Published On: Fri, Nov 22nd, 2013

The Afropolitan Must Go

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My first thought when reading Taiye Selasi´s 2005 essay ‘Bye-Bye Barbar’ (or ‘What is an Afropolitan?’) was that this is the kind of sludge that would piss off Binyavanga Wainaina.

One quick google and lo and behold: “For Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification – a phenomenon increasingly ‘product driven,’ design focused, and ‘potentially funded by the West.’”

My second thought when reading Taiye Selasi´s ‘What is an Afropolitan?’, gesturing wildly at my MacBook in my local coffee shop, is that this is the kind of sludge that pisses me off.

I am angry for different reasons to Wainaina (though if he wanted to hang out sometime I’m sure we could have fun being pissed off together); I am not so much concerned with the commodification inherent in Afropolitanism as I am with the danger of reproducing a reductive narrative, one which implicitly licenses others to reproduce the same narrative because it has been confirmed by an ‘Afropolitan’ herself.

First, in ‘What is an Afropolitan?’ Selasi somehow manages to other her own perceived identity, as well as everyone else with an African parent or two – other, that is, against an original (i.e. a Westerner). “The women show off enormous afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair, fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of ‘Sweet Mother’.”

Besides from adopting the tone of a National Geographic documentary, the text is clearly addressing a Westernised audience, explaining to them the strange ways and particulars of this tribe of ‘Afropolitans’.

Second, Selasi’s representation of Afropolitans in general (a group to which I too apparently belong and for which Selasi has taken it upon herself to speak) is weirdly prejudiced. “Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question – ‘where are you from? – …They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.”

But what about the non-affluent African diaspora? What about insanely hideous brown-skinned people? What about white African natives? What about Africans who despise jazz?

I cannot for the life of me see what would justify grouping these people together, other than that they all happen to have one or more parent who define themselves as coming from a country in Africa, and that is not enough. What does a lawyer born and raised in Belgium or London or Inner Mongolia have to do with Africa? He may have one African parent. He may be brown-skinned. He may be interested in his African heritage. But shouldn’t the extent of that interest and how much it means to his identity-formation be left solely up to that individual himself?

For fun, imagine applying what Selasi is doing with Afropolitans to a group from another continent – for instance, everyone with one or more parent from Europe. Half of America would be “Europolitans! Coming soon in a country-music joint/blue-collar job near you, a group whose beautiful skimmed-milk skin and subdimensional booties…”

Third, there’s the socio-economic dimension. The people Selasi describes belong to a narrow class; one that economist Guy Standing would perhaps call the “technical middle class”. What is most appalling is that Selasi excites this class to take up battle on behalf of the rest of Africa. “And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory,” (yes it does), “a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is, necessarily. It is high time the African stood up,” (Stood up to whom? For what? How?); “There is nothing perfect in this formulation; for all our Adjayes and Achidies, there is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays.”

This type of call to action takes me back a few decades (or is perhaps an indication that the discourse has not moved forward) to the first wave of African intellectuals as described by Simon Gikandi in his ‘African Literature and the Colonial Factor’. This wave of intellectuals distinguished itself by attempting resistance but using the colonial language, feeling strong affiliations to the colonisers’ structures and institutions. A call to arms of African intellectual diaspora, of a certain socio-economic class, educated in the West, and ready to charge off and save Africa is, in this light, unsettlingly familiar.

That is not to say a doctor or lawyer is not needed in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and that there is not much to do by way of development. Yet the way in which we phrase this call to action is important. It needs to be precise, concrete, thought-out, sustainable, collaborative. It needs to be divorced from any notion of racial determinism, of pre-determined belonging, of lofty, vague rhetoric. These things recreate the structures that are a big part of the problem in the first place.

It needs to be recognised that having brownish skin and a gap between the front-teeth does not necessarily mean a person possesses a deep understanding (or any understanding) of any particular African culture, complexity, needs, ways of thinking, ways of thinking about thinking, or notions of home etc.

Fronting a constructed group identity such as the ‘Afropolitan’ backs-up a reductive narrative of Africa and the African, which in turn continues to be an important part of neocolonial power structures. As an individual who happens to have one parent from the African continent I am offended by being put in a group and perceived to have certain interests and affiliations because of the nationality of one of my parents.

I do not have a drum beating inside me. The motherland is not calling me home. “We” are not a one-love tribe, yearning for the distant shores of Africa, or indigo or whatever the hell you imagine Africa as these days.

“We” are a random sample in a huge pool of disembedded, modernised, travelling global citizens who each carry with us a unique jumble of cultural inputs and influences from a range of places. In other words, we are like most people. And the most equity-promoting, barrier-breaking, racism-fighting thing we can do is see ourselves as just that – part of the noble and most ancient tribe…of Most People.

Think Africa Press

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The Afropolitan Must Go
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