Africana Legal Studies: A New and Theoretical Approach to Law & Protocol
INTRODUCTION: In 1743, a group of enslaved Africans from various estates in French colonial New Orleans gathered, held a musical ceremony sung in their native language, and discussed the actions and fate of a slaveholder named Corbin. Earlier, Corbin had threatened to shoot one of the enslaved Africans in this group, and Corbin’s brother then actually shot that person with a gun loaded with salt. Now, as the group of Africans gathered, they determined that Corbin had to die. Two months later, Corbin disappeared and was never found.
If we use a traditional (Western) legal framework to describe this situation, we might say that this group of slaves met, conspired, plotted to murder, and likely did murder Corbin. But if we center the perspective of these enslaved Africans and contemplate that they had their own home cultures with their own systems of justice, brought with them from Africa,we might rephrase: These Africans convened and judged Corbin’s conduct, sentenced him to death, and likely executed him.
What’s the truth? Did the enslaved Africans who met that day conduct a trial and execute Corbin? Was this vigilantism and revenge? Was it a way of addressing wrongdoing? Were these Africans morally justified in taking Corbin’s life? Did they conspire to commit murder?
The answers depend on your orientation. The way we frame and describe what these Africans did depends on our approach to history and whose perspectives we center. Whether we choose “kill” or “execute” says something about our thinking, specifically our thinking on the thinking of enslaved Africans. Which type of thinking should define justice, particularly in situations where oppression plays a key role—such as circumstances when enslavement exists, or where other conditions of oppression persist? How do we define justice in this U.S. situation, where a
Western society includes non-Westerners and non-Western descendants who have inherited cultural survivals from their ancestors, have carried pieces of other, non-Western world-senses7 with them, and have developed concerns and questions informed by those non-Western worldsenses? Does Western law and Western thinking about law adequately address their concerns and questions?
If public opinion is any indication, the answer is “no.” There has been, and remains, deep dissatisfaction and detachment felt by many in the Black community with respect to the U.S. legal system. Some feel that the U.S. legal system—like other classically “American” institutions—does not provide justice or even define it appropriately. This may explain why, in the debriefing conversations after decisions in cases about police and vigilante violence against Black people, many descendants of Africa—myself included—find ourselves, all too often, shaking our heads and saying, “This system is not for us.”
In this Article, I describe and demonstrate this approach to studying the story of Law and African people. The approach is informed by principles drawn from a specific intellectual tradition, Africana Studies.14 By extending Africana Studies methodology to legal study, this Article envisions a new type of interdisciplinary legal work: Africana Legal Studies. This work centers the humanity and self-defined thoughts and actions of African people while studying the story of Law, offering a new lens to legal scholarship.
This Article proceeds in three parts. Part I describes the core tenets of disciplinary Africana Studies methodology and outlines how to extend them to legal study for an Africana-informed examination of Law and African governance (what I call, in this context, “Protocol”). Part II applies the Africana Legal Studies approach through exploration of one notable example of Protocol and the perspective it offers on U.S. Law: the Prtocol of the Bamana people of West Africa, who were enslaved in colonial Louisiana. Part III then highlights the insights that are provided to us by the Bamana perspective, applicable to both our view of the past and our imagining of the future