Who Speaks for Black Africa?

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The era of brutal African dictatorships found many writers of conscience physically and emotionally brutalized. Indeed several works by the writers of that era came later as they began to explore what happened to them and post-colonial Africa. This examination has been an occupation for our writers and this is understandable in many instances. We should talk about this: Why are so many of our writers consuming several lifetimes examining obsessively what they decree is the African condition?

Do not get me wrong, we should all be grateful for the industry of these thinkers, many of whom endured heartbreaking abuse in the hands of military goons simply for owning powerful words. Their insights have been useful in understanding Black Africa, and in sharing with the world state sanctioned black on black crime in Africa. We will forever be in the debt of these fine warriors and wordsmiths. However, we should also rage against literary mulch, useful only as fodder for racist musings. I have never really advocated for positive stories out of Africa; I am simply concerned that if we are the sum of our experience, then contemporary African literature greatly distorts the rich history of the lived life of Africans.

There is now a blossoming industry of African writing that feeds on victimhood and the alleged otherness of Africans. The writers go to great lengths to market their works as truly unique. The problem is that every writer feels the same way and now each work seems to read, look and feel the same. We had Onitsha Market Literature, now we have African Literature. The title African Literature is threatening to be a parody of African culture. Most of these novels are poorly disguised personal and ideological opinions directed at the West, whose people it seems delight in self-flagellation – because they buy these books. The distortion of our history is on the march.

The worst offenders of this new dysfunction that I call African Literature are writers that live in the West. Many of them are like me, they have lived here for decades, cocooned and mummified in a culture of contrived despair. Africa lives rent-free in their heads and they could not tell you the names of their neighbors, they do not see parks, they simply mope around Babylon writing about their Africa. Writers who have lived in Western societies for decades, they clam up like drunken mummies, only to take a break from whining about their lot to write desiccated stories about the Africa of their past. And here is the hilarious irony: When a white person dares do the same thing, they raise holy hell.

This is interesting, because easily the best books on Africa that I have read recently were written by white authors. I remain indebted to them for actually doing the work, traveling to Africa, doing the research, interviewing actual people and then writing a book. Contrast that with the preferred methods of many of my compatriots, which is to simply staple together reams of personal opinions and call the result a novel. So my point is that African writers should stop yelling at white folks for writing about Africa. Let whoever wants write whatever the hell they want. We the consumers will vote with our money. In any case, most African writers have little credibility as far as this matter is concerned. They are mostly just as bad. I personally love Paul Theroux’s writing, I think he is a better writer on Africa (whatever the hell that means) than many African writers I have read. And yes, his prejudiced slips show just as magnificently as those of his African-writer brethren, so there. Who cares? I have enjoyed his perspectives on Africa.

Many times Africa’s unnecessary drama exaggerates and inflames Western prejudices. The other day, a Western liberal railed about the racism of a Western newspaper reporting about goats kept in a police cell in a God forsaken African country. I felt that he was pandering to the choir as they all always do. I asked him, “In your village, do you lock up goats in your police cells? So, don’t you think it is racism to accept less from your siblings?”

In many instances, my brothers and sisters are worse than Westerners in terms of the evil that they are rightfully upset about that. Let us turn our gaze inwards and examine ourselves. And yes, let us turn our gaze outwards and examine the savagery of the other. When you look hard, it is even more spectacular than Africa’s. Did America not just spend $35 billion on weapons that she promptly abandoned? This in the midst of the poverty of her people, and yes, Africans? Who talks about that savagery? Her African American children languish in jails at a cost per warrior of $80,000 a year and they will not spend $12,000 a year on educating her children. Who talks about that savagery? Our writers in the Diaspora are more qualified than anyone else to speak truth to power by pointing out these things. They should start writing and talking – about the Babylon that adopted them.