Upon re-reading my article published on iAffairs just over 2 years after I submitted it for publication, I am compelled to revise my earlier thinking on this rather complicated topic. At that point, my analytical angle was very much embedded in generating conceptual equivalences to reveal futile paradoxes. An analysis embedded in this type of perspective is only attractive in so far as it belittles or trivializes the very issues which produce particular types of political dispensations and their attendant struggles. This is primarily because socio-historical contexts, which often produce those social and political particularities of said dispensations, are frequently never afforded their proper weight in such analyses.
In the African context and indeed others, this approach amount to conclusions which are intellectually arrogant even as they further muddy the already complex efforts towards, in this case, African ideas of self and being aware of and shaking them-selves free from imperial-colonial prescriptions, be they social, cultural, political, spiritual, historical, geographical, sexual or any other. Ostensibly, the process here requires a proper appreciation not only of “presentations of African selves” which, for lack of a better word, transcend colonial descriptions, but also of how “selves” as authors of such political agencies have found themselves partially spawned out of resistance to colonialism or even have, in many cases, been the direct outputs of colonial descriptions replete with abilities to produce political effects within the contemporary context. (Anglophone and Francophone come to mind in the domain of language, education and so-called African high-culture.)
The idea of Africa and of the African encapsulate both these realities. And therefore, my earlier discussion which so easily compares Africa and African against citizenship and nationhood is to my present mind deeply flawed. The latter speaks to postcolonial realities with some linkages with direct outputs of colonial descriptions, while the former speaks to manifestations of political agency by African selves for or to them-selves before but not for colonial others as a means of undermining colonial legacies and structures. Thus in the domain of continental, global and diasporic politics, Africa and African entails at a minimum, the collective presentation or emergence of a once constructed but now self-constructing people to whom and for whom a particular experience of global history requires of them to identify, assemble or summon themselves in this way as a mode of politics of bearing witness before those who are excluded from such a historical experience; and hence also, as a means by which they are collectively rehumanized to themselves, by themselves and for themselves within the constellation of that wider humanity. (This jettisons positions about Afro-Supremacy from the get go.)
This – I am prepared to argue – is fundamental even prior to any subsequent intellectual projects. In the contemporary setting, the notion of Africa and African asserts, without apology, that we seek no one’s permission – upon this immutable minimum as humans – to live and flourish on this piece of earth rock without subscribing to the expectations a supervising glance: and therefore, emphasizing automatically that within Africa and African is the innate potential assumed in all other constructed human categories of improvement without a superior’s oversight. From there, further political extrapolations might and have followed, with a wide variety of focuses, debates and fronts of civil, political and intellectual engagement within pan-Africanist and Africanist thought. This is sometimes mistaken for non-cooperation by some observers; and to the government-minded opponents, rebellion. In fact, it is simply contentment found within a process of robust self-rediscovery.
With these considerations now in my mind, it is then possible to find spaces within the concerns the Nigerian writer I took issue with two years ago can and do legitimately emerge. The point here is not that African Americans should be barred from using African cultural property. They are of the African experience themselves and have collected and summoned themselves within the Africa and African posture as well: Rather, that within the African collective which has thus politically summoned itself before the world, there is room for multiple emergences as well, as they escape the assumption that has so burdened many contemporary Africanist thinkers too — the assumption of African homogeneity (or Africa whose supposed human ontology is a black race with a disrupted but intrinsic capacity for seamless harmony).
As suggested above, it is important to challenge this assumption as well by inquiring if race, as we understand it, was a conscious or political aspect of the varied African experience prior to the experiences of imperialism, slavery and colonialism – or, if race, and in particular blackness, became part of the consciousness of African people when it became increasingly clear that certain biological features, had been picked up and set apart as the fundamental distinctions for rendering an otherwise diverse, discursively related people on a large continent as a single, flat and one-dimensional monolithic category. (Here, I have deliberately, for illustration, elected to assume the optimistic of bases for racial construction.)
It can be argued further that it was this absence of race as a continental consciousness vis-a-vis the presence of heterogeneity and diversity as a continental reality which provides the basis for some of the conflicts in Africa prior to the imperial era and which persisted (some of them coopted within divide-and-rule regimes) into subsequent dispensations seen in the “tribe and ethnicity as types of politics of visibility in post-colonial states”. If diversity rather than race is assumed, then conflict is instantaneously normal for that era. But if race is assumed, framed as black homogeneity, then a misleading question arises inquiring how people who are supposedly all the same could undergo conflict. From here, a passage into theorizing African savagery emerges, and which sips into well-meaning Africa and African homogenizing narrates espoused within the anti-colonial efforts of today as well.
The non-African therefore was, upon looking at people on the continent, by his own choosing as a black race, failed to see the complexity and nuance beneath his lazy and analytically blunt category. From here, African conflicts as well as general ways of life were distilled of any sophistication and complexity, and as such quadroned off into a special category of the savage. Out of this initial attitude and the regimes of domination which sprang out of it, mushroomed this idea, from a growing culture of resistance, of Africa and the African – as a popular political posture, as an intergenerational collective, and as an incubator of an extra-colonially constructed self. And further, underneath this mushroom remains the diversity whose coming to terms with other African selves was interrupted, such that such diversity too must be allowed to present its own posture – without being so crudely seen as an opponent to the wider African programme. Rather, it can be seen as a type of critical memory continuously exposing the idea of a black race as an early imperial imposition as well.
Like other socially constructed fictions, such as gender, the idea of a black race masquerades as but is not an ontology. Our focus on it is therefore on the basis that socio-historical processes have packed into this construct regimes of power, and forms of control sanctioning those ascribed this false ontology. Within it resides a moral economy which structures the lived experiences both from within and from without the people ascribed the ontology. So that Africa and African as a form of politics is geared to emerge or appear as a challenge to such power but without reifying its false ontology further. This posture contains disengagement encapsulated by the “for and by us” and subversion through a reformulation of the ascribed blackness into an existence incompatible with colonial domination.
Having this underlying awareness enables, at least in my own struggles of identity, to exist beneath, behind, over and outside this false ontology albeit at a level which is beyond my ability to articulate it – but at least there is that level, and surely in its silence are the tools for my transcendence.
I think my October 2015 article failed to acknowledge these and indeed numerous other considerations.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
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