomy of their cultural organizations on universalist grounds, and not without good reason (the Bund, Russia’s socialist Jewish party, itself promoted some problematic and essentialist understandings of Jewishness), but this would come to be part of Trotsky’s downfall when the true degree of Stalin’s anti-Semitism became clear in the late ’20s. This is precisely Deutscher’s grounds for considering Trotsky a Jewish heretic, a “non-Jewish Jew”; in his essay of that title, Deutscher identifies an intellectual lineage of Jews who embody the essence of Judaism by rejecting its principles, canonizing Trotsky with Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Freud, and Rosa Luxemburg. In this paradoxical spirit, then, I suggest an “internationalist nationalism,” constituted by non-Jewish Jews, both in Deutscher’s sense of ethnic Jews who are not loyal to Jewish religious tradition or cultural isolationism, and in its dialectical complement of “rootless cosmopolitans” of all origins, wherever they may appear. What is expressed at the level of historical-materialist class analysis as Permanent Revolution finds its isomorph at the level of national identification as Permanent Diaspora.

In “Who is a Jew?”, Deutscher’s sister essay to “The Non-Jewish Jew,” he reaches similar conclusions, defining the Jew as a relationship to their collective suffering—which is never unrelated to their diasporic condition. He writes: “I am a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.” Deutscher’s political Judaism further clarifies the origins of this kind of diasporic nationalism; the same intolerable conditions which compel the permanent revolutionary to take up arms compel the permanent diasporan to take up legs.

* * *

I have a playlist called Diasporic Longing. I listen to it when I’m thinking about going back to Africa, a place I have never been. In the middle of this playlist, amidst the spiritual laments and jazz ballads, is Anderson .Paak’s certified party banger “Come Down.” On this song, .Paak is rapping about an excess of drinking and drugs—“If I get too high now, sugar (come on!), I might never come down”—over a tight, drum-and-bass-driven funk-rap groove. Lower in the mix, however, the track is animated by a peculiar sample: the first four bars of “Hatikvah,” better known as the national anthem of Israel. (When I was a child, my brother's school orchestra once performed the “Moldau” from Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Fatherland), which also famously quotes this melody as an old folk tune of central Europe; Smetana’s setting, written during a period in which this sort of cultural nationalism was fashionable amongst composers of orchestral music, predates the composition of the Hatikvah text by nearly half a decade and the founding of the modern state of Israel by several. During the performance my mother, a woman whose willingness to act on or verbalize her political convictions is scant at best, rose to her feet and closed her eyes in solemn observance. After the concert, she approached the band director and told her that despite the beauty of the piece, before programming it again she should consider the potential offense of Israeli audience members, who would associate the melody with nothing else.)

.Paak is conspicuously tight-lipped about the meaning of that sample, but I’ve always read the implicit politics of “Come Down” as a cautionary tale against the sunk-cost fallacy of Zionism, against getting proverbially high on your own supply of nationalist sentimentality as a response to cultural trauma: “You may never ever come down [because] it took too long to get this high off the ground.” In that critique, however, is also an identification; .Paak’s warning not to get too high reflects his own desire for that ascendance and his recognition of it in his interlocutors, be they Hollywood party people or global Jewry.

On the playlist, “Come Down” is paired with an early Moog composition by Mort Garson, a New York Jew of Russian descent, whose melody bears a suspicious resemblance to “Hatikvah.” The name of this piece is “Ode to an African Violet.”

* * *

Outside in the cold distance, out of the concretes of Bolshevik political maneuvering and into the abstractions of ’90s British academia, another thinker engaged similar questions to those of Trotsky. Paul Gilroy, a child of Guyanese immigrants raised in London’s East End, noticed a problem in Black cultural criticism: the siloing of thought along national-regional lines. Thinkers are more or less overtly distinguished into four categories: scholars of Africa, of the Caribbean, of Black Americans, and of Black Europeans (particularly in the UK). Beyond just stifling the scope of the arguments scholars can make, this structure makes politically effective scholarship impossible. In the first instance, this structure makes discourse ahistorical, engendering the critical error of assuming that all past thinkers have done so in cultural isolation, and denies the existence of cultural interchange, erasing the degree to which all four of these cultural worlds have been at all times passing people back and forth, people who were bringing and exchanging culture and ideas. And according to Gilroy, who shares Trotsky’s universalist principles (if not his Marxism), this has the subsequent consequence of foreclosing any real internationalism, even in currents with explicitly international commitments, such as some pan-Africanisms. Though these movements may transcend the post-colonial nation-state, they fail to find a convincing alternative to that form as the unifying element of the disparate cultures they analyze, and failing that, they have no choice but to reproduce “ethnic absolutism” (though they can strip it of its biological-essentialist veneer).

To correct these problems, Gilroy proposes an alternative paradigm, a heteroglossic but nonetheless coherent intellectual and cultural tradition he calls “the Black Atlantic” in his book of that title. The Black Atlantic world is first unified by the conditions that created it: colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its two seminal characteristics, then, are a complex, particular relationship to suffering, in the irreducible historical tragedy of colonial violence, and an essentially diasporic character, imposed by the forced dislocation of millions of people and by the increasingly global networks of capitalist economy (the homology between these and the formative aspects of Jewish identity is not lost on Gilroy, who frequently acknowledges his indebtedness to Jewish cultural thinkers). Because of these conditions, Black identity is shaped by DuBoisian double consciousness, a constant tangle of internal contradictions: between the desire to reappropriate European culture against itself and the desire to abandon or destroy it, between the desire to return to Africa and the desire to create something new, between Black autonomy and Black integration.

Gilroy, characteristically, is often exactly as ambivalent in these debates as he portrays the Black Atlantic to be—not neutral, per se, but always critically playing both sides. The true object of his criticism, then, is the common fictions both sides of these contradictions tend to assume, those of a culturally homogenous pre-colonial Africa and a similarly monolithic Europe that is essentially Not Black. Accordingly, he is very suspicious of various strains of thought throughout the Black Atlantic that call for either a return to Africa or a modernization of it. And while ultimately he does identify the possibility of a diasporically constructed pan-Africanism that meets his exacting standards, most notably in his exegesis of WEB DuBois, he always seems to hold it at arm’s length, as if endorsing any Black nationalism, however diasporic, feels like too much of a concession. In his obsessive historical precision and nuance, he writes about history almost as if he is outside it; he understands the necessary consciousness but constructs it only as a possibility, with no thought to the social-organizational forms necessary to realize and universalize it.

In this, Gilroy and Trotsky are kindred spirits; thoughtful, passionate, empathetic to their opponents, and invariantly committed to universalist principles. It is for exactly this reason that ultimately, their internationalist political and intellectual projects make the same mistake—going simultaneously too far and not far enough. In Trotsky’s case, his naively applied but no less principled Marxist internationalism leads him to reject outright the demand for autonomy of the Bund, leaving him with few allies in Russia when Stalinist antisemitism was directed at him. In Gilroy’s case, he reaches all the right ideological conclusions but is afraid to commit to them in a concrete, living social formation, as if he (like Richard Wright, one of his central interlocutors) is too universalist for revolution. Ultimately, this leaves his historical analysis one step short—he can’t bring himself to ask the whole question at once: “What if diasporic national consciousness was there the whole time? What if the Africa we return to was always already building itself anew? What if Africa was always a nation that was not?”

* * *

My mother, despite her latent identification with the Israeli state as her national root, has always had a streak of the quintessential Jewish rootlessness, a degree of what one might call “wanderlust.” She got her PhD in City and Regional Planning, a field which necessarily required her to travel to the underdeveloped world (in her case, Ghana, where she met my dad), and since then has made her career as an international public health researcher, traveling extensively to Africa and the Middle East. It was, then, unexpected but not surprising when, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, she announced her plans to leave my dad (a decade after their relationship had lost its romantic character), give him the house, live in a van, and work her office job remotely. For family holidays, the plan was for her to use her accumulated frequent flyer miles to fly me and my siblings to wherever she happened to be, and this past Thanksgiving, while I was in the “research and reading” stage of this piece, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in New Orleans, entertaining my family by day and getting lit by night.

I met two other self-identified communists on this trip, both Stalinists, one white and one Black. The former was overtly what is often called a “class reductionist,” understanding the politics of identity to be an unnecessary distraction and obfuscation from the central problem of class. During our initially friendly conversation, I was attempting to explain my understanding of why these politics are important, and the meaning of the popular slogan “race is the modality by which class is experienced.” Because he had mentioned earlier how reading Capital had been formative to his political development, I began by making a metaphor with Marx’s category distinction between value and price, and how one might say “price is the modality by which value is experienced.” Because he had not, in fact, actually read any of Capital, this fell somewhat flat; before I could finish the point and apply it to identity politics, he began to argue with me that there was no such category distinction in Marx, and I stubbornly fell into a Marxological debate, all in service of setting up my clever metaphor. As the argument became increasingly circular and hostile, I eventually gave up on convincing him of that point, and I asked him kindly to please, for the sake of my metaphor, assume that I was right about Marx because I was doing a bit, being metaphorical and theatrical in pursuit of a more abstract point. He said, “But why do you have to be theatrical?”, I said, “Because I’m a faggot!”, and, before I could turn around and leave the bar, he said, “but why does that matter?”

Moishe Postone’s seminal essay “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism” argues that precisely the kind of reasoning used against me here is the essential kernel of anti-semitic thought, and Joni Alizah Cohen’s application of Postone to modern transmisogyny grounds my erstwhile interlocutor’s implicit homo-/transphobia in the same essential logic. The fundamental error of anti-semitism, as the argument goes, is a fetishization of the concrete, the tangible, and the immediate, and a subsequent hostility towards abstraction, intellectualism, and multi-faceted thought. In this case, class exploitation is the fetishized concrete, which he refused to perceive in its full (raced and gendered) complexity; and his rejection of the fundamental Marxian distinction between a commodity’s value (the sum of abstract labor used to produce it) and its price (the concretely accessible expression of value after it has been acted on by market forces) is something of a smoking gun.

The latter of my two Stalinists appeared, on the surface, to also have an anti-semitic streak; she, for instance, said that she follows her cadre organization in espousing Stalin’s classic thesis about “rootless cosmopolitans.” But it’s not so simple—in practice all of her actual opinions and analysis were intellectually thoughtful, complex, and open-minded to principled disagreement, giving an impression as something of a “non-Stalinist Stalinist.” This is partially evidenced in her being an out trans woman, a position which, following Cohen, requires understanding gender as an abstraction that is nonetheless inseparable from everyday lived experience. But beyond this, when she disavowed “rootless cosmoplitans,” I couldn’t help but contextualize it with her actual ethnic roots, which were very important to her: a Black American, descended from slaves, with no knowledge of her family’s specific African origin, but many-generations rooted in New Orleans, an infamously transient city, the most miscegenated major city in the US, and not coincidentally the most culturally African one.

Performances of “House of the Rising Sun” can loosely be divided into two categories, which generally, though not exclusively, fall along racial lines. In one, the singer is afraid of losing themselves in the commitment-free hedonism of the city of New Orleans; in the other, the singer is afraid of finding themselves in it.

* * *

At the beginning of this essay, I set up a paradox, one that is widely observable, but which I have focused around a single cultural unit: the Fire Festival of the Dagomba. On the one hand, we have a centuries-old festival with a single set of practices, and on the other, we have two radically counterposed narratives of the festival’s significance making mutually exclusive truth claims about Dagomba identity, both of which are self-undermining in their construction of African cultural authenticity. The traditional narrative, which predates the founding of the Dagomba, sets the story in a mythic time outside history, with nameless actors. This version assumes that the Dagomba’s roots are on the African continent, but takes no further questions on the subject (and doesn’t quite need to—it came first). The Muslim version, which did not take hold until the 18th century, retemporalizes the story from out-of-time to Quranic time, and gives its characters names and lineages. This version assumes the Dagomba’s roots are in the Middle East, and that they are immigrants to Africa, but that these roots are a matter of concrete historical fact. And despite the fact that only one of these stories postdates the arrival of Europeans in Africa, both make excellent colonization metaphors to boot. The intrepid Dagomba, particularly the diasporan who experiences their own culture as an outsider, must make a choice, and it is high time this paradox be resolved.

The first commonalities between these two stories are the degree to which they undermine their own authenticity and the level of contradiction between them which has been allowed to persist. These ambivalences already foreclose a pure ethnic absolutism, and suggest the Dagomba are diasporic from the beginning. Following Deutscher’s example of the non-Jewish Jew, the Jew who transcends Jewry, we can imagine the quintessential Dagomba as a non-African African. Deutscher’s essay on the subject opens with the story of the great Rabbi Meir, who studied theology from the heretic Akher, a name which means “the stranger” (Have you been taking notes? His name is my name too, as it were). As they walked and talked one Sabbath, Rabbi Meir listened with such rapt attention that he did not notice they had reached the boundary that Jews were ritually forbidden to cross, at which point Akher told him to “go back!” In the Fire Festival story, we might see in the Dagomba a nation of Akhers, with an irresponsible habit of getting lost and falling asleep under trees. We might then read the Muslim version as of the other kind of non-Jewish Jew, that Deutscher implies but does not say - the ethnic goy of Jewish spirit, or, in the context of the Black Atlantic, the African-American. In this interpretation, it would seem that Noah’s lost son (who is not ever named!) is found just in time to get in on the covenant.

Gilroy provides a dialectic particularly suited to extrapolating a living politics from these two modes of historicization. In the first chapter of The Black Atlantic he distinguishes between two “sibling dimensions of black sensibility” that he calls the “politics of fulfillment” and the “politics of transfiguration.” Put simply, a politics of fulfillment demands that society live up to its promises and ideals and in that sense is “content to beat occidental rationality at its own game,” while a politics of transfiguration is utopian, looking beyond the social contract to seek “qualitatively new desires, social relations and modes of association.” Notably for our purposes, the politics of fulfillment is “the foundational semantic position of the Bible”—or, as it were, the Quran, both books of covenants par excellence. Mapping this politic onto the Muslim narrative’s brand of non-Jewish Judaism makes clear the strengths and weaknesses of this position. In spite of their universalist spirit, the Jewish heretic of Goyish birth finds their authenticity always cast in suspicion, and therefore ultimately tends to disavow their heresies—which is no place to find a universal subject position. The politics of transfiguration then can correspond to the traditional story. Where we see ahistory and namelessness, the transfigurationist might see the sublime, the ineffable. The existence of a time before history implies the existence of a time after history. And it would be reductionist of me to not acknowledge a certain streak of transfiguration even in the Muslim story’s politics of fulfillment, that the boy has a name but not a lineage, he’s divided from his would-be people and from God by an ocean, points to transformative complexities best left to more studied Islamic jurisprudists than I; for my purposes I shall simply observe that even when Africans attempt to leave behind a transfigurative metaphysics, it never quite seems to stick.

Gilroy is meticulous, at every turn, to tell me that he agrees with me that diasporic nationalism is the correct internationalist position. It is only when he extrapolates its two modalities, at his highest degree of abstraction and when I find their signatures in a concrete cultural artifact that I can locate where in the book he articulates his error: when he says that the politics of transfiguration were “created under the nose of the overseers.” What the traditional story of the Fire Festival demonstrates is precisely that the politics of transfiguration were already present among the Dagomba, and just maybe throughout Africa, pre-colonization—not as idyllic utopianism, not even as politics so much as presumption, as a human spiritual condition that was ready to become political when it needed to be. And it makes sense, then, that a politics of fulfillment did not fully emerge until it was needed as a dialectical complement to transfiguration, until there was both an Enlightenment promise fully at odds with the brutal realities of colonialism and a pressing need for transfiguration to live up to its own promises of change.

The spirited reader, well-acquainted with history’s great non-Jewish Jews, might find a correlation between this implicit dialectic of history and that of Marx, whose socialism was both utopian and scientific, but utopian first. Marx says that “we call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” The Marxist Frantz Fanon, who is conspicuously absent from Gilroy’s book, says it thus: “There will be an authentic disalienation only to the degree to which things, in the most materialistic meaning of the word, will have been restored to their proper places.”

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