This paper was presented as a keynote address at the third TOYIN FALOLA ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON AFRICA AND THE AFRICAN DIASPORA (TOFAC), Theme: Ethnicity, Race, and Place in Africa and the African Diaspora at Lead City University, Ibadan, July 2, 2013. Kenneth W. Harrow, distinguished professor of English at Michigan State University may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why is it that the relations between African-Americans and Africans are often fraught? The expectations each has of the other might be too great. African Americans coming home to Africa might be expecting a homecoming, and find instead that they are strangers in a strange land; might find themselves subject to scams from those they thought would be their distant cousins; might find their own emotional expectations manipulated in such places as slave forts like Goree Island or Cape Coast, while they are being sold goods that are tailored to meet their presumed expectations. Maybe they are offered a title, an honorary place in a community, and then will be expected to make their contribution. Maybe they will be met with greetings like sister or brother, when nothing really, truthfully is there but smiles like those from sellers in the market offering them meretricious goods. And when they will have learned that the smiles and greetings were merely gloss, they will feel deceived, if not betrayed, while the seller will move on to his or her next victim….
This was the feeling of Saidya Hartman when she set out to Africa to find her roots. She recorded her experience in Lose Your Mother, brilliantly articulating the expectation of an African American who had known subaltern status in America. She had grown up in a society in which the marks of history were etched with the violence of racism and white supremacy, easily ignored or forgotten if you were white and comfortable, but not so easily lost in a society that still imprisoned vast numbers of young black men. Hartman traveled back to Africa in search of Mother Africa who had been lost to her in the mists of the Middle Passage, and in Ghana the search took her to the slave forts: “Standing in the dark recesses of the holding cell for female slaves, I felt both the pull and the impossibility of regaining the country lost. It has never been more clear than it was then: return is what you hold on to after you have been taken from your country, or when you realize that there is no future in the New World, or that death is the only future. Return is the hunger for all the things you once enjoyed or the yearning for all the things you never enjoyed. It bears the impress of everything that has been taken from you. It is the last resort of the defeated. It is the diversion of suicides and dreamers. It is the elsewhere of insurrectionists. It is the yearning of those who can ‘summon filial love for persons and places they have never known’…. The promise of return is all that remains in the wake of slavery” (99). But who would want to welcome back the defeated, the suicides, the dreamers, much less the insurrectionists, unless the hosts too had known defeat like the slaves, and led the insurrections. And the insurrection against what? The defeat by whom? What would independence mean in such a recognition of the returnee as one of us?
And what would be the expectations of Africans when encountering their African American brothers and sisters from the other side of the great divide?[i] For Soyinka, in The Interpreters, Joe was a troubled, light skinned, gay black artist, and in Soyinka’s lexicon in 1974, he didn’t belong to the world of the Interpreters, which marked his place as an outsider racially, sexually, and culturally for the intellectuals at Ibadan and Lagos. The young generation of Africans in the novel, secure in their ethnic identities, were sure of who they were, like Soyinka himself who can claim which god in the Yoruba pantheon he belongs to. They would view such figures as Joe, who sought his original roots in the red soil of Africa, as lost, while at the same time, as arrogant in his sense of privilege. Why did Soyinka turn to this figure of the defensive black American to represent the returnee from diaspora?
The key unstated question for the returnees must be, where do you come from? If the answer is not New York, or Harlem, or New Orleans, or Charleston, it is because it leaves unspoken what came before that, what came originally. Where did your ancestors come from? And then, unstated, but remembered, why did your ancestors have to leave? And finally, who was to blame for that? Famously, when Gates came to Africa, didn’t he, the most eminent of African American scholars and intellectuals, ask, why did you sell us?
In a column in the NY Times, April 22, 2010, Gates wrote, “While we are all familiar with the role [in the slave trade] played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa.” He continues, “For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. …How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.” For Frederick Douglas, America’s most famous black slave voice, the Africans who sold them off were savages: “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa… for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them” (Cited in Gates’s article).
Gates could not let the bitterness he felt over this accusation of African complicity lie stagnant when he came to Africa to make his famous television series on Africa, “Wonders of the African World.” Instead, he asked in so many words, Why did you do it to us? And in his editorial in the NYTimes, he laid bare the grounds for the accusation: “For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept.” Despite such excuses as, “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries,” he stated, “the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time.” Then he asks, rhetorically, “Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. …African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.”
The key word here is “innocent.” The charge, you sold my ancestors, sticks in the craw. Gates forbore from accusing the white merchant class and their role in the dominant economic system for the fundamental workings of the slave trade, and instead focused on the African side of the trade. In his approach to his African interlocutors in “Wonders of the African World,” he appeared to many as condescending or paternalistic in assuming a position of accuser or ironic commentator—lacking respect for his African interlocutors or elders.
This attitude is what Ali Mazrui reproached Gates for when he asked, “Are we witnessing the birth of a new Black paradigm which combines cultural condescension with paternalistic possessiveness and ulterior selectivity?” And among Gates’s sins of selectivity, Mazrui focused on Gates not only knocking out virtually the whole of North Africa, but also Nigeria, “Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria as the center of the three of the largest and most historically dynamic cultures in Africa the Yoruba, the Hausa and Igbo [who] never qualified as one of the ‘Wonders of the African World,’ in spite of Skip Gates’ close relationship with Wole Soyinka, Black Africa’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. Gates’ selectivity also got the white man off the hook for the Atlantic slave trade!”
Mazrui continues his critique of Gates by focusing on the slave trade as the central issue. Gates presented to his audience what every beginning historian knows about the slave trade, that Africans were captured in the interior by African armies, carted down to the coast, and sold to Europeans who took them across the ocean. In focusing on the African role—as if it were a surprising feature to be revealed—he created the impression that the primary responsibility for the trade lay with Africans. Here is Mazrui’s biting account of this aspect of Gates’s series:
“Now Skip Gates’ television series virtually tells the world that the West has no case to answer. Africans sold each other. Presumably if there are to be any reparations in the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, it would have to be from Africans to Africans. Skip Gates succeeded in getting an African to say that without the role of Africans in facilitating it, there would have been no trans-Atlantic slave trade at all.
To my astonishment when watching ‘Wonders of the African World,’ I heard a Ghanaian tourist guide at a slave fort (Elmina) tell African-American tourists that they were sold into slavery by Africans. Is this the policy of the Ghanaian government to tell tourists that it was not the white man but the Black man who was responsible for the Atlantic slave system? If not, why is not the guide sacked? He was saying to African Americans ‘We Ghanaians sold you!’”
Slavery is long since over. But the wealth it generated, the economic development of Europe and the United States was created by cotton and sugar thanks to free labor. The military and economic dominance of the west in the 19th and 20th centuries, the growth of mercantilist and then colonial capitalism, and now the global neoliberal order, all follow the historical trajectory launched with the slave trade. The diaspora of Africans and their transformation into African Americans was begun under the sign of the gun and the slaver.
Here on the African continent market forces created by European mercantilism and the slave trade led to the arming of Dahomey and the coastal powers. Old Oyo was faced with collapse when confronted with changing landscapes of power to the point that it couldn’t resist the incursions of Uthman Don Fodio from Ilorin. And when the fall of Old Oyo was completed in 1836, that resulted in the enslavement of millions of Yoruba speaking people who wound up in Brazil, the Caribbean, and eventually, South Carolina, Mississippi, New Orleans, and now New York. Doesn’t Eshu laugh in the New World, as Skip Gates told us in his first important book, The Signifying Monkey, where he showed how the trickster turned from his position on high as orisha in Yoruba religious belief into the monkey, the figure of the rebellious slave in the folktales of the American South?
When those slaves finally were freed in 1865 in the U.S., and began to make a life for themselves instead of for others, eventually an awareness was born that being black and a slave was not a permanent condition of inferiority, that “African” could be something more than an epithet to be ashamed of. By the 1920s blacks who had migrated up north to seek opportunities for a new life unchained from Southern poverty and bigotry created a new landscape of freedom in the heart of New York. The New Negro, as Alain Locke dubbed this figure, was fashioned into the symbol of modernity just as the New African was born in the 1930s and 1940s in Senegal and Nigeria and Southern Africa. The New African found himself wearing suits, dancing with the New African Woman to the rhythms of highlife in the urban clubs, joining the political movements, acquiring an education in the white man’s schools, and writing about himself or herself in French and English. In New York, the Harlem Renaissance was launched by authors who celebrated black identity as hip, cool like the jazz, and beautiful in ways that spoke to the full spectrum of gorgeous colors that adorned Harlem’s streets.
“Harlem Sweeties” by Langston Hughes
Have you dug the spill
Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims
On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
Coffee and cream,
Out of a dream.
Or cocoa brown,
Pride of the town.
To plum-tinted black,
In Harlem’s no lack.
Soon after the Harlem Renaissance was born in the 1920s, it was followed by the French African poetry movement of Negritude. There Afro-Caribbean and African authors met in the common struggles against racism and colonialism. Like Hughes’s “fine Sugar Hill,” Senghor’s life-giving praise for the black woman eulogized her with the words “femme nue, femme noire”– Naked Woman, Black Woman, whose color is life itself. Despite Soyinka’s mocking dismissal, French speaking Africans and their brothers across the water forged a great movement grounded in the assertion of racial value and pride.
Writing in exile from Paris in the 1940s, David Diop evoked an Africa that he wanted to know and acclaim as his own:
“Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins.”
He envisions that Africa to be like a bent tree that will straighten up, “whose fruit bit by bit acquires/ The bitter taste of liberty”:
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this you, this back that is bent
This back that breaks
Under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.
At the end of Death and the King’s Horseman, when Olunde has committed suicide, what was the taste of his death but that of the bitterness of liberty, a bitterness Africa has known over and over with its struggles since independence. What did Africa’s liberty mean to its former colonial masters, but bitterness for them too. What does Africa’s independence mean in an age of neocolonialism, or now, with postcolonialism and globalization.
And in the U.S., what did the liberty of the black slaves mean for them and their former masters? What could they do when whites began to lynch black men to keep them from daring to become free citizens? What did liberty mean in the Caribbean Islands, especially after abolition when the landowners began to import thousands of indentured Asians to take the place of the black workers in the sugar cane plantations, and the newly freed black slaves struggled to survive in the cities? Many had to return to the plantations to live under conditions like those of slavery.
Freedom was never a simple affair with sweetness alone as its taste. The Caribbean saying has it, What Sweet in the goat mouth sour in his behind. When the son of Africa, Equiano, was carted across the seas, eventually he succeeded in overcoming the odds of enslavement, and rose to become a trader in black flesh himself, before ultimately joining forces with the abolitionists. He ended his years in England, denied by the British authorities the right to lead a ship back to his Africa. Although he succeeded in living at a great distance from the American South where a free man couldn’t walk the streets without risking his life, was there not a taste of bitterness in his mouth when he died? Freedom never came easy.
In the in the 1950s and 1960s when Africans were fighting to end colonialism, black Americans struggled for their civil rights while needing to come to terms with an African heritage. In Lorraine Hansberry’s Raison in the Sun, we have the New Negro heroine Beneatha, a college educated young woman whose brother Walter is a chauffeur for a rich white man. They live in the Chicago ghetto, with their mother and family, all crowded in one small apartment. How did Hansberry imagine and represent Africans in 1960, in her famous play, Beneatha, inspired by Asagai (her new African friend from the university) puts Olatunji’s drumming on her record player, proclaiming “enough of this assimilationist junk,” and begins to demonstrate how to dance “African style” to her sister-in-law Ruth.
Walter returns home drunk from the bar, where he has been listening to jazzy music. Inspired by Beneatha, he begins to dance as a warrior, and the two proclaim the glories of their African brothers and sisters. When the assimilated George shows up to take Beneatha out on a date, he is shocked at the scene, and when Walter extends his hand to George with the words “my black brother,” George turns away stating, “black brother, hell.”
The raisins in the sun were the dreams of the black migrants to the north, to cities like Chicago, who were looking for a new life. Walter has lost his way, while his sister, wants to go to medical school and to use the money from a life insurance policy from their dead father. Walter wants the money to invest in a scheme to open a bar, and when he is tricked out of the money, Beneatha’s future seems destroyed. The title of the film comes from Langston Hughes’s poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
At the same time that Raisin in the Sun came out Langston Hughes penned these verses about Africa in his poem “African Lady,” celebrating Africa as it was becoming free, and as Martin Luther King spoke to America of his dream of blacks becoming “Free at last.” Hughes wrote,
Sunrise at dawn
Night is gone—
I hear your song
The dark fades away.
Now it’s day
A new morning breaks.
The birds in the sky all sing.
For Africa awakes
Bright light floods the land
And tomorrow’s in your hands
The film clip and verses convey the dream of what Africa represented to America’s poor black children, a dream that Hughes’s poem suggests might fester like a sore and rot, or explode, unless it led to real freedom. The African Lady is the hope for tomorrow. In 1961 Hughes was calling out, “Africa awakes,” but in Hansberry’s play, the awakening family faces harsh racist pressures from the whites when the family tries to move out of the ghetto into the suburbs and start a new life.
This description simplifies the complex dynamic of power and disappointment that marks the characters’ lives. When Walter stretches out his hand to his “black brother” at the end of the clip, the film highlights the dark irony in his gesture. Walter has returned drunk from the bar; the African dance is an illusion, punctured by the ironic response he receives from the middle-class assimilated George who has come to take Beneatha out on a date and who will have no part in this Afrocentric fantasy. George responds, “Black Brother, Hell.” The more “Africa” is portrayed as a series of make-believe gestures and drum music crafted by Olatunji, the more it seems a Hollywood movie dream created to amuse the American masses. The two poetic sides to Hughes’s dream, the dried up raisin or the African Lady of tomorrow, echo our oxymoronic title captured from Diop’s figure of Africa as embodying bitter freedom. If it was freedom, it was because it was won by a struggle. If it was bitter, it was because the question remained, was it for this that we struggled? Did we fool ourselves when we thought we had won?
And more important, was there ever any victory for Africa that did not require a victory for the whites as well—that is, could Africa ever be free as long as whites were still enslaved to the notion of their superiority. For Sembène Ousmane and other radical thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, the answer was clear, as the opening scene in his film Xala demonstrates: no sooner was independence won than the fix was in, and neocolonialism, not postcolonialism began. The leadership was compromised, bought off, or broken if it resisted. No war in Africa was fought without European arms and often soldiers; and if they weren’t European, they were often Africans, like the Senegalese or Chadians, in the service of French or American interests. Weren’t there French and British and Russian arms in the Biafran war? There was no freedom without them; there was no joy that could be unabated as long as the economic system continued on a global scale to impose a new order of domination. The sweet taste in the goat’s mouth only fooled it into swallowing what would turn bitter at the other end. But more than that, we have to look for the sweetness of liberation not only from the success in winning independence, but in winning the Europeans, the whites, the former dominating classes, to a new regime that would eliminate the chains that defined the relations of the past. And it might be the case that the only way to complete that liberation is by acknowledging that the black on black relations, those of the African to Africans from the Diaspora, are not simply a supplement to the main stage relationship of colonized to colonizer, or blacks to whites in Europe, Africa or the United States, but lie at the heart of all those relationships.
How can freedom be won as long as there remain misapprehensions and resentments on both sides. Africans who see black Americans as violent, drug dealing, uneducated, and dangerous thugs. African Americans who know Africa only through the stereotyped Hollywood films. Africans who cultivated a highly educated class of migrants, thinking to encounter ghetto types in black America, whose culture had gangsta rap stars with violent lyrics and names that implied danger and crime. There would seem to be no hope of brother finding lost brother, sister finding sister, in this set of misrepresentations. With each disappointment, it seemed that historical differences would be too great to overcome.
Yet the long history of a shared struggle, repeated across the years in the efforts of such figures as Azikiwe, Nkrumah, Awolowo, Armah, Fela, and later Achebe, Soyinka, Adichie, has in fact marked a common exigency, as the struggles were often experienced in conjunction with an overseas education, a sojourn, or even a new homeland in the United States. In their education here, they might have encountered the work of Skip Gates, Houston Baker, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, Audrey Lorde, and Amira Baraka who created a new field we call Africana studies, or Black Studies, or African and African American Studies. Black intellectuals shared an education and literature, even as the newly arrived African avoided seeking his black brother or sister. While the racial solidarity that once marked African American efforts to support the regimes of Lumumba or Nkrumah never seemed further away than now, the bitterness can’t quite expunge the memories of freedom.
There are certain moments in the representation of the meeting of Africans and African Americans, that will tell us with real precision what was meant by Diop’s phrase, the bitter taste of freedom. We can imagine what it means to stand here and there, in Africa and in America, when viewing the world, so that it might appear to be a mask dancing. When my African American students begin to study African literature, they are shocked, even in this day and age, to find that Africa is not the same as what they’ve seen in the movies or popular television shows; not the scene of barbarism and savagery, but of beauty and refinement and intelligence. Achebe’s original purpose in writing still obtains: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past–with all its imperfections–was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (Morning Yet on Creation Day, 45). But whose past are we to speak of, and how can we bridge the past of those who sold the slaves and those whose ancestors were sold, not to count those who were the buyers and shippers of slaves.
We all know that it is possible to bridge the uncertain gulf that divides us and them. When Eshu dances, sometimes he creates a bridge:
“We are singing for the sake of Eshu
He used his penis to make a bridge”
As the story goes, Eshu overestimated the strength of his penis, his powers to bridge the gulf, and when the travelers tried to cross over, the penis broke:
“Penis broke in two
Travelers fell into the river.” (Pelton 131)
Apart for centuries, but now crossing the divide on the uncertain bridge of a god’s sexual instrument, how can the dancing mask be seen and recognized as coming from home?
To focus on the key question about why relations between African Americans and Africans have been so thorny, we can say each has sought in the other something that cannot be found, and yet that they need. We can see this quest, this link, this shared and shredded history, as a family affair. For some that family requires us to see in Africa the parent and the African American the child, and with Sonya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, we can see how that quest for her was that of the child who couldn’t find her African mother.
Yet there is something else that we can capture in this rough meeting of the two worlds, the descendants of the slaves, and the descendants of those who stayed behind in Africa. It is something that almost no one can speak of these days without losing track of the threads of modernity that have marked these stories of diaspora and recognition. One missing link, one missing heartbeat of a moment that calls out to be captured, and held in one’s hand. Another might call this moment the DNA tie that answers the one question Diaspora always poses and never answers, “where are you from?” But the answer has been sought in the wrong place, and DNA gene science will never be able to provide it. Geography will not supply the answer either.
My friend the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo has been telling me that he is more and more preoccupied with his ancestors. Bekolo, of all people, the most hip of current filmmakers, the one whose Quartier Mozart rewrote the story of African cinema, giving us MTV moments, quartier cool dudes and supermodern chicks. What Bekolo wants is to know what it is to be in touch with his ancestors. When an ancestor is shared, if a brother or sister is lost, the ancestor must go looking for the lost one; the brother and sister keep calling out, and someone is hearing those calls. Eventually, the children of those who were lost have to write about it: angrily—why did you lose me; poignantly—where are you; desperately– help me. And then, maybe, not where are you, but where can I find the echo of you?
Lest I make this connection too singular or idealistic, I should add as a coda that this theme of searching that marked the encounter is not unique to Africans and African Americans. It is true of everyone, to some degree, to the extent that we are willing to reach outside the comfort zone of our familiar spaces. The great catastrophes of our times have taught us what feelings mark this searching, what Germans call sehnsucht, and Brazilians saudage, in English yearning, with black Americans giving voice to the yearning with an accent like a blue note. Yearning for something that doesn’t have a name, something missing, something marked by the holocaust and the slave trade, yet beyond them. If its elusive shadows haunt some, we have to recognize that there are moments when the shadow is touched, is given words, given a voice, like a drummer’s call that can be heard only when the dancer succeeds in crossing the penis-bridge by standing in more than one place, standing in more than one side of the ocean even, because, we are told, The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.
On both sides of the black Atlantic, Africans and African Americans have had to mark their status in terms of their relation to those in positions of privilege, positions more complicated than what is simply involved in definitions of race as black and white. Gender, class, caste, education, talent all are constituted in ways that make our simplistic understandings of racial identity misleading. If blackness had once signified an inferior status, an Africanness to be shunned, now in many circles, like music, sports, or film, it conveys authenticity and talent—an Africanness to be embraced.
When African meets African American, what is the privilege of being the “authentic” African, with his claims to the real original identity, as opposed to the false copy? New styles appeared in the mid-20th century as African Americans set out to reclaim an African identity and took to wearing dashikis and adopted African names. These claims of the authentic might be seen as form of freedom imagined as not entailing any bitterness, freedom without any price to be paid.
When Gates was returning to Africa, he enjoyed the privileges of difference. He knew he was privileged as a famous professor at Harvard as well as by being the producer of the television series, posing all the questions, deciding what would be shown on film, whose voices would be heard. His freedom was marked in his mastery of the word. To see this freedom as bitter is to understand it not simply in terms of a black American in quest of his authentic African forebears or relatives, but in terms of his own circumscribed freedom in the United States in relation to a dominant white social structure and history, one deeply marked in institutions of privilege enjoyed by white elites like those at Harvard ever since its creation. When he lost the key to his house in Cambridge, returning late one night, his neighbors saw him only as a black man prowling around the house . They called the police who arrested him. When he indignantly explained it was his own house, they arrested him anyway. That caused a national scandal, and Obama had to be called upon to settle the affair.
Had Gates come to Ibadan sixty-five years ago, what might he have encountered? Students of the University College of Ibadan included Achebe, Okigbo, Soyinka, J.P.Clark, Saro-Wiwa, Osundare, Amadi, and Irele, a roll call of the great names in Nigerian letters. And yet there, too, the shadow of freedom’s tree was cast by the University of London whose external examiners oversaw the exams. European letters remained in a defining curricular position, as did the very language of privilege, the national language inherited from the colonial masters. No amount of mastery of that tongue and all its great authors, going back to Shakespeare could separate the freedom of creative expression from the bitterness of the old bent tree that David Diop identified with the African ancestor.
Every self is born in a conflictual and subservient relationship to its other; none of us starts on the path to subjectivity without knowing that the large shadow in which we stand expresses the power of those over us, whose position it will be our privilege to occupy only if we accede to its dominion. We struggle against it, while also accepting its superior position.
This is not only a metaphor for Africa’s relationship to Europe. It is also Europe’s relationship to itself, Africa’s relationship to itself, and in these configurations entailing self and other, they form imbrications over time in which the powerful seek to dismiss any fearful dissymmetry suggested by the notion that the underling might also come to occupy the position of the master. The master as a shadow might dissolve if he were to imagine such a reversal of circumstances; the slave as master might never imagine that he had once been born between the thighs of a slave mother. The freedom enjoyed by the self-blinded autocratic ruler who forgot where he had come from is exhilarating as long as it can ignore its taste of bitterness. Purposefully forgetting his beginnings, as if a beginning could ever be known, as if it were possible to repress it, refuse it. And yet the greater the refusal to acknowledge the other, the greater the taste of bitterness to be washed away, until all the opponents of the autocrats would have to be sacrificed and cast away, as Abacha tried to do with Ken Saro-Wiwa. The self can become itself only by passing through the shadow of the other.
Did Gates ever come to that point when asking who sold off his ancestors to the white man, as if he were not sitting in that same seat as the white masters? And when he imagined that learning at the feet of Soyinka about Eshu would give him access to that lost ancestor, did he know about the complicated business of crossing over the great divide, the middle passage, on the uncertain bridge of a trickster’s penis, one with a reputation of breaking for travelers who thought they were already safe on the other side?
This paper is in search of the bitter truth that is suppressed at each fantastic moment when African meets African American, beginning with Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Langston Hughes’s poetry and the Harlem Renaissance, with these encounters now to be found in works of Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta and others of their generation. It entails bitterness because every moment in which freedom is achieved, it is achieved in relation to its other, and in relation to a lack marking the traces of a separation usually simply called the Middle Passage.
Hughes’s dream, the raisin in the sun, evokes the need for an authenticating fantasy of Africa, arising from the need to live in a society without the white other, the white ruling class. In such a dream, Africa would then appear as a place from which an Olunde, superior to the white district officer Pilkings, could appear, secure in his ability to fill in that lack. But he can resist the sweet taste of the fantasy because, unlike his father the Elesin, he has learned to bridge his own divisions abroad and back home, and knows what it is to make a new passage over the member of a trickster god.
In the dream of the future, for a bitter freedom to be won, it is necessary to negotiate one’s way across a new middle passage, one now grafted onto the old stories of Eshu and his magic member. If his penis could never be counted on not to break, still it could be stretched across the ocean as if it were merely a child’s game to do so. After all, what can’t Eshu do to create division and to heal the division, say that between two brothers:
Two brothers, one lighter, one darker, work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two brothers got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man’s hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The brothers explain their disagreement, and Eshu shows them the two-sided hat.
I end with the question, who are the two brothers, and what do they do after Eshu has shown them his hat?
[i] Cf. Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (Albequerque, NM: U New Mexico Press, 2012). “Contemporary Africa and its migrants to the diaspora hold the voices that often delegitimize ‘Africans’ of the Atlantic world. This delegitimization is authoritarively ventriloquized in voices like the Ghanaian taxi driver in New York City who admonished that I should not self-reference as African American because I am not an African or the Nigerian man at the Mobil station in Harlem who, n the midst of a dispute with one of my former students, sought to publically humiliate her by shouting, ‘You Slave! You Slave! You don’t even know where you’re from? You Slave!” (15).
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–Susskind, David, Philip Rose, Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, et al. 1999. A Raisin in the Sun. Culver City, Calif: Columbia Tristar Home Video.
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Hughes, Langston. “Harlem Sweeties.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177389
–“A Dream Deferred.” http://www.cswnet.com/~menamc/langston.htm
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