Race after Revolution: Imagining Blackness and Africanity in the “New Sudan”
Zachary Mondesire, University of California, Los Angeles
The problematic of race generally, and the questions of Africanness and Blackness in particular, are difficult to resolve in contexts without an ontological referent to Blacken the marginalized, displaced, or exploited subject. To what extent do individuals who, due to phenotype, would be racialized as Black in the United States, become or remain Black without juxtaposition to individuals racialized as white? The post-revolution context of Sudan raises important questions about blackness and Africanness that reveal the ways aesthetics and phenotypic difference tends to overdetermine relations of domination which U.S.-centric analyses identify in terms of race. In the contemporary Sudans, how might we understand who is Black, how racialization occurs, and the signposts that harness the qualities of an abstract experience of Blacknessglobally to lived experience in historically, materially, and spiritually constituted time and space?
Racial concepts such as Blackness are certainly porous and expand to relegate ever-more marginalized communities into conditions of captivity and depravation. Blackevertheless signifies a phenotypic roadmap ostensibly allowing theorists of race to identify conditions of domination globally. While Atlantic Ocean framings of race highlight the afterlife of European slavery, grafting this frame universally onto all geographic contexts tends to frame race primarily as a question of displacement, as the study of minority communities visibly out of place. The conditions signified by Blackness in Atlantic contexts—captivity, depravation, death—also exist in Black majority societies. Therefore, this paper asks: who is Black when everyone is Black?
Who is Black when the color-word Black is not used to describe people who have darkly pigmented skin? How, with what ideological material, and why does identification as African become important—politically and otherwise—within the geographic limits of continental Africa? In this POMEPS collection, historian Gokh Amin Alshaif draws our attention to the construction of Blackness in Yemen at the intersection of skin color and narratives of family origin differentially placed along a hierarchy of genealogical value. Her analysis recalls that of Harry Garuba, who revisits the oft-cited Fanonian understanding of Back subject formation in order to draw attention to what Fanon discounts. Garuba argues that when Fanon asserted that as long as the Black man “remains on his home territory, except for petty quarrels, he will not have to experience his being for others,” he discounted how the category of race, once discursively set in motion, would map onto, be translated into, and come to be coarticulated with local conditions.
Building on a position that acknowledges both the centrality and shortcomings of somatic difference to contemporary conceptualizations of race, this paper argues that racial ideologies emerged through artwork during and since Sudan’s recent, and still unfinished, political transition. The myriad depictions of Sudan’s original independence flag highlight two racialized discourses. On the one hand, the appearance of the flag reveals an imaginative Africanness as a strategy of racial geopolitics that disrupts Sudan’s relationship to the Arabic-speaking world. On the other, it compels one to grapple with the resonance between Sudan’s assertion of Africanness and the analogous desire for racial dignity that ideologically drove popular support for South Sudan’s secession from Sudan.
While art appeared throughout Khartoum in multiple forms—notably in theatrical performances in Sudan’s national theater in Omdurman or at book fairs outside the national museum dramatically portraying popular exasperation with the regime of the former National Congress Party (NCP) and the violence of the uprisings to oust it—the most striking and commonplace examples are the wall murals that lent creative depth to the urban architecture itself. In much of this visual art, the past—both ancient and modern—represents a source for insufficiently tapped vocabularies of communal identity as alternatives to the desire for proximity to the Arabic-speaking world linked to what Noah Salomon has called the “normative framework” of politicized Islam “that far exceeded the state.” Depictions of Sudan’s tri-color blue, yellow, and green independence flag indexed an act of racialized refusal to reject the concept of Arab identity from what it would now mean to be Sudanese. In doing so, it drew critical attention to Sudan’s racially fraught relationship to both the Arabic-speaking world and to what is now South Sudan.
After Gaafar Nimeiry came to power in a 1969 military coup, he replaced the independence flag in 1970 with the tri-color black, white, and red flag that invokes the aesthetic geopolitics of Arab nationalism linking Sudan to Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, etc. This choice arguably foreshadowed Nimeiry’s political transformation and the more substantive recasting of Sudan’s geopolitical place-in-the-world. The independence flag does not figure in the state’s contemporary representation of itself. The erasure of the independence flag calls into question the reconcilability of the very axis of racial differentiation, Arab/African, that has characterized so much of Sudan’s contemporary history. The former flag resembles the current flags of Rwanda, Tanzania and multiple other flags of an Africa articulated through racial-geographic vocabulary like south of the Sahara or sub-Saharan which conveniently conceal the ostensibly homogenous dark-complexioned map it interpolates in our collective imagination.
The flag of Sudan at independence.
Many protestors waved the independence flag throughout the 2018-19 uprisings both within Sudan and within Sudanese communities around the world. Their excavation of the original flag resonates with South Sudan’s decision to create a flag almost identical to Kenya’s. The South Sudan flag stands as a reference to Kenya’s central diplomatic role in the lead-up to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. This includes the work of Kenyan politicians such as the infamous Daniel Arap Moi as well as the multiple Kenyan cities that provided asylum for southern rebels throughout the second civil war. In addition to political solidarity, there is a racial cartography implicit in the visual homage to Kenya that relocates South Sudan outside of an inhospitable Arabic-speaking world in which, because of an individual’s accent, complexion, or both, one may not be recognized as an Arabic speaker even if one is. Instead, it locates South Sudan within the Christian and English speaking orbit of Kenya that seemed to welcome them with figuratively open arms.
Both flags, South Sudan’s and Sudan’s re-emerged original flag are rejections of the red, black, and white flag indexical of much of the Arabic-speaking world. This not meant to romanticize the use of either flag as the celebration of a monolithic African identity. South Sudanese analysts have been cynical towards South Sudan’s relationships with Uganda and Kenya as elite-driven financial projects that simply replace one destination of extraction for another. My ethnographic research in Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya has also illuminated the popular understanding of a racial geography within which the concept of African racial dignity comes to life as an embrace of shared ethnicity (such as the Luo and other ethnic groups than span South Sudan’s borders with Kenya and Uganda) and the rejection of the aspiration towards Arab as a concept of identity. The specter of the Kenyan flag in South Sudan’s can be read as an acceptance that Arab identity is often only available to darker-skinned people with explanation and as an aspiration, tethered to religious commitment, the Arabic language, and claims to particular ethno-geographic heritage.
While a fuller analysis of the constitution of Arab identity vis-a-vis language, geography, and religion calls for its own space of analysis, it is perhaps important to reflect on the contested availability of the Arabic language to South Sudanese and the unavailability of Arab identity. The fall of long-time president Omar Al-Bashir represented the end of an era of Pan-Arabism that led to, for example, the relatively straightforward granting of Sudanese citizenship to Syrian refugees in contrast to the myriad bureaucratic hurdles and expenses faced by Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees and the impossibility of dual citizenship for South Sudanese nationals. Arabic was the national language of Sudan pre-partition, yet racialized language ideologies that associate the Arabic language with phenotypically fair-skinned people has rendered Sudanese, and other phenotypically dark-skinned Arabic speakers, as undesirable visitors throughout the Arabic-speaking world. This form of racism is particularly acute if they are unable or unwilling to speak in a normative (read urban) dialect of Egypt, the Levant, or the Gulf. This dynamic, where one’s speech engenders a racialized skepticism of one’s belonging, also shapes and has shaped the experience of southern/South Sudanese in Khartoum (albeit tethered to hair texture, height, and the comparative darkness of one’s skin). The fall of Al-Bashir opened the door to reckoning with the Arabness of Sudan as youth activists raised important questions about identity with, and belonging to, the Arabic-speaking world at both the interpersonal and geopolitical scales.
The still ongoing transition in Sudan began with uprisings in late 2018 in urban centers outside of Khartoum, namely Atbara and Gedarif. Nisrin El-Amin and Zachariah Mamphilly reminded us that what was insurgent at the time was more than what the international media described as popular dissatisfaction with the prices of bread, fuel and other basic commodities. This perspective obscured not only the ways working-class communities had been mobilizing against recent austerity measures but also the larger demand for the overthrow of the then ruling NCP regime. The phrase popularized by anti-government uprisings elsewhere in the Arabic speaking world in 2010 and 2011, “As-sha’b yurīd asgat a-nizam (The people want the regime to fall.)” inspired what would become the initial slogan of the Sudanese uprisings,“tasgūt bas (Just fall.)”. Protests continued even after the military ousted Al-Bashir, refusing the rule of the Transitional Military Council (TMC). The original negative demand would give way to the positive call for “madanīyya(civility),” which indexed both the administrative desire for civilian rule and an affective yearning for a new quotidian experience devoid of oppressively conservative public order laws.
Madanīyya gave life to a demand not simply for a political transition but a new imagination of how the state would feel in the daily lives of its citizens. The new artwork that appeared on walls and bridges throughout the city refashioned spaces of Khartoum into experimental domains of an alternative public sphere. Noah Salomon has drawn attention to the political possibility immanent in the murals depicting the ancient civilizations in what is today Sudan. Images of the pyramids at Meroe, ancient deities, references to the ancient kingdom of Kush and to Sudan as the home of the origin of civilization permeate the artistic expression that still peppers various neighborhoods of Khartoum. Anecdotal references to Sudanese people as “ashāb al-hadāra (the owners of civilization),” are perhaps on their way to becoming as common as the everyday claims to Egypt as “ūm a-dunya (the mother of the world).” Salomon’s attention to material culture provides tools to think through the place of Kush as a site of political and popular solidarity and a vehicle for the remembrance of those who lost their lives in the process of uprooting a longstanding government. Nostalgia for a past beyond living memory can be productive; it may widen the range of resources available to imagine political community.
I focus on how the Sudanese independence flag represents a related source of ideological material with which to recast both the imagined political community of Sudan itself as well as through what idioms it engages continental and global discourses on the racialization of nation-states themselves as variously African, Arab, or otherwise. The productive nostalgia linking the ways people draw from the ancient and modern past could be no clearer than in the mural declaring: “We demand Sudan’s exit from the Arab league, we are negroes, the sons of Kush.” The mural goes on to demand the closure of the border with Egypt and to claim Sudanese ownership of the contested Halayib triangle along the coast of the Red Sea at Sudan’s easternmost border with Egypt.
Photo taken by author.
Multiple murals link the independence flag to freedom, as a term in both English and the Arabic language and as a concept expressed allegorically. The flag, though abstracted, remains recognizable in the top-down order of the blue, yellow, and green bands. It appears as a pair of wings or as a meat grinder crushing chains into the pattern of the flag, or as a book on which “Freedom” is inscribed in the flag’s colors. The questions these examples raise are then: freedom from what? Is this desire for freedom limited to national borders or do contemporary experiences of Sudanese citizens in the Arabic-speaking world—bearing in mind the complex history of slavery—conjure a desire to get out, as it were?
Amélie Le Renard and Neha Vora remind us, in this POMEPS collection, that “terms that reference nationality are not merely neutral descriptors of passport belonging—they code a regime of value” in which communities, individuals and their interior and exterior characteristics occupy differential places in a global hierarchy. Their intervention draws attention to the significance of race at the scale of geopolitics wherein national categories become racial categories. Bearing this in mind, what racializing work does waving this flag accomplish? If the act represents the desire for connection to an Africa that Sudan has either ostensibly lost or been unable to articulate more fully, do such invocations conjure demands for material assistance to Sudan’s own African, ever-marginalized and insufficiently Arabized peripheral communities?
Photo taken by author. “Freedom” in both English and the Arabic language.
On the one hand, as protests and sit-ins have erupted in Darfur and eastern Sudan since Al-Bashir left office, one could read the invocation of this flag as bourgeois symbology that, not unlike toppling statues of slave traders/owners in the global North, leads to little or no substantive change to structural inequality. With another, less cynical interpretation, one could argue that the reanimation of the former flag is a refusal of the Arabic-speaking world centered in the Levant, the Gulf and Egypt (notwithstanding the ways Egyptian laborers have been historically disparaged throughout the Middle East), in order to recast Sudan as definitively African and to challenge the incessant mockery of Blackface in Arabic-language media, the disbelief that Sudanese (and South Sudanese by extension) speak and write Arabic, and the forms of super-exploitative labor that characterize so much of the experience of Blackness in the Arabic-speaking world.
Returning to the question of how we identify Blackness when skin color does not provide an easy roadmap, let us reflect on the racial irony immanent in the invocation of Sudan’s Africanness via the independence flag. The reanimation of this flag during the recent uprisings has appeared less than a decade after South Sudan’s secession. However disappointing its independence may now be, southern grievances were articulated on those very terms: the capacity to be African and non-Arab, to be non-Muslim, to be free from the confines of a mono-lingual and mono-religious relationship to the state. While we cannot ignore the significant role of George W. Bush’s government, the U.S evangelical right, and their global north partners in making real South Sudanese independence; we can neither lose sight of the long-standing autonomous desire from southern Sudan for self-government as redress for the forms of religious, linguistic, and geographic racialization that marginalized—and Blackened—southerners in Sudan before and after separation (specifically in barring dual citizenship). As such the reemergence of the tri-color flag provides a platform to reflect on race broadly in the now two Sudans and on a nation-state’s place-in-the-world within a global racialized order of nation-states.
The 2020 signing of the Juba peace agreement between the Transitional Sovereignty Council and rebel groups in the west and south of what is now Sudan resonates with the productive nostalgia that reanimated the original independence flag. New council positions have been assigned to leaders of political organizations that represent the political and economic interests of Sudan’s racially marginalized communities: the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and the Sudan Liberation Movement for Justice (SLMJ). To be sure, minority representation in government does not necessarily lead to material change for the minoritized communities from which the representatives hail, yet the productive nostalgia that brought new life to the independence flag seems linked to a multicultural vision of Sudan, one which failed to make unity attractive to South Sudan during the transitional period of the 2005 CPA, such that communities traditionally racialized as non-Arab will figure more prominently in the state’s representation of itself.
 Recent anthropological inquiries into the study of race have centered white supremacy as the foundational logic of global inequality (Beliso-De Jesús and Pierre 2019). While we must continue to pay attention to the material affects of anthropology’s racializing gaze on the Other, we must also attend to American anthropology’s role in the cultural construction of whiteness as a typology for human difference that provided the means for undesirable European immigrants to assimilate into the early 20th century United States (See Baker 1998, Anderson 2019)
 This question has implications for examining difference in myriad contexts where skin color is not a salient modality of racial difference.
 Alshaif, Gokh Amin. 2021 Black and Yemeni: Origin Myths, Imagined Genealogies, and Resistance. POMEPS, Racial Formation in the Middle East and Africa. POMEPS Studies
 Garuba, Harry. 2008. “Race in Africa: Four Epigraphs and a Commentary.” PMLA 123 (5): 1640–48.
 Ibid. p 1641.
Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. New York; [Berkeley, Calif.: Grove Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West. p. 89
 Salomon, Noah. 2016. For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State. Princeton University Press. p. 5
 What I am drawing attention to is the racialization of the Arabic spoken in South Sudan and the South Sudanese accent in other national dialects. Both Arabic-speaking world and that the dialect of Arabic spoken in Juba is largely unknown—and likely imperceptible as Arabic—to many in the Arabic speaking world.
 Nyaba, Peter Adwok. 2019. South Sudan: Elites, Ethnicity, Endless Wars and the Stunted State. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers.
 With secession, determining who was “southern” amongst those in Sudan became a question of geographic belonging. Paternal heritage from the three historical regions of southern Sudan (Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria, Upper Nile) disqualifies you from Sudanese citizenship. Only residents of, or those descendant from residents of, Abyei (the still contested border region of the two Sudans) are eligible for dual citizenship.
 Elamin, Nisrin, and Zachariah Mampilly. n.d. “Analysis | Recent Protests in Sudan Are Much More than Bread Riots.” Washington Post. Accessed December 28, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/12/28/recent-protests-in-sudan-are-much-more-than-bread-riots/.
 Salomon, Noah. 2020. “What Lies Beneath the Sands: Archaeologies of Presence in Revolutionary Sudan.” POMEPS Studies 40, 31-39.
 Le Renard, Amélie and Neha Vora. 2021 Interrogating Race in Gulf Studies. POMEPS Studies
 Here I refer to areas such as Darfur and South Kordofan (Nuba Mountains) that have been the subject of campaigns to institute Arabic/Islam in place of local languages, religions, elements of ethnic community, etc. This of course maintains relationships of dominance over these places.