The Black Pacific and the Shapes of Global Black Power

                        *This post is part of our roundtable on Quito Swan’s ‘Pauulu’s Diaspora.’

Black Lives Matter Protest (Saundi Wilson, Flickr)

Aboriginal anti-apartheid activists put on a show for the all-white South African Springbok team when its players arrived in Sydney to face off for a series of matches for the 1971 Australia rugby Tour. The Tour violated United Nations resolutions to isolate apartheid sports teams from the international sporting arena. In previous years, African American Black Power activists led campaigns to boycott apartheid teams at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. In England and Ireland, African exiles worked in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement to launch a 1969/70 Stop the Tour campaign to block South African teams from playing rugby and cricket matches. 

In Australia, a cadre of Aboriginal Black Power activists made a surprising appearance that situated them in the rising tide of anti-apartheid activism that was sweeping the world of international sport. Gary Foley, Lyn Thompson, and Paul Coe turned up to the Springbok’s motel lobby each wearing white South Africa’s sacred relic: the Springbok jersey. This was a sore sight for Springbok players. In previous weeks, the pressure of international sports activism led South African Prime Minister John Vorster to zealously declare that the Springbok jersey would never be profaned by a “non-white.” In a bold act of subversion, Foley, Coe, and Thompson, who was pregnant at the time, solicited the press for a photo op in the green and gold jerseys, capturing the moment of Aboriginal apartheid censure for broadcast to domestic and international sporting audiences. 

The stunt galvanized the Australian anti-apartheid movement which went on to draw thousands of demonstrators led by Africans and their white leftist allies in a sustained two-month effort to stop the sporting events. Six thousand protesters in continuous demonstration outside of Sydney sporting grounds accompanied the Aboriginal activists’ stance. They chanted, whistled, and tossed smoke bombs onto the pitch. The event was a snapshot of Aboriginal efforts to link the dual-struggles against South African apartheid and Australian settler dispossession to a level of national visibility. Aboriginal activists’ action and subsequent leadership in the anti-Springbok boycott was a product of the solidarities that Pauulu’s Diaspora sketches between Black Pacific activists and their African, Caribbean, and Afro-American counterparts. 

Swan’s discussion of Pauulu Kamarakafego’s early relationship with Indigenous groups in the Black Pacific asks readers to consider solidarity-making as a turbulent, imperfect, yet powerful process. The brilliance of Kamarakafego’s Pacific solidarity-building was that it amplified new Black ontologies and expanded the cartography of the Black world as it was imagined by African, Caribbean and Afro-American Black Power organizers. In this regard, Swan’s work builds on historian Dr. Rhonda Williams’ argument that Black Power offered Aboriginal activists strategies and a language for making concrete demands on the Australian state in the late 1960s.

The invitation of Aboriginal Black Power activists to Atlanta for the 1970 Congress of African Peoples (CAP) became a furtive place for forging a capacious solidarity that was strong enough to hold the tensions of international movement assemblage. When a fair-skinned member of the Aboriginal delegation was heckled by Afro-American conference-goers for appearing “Puerto Rican,” it sparked debate within the kaleidoscopic world of Blackness about definition, ontology, and claim-making. More important, it presented activists with the challenge of reconciling multi-variant localized social and historical productions of Blackness with their mandate of assembling a global Black Power Movement that was arranged around anti-colonialism and environmental justice.

Swan reminds us that the conference attendees’ debates on this subject were the result of “how centuries of white hegemony, surveillance, colonialism, and miseducation had dislocated black communities physically and conceptually from one another.” Indeed, conceptual dislocation and the production of racial difference to prevent solidarity, was among the primary goals of racial regimes like white settler Australia and apartheid South Africa. Kamarakafego, himself identified the trap in his public speeches on Aboriginal political struggles noting that “the Western world pointed out the physical differences of black people in Oceania to cause disunity.” 

Kamarakafego, viewing this as a very effective distraction, knew that Global Black Power had to resist reproducing essentialist divisions and philosophies that situated Black liberation within nationalist teloses. At the 6PAC planning meeting in Jamaica, Black Australian activist Roberta “Bobbi” Sykes importantly advocated for an expansion of George Lamming’s definition of Black to include Black people of Oceania “who wished to be recognized as part of the struggle,” despite not knowing of “African origins in their past.” Kamarakafego’s encouragement and Sykes’ research and writing on the subject ultimately gave airtime to Aboriginal anti-colonial struggles at 6PAC, which re-engineered and deepened linkages between the struggles for decolonization in Oceania and those on the African Continent. 

Having been thrusted into “the belligerent world of black solidarity,” Indigenous Pacific activists’ participation in CAP and later 6PAC firmly asserted the connections between imperialism in Africa and the Pacific. For example, Swan tells us that the Vanuatu delegation of the National New Hebrides Party members pressed resolutions against imperial nuclear testing and the colonial exploitation of 4.5 million people in the Pacific, likening the struggle to those in Southern Africa. Idea and strategy exchange, skills-building, and networking also enabled Indigenous activists to “shape their narrative of Black Power as a positive recognition and affirmation of Aboriginality.” 

These encounters, though fraught and sometimes disappointing, elevated global Black consciousness, retooled Blackness through consensus, and laid the groundwork for future transnational solidarities based on anti-imperialism. Following the CAP meeting, the Australian Black Power Movement applied its lessons to the anti-Tour movement and funneled those resistive energies into a domestic anti-racist campaign for self-determination after the anti-Tour victory was won. In 1972, Foley, Sykes and other prominent Black Australian activists constructed the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Australian government, the monument stood as a condemnation of the unrelenting and historic violence stemming from settler occupation, land dispossession, and state programs designed to “civilize,” quarantine, and discipline Indigenous people.  

Certainly, anti-colonial solidarity was not without its disappointments, as Williams and Dr. Joe Piccini have also demonstrated. After the state’s destruction of the Tent Embassy, the anti-racist movement that spun from the anti-Tour protests fizzled and made few inroads on the issue of land rights. Activists ultimately could not garner the same amount of white support that anti-apartheid action amassed the year before. Sykes pinpointed the irony; “We live in deprivation in this land of milk and honey. Reserves and the Permit-system, still flourish in some corners of our country. The Government calls for justice in South Africa. There is nobody whose voice they can hear who calls for justice in Australia.” 

As Swan writes, “the road to global black solidarity was not always smoothly paved with asphalt and flanked by sidewalks of black gold.” Yet Kamarakafego’s narrative demonstrates the transtemporal and transnational boomerang lives of Black Power solidarity. It asks us to consider the capacious horizons of global Black Power when organized around both specific and generalized causes that seek to abolish the local, national, and international manifestations of imperialist oppression. 

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Amanda Joyce Hall

Amanda Joyce Hall is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Departments of History and African American Studies at Yale University. Her dissertation is an international history of the grassroots movement against South African apartheid during the 1970s and 1980s. She samples the anti-apartheid movements led by students, workers, musicians, exiles, community organizers as they shut down Springbok rugby tours in Aotearoa/New Zealand, developed soundtracks of resistance from the Caribbean, demanded divestment from multi-national corporations in the U.S., and celebrated the repatriation of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa as a triumphant symbol of their enduring efforts to dismantle color lines that were drawn both locally and internationally. Her work examines the complexities of coalition-building, solidarity work, and the multivalent forms of anti-apartheid resistance as extensions of antiracist, socialist, land rights, and women’s liberation struggles. She tweets from @amandajoycehall.