A Bridge Across Two Struggles: The African American and Oromo Movements
By Camlin Nicholls, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, December 16, 2018
Learning in depth about the African American struggle from the very beginning to the present as well as discovering the Oromo struggle have been one of the most fulfilling and enlightening times of my life. I want to personally thank my professor, Asafa Jalata, for dedicating his life to raising awareness about both of these struggles and thus opening my eyes and my heart to them. In both my Sociology 472 class and my Africana Studies 421 class I have learned so much about the truth of the racialized capitalist society and other oppressive powers. My commentary is a reaction to Jalata’s book entitled Fighting against the Injustice of the State and Globalization: Comparing the African American and Oromo Movements. For what it is worth, I promise to not fall complacent and to fight in any way I can against the daily injustices that happen in my own country and around the world.
This paper will attempt to compare and contrast the more than century long struggles of African Americans and Oromo. In a few ways these struggles are similar; mostly in their structure and fundamental implementations by the oppressing parties. However, this paper will discuss more about their differences because I feel it is important to see them as such. Grouping mass injustices like these two struggles together seems to take away from their seriousness. It is paramount to explore them individually so that proper awareness and action can be taken to remedy their specific needs. Please note that in no way do my opinions reflect that one struggle is worse than the other. Both are tragic, serious robberies of culture, autonomy and human life. However, I have chosen three main differences to explore. The first is what I will refer to as my convergence theory. Oromo have undergone a faster paced, more intense violation than have African Americans for a few different reason that will be explained later. Secondly, the fact that Oromo were enslaved, murdered, and oppressed on their own land contributes to a different experience than that of African Americans who were brought to a completely new part of the world. The last difference deals with how American society has developed and how the culture here has created affluency and complacency, as opposed to Oromo or African culture in general that has not created such things to any comparable degree.
The Struggles’ Similarities
African Americans and Oromo both experience oppression because of two similar phenomena. The first is capitalism, or the exploitation of their people for cheap labor, land, resources, etc. African Americans were first brought to America to be used as commodities for mass production. As slaves they worked in cotton fields, produce farms and railroads performing back breaking work for free. Oromo were robbed of their land and resources as well as made into slaves, and semi-slaves. In both cases, the demand for cheap labor and raw materials was met with exploitation and slavery. The second phenomenon that creates the ultimate oppression for both these groups is racism. Racism is used in both these cases to justify the blatant destruction of these people and their way of life. Both African Americans and Oromo are seen as unintelligent, barbaric, violent, and ultimately inferior. They both have experienced an ongoing discourse from their oppressors that constantly puts them down and berates them for completely falsified accusations. Both African Americans and Oromo have proven their fire and resiliency in the way that they keep fighting against these violations and towards justice and sovereignty for their own people.
The first contrasting aspect of the African American and Oromo struggles that I will unpack is what I have deemed the convergence theory. I will start off by asking a hypothetical question. Would you rather be stepped on my an elephant wearing tennis shoes, or one wearing high heels? The obvious answer is neither, right? No one would want to be stepped on by anything as giant and heavy as an elephant. However, one wearing high heels may do more damage, and cause more pain because all the weight is bearing down on one small point. Being stepped on by an elephant wearing tennis shoes would still cause a great amount of pain, but the damage would be spread across a larger surface area. In the case of the two cultural struggles in question, the Oromo struggle is the elephant wearing high heels. The Oromo people have endured oppression from several different levels, from the very top, there are the western powers like the United States, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union, next there are the Ethiopian Colonizers which can be broken up into different groups that have taken control over the government like the Amharas and Trigrayans or Habasha, and then there are the Oromo collaborators that further the oppression of their fellow Oromo. All of these entities act like a funnel from the largest and most powerful at the top, filtering down to the smallest most intimate groups that creates a convergence of intense oppression felt by the Oromo People. On the other hand, I feel that the oppression felt by African Americans, however, just as morally wrong and devastating, perhaps has been less intense only because the oppression has been produced an maintained by one party (the Capitalist White Society). Please note that this is only an amateur speculation of what I have learned in the past four months. But it seems that because the levels of power are more complicated in Oromia, and that there is more collaboration between differing oppressor groups, that the hardships felt by the Oromo people are more intense on a day to day basis. Furthermore, the colonization of Oromia by the Ethiopian elites, along with the support of the Western Powers has only been going on for just over a century. Compared to the oppression and exploitation of African Americans, the Oromo Struggle is newer, and therefore more intense.
Location and Culture Development
The second point of contrast that I feel is significant enough to discuss is pertaining to the two struggles’ location, and the effect it had on the groups development of culture identity. The African American struggle is somewhat unique in that the original Africans taken from their home land were not all from one culture. They were from different countries and regions within Africa. They did not share a religion or even a common language and because of this they formed their own identity by coming together against their oppressors in America. This is when they became African Americans. This comradery and fellowship was the vessel that carried them through the slavery and injustices they endured. They created unique songs and music to show their unity and to make each passing day more bearable. This account of resilience and humanity by these African Americans was the very beginning of the African American Movement. Despite the magnificent display of strength and resistance, the fact that these Africans had their original material and most of their spiritual culture stripped away put them at a disadvantage in the long run. Starting during slavery, continuing through The Jim Crow Laws, and still today, blackness is seen as less desirable. African Americans have always been expected to adopt whiteness as much as possible. This manifested itself most distinctly in the adoption of Christianity by African Americans. Essentially, the oppressed adopted the religion and in turn, the culture of their oppressors. I feel that this laid the foundation for difficulty in promoting Black Pride during later years. The level of self-hatred and victimization created by White Society in Black Americans is so intense that it is still lingering today. This is not to say that Black Americans should have completely rejected the culture they had been presented with, after all they are Americans just as much as anyone else. However, the fact that they were completely stripped of any evidence of where they came from took a detrimental toll on the development of self-determination of the entirety of Black America.
In the case of Oromo, their oppressors took over their land. They forced them into slavery and the nafxayna-gabbar system (semi-slavery) in their own home. This particular situation is different from the one of African Americans in that the Oromo were able to keep the majority of their material culture, religion, language and traditions within their communities. This is not to say that The Ethiopian Government did not make it difficult for the Oromo to express themselves in terms of their culture but it was easier for them to keep it alive because they were not exported from their land. I feel that because the Oromo were able to hold on to more of their foundations, their liberation movement had a stronger places to start from. For instance, one of the Accomplishments of the Oromo Liberation Front was developing the Oromo language from an oral one to a written one using qubee, an Oromized Latin alphabet. This was surely a catalyst for further organization and information transfer among the Oromo Liberation Front’s members, as well as the Oromo people in general.
The Effect of Affluence
The final difference between the African American and Oromo Struggles is the way each society’s culture has manifested itself in severely contrasting ways. The United States of America is one of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world. Oromia, on the other hand has experienced underdevelopment because of being part of Africa, and its further exploitation by the Ethiopian Government. These discrepancies in society have massive implications on how the two groups see the world, and themselves. The American Culture is far different than Oromo and African Culture. In the United States, materialism is rampant due to capitalism overabundance of wealth. Far more people in the United States live more than comfortable than do in the majority of other nations around the world. Americans are also too concerned with their own trivial problems. They have lost focus (or have never acquired it) on the more serious problems of the world like the exploitations of developing countries by their own. Americans in general simply do not care. It is threaded through American Culture to only worry about ourselves and to attack those who are accused of infringing upon our way of life. This is true for all Americans, whether it be severe or mild. I feel that because of this affluency and excess comfort, that African Americans have perhaps lost some of their fire to fight. I do not mean this individually, but on a massive scale. The materialistic, throw-away society that is America seems to have caused Black Americans to become comfortable with the ongoing injustices they still endure. Please keep in mind that this is only an amateur speculation, I cannot imagine what it feels like to be Black in a racist world and acknowledge that I cannot fully understand.
For the Oromo, it seems different. I have less knowledge about African and Oromo day to day life and am sure that people are happy and comfortable. However, I do feel that the words are probably defined differently because of the cultural differences. I have never been to Oromia but I can say with confidence that the materialist, self-centered tendencies that Americans display are far less in most parts of Africa. Growing up in a developing country has certain implications that are perhaps the opposite of growing up in a Global Power. The day to day lives are simply different and I feel that it is this difference that has given the Oromo Struggle an advantage. These contrasting ways of life have changed the psychology of the masses of Americans and Oromo, alike. The fact that Oromo have not had everything handed to them has let them keep that fire and that drive to fight the violations imposed upon them. For Americans, the level of comfortableness has created complacency and a loss of that vital fire.
Both the African American and Oromo Movements are fantastic displays of human resilience, fellowship and strength. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to endure such hardships, knowing that the hardships were felt by people like them for centuries, and will most likely continue for a long time to come. That being said, I feel that these two groups can and should learn from each other. The African American Movement from the Niagara Movement and on has been very structured and organized. The Black Elites such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Ida B Wells and so many others utilized their capacity and intellect to fight the oppressive White system through legal action and organized non-violent protests. Entities such as the Black Panther Party appealed to the Black masses through ideas of Black Beauty and Power and supported their communities with survival programs with no help from White society. The African American Movement also utilized the Church as they financial back bone and places of organization. It seems that the Oromo Movement could take note of this organization and utilization of intellect and resources to further their fight.
In contrast, I feel that the people of Oromia embrace a stronger fire and will to fight for their struggle than African Americans have today. I urge anyone and everyone, especially African Americans to educate themselves about injustices around the world. The Black Struggle in the United States could learn a lot from opening their eyes to struggles similar to theirs in Africa. It is paramount to not lose sight of the final goal and to not fall to complacency because of the luxuries acquired because of where one resides. Nevertheless, Africans and the People of Oromia have both enjoyed success in their liberation from their oppressors, which is a direct result from the hard work and sacrifice by countless magnificent human beings.