AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The Afropolitan Must Go
Marta Tveit | November 28th, 2013

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My first thought when reading Taiye Selasi’s 2005 essay ‘Bye-Bye Barbar’ (or ‘What is an Afropolitan?’) was that this is the kind of sludge that would piss off Binyavanga Wainaina. One quick google and lo and behold: “For Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification — a phenomenon increasingly ‘product driven,’ design focused, and ‘potentially funded by the West.’” My second thought when reading Taiye Selasi’s ‘What is an Afropolitan?’, gesturing wildly at my MacBook in my local coffee shop, is that this is the kind of sludge that pisses me off.

I am angry for different reasons to Wainaina (though if he wanted to hang out sometime I’m sure we could have fun being pissed off together); I am not so much concerned with the commodification inherent in Afropolitanism as I am with the danger of reproducing a reductive narrative, one which implicitly licenses others to reproduce the same narrative because it has been confirmed by an ‘Afropolitan’ herself.

First, in ‘What is an Afropolitan?’ Selasi somehow manages to other her own perceived identity, as well as everyone else with an African parent or two — other, that is, against an original (i.e. a Westerner), as she describes the scene at a London bar:

The women show off enormous afros, tiny t-shirts, gaps in teeth; the men those incredible torsos unique to and common on African coastlines. The whole scene speaks of the Cultural Hybrid: kente cloth worn over low-waisted jeans; ‘African Lady’ over Ludacris bass lines; London meets Lagos meets Durban meets Dakar. Even the DJ is an ethnic fusion: Nigerian and Romanian; fair, fearless leader; bobbing his head as the crowd reacts to a sample of ‘Sweet Mother.’

Besides from adopting the tone of a National Geographic documentary, the text is clearly addressing a Westernised audience, explaining to them the strange ways and particulars of this tribe of ‘Afropolitans.’

Second, Selasi’s representation of Afropolitans in general (a group to which I too apparently belong and for which Selasi has taken it upon herself to speak) is weirdly prejudiced.

Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question — ‘where are you from? — …They (read: we) are Afropolitans — the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.

But what about the non-affluent African diaspora? What about insanely hideous brown-skinned people? What about white African natives? What about Africans who despise jazz?

“It’s a problematic term because it’s supposed to combine (the words) African and cosmopolitan,” says editor of Afropolitan magazine, Brendah Nyakudya, to CNN:

What it should mean is an African person in an urban environment, with the outlook and mindset that comes with urbanization — people who live Lagos, Nairobi, and have this world-facing outlook.

I agree that the term Afropolitan is problematic, but more than that, I don’t understand why a person with African roots in an urban environment needs a term to set her apart from the rest of the young people in an urban environment. Why separate African urbanites from the rest of the urbanites? How can that be constructive?

Personally I cannot for the life of me see what would justify grouping these people together, other than that they all happen to have one or more parent who define themselves as coming from a country in Africa, and that is not enough. What does a lawyer born and raised in Belgium or London or Inner Mongolia have to do with Africa? He may have one African parent. He may have been there this one time when he was seven. He may be brown-skinned. He may be interested in his African heritage. But shouldn’t the extent of that interest and how much it means to his identity-formation be left solely up to that individual himself?

For fun, imagine applying what Selasi is doing with Afropolitans to a group from another continent — for instance, everyone with one or more parent from Europe. Half of America would be “Europolitans! Coming soon in a country-music joint/blue-collar job near you, a group whose beautiful skimmed-milk skin and subdimensional booties…”

Third, exclusivity and the socio-economic dimension. Selasi discovers her African roots in her 2013 op-ed piece for the Guardian. This sentence caught my eye:

A waitress, passing me, nodded with meaning and I nodded equally meaningfully back, in that gentle way in which brown people often acknowledge each other’s presence. The instant’s exchange reminded me of what I often overlook: my minority status.

Ah, the gentle nod.

How many times have I sat nodding along for hours to one of President Obama’s speeches or Tiger Woods’ scandals. Or nodded down at the brown beggar in the street and then (gently) passed him by. Or rushed on to the Broadway set of Lion King to nod at every character in turn.

Just to make it clear; this is not an article about Taiye Selasi as a person. Neither is it about her background, her fictional work or whether or not she is on hugging terms with Binyavanga Wainaina. Yet, two implied suggestions balloon out of the above quote.

First, that there is some sort of inherent connection between all brown-skinned persons. We know something. We necessarily connect. As one of my critics has rightly pointed out, all group identities are constructed. However some group identities run away with us. Some become harmful, or even work against the purpose they were created to defeat. This article argues that the “Afropolitan” is just such a group identity. It is exclusive, elitist and self-aggrandizing.

The second intimation furthers the point; Taiye Selasi suggests that she has minority status. That she, as a brown-skinned person, has minority status. That she, as a brown-skinned person, in her personal, soaringly educated, well-off, dominantly white social circle feels sometimes like she has minority status. Fair enough. Race-based judgment is always bad.

But I can see an elephant in the room, and he has dollar-signs for eyes. She goes to Africa; “I could see myself in these African cities: a designer in the vibrant clothes, a screenwriter in the desert scenes, a poet in the rhythms. I began to say that I wanted an “I ❤ Heart of Darkness” T-shirt, and only half in jest.” This experience may have been an interesting personal journey. And “I ❤ Heart of Darkness T-shirts” would be cool. But it tells us something about the socio-economic status of the “Afropolitan”, at odds with her implied marginalization, as she earlier on in the same piece levels herself with the brown-skinned waiter.

The Afropolitans Selasi describes belong to a narrow class; one that economist Guy Standing would perhaps call the “technical middle class”. What is most appalling is that Selasi excites this class to take up battle on behalf of the rest of Africa (Bye-Bye Barbar). “And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory,” (yes it does), “a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ — I say: yes it is, necessarily. It is high time the African stood up,” (Stood up to whom? For what? How?); “There is nothing perfect in this formulation; for all our Adjayes and Achidies, there is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays.”

This type of call to action takes me back a few decades (or is perhaps an indication that the discourse has not moved forward) to the first wave of African intellectuals as described by Simon Gikandi in his ‘African Literature and the Colonial Factor’. This wave of intellectuals distinguished itself by attempting resistance but using the colonial language, feeling strong affiliations to the colonisers’ structures and institutions. A call to arms of African intellectual diaspora, of a certain socio-economic class, educated in the West, and ready to charge off and save Africa is, in this light, unsettlingly familiar.

That is not to say a doctor or lawyer is not needed in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and that there is not much to do by way of development. Yet the way in which we phrase this call to action is important. It needs to be precise, concrete, thought-out, sustainable, collaborative. It needs to be divorced from any notion of racial determinism, from lofty, vague rhetoric. These things recreate the structures that are a big part of the problem in the first place.

What is more, it needs to be recognised that having brownish skin and a gap between the front-teeth does not necessarily mean a person possesses a deep understanding (or any understanding) of any particular African culture, complexity, needs, ways of thinking, ways of thinking about thinking etc.

Fronting a constructed group identity such as the ‘Afropolitan’ backs-up a (still) reductive narrative of Africa and the African, which in turn continues to be an important part of neocolonial soft power structures. Afropolitanism may have been a useful construct at some point, but I feel it is time to outgrow it, for everybody’s sake.

As an individual who happens to have one parent from the African continent I am offended at being put in a group and perceived to have certain interests and affiliations because of the nationality of one of my parents.

I do not have a drum beating inside me. The motherland is not calling me home. “We” are not a one-love tribe, yearning for the distant shores of Africa, or indigo or whatever one imagines the African continent as these days. “We” are a random sample in a huge pool of disembedded, modernised, travelling global citizens who each carry with us a personal, unique jumble of cultural inputs and influences from a range of places.

In other words, we are like most people.

And the most equity-promoting, barrier-breaking, racism-fighting thing “we” can do is see ourselves as just that — part of the noble and most ancient tribe…of Most People.

* This is an expanded and updated version of a post that first appeared on Think Africa Press.

Bombino: Nomad, but much more
Street Photography in Johannesburg: Akinbode Akinbiyi
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Marta Tveit

Marta Tveit is a Norwegian/Tanzanian writer currently living in London.

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30 thoughts on “The Afropolitan Must Go

  1. “But what about the non-affluent African diaspora? What about insanely hideous brown-skinned people? What about white African natives? What about Africans who despise jazz?”

    Brilliant.

  2. Daaaaaaaaaaaamn. Why so upset? Some people like labels. Some people like being part of groups. If you don’t identify with the label just say you don’t consider yourself part of that group. No need for a rant (albeit a very eloquent, academically argued rant). As you say, “Afropolitanism may have been a useful construct at some point, but I feel it is time to outgrow it, for everybody’s sake.” How long has it been around for? I wouldn’t even put the figure in double digits. Over the next decade Africans might start labelling the Portuguese expats in Luanda and Maputo “Europolitans” – who knows, who really cares? Is ‘Afropolitan’ really that offensive a term?? Considering all the things Africans and people with African roots are used to getting called I think this is the least of our problems.

  3. This will be a little long, so bare with me.

    I myself have grown tired of the word ‘afropolitan’, but every opinion piece I read that is critical of the term usually ends up parsing pointless minutiae, and often ends up reductive. Ironic, since the charge against afropolitan as a term is that it is reductive.

    First of all, nothing is 100% inclusive of all narratives, so the argument that some people are left out is a weak one out of the gate. I also found it curious that when the author addressed Selasi’s afropolitan representation of groups of people not mentioned, she asked “What about white African natives?”. Dear god, no. How many black Africans would even put forward that question in the first place? Only someone who is white or part white would even ask that. We hear quite a bit from “white Africans”. We always hear from them. Is their narrative and voice something that is lacking in the larger picture? From South Africa to Namibia to Zimbabwe to Angola, we hear from them. They often speak louder than the majority black natives. Even if they weren’t included this time around, so what? Do they have to be in everything? Someone can be discussing something pertaining to black Africans and black people, and some other voice will ask “what about white people”? It’s really exhausting and bothersome. It’s as if some people cannot envision a space or scenario without whites.

    I laughed at the part of the head nod because Selasi is right. It is true, and it has nothing to do with being an afropolitan in my estimation. In my experience, Black people give a headnod all the time as an acknowledgment. Everywhere I go, it’s the same type of acknowledgement from black strangers. From London to New York to Jamaica, to Lagos, to my father’s village in Rivers State, Nigeria, deep in the Niger Delta. It’s always like this. Selasi might be off on some things, but not here.

    I do understand why Selasi, or anyone else with her views might want to group Africans as afropolitans. What many critics fail to take into account is that many of these people are navigating in spaces in the west that are predominantly white. By default, they are “the other”. In situations like this, people seek out commonalities with others like them, even if it is as trivial as having African parents. That alone is an identifier. For example, when Nigerians are abroad, it’s not uncommon to see a Hausa or Fulani person hanging out with an Igbo person. Their commonality is that they are Nigerians. To an outsider that might not even cause them to blink an eye, but to a Nigerian that is a big deal. Back in Nigeria, these people would most likely not be hanging out together, or be in the same circles based on ethic group alone, not to mention the tumultuous histories their groups share. All that is gone when they are not in Nigeria, and in predominantly white spaces.

    Likewise, I can understand why people who are seemingly from different backgrounds fit under the same afropolitan umbrella when they are abroad based on the views of Selasi and people like her. You simply cannot juxtapose that with white people and them being europolitans in spaces where they are the default. Making a europolitans scenario is completely missing the point. And again, it’s back to white people. We need to stop putting a white face on everything to illustrate a point. One day, we will be able to be in a place where we can get a point across without lazily falling back to using white people for comparisons, or to discredit something pertaining to black people. Today is clearly not that day. Anytime this kind of argument is made, it solidifies and sets a precedent that whiteness is the standard, thus we must make a comparison to it to hit the hammer on the nail. I will always reject and denounce this method of making a point. Discredit something based on its shortcomings, not by basically saying “see, it’s silly when white people do it”.

    As a rule, it seems like these type of articles tend to juxtapose Africans with “most people”, and I take most people to mean white people. Most people is rarely in reference to Chinese and Indian proletariats, who are indeed the most people on the planet. Most people is always in regards to upwardly mobile, traveling, global citizens. And “global citizen” is just as insipid a term to me as afropolitan. Everyone I have encountered that describes themselves as a global citizen always lives in the west, and their global jaunts are the US and/or Europe almost exclusively. Anywhere else outside of that is just a momentary and temporary distraction. It seems that this is a prerequisite of being a “global citizen”. Yet, here you are criticizing afropolitan as a term, when traveling global citizens is your idea of most people. Have you met most people? I assure you, they aren’t this. Nonetheless, afropolitan critics are hellbent on proclaiming that Africans are just like “most people”, and that’s all they want to be seen as. Fine, you be that. Oddly enough, your description of most people as modernized, traveling global citizens ends up being a neutered version of afropolitan, without the hipness, afros, brown skin, various afrocentric descriptors and self-aggrandizement. I wonder if you noticed.

    You may not have the symbolic “drum beating in you”, but speak for yourself. Some of us do, and I don’t plan on relinquishing my drum beat anytime soon so that I too can be identified as being just like everyone else. I’m no afropolitan, but I don’t want to be in that “most people” group either. No thank you. I’m moving to a drum beat, and it is indeed African (Igbo and Andoni in my case). If some don’t have that, then that’s fine. It’s no big deal, we aren’t all the same. Let that drum beat be reserved for those who don’t want to be part of a homogenized group. I’m not going to fight to be identified as part of the status-quo. Enjoy being like “most people”, I’ll be listening to the drum beat with the other sons and daughters of the continent who take no solace or pride in publicly stating that the “motherland” doesn’t call them. She calls me everyday, and I respond.

  4. Its not that deep. Definitely not worthy of this diatribe. “Afropolitan” sounds like a harmless identifier and was not intended to be a catch-all descriptor. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it. The writers comment section of the blog where this essay first appeared did a good job of eloquently poking holes in this hot air baloon of an essay.

    Some highlights:
    “…nothing proves that simply describing oneself as “Most People” is a credible and sufficient STRATEGY in the face of persistent African stigmas”

    “what makes your conclusion any better than Taiye’s attempt to describe her challenge of identifying or explaining herself to others?”

    http://m.thinkafricapress.com/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fthinkafricapress.com%2Fculture%2Fafropolitan-must-go#2726

  5. (i) Did you really write an entire article about a reductionist narrative, by adding examples that conform with a reductionist narrative? And then get it accepted to be posted twice?

    (ii) Is there some trend of angry, brown Afropolitan females that keep writing long rants about identity issues? No one is begging you to wear the t-shirt/label/afro/weave/kitenge/dashiki, oh, biko!!

    (iii) and am actually disappointed in ‘Africasacountry’.com for this re-post. Although Atane’s response more than made up for it. Editors, you should consider him/her for an article worthy of reading.

  6. Its true, Marta, the Afropolitan really must go. The idea can be criticized from many angles, but our central concern should be the way it inserts itself seamlessly into a neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world. Like you say, it worrying to think that this “licenses others to reproduce the same narrative because it has been confirmed by an ‘Afropolitan’ herself.” (Did we forget Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” already?)
    Marta, don’t we have a name for this narrative that is being reproduced all over the mainstream media? Doesn’t “Africa rising” describe the alignment of Selasi’s brand of Afro-optimism with capitalist interests, made possible by turning a blind eye to actual experience of the majority of Africans living on the continent? Afropolitanism reprises the odious belief that people get the station in life they deserve, though this time we hear it in the celebration of just how awesome and chic these African urbanites are. There is no mind to history, to institutional obstacles, to structures permitting some to partake of the myth of the self-made man while barring others, tossing the others out like trash or maybe like the human flotsam of a pirogue capsized off of Lampedusa.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24380247

    • “Its true, Marta, the Afropolitan really must go. The idea can be criticized from many angles, but our central concern should be the way it inserts itself seamlessly into a neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world.”

      And why should some not imagine the world in a noliberal capitalist imaging? It’s their prerogative, surely?

      • The notion that we are all equally free to choose to be in the world however we like is one of those neoliberal capitalist narratives, Percy. If you’re a regular reader of AIAC, I’m surprised you’ve never heard about how scarring contemporary capitalism has been for the continent.
        Why shouldn’t someone imagine the world that way? Well, my post suggested a couple reasons why. I still think we must juxtapose Salasi’s opening paragraph from “Bye bye Barbar,” her image of those African migrants who didn’t make it to the chic London club, with those migrants languishing in a detention center in Spain. Or maybe we could think of the illegal immigrant sweeping the dance floor once these Afropolitans have finished chopping life and the club closes for the night. Is that global (non-)citizen an Afropolitan too?

  7. Love this blog – thanks for sharing this. It isn’t a term that I have come across but working with communities in Panama has exposed me to a bunch of different problematic viewpoints across the strata of Panamanian society. It’s very surprising what can be defended by people as “just normal” or “not offensive” etc so this article really rings a bell. Thanks for the lucid opinions.

  8. I’m not sure that the Afropolitan “must go”. You have asked why Taye Selasi dares to believe she can assign an identity to people that are very much capable of contriving an identity for themselves. But in saying the Afropolitan “must go” – where’s the difference? Moreover, of course it’s an exclusive identity group. That is the nature of identity: as much about who/what you are and who/what you are not.

    But one thing that must be said is that certain permutations of the “Afropolitan” are not necessarily that different to the old time “If We Can Pass For White We Shall” attitude (both literally and figuratively/culturally) or, in other words, a kind of self-erasure. It can be a desperate attempt at seeking acceptance from Westerners, particularly whites.

  9. Sour grapes? The author accuses Taiye of the very thing she’s doing herself, namely taking on the question of who speaks for whom….then redefining it her own way. She needs to make up her own effin’ term. Give Taiye a break, and any other African woman who wants to express herself.

    It’s impossible to constantly reference everyone all the time, and the writer seems to have a bit of a chip on her shoulder…as do many Africans who don’t like dealing w/the fact that there are affluent Africans. What, Africans with money should apologize? The only “true” Africans are poor Africans?

    She misses Taiye’s point: she is looking at the world through several realities…and Taiye is Western—why shouldn’t she write for Western folks, or for whomever she pleases? The author here wants to get into some narrow authenticity debate. Why doesn’t she go and attack some white folks who write about Africans?

    Simplistic, pedantic, and derivative. The author needs to create her own paradigm.

  10. I am so shocked that this Africa focused blog would even post this which borders on self hate. The author of the original concept never forced you to identify with being an Afropolitan. If you don’t want to be identified with Afropolitanism, Africa or the motherland, that is okay but don’t try and discredit people who are re imagining what Africa means to them.

  11. wow… i have intended to write similar article a while back in fact, once i wrote congratulating Binyavanga Wainaina for the well written critique of this vague term(Afropolitan)… my critique is more centered around the people which I saw in London calling themselves Afropolitans, I bet with you that they love the motherland so much but they wouldn’t set a foot here(Africa) because is too backwards(think of absence of nice cocktail bars in London or New YORK…) yet again thanks Marta for helping burying this vague,elitist,fake,racist and empty denomination (incert here)

    • Exactly Virgilio, and imagine if the Afropolitan heeds Selasi’s call to return and help fix the problems facing different places on the continent. Would it be the sort of condescending aid that the continent already gets plenty of from NGOs. Doesn’t Afropolitanism look onto Africa from above, what you call “elitist” vantage point.

      • My goodness. Accusing Afropolitans of being as bad as ngo’s?! Give people a break man. Elitist or non elitist, they’re a group that are unequivocally proud of their African roots, travel back and forth to the continent (increasingly so) and want sustainable progress eschewing th tone of voice and vocabulary that ngos and africa focussed charities have used for decades. The term will phase out eventually but it’s hardly harmful. Let’s be wary but remain optimistic and positive. Jeeeeez.

      • “my critique is more centered around the people which I saw in London calling themselves Afropolitans, I bet with you that they love the motherland so much but they wouldn’t set a foot here(Africa) because is too backwards(think of absence of nice cocktail bars in London or New YORK…)”

        Guys, guys…please hold on for a second. You need to retrace your steps with those comments. By virtue of several factors, notwithstanding having lived in several places in the diaspora AND Ghana for over a decade btw, I consider myself an Afropolitan to a large extent.

        I understand the distaste you might feel towards this term, but it does not, to me, solely mean a snobbish ridiculously rich group of Afro-esque hippie/bougie-types averse to actually inhabiting the continent. I’m not in Ghana at the moment, but my heart yearns to be back eventually. I love travel, I love different cultures, but I ultimately want to return to my motherland and contribute effectively.

        I don’t intend to rush back with blind passion however- I’m trying to get certain things in place first. I love and believe in the people- my people- greatly and mix with people of various [socio-economic; ethnic] backgrounds. I’m still learning, but please, for crying out loud, don’t reduce everyone identifying as “Afropolitan” to some West-worshipping pretentious African snobs.

        For some of us that haven’t had the “typical” upbringing in one African country (or one country for that matter), it can be tricky sometimes as you’re not entirely “of one culture”. Does that suddenly make you a criminal? NO. Why then criminalise people with a similar “multicultural situation”?

        “Afropolitan”, for me, is a comforting term- it comprises several of my experiences and allows me to embrace them. It makes me smile to know that there are people out there with similar experiences to myself. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way.

        Maybe you don’t share such an experience- fair enough. And maybe there are some people that act in a condescending manner- I’m not blind to that and I’m not keen on it either. But all I’m saying is- please don’t negate anyone’s experience. We all have a story to tell- whether you like it or not.

  12. Brilliant piece! This really is the best thing I’ve read on this site. So much of skin-politics is about entitlement and superiority based on preconceived assumptions about some sort of genetically acquired culture or attitude. The afro-Marxists depend almost entirely on racist generalisations for their arguments to make sense.

    • And who is Afro-Marxist here? What is that? Another vacuous category just thrown around? I think it is important to consider that if “Afropolitan” has been adopted as a category for conceptual, intellectual analyses of certain “African” forms of being, then people have a right to respond to it, whether they feel they belong to that category, or not. That said, what for me is in question is not the legitimacy of either Taiye, or Marta to engage with the term Afropolitan, but the rather shameful lack of intellectual ingenuity exhibited in most of the articles. ( I would also risk to say there is a funny turf war amongst mixed race “Africans”, those who are “Western” and those based in “Africa”. Some juvenile and sterile stuff).There are too many pre-existing concepts and categories that have sought to explore what Taiye just gives a different name, with all its chinks. In the end, the diversity amongst people we call “Africans” means there will be divergent views, especially when it comes to people making claims to belonging. But if we accept that Taiye does not represent Africans, and neither does Marta, and we are interested in an intellectually rigorous discussion, we will try to find ways of pursuing a productive conversation around processes of self-identification in this age of flux. If “Afropolitan” is just an opinion, not an intellectual category, then its just like the flying spaghetti monster, and we can throw tantrums about whether it exists or not.

      • Eish. Looks like I hit a nerve there. Many black people do not want to be defined as ‘African’, especially those with families that have lived elsewhere for many generations. It is patronising and ridiculous to assume (like this site does) that all dark skinned people all like soccer (specifically only black players), jazz, Hip-Hop and socialism.

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