To Be African: Ode to Contrived Misery

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The term African is becoming a burden, a pejorative used to describe certain miserable conditions of the physical and psychological. Case in point: Claudine Gay, writing in the Root seems to object to her son being called African in her essay, My Son’s Called African and I’m Upset; Why? She is black. She is not the only one by the way; the great Tiger Woods once brushed aside that label by glibly referring to himself as Cablinasian, whatever that means. He openly admits that being called African-American bothers him. I doubt that he has ever visited a black-themed event. His father is black. Gay’s essay has understandably caused quite a stir in those watering holes inhabited by African intellectuals. The term “African” is under siege as people are now realizing that it is becoming proxy for everything Africans are not and should not be. By the way, it seems these days that the (in)action of just one individual is enough to draw sweeping generalizations about an entire continent of millions of individually unique people.  Westerners visit remote parts of Africa and write breathless and patronizing essays about “Africa.” Henning Mankell has an essay in the New York Times, In Africa, the Art of Listening, which makes the baffling and maddening point that his observations about life on a park bench somewhere in Mozambique reflect life everywhere in Africa.

African intellectuals for various compelling reasons are now flung and scattered amongst the cafes of Europe and the Americas where they pontificate about the condition that is Africa and yell at the white man for every perceived slight on Africa and Africans. We have every reason to fume (yes, I am a card-carrying member of that tribe of whiners). To be African is to be associated with everything objectionable – war, disease, crime, corruption, neediness and that ever-nagging suspicion in the minds of even the most liberal Westerners that we are somehow sub-human. It is a perplexing and infuriating situation that has kept African intellectuals on the defensive. In America for example, immigration is a huge and vexing issue; an issue that was considered ho-hum until the color of immigration became brown. Native Americans remember painfully that the new America is indeed a land of immigrants. Today, immigrants of color are being chased from pillar to post for doing exactly what the “founders” of America did eons ago. In the classrooms there is the persistent debate about closing the achievement gap in academic achievement among races and ethnicities.  When leaders are talking about the gap, guess who they are glaring at? Children of the poor, children of the black and brown.  In their eyes, African Americans and Africans are parked squarely in the wrong end of the Bell Curve.

Africans have every reason to be upset. However, it is helpful to focus on why things are the way they are. In Nigeria for example, the intellectual, religious and political elite have colluded to make a mockery of any and every thing that a people stand for. This they have done using pretend-processes and pretend-structures for self-serving ends. In Nigeria, the new Christianity is the new alcoholism ravaging the already dispossessed daily. Watch this video and reflect upon the caricature nation that Nigeria is fast becoming. Watch this disturbing video of abuse of young congregants in a church. Thieving pastors have rushed whoosh into a yawning vacuum that was created by generations of failed leaders. These new thieves are now raking in millions from their own self-serving failure to lead. We are muttering to ourselves and our people are chanting themselves to lunacy and irrelevance. Thanks to succeeding regimes of irresponsible ASUU stalwarts and government kleptocrats many of our universities would be shut down today in the West if they were poultry farms. The looting goes on unabated and the funds are used to create safe havens for the elite and their overfed families at home and abroad. Any Westerner coming to visit Nigeria today would be forgiven for taking one look and wanting to just pee on the whole damn place.  In America, racial and ethnic demographic data are gleefully used by leaders to justify funding for the classroom. Do not get me wrong; the bulk of these funds have been incredibly crucial in making huge positive changes in the lives of all children in the classroom. However, it has come at a cost. Thanks to this deficit-model approach of viewing our humanity, children of African descent are looked upon as issues-laden, disrespected by those in authority. The child of color grows up to believe that that a police officer is not a friend. The feeling is mutual. But then, I know many Africans in the West who boast with pride that they live in white neighborhoods. The self-loathing is real and it comes at a cost. In these neighborhoods Africans are routinely ignored, humored and patronized by the majority-white neighbors. Any wonder children grow up resenting the label, African?

Yes, we must also reflect on our role in the creation of this pejorative. Many of our African experts in history, world renowned scholars have devoted their muscular talents to penning exotic hagiographies about a mythical place called Africa. Any attempt to offer a different perspective is met with ridicule and opprobrium. I am a huge fan of African literature; these are exciting times to be a reader, thanks to the hard work of many talented writers of African extraction and I will go to my grave clutching an African novel, yes. However, this genre of literature called “African literature” is in danger of being stereotyped as ghetto lit, mostly devoted to celebrating exclusively exotica – war, disease, crime, etc. There is no balance to these stories, instead to the extent that they present only the single story (apologies, Chimamanda Adichie) they distort the history of our challenged continent. This is especially an important point since it is not clear to me that African historians are actively doing the hard work and research of documenting and sharing with the world the sum total of Africa’s history.

“African writers” are routinely herded into Western retreats and conferences by condescending, patronizing liberals where they regale the world with tales of woe, gloom and doom.  Their books and short stories are mostly their opinions about Africa, nothing more. Increasingly and alarmingly, these book readings, speeches, and so on are based on erroneous information – and outright fabrications for profit as we now know with the celebrated writer Chris Abani.  With their powerful words (these are ordinarily good writers) they have written literally into concrete eternity, a hugely distorted and negative history of Africa.  Using Abani as a case study I have previously tried to explain how contemporary African literature may be distorting African history. The writer Kennedy Emetulu has a long piece here meticulously detailing Abani’s dark history of lying for profit and more importantly distorting history in the process. Here is a profound passage in the essay:

“To understand the effect of Abani’s lies and how much damage he has done to our national history and to our psyche as a people, while making blood money from it and acquiring fame for himself, let’s just consider one of his poems from his Kalakuta RepublicOde to Joy. We are choosing this poem, because it is one of his works that he swears to be an eyewitness account of the suffering and experience he went through in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. It is the poem that canonized him in the literary hall of fame in the West and had laureates like Harold Pinter gushing about its stark frankness and so on. Indeed, it is the singular most popular of his poems. Personally, reading the poem does nothing for me; but until one understands the devious cultural mind-reading underneath it and the purpose Abani used it to serve and the purpose it serves its promoters in the West, one may think it’s just an innocent poem by a young African writer.”

“Today, that poem is emblazoned in the city centre of Leiden, the sixth largest city in Netherlands where it is being ‘celebrated’. Leiden is an old historical city located on the Old Rhine, twenty kilometres from The Hague and 40 kilometres from Amsterdam. It has one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, the Leiden University, established in 1575. Its importance as a learning and cultural centre in Europe is further emphasized by the fact that the city is twinned with Oxford, the location of the oldest university in England.”

Read Leiden’s Wall of Shame here and see how every day writers like Abani collaborate with the West in canonizing the term “African” in the concrete walls and minds of the West. You can be sure of one thing; that wall will never come down. A big fat lie has now come to represent Africa thanks to the ghetto literature espoused by Abani et al (there are many like him by the way). Before we start throwing stones at the likes of Claudine Gay, we should first look into ourselves to see and confront that which ails us. We may be our own worst enemy. As intellectuals and self-appointed priests of probity and justice, we must police ourselves; otherwise we lack the moral authority to yell at a policeman for furtively collecting crumbs as bribes.