Citations: Black in North Africa

Black in North Africa

Like the color it purports to name, the social label black absorbs, integrates, and obscures distinct but interrelated phenomena: a skin tone of context-dependent shade, a racial classification from bygone times, an ethnic designation, a class marker, an immigration status, an ancestry, a cultural heritage, and an index of historical wrongs still fresh in memory. Black has often served as shorthand for of African descent, but perhaps nowhere most complicates that substitution than a region on the continent itself: North Africa.

Many outside North Africa see the region as an extension of the Middle East: Arab and Muslim, filtered from the history and politics of the rest of the continent by a vast and inhospitable desert. But the region’s strategic geographic location has long made it a site of cultural migration, coexistence, and mixture under conditions both forced and friendly. The trans-Saharan slave trade moved millions of black Africans throughout the Arab World for more than a millennium, with women sold into domestic and sexual servitude and men into military service, hard labor, and royal eunuchry. Legal in certain countries until the latter part of the 20th century, slavery made skin color as much a marker of class as race, with many anti-black Arabic slurs associating blackness with subjection and servitude still in use. But unlike in the Americas, slavery only partly accounts for the appearance of black communities in North Africa. In addition to indigenous darker-skinned populations like Nubians in Egypt, Afro-Arab populations in Northwest and Northeast Africa have testified to centuries of cultural and economic mixture accelerated by colonialism and globalization.

From the cosmopolitan coastal metropolises of Morocco and Tunisia to the sparse Sahelian borderlands of Mauritania and Sudan, North Africa has had a complex relationship to blackness, pan-Africanism, and the continent with which they are associated. Nationalist regimes in the 20th century privileged Arab culture to the exclusion of ethnic minorities, and the recent rise in political Islamism has often ignored—and at times scapegoated—the region’s many black Muslims. Official demography often excludes racial and ethnic identification (and therefore data on identity-based inequality), making the case for cultural recognition and legal protections difficult. But on the ground, the Arab Spring emboldened civil rights activism in places like Tunisia and Egypt while the Mediterranean migration crisis has renewed international attention, however briefly, to the conditions driving mass displacement across the continent.

In isolation, stories of inequality and insecurity are too often dismissed as exaggerated and exceptional or, perhaps worse, forgotten. But each contributes to a library that, taken as a whole, reveals a climate that conditions the lives of those who live within it by choice, need, or force. The first in Outlas’s Citations series, this digital catalog is an evolving collection of recent commentary, features, and analysis of the contemporary and historical conditions affecting life in North African countries for Afro-Arabs, non-Arab black North Africans, sub-Saharan immigrants, and traveling black diasporans.

Trans-Saharan Slave Trade


Black Cultural Politics in North Africa


Although Algeria has been home to fewer black communities than its North African neighbors, estimates put the number of black Algerians and sub-Saharan immigrants at more than a million in a country that has occupied a prominent place in the history of European-African relations. With the black population accounting for as much as 75% of Algeria’s large Saharan south, black Algerian communities have had to contend with resource disparities, regional chauvinism, increasing drought frequency, and poor economic prospects.


Anti-black racism in Egypt has drawn increasing domestic and international attention in the wake of protests and political instability emerging from the 2011 Arab Spring. Indigenous Nubian communities have protested government policies that have expropriated them of historical lands and fought for greater political and cultural representation in the country. Egypt has also hosted large numbers of refugees as the political instabilities of East Africa have driven mass flight from Eritrea, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, and its southern neighbor Sudan, with “Sudanese” or “Sudani” having become a pejorative part-for-whole substitution for black people.


Black Libyans and immigrants have struggled in the post-Qaddafi era, having been caught in anti-Qaddafi sentiment and targeted by rebel forces as Qaddafi sympathists and mercenaries. After anti-immigrant pogroms in 2000 drove significant numbers of sub-Saharan immigrants from Libya, the post-Arab Spring persecution has been another blow to an already precarious community, with many from communities like Tawergha displaced from their homes into poorly resourced camps. Libya has also become ground zero for many sub-Saharan refugees seeking asylum in Europe. The ongoing trans-Mediterranean migration crisis has been facilitated by human traffickers who have taken advantage of Libya’s political instability to make money off of migrants, leading to the deaths of thousands and the indefinite detentions of many more.


Mere kilometers from the coast of Spain, Morocco has long been situated at the crossroads of European and African migration. The country has become a destination for wealthy students from south of the Sahara, but their economic privilege relative to immigrants of less means has not translated into insulation from street taunts, media targeting, and housing discrimination. As in many places throughout the Arab World (and the world at large), black people in Morocco struggle from official denials of the presence of anti-black racism in the country.


Tunisia occupies an important position in the history of black-African migration. Tunis was a central port in the trans-Saharan slave trade, but the country was also one of the first to legally abolish slavery when a decree declared the practice illegal in 1846 (though the practice carried on for another half-century). Today, an estimated 10-15% of Tunisia’s population is black, including both families who have been in Tunisia for generations as well as recent migrants from West African countries. In Tunisia’s south, black communities face ongoing discrimination, economic exclusion, and segregation in the poorest part of the country.

To follow the conversation, bookmark this page and check back for updates. Stay tuned for Outlas’s second Citations, which continues the overview of black history and communities in the Arab World across the Red Sea in the Middle East.