Updated: Jul 8, 2021
It is often said that there is no art without meaning. Every form of media you’ve ever consumed and will consume, be it written, visual, or otherwise, carries within it its author’s intent on every page or in every frame. Sometimes, the author or creator’s intent is easily decipherable, and other times, you really have to dig deep into material supplementary to the art itself to uncover the intention of said author or creator. Let’s analyze, for a moment, two pieces of visual media, each containing within it a message against imperialism.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) is widely considered one of the greatest animated series of all time, with its appeal reaching from the youngest children to the oldest adults. The reason its appeal was so encompassing of everybody is that while it was outwardly designed for children and preteens, the show contained within it mature themes including, but not limited to, gender discrimination, female empowerment, oppression, colonialism, war, and imperialism. There are perhaps no two episodes that communicate ATLA’s stance on imperialism more than season two’s "Zuko Alone" and season three’s two-parter "The Day of Black Sun." Widely considered one of the best episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, “Zuko Alone” captures the physical and psychological effects that imperialism has on oppressed peoples. For the first time, Prince Zuko, an aider and abetter of Fire Nation imperialism, sees the gravity of these effects for himself and is left with abject confusion about his place in the world as he ponders whether he is on the right side. The episode sees Zuko settle in an Earth Kingdom village as a refugee without the backing of his nation, where he befriends a young boy named Lee, as well as his family. When Zuko attempts to give Lee the dagger back, Lee tells Zuko he hates him. In season three's “Day of Black Sun,” Zuko gains clarity, and realizes that he cannot allow his father, Fire Lord Ozai, to commit genocide against the Earth Kingdom. He resolves to help his long-standing adversary, the Avatar, overthrow his father so that he may take the throne and lead the Fire Nation in a new direction of peace and justice.
Star Wars, very subtly, is a prominent piece of anti-imperialist visual media. The below video features Star Wars creator George Lucas in an interview with James Cameron, the director of Avatar (2009). Lucas explains to Cameron that the Original Trilogy was created as a commentary on the Vietnam War; the highly-mechanized, technologically superior Galactic Empire was representative of the United States, and the plucky but determined Rebel Alliance was representative of the Viet Cong.
This may come off as a sore point for Americans who did not know what exactly inspired to create what is today such an iconic film franchise. How can the evil Galactic Empire possibly have been based upon the United States, the citadel for freedom and justice in the world? How are the two in any way similar? How could they be in any way similar? To see the similarities between the two, one must set aside the notion of American exceptionalism, and the concept of America as a "shining city on a hill." After having done this, the person can then analyze things objectively, and come to the realization that America is exceptional not in its morality but its immorality. The fact of the matter is that the United States of America is itself an empire. It may not classify itself as such ala the British Empire or the Roman Empire, but it satisfies every condition of the definition.
An empire is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority." The vehicle by which a nation extends its power and influence, be it by military force, colonization, or otherwise, is called imperialism. The United States, a few short years after attaining its independence from the British Empire, emerged onto the scene as an aspiring imperial power. The Spanish and Dutch Empires had long before become satellites of the British Empire, which was dominant across North America and the West Indies. France was also jockeying for position under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, and for a brief period assumed dominance over a vast swath of continental Europe during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), but like Britain, it lost a key colony in the Western Hemisphere with Haiti winning its independence in 1804. Fast forward to the 1820s and Spain's colonies in Latin America were rapidly gaining their independence. The United States was in prime position now to make a move.
In 1823, President James Monroe issued his Monroe Doctrine, which decreed that intervention in the Western Hemisphere by European powers would be viewed by the United States government as a potentially hostile act. The United States would assume a hands-off policy where Europe was concerned, but it sought unilateral control over the Western Hemisphere. At the time of the Doctrine's issuance, the United States lacked the military might to enforce such a reign. However yet, time would be on its side. Nineteen years after the Civil War, representatives of thirteen European nations met at Berlin during the Scramble for Africa to partition the minerally wealthy African continent. The United States dispatched observers there to accept or reject the conclusions of the conference. They would accept them. The United States would become the first nation to recognize Leopold II's claims over the Congo, as part of a new policy to enshrine White supremacy within its own borders and abroad with the goal of avoiding conflict amongst White people wherever possible and becoming a commercial empire. The Basin of the Congo would become an "open door" to all commercial nations, so as to alleviate any potential territorial disputes between traditionally competitive nations:
Excerpts from Transafrican Journal of History, Vol. 19 (1990)
When you read the above excerpts, and then you stop and consider how Africa became a market for American goods and finished products, you'll see how America's post-slavery economy became so strong, so fast. Now seated at the big boys' table, America could pursue its own imperial ambitions. In 1897, William McKinley was sworn in as the 25th President of the United States. McKinley assumed the presidency amidst a Cuban war for independence against Spain. McKinley advocated Cuban independence, and with Congress' invoking of the Teller Amendment, the Spanish-American War began on April 21, 1898. The war lasted a measly three months and three weeks, during which the Spanish Navy was decimated. The 1898 Treaty of Paris saw Spain cede Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines, as well as temporary control of Cuba to the United States. The April 1898 Teller Amendment stated that the United States could not annex Cuba; they could only leave control of the island to its inhabitants. In spite of this, the government came up with the Platt Amendment in 1901, which lent legality to the United States' right to intervene in Cuban affairs "for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." Among the provisions of the amendment were the right of the United States to lease or buy land for the establishment of naval bases and coaling stations and the inability of Cuba to either enter treaties with foreign powers or prevent the United States from imposing a sanitation program on it. Cuba had become a colony of the United States, which would determine when and if its people were "qualified" for freedom. American capitalists bought large swaths of land to use as latifundios (sugar plantations), destroying peasant communities and barring Cuban planters from access to capital. Sugar cane farmers were relegated to the role of colonos (tenants) on corporation-owned land, land they themselves owned previously. The hope of Afro-Cubans to achieve racial equality was quashed by the Platt Amendment. Their subjection to segregation and discrimination worsened under the U.S. occupation, a slap in the face considering their contributions to the Cuban war for independence. Antonio Maceo, one of the eminent Cuban generals at that time, who never lost a battle, was Black. His mother, Marianna Grajales Cuello, was an ardent Cuban nationalist who was appropriately termed "the mother of the nation."
In his 1904 State of the Union address, President McKinley's successor Theodore Roosevelt attached a corollary to the century-old Monroe Doctrine, stating "chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States [...] to the exercise of an international police power." In other words, to ward off European aggression in the Western Hemisphere, or to ensure that Latin American nations satisfied their commitments to international creditors, the United States would intervene in their governments. This was used to devastating effect in Haiti, detailed to great extent in Jacobin's "Killing Haitian Democracy" by writer Robert Fatton Jr. The first tactic that was used was to remove Haiti's entire gold reserve in 1914 for storage in a New York City Bank. The shrewd imperialists then installed in place of a Haitian nationalist leader a president who would do their bidding – Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave. In 1915, the United States landed troops on the shores of Haiti, assuming control over its financial system, military, and law enforcement apparatus. They would occupy Haiti up until 1934, by when Haitian economic development was slowed to a snail's pace. During the nineteen years it was under American occupation, forty percent of Haiti's national income, rather than being invested in the Haitian people, was used to pay American and French banks. As the occupation went underway, Secretary of State to the Woodrow Wilson administration Robert Lansing stated the following:
"The African race is devoid of any capacity for political organization and lack
genius for government. Unquestionably there is in them an inherent tendency
to revert to savagery and cast aside the shackles of civilization which are
irksome to their physical nature."
Malcolm X described these attitudes best with one simple saying: "They cripple the bird's wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they." Even today, this attitude persists among a great many White people, who attribute Haiti's status as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to the Haitians' ability or lack of ability to govern themselves. Even Barack Obama has stated that African nations cannot continue accusing the West for their industrial underdevelopment, and that they should look inwards. What White people overlook regarding Haiti is that even today, it is the United States that governs it. It was Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the Organization of American States (OAS) and backed by Haitian business elites, who pressured outgoing president René Préval into elevating hopeful Michel Martelly into the second round of the election cycle. Martelly would then win the election. Described by The Atlantic as the Haitian Donald Trump, Martelly is crass, rude, and reactionary. As President, he siphoned off $9 million to build a personal seaside mansion, as well as hotels for his business friends. Martelly's successor, current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, is perhaps the most hated by his own race of any Black person in the Western Hemisphere. Moïse's continued leadership of Haiti was also the result of American intervention; his opposition slated his term to expire on February 7, 2021 due to a 2015 poll canceled on grounds of fraud. Moise maintained that his term would not expire until February 7, 2022. The U.S. State Department erred on the side of Moise. As poor as Haiti's people may be, the country itself is not poor, not in the slightest. It is a repository for gold, silver, copper, calcium carbonate, and other minerals, estimated in total to be worth $20 billion. If invested in the people, this bounty would prove to be a much-needed economic boon. But it is going into the coffers of America and Canada – with help from Moïse's government. Haiti, despite its seeming irrelevance on the international stage, is a nation of great strategic importance to the most powerful nation on Earth.
What Obama (intentionally) overlooks regarding Africa is the role of neocolonialism – perpetrated by seemingly philanthropic institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in its inability to industrialize. Neocolonialism is outlined very beautifully in the below video featuring Sierra Leonean entrepreneur Mallence Bart-Williams and excerpts from Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements.
Perhaps appropriately, Haiti and Cuba are the two of the beacons of anti-imperialism in the entire world. Upon winning its independence from France, Haiti supplied weapons and troops to Simón Bolívar, the freedom fighter who led struggles to liberate present-day Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and his native Venezuela from Spanish hegemony, asking only that Bolivar free the enslaved in those lands in return. Haiti then was the most democratic nation on Earth, as it was the only society to have outlawed slavery. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Cuba dispatched troops to Angola to repel White South African soldiers who invaded the country in order to install apartheid there. The below videos in succession are: Fidel Castro explaining before the United Nations that Cuba motivated to fight on behalf of Angola not out of self-interest but out of genuine morality; Kwame Ture debunking long-held Western presumptions about Castro and Cuba; and Kwame Ture explaining Haiti's importance to liberation struggles all throughout history.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone with more reason to be ardently anti-imperialist than I. My dad is from Haiti, but myself, my brothers, and my mom have never been to the country due to the perpetual state of ruination the West has forced it into. That ruination has marred what is otherwise a beautiful country per my dad, a pearl with sandy beaches, sky blue water, and almost every type of fruit you can find. The sandy beaches and sky blue water are still a hallmark, but the people of Haiti don't enjoy them, tourists do. My mom is from Ghana, whose first President Kwame Nkrumah, a legitimate African nationalist leader, was overthrown by the CIA in 1966. Today, French billionaire Vincent Bolloré and his company Bolloré Africa Logistics control Ghana's largest port, Tema, as a result of a deal brokered with Meridian Port Services (MPS). The terms of the MPS-Bolloré Group partnership are unequally tilted toward Bolloré.
Kwame Nkrumah, in addition to being Ghana's first president, was a Pan-Africanist, which is defined by the Fifth Pan-African Congress (1945) as the total unification and liberation of Africa under scientific socialism. It posits that until Africa is free, no person of African descent anywhere in the world will be free. Perhaps the biggest obstacle towards African unity today is the United States. From the Berlin Conference onward, it has been like a leech stuck to the skin of Africa, sucking its blood dry. In the present day, despite not being at war in Africa, the United States as of 2018 had deployed approximately 7,500 military personnel, including 1,000 contractors, to the African continent. U.S. Africa Command, aka AFRICOM, maintains military relations with 53 African nations, supposedly for the purpose of combatting ISIS affiliates and other extremist groups. AFRICOM conducted bombing campaigns on the town of Janale in Lower Shabelle, Somalia in April 2016, August 2019, and March 2020. Americans read that these airstrikes were conducted against al-Shabaab militants. But bombs do not differentiate between military targets and civilians, and even then, it is dubious as to whether al-Shabaab was actually the target where the March 2020 bombings are concerned. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of the existence of an al-Shabaab target in either of the two airstrikes conducted in March 2020, one of which killed a woman in her home, and the other five men and a child in a minibus. Families have been displaced upon fleeing Janale and the Lower Shabelle amid the 2020 airstrikes. Halgan Media is an independent news source that provides extensive coverage of the Somali peninsula. The linked Twitter thread by them provides the perspectives of survivors of the March 2020 AFRICOM airstrikes, where you are not likely to find elsewhere.
AFRICOM stationing throughout Africa
The recurring theme of these interventions is that life worsens for the people subjected to them. Libya was among the poorest nations on Earth up until the late 1950s. Under Muammar Gaddafi, who modernized the country, Libya became the most developed nation on the African continent with $150 billion in its foreign reserves and zero debt. The Libyan dinar was equivalent to $0.82781 in 2011. In addition, Libya’s gold reserves were replete with nearly 144 tons of the precious metal, which Gaddafi wanted to distribute across Africa for use in trade. Gaddafi had even intended to create a Pan-African currency based on the gold dinar. This would have had the effect of creating an African common market tantamount to the European Economic Community, a prospect that posed a direct threat to the economies of Europe and the United States, countries that have few natural resources of their own.
This is not to absolve Gaddafi of wrongdoing. There is evidence to suggest that he resorted to Pan-Africanist politics only when it was expedient to veer away from Pan-Arabism. However, that is frankly beyond the point. The United States does not intervene in the affairs of foreign governments because they are authoritarian. If that were the case, it would have intervened to end the Tigray crisis, or to put an end to Buhari’s repression of young people in Nigeria. They intervene where their interests are at stake. Gaddafi knew that he was entangled in a very delicate situation, and that attempts would be made on his life to restore in Libya what the West refers to as “free and fair markets.”
“Obama wants to kill me, to take away the freedom of our country, to take
away our free housing, our free education, our free food, and replace it with
American style thievery called ‘capitalism,’ but all of us in the Third World know
what that means, it means corporations run the countries, run the world, and
the people suffer.”
– Muammar Gaddafi
Libya today is rife with open slave markets and auctions, and the United States government – namely Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Susan Rice, the liberals who grin from ear to ear talking about how much they value racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity – are directly responsible. Libya is one country in a string of examples one can cite to demonstrate how: a) imperialism destroys the lives and livelihoods of the people afflicted by it, and b) wars are capitalist maneuvers for new markets, and that it would be impossible for the capitalist system to survive sans new wars. A topical example is the Congo, where over half of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined by children for use in lithium batteries. In Bolivia, another lithium-rich country, when the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was reinstated in power this past November, Tesla’s stocks went down accordingly. There is a long laundry list of examples from the past. The Congo is in the condition it is today primarily because of the CIA and Belgian-backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba, its first democratically elected Prime Minister, in 1961. Described by The Guardian writer Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja as the most important assassination in the 20th century, Lumumba’s killing was orchestrated to prevent the Congo from having full control over its own resources and with it, true independence. The Congo today is at the complete mercy of corporations such as Tesla, Apple, and Google, who exploit children to mine the aforementioned cobalt as well as coltan, without which cell phones and laptops cannot function. In 1954, the CIA, at the behest of the United Fruit Company, organized a coup to depose Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was not even a socialist, but a Sanders-style social democrat. It was the headway he was making toward agrarian reform and the expropriation of Guatemalan land owned by the United Fruit Company that caused the CIA, led by John Foster Dulles and sanctioned by President Dwight Eisenhower, to move against Arbenz in what is today known as Operation PBSuccess. Arbenz’s ouster resulted in decades of abhorrent poverty, Indigenous genocide, and ecological devastation in Guatemala. Today, what was once the United Fruit Company is now Chiquita Brands International Inc.
Map by Redfish
I would contend that the loudest voices against imperialism in America historically have been Black activists, in accordance with our rich Black Radical Tradition, which is diametrically opposed to racism-enforcing or reinforcing structures, including imperialism and its arbiter, capitalism. Below is a video featuring Muhammad Ali explaining his reasoning for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military and fighting in Vietnam. Accompanying that is a Twitter thread by Clarkisha Kent (@IWriteAllDay) with quotes from prominent Black activists decrying American imperialism.
So what changed? Why are the masses of Black people today not charged up against American militarism? A little-known fact to Black Americans is that at the height of the Black Power Movement, the United States government weaponized “Black capitalism” as a means of diluting and pacifying the movement. This subject is touched on in a chapter of Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 32, titled “The National Response to Richard M. Nixon’s Black Capitalism Initiative: The Success of Domestic Detente.” The writers are Richard E. Weems, Jr. and Lewis A. Randolph, professors then at the University of Mississippi-Columbia and Ohio University respectively.
“Richard M. Nixon viewed an uncontrolled Black Power movement as a major
threat to the internal security of the United States. To address this situation,
Nixon developed his Black capitalism initiative as a domestic version of his
foreign detente (which sought to “contain” the power of the Soviet Union and
Weems and Randolph further add that although Nixon did not achieve his campaign promises pertaining to Black capitalism, he was successful in subverting Black radicalism. Black capitalism, coupled with an American educational system that will teach students none of the above quotes, has left Black Americans largely unstirred by the U.S. government's dealings abroad. Our activism in the 21st century has been largely confined domestically. Another huge contributor to this laxness: tokenism. This past presidential election, the Democratic Party sold us with token representation in the form of Kamala Harris, the first Black female Vice President, Susan Rice, the Director of the United States Domestic Policy Council (DPC), and Lloyd Austin, the now-Secretary of Defense and a former board member at Raytheon Technologies, responsible for selling millions of dollars in arms to US-allied Saudi Arabia for use against Brown people in Iran primarily. But as Malcolm X taught us, power and prestige in the hands of a few Black faces never trickles down.
“Tokenism benefits only a few. It never benefits the masses, and the masses
are the ones who have the problem, not the few. That one who benefits from
tokenism, he doesn't want to be around us anyway - that's why he picks up on
– Malcolm X
Moreover, tokenism has created an atmosphere in this country wherein it becomes almost impossible to criticize Joe Biden without being labeled as unappreciative for Black people and people of color being represented within his administration. When criticism is levied against him, by a Black person at that, invariably, the conversation devolves into "he's doing what he can, give him time," or, "you were irrational to have expected Biden to solve every problem." This is problematic for this reason: it pacifies us into a state wherein we forget we were ever fighting for something in the first place. As a result of our being accustomed to seeing solely White faces in high places, naturally, we feel a rush when a Black person is elevated to such high stature. Those days must inevitably reach their end, as Black people collectively reach a level of political maturity that tells them "any politician not outlining concrete policy agendas to benefit the masses of Black people is a politician not worth voting for". All-African People's Revolutionary Party (A-APRP) member Onyesonwu Chatoyer wrote a brilliant article for Hood Communist dated April 2, 2021 titled "African Women, Don't Be a Mammy for Empire." In it, she describes the pacification I am talking about here. For Black women, it was inspiring to see Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris, and Amanda Gorman at the January inauguration dressed to the nines illustrating the best of what Black people have to offer America. But as inspiring as it may have seemed at face value, when taken into consideration Joe Biden's legacy of racist, segregationist beliefs, celebration more likely than not was ill-timed.
“Think back to Biden’s inauguration where we saw a trifecta of petit-bourgeois
African womanhood centered and celebrated during the florid coronation of
an unrepentant segregationist who has been credibly accused, several times,
of sexual assault. We watched on our TV screens and social media feeds,
gasping and fawning over Michelle Obama in her silk press and burgundy
superhero fit, Amanda Gorman in her canary yellow Prada experience, and
Kamala Harris in her chucks and pearls, backed by a soundtrack provided by
Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez. These women showed up beautiful and brilliant
for motherfucking Joe Biden, to celebrate his ascension into the leadership of
an empire built from murder, theft, slavery and the ongoing exploitation of
African and colonized peoples and our homelands.”
– Onyesonwu Chatoyer
During his traveling throughout the Malian empire in the 1350s, Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta said, “Of all peoples the Negroes [Black people] are those who most abhor injustice” (Caravans of Gold). My Black brothers and sisters, I implore you, please, don't carry water for empire. You sully our ancestors' struggle in doing so.
There do remain pockets of Black resistance to imperialism. One of the best organizations working in America today is The Black Alliance For Peace (BAP). In the tradition of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, they do an excellent job of connecting the struggles of Black people in America against racial capitalism with the struggles of oppressed people all over the world against their exploiter. I highly recommend following their National Organizer and Spokesperson Ajamu Baraka (@ajamubaraka on Twitter and IG) and scholar Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, aka Dr. CBS (@blackleftaf on Twitter). There is much one can learn from them.
It is part true that Americans, by and large, are indifferent to their government's parasitical undertakings in the Global South. You won't find many Americans who will admit it. But if it is true, why? It is true that there is an indifference, but this exists only because of the result that has come upon us through years of desensitization to the violence practiced by and within this society. The apathy which Americans demonstrate toward the rest of the world, the nonwhite world in particular, is something that is created by the system. The reality is that within American society and Western society period, there exist ingredients, i.e., an irresponsible and complicit media, racism, individualism, jingoism, extreme materialism, and other -isms, which inculcate in people a sense of or a feeling of apathy towards the rest of the world, particularly the nonwhite world. Once it became public knowledge that there were no WMDs in Iraq, there logically should have been mass outrage and carnage for George W. Bush, particularly by the people whose husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters went off to war and risked serious injury or death. But there was no such outrage. The below video by YouTuber TheStoryteller gives a good scientific analysis of the causes of the apathy I am describing, dissecting "tolerance" towards people different from ourselves as insufficient compared to understanding.
It is time that those of us who are genuinely concerned citizens of the world put a stop to this, because the only way it will be stopped is if we stop it ourselves. So in my conclusion, I would like to leave you with what I believe to be one of the most important speeches of the 20th century: "Imperialism is the Arsonist of Our Forests and Savannas" by the first President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. In a presidency cut tragically short by, you guessed it, Western imperialism, Sankara achieved a great many things, including increasing the Burkinabe literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987, vaccinating an estimated 2.5 million children against yellow fever, meningitis, and measles in two short weeks, and planting over 10 million trees in a campaign against desertification in the Sahel. This speech of Sankara's was given at the first International Silva Conference for the Protection of Trees and Forests. I hope, sincerely, that reading it gives you the incentive to do something in an organized or programmatic fashion against war and militarism, which threaten all life on Earth.