• William Mathis

GATHER UP THE FRAGMENTS - NOTES FROM COLOMBIA (CALI, BUENAVENTURA, PACIFIC COAST, CARTAGENA)



We must adhere staunchly to the basic principle that anything less than full equality is not enough. If we comprise on that principle, our soul is dead.

Ralph J. Bunche

Anything is as old as racism is in the bloodline of the nation. It’s not any superficial thing that attitude is in the blood and we have to educate it out.

Nannie Burroughs


Colombia is a very interesting place that offers an enormous amount of contradictions. First, it would not be clear to anyone that Colombia stands as the third largest concentration of Black people outside of Africa, standing behind Brazil and the USA respectively. Second, Colombia is such a beautiful country aesthetically as well as a people who possess a welcoming and guanine spirit despite the fact that they have endured a civil war that has lasted for over five decades. Fortunately, in 2016 after ongoing negotiations, a ceasefire agreement was reached. Lastly, Colombia is a world leader in drug trafficking, creating a myriad of problems that have been enhanced by the Civil War, making Colombian drug cartels instrumental with a significant influence in the world drug trade. All of these factors contribute greatly to the struggle for identity, justice, and equality for the significant Afro-Colombian population, other than being concentrated in urban areas, Afro-Colombians, and their community is mostly situated in the middle of the Civil War and drug trade along the Pacific Coast. Colombia's contradictions served as a backdrop to my time spent there, both during my sabbatical but also for several years prior as a result of participating and advocating for our people during the peace negotiations that lead to the eventual ceasefire. Unfortunately, the ceasefire agreement offered a lot of promises to assist our people, our community but no real follow-through by the government or the rebel factions, creating a state of continuous and spiraling crisis for Afro-Colombians. Because of all of the enormous issues that are local to Afro-Colombians, coupled with issues imposed globally and impacting them as people of Africa and the African Diaspora there appears to be a lack of breathing room, safe spaces, and spaces of acceptance that would allow Afro-Colombians to thrive and do so in the authenticity of their own Blackness. With the lack of breathing space, safe and accepting spaces in which Afro-Colombians could view their lives and destiny through which they could thrive, it is clear that such a lack has impacted them, i.e, the peace negotiation process that delivered only hollow promises that at best would only continue their marginalization and inadequate participation in the welfare and prosperity of the country, ignoring their humanity, including their real issues and potential solutions, thus leaving them to wander aimlessly, even if the government or rebel factions kept their word. It is here, the place of a lack of breathing space, which I believe is the opportunity to create and/or develop community spaces of Blackness in which we can inhale and exhale that which is best for us, creating and building our own tables and thus negotiating in and through all things for that which will cause us to thrive through our own lens of Blackness.

The recent and present process of Afro-Colombians finding their niche and fit, both physically and theoretically, in Colombia has been defined by the sense in which they have been ignored and manipulated to aimlessly exist. One of the major outcomes of the Civil War and the supportive drug trade is the displacement of Afro-Colombians from their homes, their community as evidence that showcases how the government, rebels, and the powers that be ignore them and are ignorant of their historical, present, and potential significance. During and post-conflict, Afro- Colombian's home base was the Pacific Coast, and because the Pacific Coast for a largely landlock country provided ports into which drug trafficking could exist, thus providing the rebels with financial resources to support their efforts and basically manipulating the Afro-Colombian community to ensure the maintenance of their business. Therefore, the drugs, planted and harvested in interior Colombia, transported to the ports on the Pacific Coast, the homeland to a majority of Afro-Colombians and their community, were taken hostage to serve their purpose, the new era/version of their enslavement. The rebels took control of the ports as well as surrounding areas, and routes to ensure safe passage, and as a result crime and violence broke out in villages and small towns on the Pacific Coast, including the introduction of gangs who supported the drug cartels vis-a-vis the Farc and other rebel factions created an internal conflict and chaos in which many families were forced to flee and immigrated to safe areas such as urban centers, i.e. Bogota, Cali, Medellin creating enormous “ghettos” with extreme poverty, along with imported violence and gang activity in cramp dilapidated, and poor spaces. Of course, as in the USA and other parts of the world, these areas and their inhabitants automatically created an atmosphere where other “citizens” stigmatize and worsen the conditions with biased treatment that make Afro-Colombians the scapegoats for every and all things. In addition, life on the Pacific Coast, including customs, communal spaces, etc were all very different and difficult to duplicate in the large urban areas creating and adding stigmatism internally as well as externally creating this sense of displacement within as well as without. Although it is evident and obvious that Afro-Colombians both on the Pacific Coast and many of them in their newfound spaces in urban areas seek refugee from the violence and crime, wander aimlessly, forced to be wanderers, seeking appropriate space in which they can exist in their full potential and thrive, safe and acceptable spaces that develop and nurture their authenticity as a community of great and significant people. If we, as Black people, are to find our space, a safe and acceptable space, a space for us to breathe new life for ourselves and our community, we must create these traditional and authentic communal spaces wherever we are to see ourselves and see our circumstances as well as our resolutions through the lens of who we are, our breathing space for us to inhale and exhale as we see fit to thrive - a space in which we do not have to comprise because of intervening factors but remain true and faithful to our core principals of who we are, of our Blackness within ourownsleves as well as in our dealings with others.

Although the displacement of Afro-Colombians has complicated community and their struggle for justice, nevertheless, it has caused a new awakening not just of long-time freedom fighters but also of a younger generation of Afro-Colombians demanding their own tables and power to drive their own narratives. A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak at the Inauguration of the Martin Luther King Center for Peace and Justice at Unibautista Theological Seminary in Cali and there I found among the young people, a hunger and thirst for freedom, justice, and equality, especially as it relates to the marginalized Afro-Colombian community, clearly cracks within Colombia's floodgates. Since my initial experiences in Colombia, I have seen on several return trips additional cracks and loosening in the floodgates, I believe in part because of the long-lasting civil war in which Afro-Colombians were treated as insignificant by both the government as well as the rebels, causing their community to be decimated and hampered their ability to socially and economically survive and without question prevented their potential to thrive. In addition, Afro-Colombians forced migration to urban centers; a displacement that created an external and internal resistance from what they have known and embraced as community has forced more of them, if not the community as a whole, into the struggle to build and develop their own tables so as to drive their own narratives for their community's thriving. This hunger and thirst, which I call a "new awakening," is providing the impetus for establishing among Afro-Colombians, a Blackness lens, an alternative view of their challenges, including but not limited to the external and internal strife, violence, and horror experienced because of systems and structures that exist, both in government and the rebels, a total disregard for their humanity, equality, and justice. The lens of Blackness forces them to critically examine the reality of their experiences so as to develop and focus on an agenda in which they drive the narrative and the narrative is about reestablishing themselves politically, socially, and economically in ways in which their community thrives. The widespread breaks and loosening of the floodgates have been exacerbated by the government’s refusal to hold up its end of the ceasefire agreement for Afro-Colombians' protection and provision, solidifying the fact that if Afro-Colombians are to thrive not only in their country but also in their communities, they must build their own tables, negotiate and drive their own narratives. It is this sleeping giant that is awakening to claim their space, right, and dignity, I dare say our space, right, and dignity as Black people globally! The new awakening I send in Colombians among our brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora demands our attention. For so long, we as Africans and African Diaspora people have ignored the plight and struggle of Afro-Colombians, applying the same principle as Western/Eurocentric powers that be operating in and along with Colombia. By no means do I suggest that the struggle for operating and viewing our experiences through the lens of Blackness is new in Colombia or that some have not been paying attention, however, do suggest it has not been solely insufficient, especially among African and African Diaspora people globally. Colombia as the third largest concentration of Black people outside of Africa demands not only do we pay attention but also we act with and on their behalf. As I indicated earlier, there is a hunger and thirst, the floodgates are about to burst not just because of the resistance to the status quo but more so as a result of the discovery of the potentiality of empowerment as a community of Black people in who they are and whom they can and will become. It is this search for place, connection, and owning their own tables that causes the pressure of the floodgates to crack and begin to burst forth. There is a genuine desire to carve out what is theirs, their sense of community that defies physical location, rural or urban, Pacific Coast or inland that provides support and unites them to influence and transform society that causes them to thrive. In addition, there is a genuine desire to counteract the internal gang violence and despair as a result of both a lack of access to economic opportunities, including economic and social capital, creating a sense of hopelessness that fuels the maintenance of the status quo. This sense of hopelessness is not peculiar to Afro-Colombians nor their plight amid general society’s conflict, they do seek to learn and glean from other African Diaspora struggles and movements, in particular here in the USA in which they can identify largely as a result of the Southern Baptist influence over the practice of religion and the building of institutions, including academic one in Colombia and they make a correlation to rise of the Civil Rights Movement among Black Baptist, as Martin Luther King, informing their exposure and desire to engage and drive their own narratives. No different than most of our brothers and sisters in the world, they in some ways think we, African Americans, have made it and reference in particular our before legally mandated integration history in which we built our own tables, lead our own struggles, and produced our own economic engines causing our community to thrive and our Blackness, authenticity to flourish. I believe this is the kind of opening, the learning and gleaning from "our" experiences, in which we can build collaborative and sustainable relationships throughout the Diaspora in order to share experiences toward shared resolutions. Without question in Colombia, Blackness is bursting forth as the best option that would provide protection, provision, and potential building that will cause the Afro-Colombian community to thrive together and serve as an impetus to create spaces for developing and nurturing their Blackness so as to sustain themselves and connect to the worldwide movement of advancing Black people nd our community globally!



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