Going Human

The train station at Lviv is packed, Ukrainians are fleeing war. The entry point at Medyka into Poland is bursting at the seams with those seeking refuge. A hotel in Kharkiv is overflowing with families looking for warmth as bitter cold sinks its teeth into the flesh of those bombed out.

In all these situations, there are black people– students, professionals, families living in Ukraine. Most of them are from Africa.. not five or ten or twenty.. no, thousands. Certainly the minority in numbers, but most definitely as human as all those around them. It’s the world we have always lived in; a world where humans traverse, venture, flee and settle in far-away lands.

Go centuries way back and you will find Africans in Europe just being human, from nobility to soldier, long before slavery became the only place you start your African history with. Now, I want you to fast-forward and see them in these crowds too, people with rich melanin just being human, experiencing the same emotional turmoil as others around them caught up in a European war they did not choose.

But now they are being beaten back, stopped from boarding the trains, booking hotels and crossing borders. Because they are… Black. This is not propaganda. It is fact. It is heart-wrenching for someone like me who would have been in the same boat with them had I been a teacher, artist or scholar in Ukraine.

It is also not surprising because we know the place and worth of the “black” identity in a “white” world. How ridiculous that these imagined constructs rule us with such cruel power.

These identities are irrational belongings that are completely meaningless in and of themselves, even when they give us such a deep sense of pride. At a time of crisis like this, the human identity should be the default; it is politically expedient, and you don’t have to like each other either.

But choosing to see and side with the human in others doesn’t come easy. That’s because conquest and capitalism – the two political factors that have shaped 21st century identities – trained people to cling to places of imagined superiority against the imagined inferiority of others.

Going human would mean seeing someone as having the same human worth as you and allowing them on the same trains, hotels and across the borders. It also means giving priority based on humane choices in case of limited seats and opportunities, not on commodified identities stacked up on the totem pole of a caste system.

And what if you really did go human? Hmm? What if you did?

What if that black woman you refused to let into Poland on account of her skin color was the doctor you would have needed to save ten Ukrainian lives; the stranger that would have cuddled a sick child and allowed the warmth of their black skin to keep them alive; the storyteller who would have told a weary group of European strangers tall tales along the frozen trail of refuge and allowed them to forget the mental torture of sudden war… What if we just chose to go human?

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