The African-American Divide Over Sudan

The upcoming referendum on Southern independence from Sudan has divided black Americans interested in affairs on the African continent, pitting African-American Muslims against black Christians. Call it Louis Farrakhan vs. the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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Like Farrakhan, Abdul-Ali and others in the Arab and Muslim worlds blame Sudan's predicament on the West, specifically the United States. They argue that Washington has reneged on promises to support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, end severe economic sanctions on Khartoum and remove Sudan from the list of nations supporting international terrorism.

"People on the outside don't understand that the U.S. makes promises," says Ali. "They are encouraging the Southern Sudan to separate because of the oil. But mark my words: Five years from now, the Southern Sudanese will look up and be in worse shape than they are now."

That may be true, but it largely obscures the roots of the second civil war. The Addis Ababa Agreement ended the first civil war in 1972, granting a large degree of autonomy to the South, including freedom of religion. Ten years later, then-Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri abrogated the pact, split the South into three provinces and established Shariah, or Islamic law, over the whole country. Armed resistance in the South began soon after.

Dr. James Sulton, an African American, is a former president of the Sudan Studies Association. He says that before the start of the second civil war, many African Americans labored under a "cultural myopia" that made them reluctant to criticize African governments because they were African governments.

"The Sudan turned the tide back then," adds Sulton, "because Jaafar Numeiri proved to be more hostile to the Southern Sudanese than any other colonial government could ever be. Numeiri's successors, including Sadiq al-Mahdi, continued Khartoum's war on the South."

A Complex Mix of Race and Religion

Over the years, African-American support for Southern Sudan, if not for outright independence, has gradually increased. Sharpton and Madison, leaders in the Khartoum opposition, have also visited Sudan, leading missions and staging protest marches outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, highlighting the ongoing problem of slavery of dark-skinned Southern Sudanese -- most of whom are non-Muslims.

Yet Sudan's tortured internal racial politics are often confusing. What defines one as a "Sudanese Arab" -- a member of the group in power -- and a so-called black African (a member of the oppressed group) is often elastic, since skin color alone is not the sole determinant of "race" or "culture." It is common for so-called Sudanese Arabs to have dark skin, as it is for non-Arab Southern Sudanese to be Muslims. Moreover, Arabic is the lingua franca throughout the North and much of the South.

Given Sudanese politics, where continuous duplicity is the rule -- producing a dizzying history of co-optation, alliances and counter-alliances between, and often among, Southerners and Northerners -- it is often difficult to tell who is on which side, from one moment to the next. But it is the power and primacy of Arab identity that has ruled Sudan, ever since the first Arabs crossed into Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and migrated south along the Nile a thousand years ago.

The current divide over Sudan brings back memories of another contentious foreign policy question among African Americans. In 1975, as Angola was emerging from Portuguese colonial rule, three nationalist movements vied for power. All three appealed to African Americans for moral, political and financial support, prompting them to choose sides.