As a child growing up in Africa, one of the first history lessons I learned was about leaders of anti-colonial struggles around the world. I read about Mahatma Gandhi, a tiny, bespectacled man in a homemade loincloth who brought down the British Empire in India without lifting a single weapon.
I read about liberation struggles against white minority rule by Sam Nujoma in Namibia, Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia and Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu in South Africa; about independence struggles by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, and Amilcar Cabral in Guinea Bissau.
I also learned early in elementary school that anti-colonialism was not just a people of color thing.
Our teachers taught us about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the other courageous men who helped the United States gain its independence from Great Britain.
I read about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s disagreements with his friend and ally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, near the end of World War II over the future of colonies. Churchill wanted to hold on to the far-flung British Empire. Roosevelt thought colonialism didn’t square with western ideals about freedom and democracy. Within a year, the United States would grant independence to the Philippines, a colony that had come into its possession in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war of 1898.
Roosevelt’s views about liberty, self-determination and the right of a nation to choose its own leaders struck a chord with us. They seemed progressive, enlightened, egalitarian and very American. They seemed like a sharp and refreshing contrast to the views of European colonial powers like Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal.
Colonialism, after all, is a bad thing. It is oppressive, parasitic, ethnically chauvinistic and, in the case of the European powers, white supremacist. Most Africans and people of color around the world who have felt the sting of colonialism still feel that way.
It was the one bond we shared with the Americans — or so we thought.
In recent years, the term anti-colonialist — a badge of honor won proudly by the founding fathers — has become a slur. In 2010, writer and conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza said about President Barack Obama:
“Some have described the president as being a conventional liberal or even a socialist. But liberals and socialists are typically focused on poverty and social equality; Obama rarely addresses these issues, and when he does so, it is without passion.
“Pretty much the only time Obama raises his voice is when he is expressing antagonism toward the big, bad corporations and toward those earning more than $250,000 a year. I believe the most compelling explanation of Obama’s actions is that he is, just like his father, an anti-colonialist.
“Anti-colonialism is the idea that the rich countries got rich by looting the poor countries, and that within the rich countries, plutocratic and corporate elites continue to exploit ordinary citizens.”
That same year, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — seeking to add to speculation among white conservatives that Obama was not born in the United States — added that Obama has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview.”
In an interview with the National Review, he said: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
Then just a few weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani — the pugnacious former mayor of New York City and one-time presidential candidate — told an audience that Obama doesn’t love America. Days later, in an interview with reporters, he denied that his criticism of Obama had anything to do with race.
“This isn’t racism,” he said. “This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.”
For much of the last century, the powers that be in the United States and the former colonial empires had a track record of branding activists, freedom fighters or people of color who didn’t fit into their mold as communists, terrorists or radicals. Radical was often code for anti-colonialist or troublemaker.
Now fast forward to a supposedly kinder, gentler 21st century. Different names, same meaning.
The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo.