Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing
Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!
Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon
(Keynote lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Connections Week of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, March 10, 2014)
I bring you warm greetings from Accra, Ghana, where I am currently based. I understand that winter has been particularly brutal this year. You could use some of the warmth I brought from Africa in my hand luggage. I am told by the organizers of this event – to whom I owe immense debts of gratitude for inviting me to deliver this keynote lecture – that “loud and proud” is the theme of your Caribbean-Africa Connections week this year. In other words, the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia has decided to scream the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean from the rooftops this week. You want to proudly highlight what connects Africa and the Caribbean in the arena of culture – and in defiance of the Atlantic Ocean. You want to inscribe your so-called otherness loudly and proudly on this beautiful campus of UBC. When I thought about your theme on receiving the invitation for this lecture, it evoked a sense of drama. How do you proclaim Caribbean and African connections “loud and proud” without being dramatic? I have therefore taken the unusual route of plotting this lecture as a one act play in five scenes. At any rate, on my way here from Accra, I did get into some drama in London…
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
Date: March 6, 2014. Location: Terminal Three, London Heathrow airport. Mission: awaiting an Air Canada connecting flight to Ottawa en route Vancouver for this lecture. I was coming from back to back keynote lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Accra, and Lagos. Although I was jetlagged and tired, I already had a draft of this lecture in the bag. Nevertheless, there was something I wasn’t quite satisfied about. I was trying to look at the Caribbean-African thing beyond the routine of memory. Must the ties that bind always be about memory? I wasn’t sure that what I had in the first draft had satisfactorily answered that question. I had seven hours to kill at Heathrow. I decided to shell out sixty pounds to rent a room and shower cubicle for three hours in one of the “capitalist” lounges of the airport. I needed that space and time to continue my reflection on what lies – or what ought to lie – beyond the horizon of memory-making and memory-reliving whenever Africa and the Caribbean actuate a handshake across the Atlantic.
In essence, I did not need anything or anybody to remind me of how memory ties the Caribbean and other parts of the black Diaspora to Africa. I wanted to move conceptually beyond that paradigm. As I moved wearily through the familiar mass of fatigued bodies dragging a cornucopia of hand luggage through the malls of Heathrow, making my way to the F Lounge, I bumped into just the one thing I wanted to avoid: memory. It came in the exact body shape, height, skin tone, facial features, and even dressing style of Professor Ato Quayson. I am sure you all know Professor Quayson? If you don’t know him, you have a very urgent problem that only google can help you resolve.
In the engaging business of theorizing Africa and her diaspora in academe, Professor Quayson has been one of my formidable mentors in the last decade and a half. I had not seen him since the African Literature Association’s meeting in Dallas in 2012. I’d been to his University of Toronto base to deliver lectures on occasion but he’d always been out of town. And there he was before me, like an apparition, in a crowded airport lounge in London. I screamed and grabbed him in a hug that certainly wasn’t a bear hug. Loads of back patting. Deft feet movement and shuffling that you could call some kind of esoteric dance. Strings of jazzed up sentences delivered in a mishmash of English, Pidgin, and West African slang intrusions. These happened in seconds.
In other words, I was performing, right there in the open in London, an unscripted and impromptu reunion ritual which I somehow expected Ato Quayson or any other African brother to connect with and respond to appropriately. “I’m not Ato”, screamed the bemused figure in my arms, struggling to set himself free from my black hug while laughing in bemused acknowledgement of the accompanying semi-dance rituals. Remember, all this was happening within seconds, a succession of quick-paced actions and events. I realized to my utter embarrassment that I had grabbed the wrong man! The guy I grabbed and held in such a warm embrace was not Ato Quayson, just his Siamese look-alike!
I was going to start apologizing profusely when my “victim”, very friendly but obviously relieved to be released from my grip, assured me that no apology was necessary. In fact, he was very intrigued by my enactments of recognition and the effusive ritual of warmth I enacted when I thought he was Ato Quayson. According to him, everything about that instinctive, unplanned, impromptu but ritualized performance was also native to him. He would have done exactly the same thing in my shoes, he reassured me.
“And where are you from?” I asked. “Trinidad”, came his swift response. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I knew I had to offer the brother a beer. I mean, here was my Nigerian self thinking it was engaging Ato Quayson’s Ghanaian self in ritualized modes of African warmth and connection only for those cultural enactments to be claimed by a Trinidadian also seeing himself, his people, his culture, his story, and his memory in those moves. On my way to an airport lounge to think beyond culture and memory in terms of how best to reconceptualize African and Caribbean modes of engagement, culture and memory beckon, saying, “Ogbeni Pius, we’re not done yet!”
ACT ONE, SCENE TWO
Maybe I should have known that memory and culture wouldn’t lend themselves to the easy glossing over I was going to do at that airport lounge before I received a Trinidadian jolt of reality. After all, another place, another time, memory and culture had served me notice of their power of persistence in any evocation of the linkages between the Caribbean and Africa. That other place is none other than this lovely city of Vancouver in this beautiful Canadian province of British Columbia. That other time was the 1990s when I pursued my doctoral degree right here in this very University.
Back in those hectic days of doctoral work, some of us needed the occasional escape from the cast of French poststructuralist thinkers who, in the hands of North American academics, had turned postcolonial and postmodernist theory into an obscurantist terror machine. In a good week, your migraine was limited to struggling to blend the impenetrable prose of Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha into a deconstructive paradigm for the novels and cultures of Africa and the Caribbean. In a bad week, you had to add Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and so many other usual and unusual French suspects to that mix.
To reinforce that overdose of high theory, you were required on occasion to rent a few names from the Frankfurt school of theory. You completed this theoretical cocktail, which left African and Caribbean novels struggling for oxygen, with Antonio Gramsci and a necessary throwback at Karl Marx. In preparing one’s theoretical paradigm for African and Caribbean fiction, one often felt like Getafix the druid preparing the magic potion for Asterix and Obelix. We threw so many names into the pot of that theoretical magic potion. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, when you have spent a week trying to foist Foucault’s power/knowledge combo on Chinua Achebe and Mariama Ba or attempting a Derridean deconstruction of Edwige Danticat and Patrick Chamoiseau via différance-speak, you needed to unwind desperately. Ah, the good old days of graduate school!
For those of us in the African and Caribbean communities, unwinding twice a week happened ritually in one watering hole: the Anza Club, close to Main and Broadway here in Vancouver. That night club was not just the place where we went to booze and do all the wild and unmentionable things that students do in their riotous twenties, just before other realities of life set in, it was also for us some sort of pilgrimage to a location of culture and memory. The Anza was the only night club in Vancouver at the time dedicated to African and Caribbean music. We went there to swing to reggae, calypso, zouk, soukouss, makossa, and soca. We went there to subject our waists to rhythms of high life, afrobeat, juju, and the kora and balafon offerings of the sub-Saharan African sahel.
Whatever we danced to, the cut was in how we all danced and what we all recognized. Recognition of source and of origins. When the Caribbean students danced, we, their African cousins, would marvel in recognition of rhythms, styles, and movements that took us all the way back to our respective villages in Africa. And when we, Africans, danced, our Caribbean folks remembered. They just remembered. Like the Trinidadian reacting to my reunion rituals at Heathrow, Caribbean students of my day at UBC watched us, Africans, dance at the Anza club and remembered their respective homes in the black Atlantic. “Ah, we have this dance in Saint Lucia!”, you would hear somebody exclaim if I was enacting variations on the “elele kure” shoulder dance of the Okun people in Kogi state, Nigeria.
Whether it’s in the passenger mall of an international airport or on the dance floor of a Vancouver night club, the Africa-Caribbean nexus, spelt out in terms of encounters between continental Africans and their cousins in the Black Atlantic, has spawned imaginaries of the self rooted in memory and culture since the historical moment of separation. If you are from the continent, you frame narratives of source-culturehood around these issues. If you belong in the black diaspora, you weave imaginaries of cultural survivorhood around the same issues. What lived, what survived, and how you produced newness from the old become, for you, the loom of identity-making in the present. But, mostly, you remember in order to re-member.
ACT ONE, SCENE THREE
The literature and discourses of both sides are rich in constructions of the self rooted in the politics and memory of remembering. For the Caribbean self, return narratives are crucial to the architecture of remembering and re-membering. The business of remembering and re-membering sometimes involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. For the Caribbean self and other black diasporic selves, the return narrative, especially its 20th century enactments, was one way of trying to answer the query in Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
Not all return narratives romanticize Africa like Countee Cullen and our friends in the Negritude movement did. Some, like Henry Louis Gates, belong in the dirty linen school of return narratives. They return to Africa to see the faces of the descendants of the greedy ancestors who sold them to slavery. Their problem is not with the white slaver but with my ancestors who sold their ancestors. One model of return narratives romanticizes Africa and demands reparations from the descendants of the white slaver, another criminalizes Africa and demands an apology from me for the sins of my ancestors who sold their ancestors. However, both models meet at the crossroads of meaning. They share a desire to make Africa mean. The question thus arises: what exactly feeds the impulse of these return narratives on the part of the black Diaspora and their modes of actuation? Why were return narratives so crucial to the making of the Caribbean self in the 20th century?
ACT ONE, SCENE FOUR
The answers are myriad and complex but I think we should focus here on one possible reason why the 20th century offered us the return narrative as one of the major routes to identity-making by the Caribbean self. Despite disagreements on modes of engaging the continent as source-culture – were we stolen by white slavers or were we sold by our heartless African cousins? – there can be no denying the fact that, before the mourning after independence set in, the 20th century was the moment of Africa’s heroism and African heroism. It was the century which saw Africa successfully challenge, undermine, and overcome some five hundred years of truth claims by modernity; five hundred years of placing a question mark on the humanity of Africans and black people elsewhere. It was the century of political and cultural nationalism, of decolonization, of the anti-apartheid struggle, of coming into peoplehood, of coming into postcolonial statehood.
Indeed, the 20th century was an extremely auspicious time for black people all over the world to plug into this African spectre of global heroism. Your source-culture was heroic. What is more, the making of this grand narrative of heroism – that is, the challenge to and dismantling of colonialism – was not an isolated enterprise undertaken by continental Africans behind the back of their cousins in the black Diaspora. In fact, the intellectual, cultural, and political bases of these forms of African heroism were mostly born in the Diaspora and devolved from an organic collaboration between Africa’s emergent political, nationalist, and intellectual class and their counterparts from the black Diaspora.
Pan-Africanism and Negritude are two good examples of the collective contributions of continental Africans and the Black Diaspora to the making of Africa’s 20th century anti-imperialist heroism. A great deal of the intellectual energy that later went into African nationalism was honed in London and Paris in collaborations between the nascent African nationalist class and their counterparts from the Caribbean and black America. So formidable and far-reaching were these collaborations and joint efforts that two of the most famous theorizers and chroniclers of Africa’s 20th century heroism were from the black Diaspora. I am thinking here of the Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth and the Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
If the pervading sense of having participated in the heroic self-recovery effort of the mother continent was a contributory factor to the flourishing of the return narrative, the principal mode of African heroism in the 20th century greatly enhanced it. The struggle for cultural and political freedom yielded the persona of the nationalist-statesman as a towering African hero. He was that colourful and charismatic character, that brilliant and powerful orator who became a transcendental African moral and ethical figure (before tragically becoming other unmentionable things in a good number of cases). The magic of this figure made association with Africa as home, memory, and source-culture very appealing to the continent’s sons and daughters in the Diaspora.
Think of the magnetic charisma of Kwame Nkrumah and how many Diasporic Africans made their first pilgrimage to Ghana largely or partly because of him – the Ghanaian trajectory of W.E.B du Bois can hardly be discussed outside of the politics, appeal, and charisma of Kwame Nkrumah. Think of the beehive of black diaspora activism that was the Conakry of Sekou Toure. Stokely Carmichael and Harry Belafonte stoked the fires of black cultural and musical internationalism with Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they were all in Conakry. Think of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba and so many others in their league whose leadership and praxis of heroism made Africa such an appealing proposition to her children in the Diaspora in the 20th century.
This model of African heroism, I believe, found its culmination in the praxis and brand that was Madiba Nelson Mandela. This global icon made return narratives very compelling and irresistible for the black Diasporic self. Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t tell me that you do not know that Oprah Winfrey’s emergency discovery of her Zulu ancestry back in 2006 had a great deal to do with the Mandela magic and appeal. Ms. Winfrey was not alone. We need not run through the list of African American celebrities who discovered their South African ancestry because of Nelson Mandela.
If you look at things closely, the discovery of African ancestry tended to move to wherever the star of a great, transcendental African nationalist hero and statesman was shining. All roads of ancestry discovery once led to Accra before the fall of Kwame Nkrumah; then the roads made a detour and led to Conakry before Sekou Toure became what he became; then the roads migrated to South Africa because of Madiba. If, tomorrow, Nigeria gets her act together and produces a towering global leader of impeccable ethical stock, I wager that many Diasporans will discover their Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa-Fulani ancestry.
ACT ONE, SCENE FIVE
The passing of Madiba Nelson Mandela to a glorious African ancestorhood has a special significance for our purposes here today. Mandela’s death effectively signals the end of the era of the modes of personal, transcendental nationalist heroism and statesmanship which his generation had held out to Africa and the black Diasporic world. His exit effectively closes the era of those who gave Africa and the black world such affirmative praxes as “African personality”, “black pride”, cultural nationalism, and political nationalism. These were the people who were so instrumental in providing the justification for the Caribbean self to seek psychic and cultural anchorage in a matricial idea of 20th century African heroism. When Countee Cullen and 20th Century black Diasporans asked, “what is Africa to me?”, Africa’s nationalists and statesmen and women provided answers in their words and actions, especially during the era of the anti-colonial struggle. You saw Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere and you had a pretty good idea of what Africa was to you.
But Mandela’s death also came on the cusp of a very significant moment for Africa and the rest of the world. Mandela made his exit at a time when what has been described as “the selfie generation” was taking over the commanding heights of global culture through the formidable power of social media. Charles Blow of the New York Times has appropriately defined the selfie generation as folks between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three. In other words, the selfie generation comprises young people. I am assuming that the members of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia who invited me here to deliver this lecture today are all generation selfie. Ladies and gentlemen, is this true? Ok, Mr. Blow asserts, also correctly, that one defining characteristic of the selfie generation is that you are the first generation that has not had to adapt to the internet, to social media and allied technologies. In essence, you are citizens of the internet by birth. You are the original owners of what I suggest we call ‘appsland.’
If you are tempted to think that Mr. Blow is stretching things a bit by saying that members of the selfie generation are the only authentic natives of the internet who have not had to adapt to anything, just think of what happens to you when you are not a member of that generation and you try to do things like them without first learning the rules of engagement. Let’s say your name is Barack Obama. You go and take a selfie with the beautiful Prime Minister of a European country and you get into a load of trouble.
But taking selfies is not all they do in the selfie generation. Members of the generation are driving global culture and agendas in significant new ways. They are asking questions and raising issues. With them, the revolution is televised live in your living room. You saw them in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. You saw them in Turkey and Brazil. You saw them all over the streets of America in the Occupy Movement. You saw them live in Ukraine during the orange revolution and more recently. I live in Ottawa. I see them carrying placards in front of Parliament all the time. I saw them in my own country in Occupy Nigeria. One foolish aide of the Nigerian President who has tragically fallen into the wrong column of history even described them as “the collective children of anger.” All over the world, the selfie generation is the new cool.
I think it is unfortunate that the rise of this generation coincides with the collapse of that particular mode heroism that is tied to the praxis of genuine nationalists and statesmen and women in Africa. What is Africa to me? For the Caribbean self in the 20th century, that question was answered significantly by the quality of leadership that the continent had to offer especially in the context of political nationalism and the struggle for freedom. If the selfie generation in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the black Diaspora asked the same question today – what is Africa to me? – what sort of answer would they get? Just what is Africa offering them?
This is a question that has detained me since I delivered the keynote lecture at the International Leadership Platform Conference of the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa a few weeks ago. Among the many issues raised by the brilliant and generous discussant of my lecture, Professor Peter Vale of the University of Johannesburg, was the question of leadership and role modelship for the youth of Africa after the demise of the continent’s nationalist and statesmen and women generation symbolized by the passing of Mandela. “Where are the leaders and role models that Africa is offering these young people?”, Professor Vale had queried. We kept citing dead African statesmen and women…
As a teacher in the classrooms of North America, I encounter variations on this question all the time from Nigerian students of the selfie generation. These are undergraduate kids born in Canada or the United States. They’ve never been home. When they pronounce their Yoruba or Igbo or Ijaw or Edo names, those names end up looking like mangled victims of a terrorist attack. They are Nigerian kids of the new Diaspora. And they stop you after class and ask: “Professor, tell me, why should I have a stake in Nigeria? Why should I visit Nigeria? What’s in Nigeria for me?” There are selfie generation kids from the fifty-three other countries in Africa torturing their Professors in Canada and the United States with such questions. There are African American and Caribbean kids of the selfie generation asking these questions. Whether they are Africa kids of the old or new Black Diaspora, the selfie generation is not asking – what is Africa to me? – for that is so old school, so Countee Cullen and his generation. Rather, these kids are now asking: what’s in Africa for me?
In essence, the selfie generation of the old and the new African Diaspora asks questions that cannot be answered easily. The nationalist, the statesman, the orator, the charismatic leader, the philosopher king – all that ended with Nelson Mandela. Today, the leadership landscape in Africa is so abysmal that you dare not tell the selfie generation to look up to the current crop of heads of state and heads of government across Africa as credible role models and heroes. To the Caribbean and black Diaspora self, Africa is currently offering a selfie of abysmal, uninspiring, and disgraceful leadership.
You only need to look at the current leadership of the two major states in Africa – Nigeria and South Africa – to appreciate the full extent of the tragedy. In South Africa, the current President is a certified clown, a huge joke. In Nigeria, aides of the current President consider an extraordinary achievement the rare moments in which he successfully places one incoherent sentence after another incoherent sentence in scripted or unscripted speeches. He is a dour, uninspiring, and corruption-friendly man.
Elsewhere, the news is not any better. Omar Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya are customers of the International Court of Justice; Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon are scions of Presidents for life who may continue that continental tradition; Yayi Boni of Benin and Alassane Ouattara of Cote-d’Ivoire are offsprings of the financial philosophy of Bretton Woods. And we have not even mentioned the Paul Biyas, the Teodoro Obiangs, and the Blaise Compaores of Africa. There is just no leadership worthy of our attention at the moment in Africa. Among the current crop of African Heads of State, I’m afraid there are no transcendental statesmen and role models worthy of recommendation to the youth of Africa and the black Diaspora as worthy role models. Luckily, there are stateswomen in the ranks but their inspirational stories are the rare exception and not the rule.
In essence, in the absence of the Mandelas, Nkrumahs, Senghors, and Nyereres of this world, the selfie generation in Africa and the black diaspora is the first generation to stand in real danger of having to accept Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and even George Zimmerman as heroes as Africa fails to offer them credible heroes and genuine role models in the public sphere. The selfie generation is growing up in a celebrity culture powered by American TV. Yesterday, as I prepared to fly here from Ottawa, George Zimmerman was on CNN signing autographs at a gun show somewhere in America. Occasionally, Africa has the good fortune of being able to ward off the danger posed to the selfie generation of Africa and the Caribbean by the globalized reckless celebrity culture of America. Africa tells those kids: don’t look at George Zimmerman, look at Lupita Nyong’o. But, like the female Presidents, these luminous examples don’t come in nearly enough numbers.
What’s in Africa for me? Perhaps the search for an answer is what has led Africans of the new Diaspora in the selfie generation (born in Europe and North America post-1980s) to Afropolitanism, the new cultural fad on the block. This is not the place for me to go into the debate on Afropolitanism. Google it. Beyond Achille Mbembe’s philosophic-discursive take on Afropolitanism, pay attention to what Taiye Selasie and her followers say it is. Pay attention to why Binyavanga Wainaina says he isn’t an Afropolitan. That is your google assignment.
What is of interest to me here is that Afropolitanism seems to be the last refuge of a new African Diasporan selfie generation in search of ways to log on to a continent that is offering very sparse cultural wifi access in terms of credible role models in the public sphere. But at least they’ve got Afropolitanism, those selfies of the new African Diaspora. What about the kids of the old Diaspora in black America and the Caribbean who cannot describe themselves as Afropolitans and who do not belong in the generation of those going to weep at doors of no return in Cape Coast, Goree, and Badagry? What’s in Africa for them?
Perhaps they and their Afropolitan peers ought to look in the direction of the collective cultural heroism of their peers in Africa. Out of nothing, their peers in Africa invented and developed Nollywood into the world’s second largest movie industry. Nollywood to a great extent has broken the monopoly of Western modes of representing Africa for the black diaspora. And out of Ghana, Africa and the black Diaspora is swaying to the rhythm of Azonto. Transcendental nationalism heroism and statesmanship of the Mandela type may be dead in Africa, Nollywood and Azonto, with all their warts, are powerful selfies of cultural heroism that Africa is offering the world as a window into the regenerative power of what Kwame Nkrumah once famously referred to as “the African genius”. The genius of the selfie generation is also taking over the African street and making very loud statements. I know that the Anza nightclub is still open in Vancouver. I know that it is still the place where Africa goes to meet the Caribbean on the dance floor twice a week. Perhaps, after listening to this lecture, some of you are going to make your way there this weekend to sway your hips to Azonto. I expect to see your selfies on Instagram!
I thank you for your time.