We Are the World, We Are the People: Understanding Ourselves as Global Citizens

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 21–22, 2014

University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

There are now 40% more international students studying at U.S. colleges than there were a decade ago (Institute 2013). At Johnson C. Smith University, roughly 4.4% of undergraduates identify as internationals, representing a little over 60 students of the on-campus population (Peterson’s 2014). This increase in student diversity has charged professors, particularly those within the social sciences, with the welcome task of incorporating topics such as world history into specific, regionalized history. Learning cross-national history and the movements within those narratives enables students to understand themselves as global citizens who are more the same than not. Further, a global approach to the classroom plants the seeds of economic, political, and social accountability within students to people across continents.

Historically, most notable movements did not gain momentum until they internationally linked with others who faced similar plights. The diversifying of the classroom allows for the continued teaching of the legacies of these conjoined movements. It is this kind of learning that is necessary to continue the fight for a reality of justice and equality for all people. Some of the best examples of collaborative movements range from the 18th century to the present. This paper will illustrate examples of collaborative, international crusades in the arenas of slavery, segregation, civil rights, politics, and music. These examples will illustrate how the spirit of past movements can inform our futures as people across the world seek to fight against injustice.

In 1791, the enslaved populations of Haiti were able to overthrow their French colonial masters with the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. Although Haiti would be the only colonized nation in the Atlantic World to gain its independence in this manner, this nation and the oppressed people within it were very instrumental in inspiring other revolts throughout the region. One of the best examples of this happened just a few years later in 1800, when Virginian slave Gabriel Prosser conceived one of the most powerfully planned rebellions in North America. Prosser had coordinated a revolt that would target proslavery whites. Before his rebellion was able to materialize, however, it was thwarted. Out of fear, two slaves unveiled Prosser’s plan and he was consequently hanged.

The momentum of attempting to overthrow the institution of slavery through rebellion did not die with Prosser, however. In 1831, Nat Turner led what many historians have deemed as being the most successful slave revolt on North American soil. Nat Turner, who was born one week after Gabriel Prosser in Southampton County, Virginia, was considered among his community as being sent from heaven with a specific purpose. He was often overheard speaking of events and rebellions that had occurred before his birth, and, as a result, was believed to be the one that would help to bring freedom to his people.

The predictions were true. He was ultimately responsible for a revolt that led to the death of at least 22 white men, women, and children. Nat Turner was eventually caught and, like Prosser, hanged. These two may have not been successful in terms of overthrowing slavery on American soil in the way their counterpart, Touissant Louverture, was able to in Haiti. However, their aggressive actions were indeed successful in forcing the conversation among whites concerning emancipation. The additional importance of their movements was that these rebellions both, domestically and internationally, created a momentum for the next movements, which worked to accelerate the reality of freedom for the enslaved. Without these collaborative movements, slavery would have probably still eventually ended. However, without this resistance, perhaps, slavery would have lasted longer throughout the Atlantic World (Hine 2000).

The concept of collaborative movements across international borders was not limited to the times of slavery, but was still very much in vogue for the purposes of obtaining progression during the mid to late twentieth century. The Civil Rights Movement, which roughly occurred between 1945 and 1968, was one of the best examples of this. The Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal moment in United States history when citizens challenged the legal system by fighting against injustices and inequality. Its connection to other freedom struggles was instrumental in helping to secure equality for all people both near and far. In 1957, Ghana, West Africa, was ushered into independence by its first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the civil rights era’s most recognizable figures, saw it fit and necessary to be present in Accra, the capital of Ghana, during its official ceremony solidifying its freedom. King made strong parallels between the oppression Africans faced as a result of colonization and the suffering of African Americans at the hands of racist whites. King stated, “This event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world” (1957). The freedom of Ghana went on to influence the Civil Rights Movement, which would lead to the desegregation of schools and the enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments.

The black freedom struggle on American soil then paid it forward by inspiring the people of South Africa as blacks there suffered through a brutal apartheid. Starting in 1948 and ending in 1994, apartheid was a rigid policy of segregation of the nonwhite population. Apartheid mirrored a segregated American South with its separation of housing, schools, and jobs, and its political disfranchisement. The antiapartheid movement became a major priority for African American activists. In 1986, the Black Congressional Caucus, for example, persuaded its colleagues to enact a U.S. trade embargo against South Africa. Lawyer Randall Robinson founded TransAfrica to lobby for black political prisoners, particularly Nelson Mandela. With international pressures such as these, along with the already present and active participation of black South Africans, South Africa had no choice but to bend to the pressure. In 1990, South African president F.W. de Klerk removed the ban on the African National Congress, the key oppositional party to the proponents of segregation. Days later the twenty-eight year prison term of political prisoner Nelson Mandela was lifted and the dismantling of apartheid legally began (Hine 2000).

Even more fascinating are people and movements that influenced each other even during different centuries. One of the best examples of this are the lives of the 18th-century, Peruvian leader Túpac Amaru II, and the 20th-century American songwriter, actor, and rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur. During the time of Túpac Amaru II’s life, the Peruvians were trying to defend their land and culture against the colonization of the Spanish. Amaru, only 39 years old at the time of his death in 1781, was revered by his natives as being a brave leader who fiercely fought for the freedom of his people against the oppressive Spanish. In a fierce battle, Túpac was eventually captured by the Spanish and beheaded. Years after his death, his life became a symbol of pride for his people and an inspiration to others across continental boundaries (Walker 2014, 13-17).

United States activist and Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur was inspired by the Peruvian leader’s story and struggle. So when she gave birth to a son in 1971, he was named Tupac Amaru Shakur. Interestingly, Tupac Shakur’s life followed a similar path as his namesake. A very successful artist, his fans often associated him with being the conscious voice who, through his music, represented the disadvantaged populations. Shakur was extremely and unapologetically vocal about the ills of society and often spoke out against the oppressive nature of the American government. Like Túpac Amaru of Peru, Tupac Shakur’s life was cut short. Shakur succumbed to gunshot wounds at the age of 25. There have been speculations of government involvement in his death carried out as a result of Shakur’s blunt criticism of politics in North America. These speculations, however, have gone largely unproven and his murder continues to be unsolved. Nonetheless, his influential message continues to be felt across the entire world primarily through his music. To date, Tupac Shakur has sold 75 million records worldwide making him one of the best selling artists of all time (Dyson 2006, 47-49, 107-117). He is still revered in hip-hop music and in political arenas that are of a grassroots nature. Tupac Shakur’s relatively recent death, which occurred in 1996, also is symbolic of how people of “the now” can still be inspired by the past to move the present forward.

Each of the examples offered demonstrates how what happens internationally impacts others directly. From these movements that span across time, there is much to be learned by students. One of the primary lessons is that one’s struggle is oftentimes the same as that of others and that there is power in joining forces across international borders. Each of these occurrences is a reminder that the power of change is in the hands of more than just leaders. Change can be brought about by all people and not just a select few. Lastly, the most important lesson in this is that there is still work to be done and there is still room for connections to be made for the purposes of change. Therefore, the internationalizing of the classroom is a move in the right direction that will ultimately aid the process of ending world injustice and inequality.


Dyson, Michael Eric. 2006. Holler If You Hear Me. Basic Civitas Books.

Hine, William, Darlene Clark Hine, and Stanley Harrold. 2000. African American Odyssey. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Institute of International Education. 2013. “Open Doors 2013: International Students in the United States and Study Abroad by American Students Are at All-Time High.” November 11. www.iie.org/Who-We-Are/News-and-Events/Press-Center/Press-releases/2013/2013-11-11-Open-Doors-Data.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1957. “The Birth of a New Nation.” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 7 April. In Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project 4:155-167.

Peterson’s. “Johnson C. Smith University.” www.petersons.com/college-

Walker, Charles. The Tupac Amaru Rebellion. New York: Belknap Press.

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Spring 2015: The Global Imperative for Higher Education