Siyah: Turkey’s Black Social and Cultural Historiography
This is the first essay as part of a new series entitled ‘Siyah’, which explores the relationship between the African Diaspora and Turkish social and cultural narratives, with journalist Adama Juldeh Munu.
Black history is expansive, abundant and varied across time and space. Yet the term ‘African Diaspora’ may evoke our attention to those regions and peoples that have most informed our understanding of it. African-American history, for instance, is a heavyweight in this regard. And while much of that history is atomized to project certain figures, the centrality in diaspora discourses it is prized with cannot be understated when one looks into how and why the study of the African diaspora has gained prominence in recent decades. Part of this was due to the emergence of Africana or Black studies in the United States – a multidisciplinary field that focuses on the historical, cultural and political discourses of people of African descent. Professor Karanja Keita Carroll, who is adjunct Associate Professor of Black & Latino Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York, explains how the rise of Africana studies was based on three factors:
“First, the Civil Rights Movement was transitioning into the Black Power Movement, and student organizers who were active members in the CRM were returning to college campuses. These students were crucial in the push and demand for Black studies departments at predominantly white colleges and universities. Second, Black faculty and staff understood their role and they supported student demands for Black studies. But these varied responses determined radical tactics such as book-ins at libraries, sit-ins at administrative offices or campus-wide walk outs. Courses on African civilizations, African religion and philosophy, Africanisms in the Americas, Africa prior to the Berlin conference, [and] independence movements in Africa, helped African-American students understand their historical, social and cultural connections to Africa.”
Though there are far greater efforts today to change this, detailed knowledge around wider Afro-European history is just as under-served. And it is not without cause. The conceptualization of blackness in pre-20th century European societies is vague, and could arguably mirror some of the ongoing debates we have today on what it does and does not entail. Is it merely a description of one’s skin colour or of one’s ancestry? Some historians argue that even when inter-racial relationships occurred, ‘mixed race’ did not always constitute blackness, and even where it did, class was sometimes given greater prominence, which is why the Russian Poet Alexander Pushkin took great pride in African ancestry but was reported to have been offended if his nobility was ‘not respected’. This of course changes drastically with the onset and rise of 19th pseudo-scientific theories used to determine racial hierarchies, as part of a colonial and imperial pretext. Despite the debate on what constitutes blackness, Africans have left an indelible imprint on European societies. Their presence can be traced to Roman times; Tudor England; Spain’s Islamic Moorish civilisation; the Francophone ‘Negritude’ movement; the Windrush Generation in the United Kingdom and beyond. In fact, a scientific analysis conducted by University College London determined prehistoric Britons had black skin, and lighter skin traits are a recent phenomenon. Professor Olivette Otele explains in her new book African Europeans: An Untold Story: “Africans and African-Europeans are widely believed to be only a recent presence in Europe, a feature of our modern society.” So when we speak of the Ottoman Empire’s or modern Turkey’s relationship with Black people and their history, it is not at all surprising to find that it too tends to hold little significance in the public discourse on blackness and diaspora, despite the fact that the movement of African peoples to the Ottoman Empire was amongst the largest outside of the Americas. Some historians say the exact number is unknown.
‘Siyah’ loosely means ‘black’ in Turkish and is the title of this series exploring stories and narratives that connect African diaspora culture and social history with Turkey. My intention is to provide an introduction to its various aspects and themes, and to raise greater awareness around the subject matter. Not least because I am eager to draw upon a history which though it is not my own, I feel connected to. I feel connected by virtue of my blackness and my migration to a country I have called home for two years and counting.
The starting point for Turkey’s Black social historiography is often traced back to slavery in the Ottoman Empire, where up to 1.3 million enslaved Africans were transported mainly from East and Central Africa by 1870. It is estimated that at least a fifth of the population of Istanbul were enslaved Africans. Their lives and experiences were rarely documented and remain even more sparse than those we encounter via the Transatlantic slave experience in Europe and the Americas. Ismail Palatir’s 1987 seminal work, Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and its Demise 1800-1909, chronicles the distinctions between Ottoman and Euro-American slavery institutions as well as the status of enslaved Africans prior to the Tanzimat. ‘Tanzimat’ in Turkish loosely means ‘reorganization’ and refers to a series of edicts between 1839 and 1876, that served to protect against internal aggression and nationalist fervour by promoting social reform and modernization. These included the emancipation, integration and assimilation of the empire’s non-Muslim and non-Turkish citizens.
However, the bigger issue that some scholars allude to is the degree to which this part of Ottoman and Turkish history has been sidelined. Yusuf Hakan Erdem has described it as a “near-total collective amnesia” of slavery in the Ottoman Empire. And this goes beyond the lack of a paper trail. He argues that because there was no organised movement for abolition in the empire or tracts bringing home the realities of slaves, “today, the abolition of slavery, as one of the past human achievements, is not part of the curriculum in schools in modern Turkey. Nor is there a specific date of abolition which could be used as a dramatic starting-point for such a study.” Some Turkish historians have attempted to address Turkish-Black cultural identity by coalescing remnants of information they could garner from the descendants of enslaved peoples. Afro-Turk author and activist Mustafa Olpak’s seminal work, Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Human biographies, details some of these experiences, including his own family’s personal history. The work, which was published in 2005, simultaneously raised the profile of people of African descent in Turkey and the history of African slaves in the Ottoman Empire. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the reporting of the lives and histories of Afro-Turkish people. This includes the question of how – like their diaspora brethrens across the Atlantic – they have been able to retain their African traditions through the generations and what, if at all, African identity means to them. Media organisations such as Deutsche Welle and TRT World have produced extensive content on how younger generations of Afro-Turks are expressing more interest in their African heritage and are rearticulating how that fits within their overarching Turkish nationality and identity in the present day. An example of this is the Calf Festival. Africans of the late Ottoman period celebrated this three day festival, the most important element of which are processions through the streets of Izmir and singing in African languages. The processions are led by a female priest and the collection of donations where different neighbourhoods would buy calves and compete. The festival helps to reinforce their connection to the continent, as well as help them manage the hardships they experience at Izmir’s social margins.
As this series will indicate, blackness in the last century is mainly tied to Turkish nationalism and must also be understood within the context of the reformation of Turkishness from its Islamic imperial roots to Kemalism. This is exemplified through Afro-Turk artists such as Esmeray, who used song to convey the complex and nuanced nature of this relationship, a relationship that Black immigrants in other parts of Europe are familiar with. That is not to say that the connection between nationalism and blackness is unique in this respect. Many independence movements of African nations in the last 60 years or so were orchestrated on this precedent, in addition to pan-African ideologies. However, there are Afro-Turks for whom blackness is defined primarily through skin colour and not through the prism of shared historical experiences with other Black people in the Western hemisphere. This accounts for the lack of a pan-African tradition or black consciousness movement in Turkey and the former Ottoman Empire.
As with countries like the United States – which up until the mid to late 20th century had a generic singular narrative of blackness predicated on the experiences of Africans in America – Turkey’s Black demographic is changing with the influx of Black migrants from the diaspora, particularly in urban centres such as Istanbul, which in turn makes for interesting analyses on the experience of race and identity in a country that alleges it is far removed from Western racism. The upcoming series piece on acclaimed writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin will allude to this within the context of the fight for Black civil rights, and how this is juxtaposed against the experiences of Black migrants in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then there is an important overview to be made into how Turks relate to African identity, cultures, and experiences which is a direct outcome from recent Black migratory patterns, which the series will also examine.