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I am Afrikan! But What Does it Mean to be Afrikan? (Part 1)

13 May
This Is New Africa

This Is New Africa

In a lot of ways I suppose I can be described as an Afropolitan and I suppose in some ways I do identify as one. However, this does not dismiss the fact that I am struggling with what or how I really feel about certain aspects of it and that these aspects have caused some form of disdain within me. A few weeks ago, Minna Salami, an Afrikan woman writer/ blogger I admire and respect so much, posted a piece titled Can Africans have multiple subcultures? A response to “Exorcising Afropolitanism” on her blog Ms.Afropolitan and that, along with the conversations that took place beneath the post, is what inspired this post.

In many ways Afropolitanism is a wonderful thing and a necessary stage of evolution for the peoples of Afrika. It has brought about in the young people of Afrika a resurgence of their sense of pride in their identities and their origins, a little reminiscent of the start of contemporary Pan Afrikanism on the continent in the 40s. It is particularly popular amongst the young Afrikans in the diaspora and in a way they were the ones that coined the term, much like Pan – Afrikanism was popularised by Afrikans overseas around the beginning of the 20th century.

This pride, that has mostly been facilitated by Afropolitanism in recent years, is expressed in Afrikan pop culture today; in the music, in the visual and performing arts, in fashion and design, literature and socio-political activism, although the latter is not as popular among the, according to my own observations, mostly apathetic youth. It is because this pride finds rooting in the fact that Afrikaness has become a pop culture and a brand that I battle with completely embracing Afropolitanism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This is all great. Not only are we exhibiting pride in who we are and demanding recognition as equals in the global arena but we are also demanding that we participate and that we ourselves be the ones to bring what Afrika has to offer to the global table. My problem is that although we are doing this, we are not redefining how we participate or changing the narrative of what and who the Afrikan is in the least or rather in a way that I consider ideal. We are not really, or better yet, not always demanding equality and recognition based on who we were and who we can be in relation to our forebears but rather we are demanding recognition for our ability to be like the Westerner – as if to say “we are not the other because we can be just like you”.

Historically, what has been considered the brown person’s “greatest and only” contribution to the post modern state has mostly been in music and sport. This of course is something that we should continue to be proud of but it is not the only thing we are good for. A lot of people agree with me on this and we see this in articles on young brown achievers (mostly in the diaspora) and that is wonderful but what I find problematic is that we are calling for recognition of brown achievement only in spheres of influence that are not necessarily recognised as historically or culturally Afrikan like playing the violin or chess or in modern science and neglecting to call for, not just the recognition of the individuals themselves but the discipline i.e. why are we not calling for the international recognition of the central Afrikan kora as an indication of excellence for instance along with the individual that has mastered it?

A couple of months ago, people were hoping for the first “black” pope and my question is, why aren’t we calling for the recognition of Afrikan or Aboriginal Australian or Native American traditional spiritualities and their respective leaders? I mean, we recognise the Dalai Lama of Tibet so why can’t our spiritual leaders also receive the same respect and recognition? People the world over, including in Afrika, celebrated America’s first “black” president, even those of us who hail from countries in Afrika where Barack Obama would not be classified as “black”, while very few question when America will know its first Apache or Cherokee president just by way of example. I find it worrying that as a historically oppressed people who have experienced colonialism on the continent (and in South Africa apartheid) and in the Americas, slavery, we will celebrate our complicity in the continued oppression and marginalisation of the indigenous peoples of America.

In spite of this resurgence in Afrikan pride and the tidal wave that is Afropolitanism, I still come across a lot of young Afrikans who believe that prior to our encounter with the colonisers and slavers, we really were primitive savages with no form of civilization to speak of and we therefore should be grateful, to a certain degree for colonisation. We will widely recognise every other religion and faith on the planet except the faith of our ancestors. Instead, we, at best, dismiss it as backward and primitive and at worst we regard it as evil and demonic and call for its eradication. A lot of young Afrikans on the continent believe that Afrikans did not know God before the bible or the Q’uran reached our shores. I am all for freedom of worship and respect people’s religions but the moment people decide to ignorantly attack their indigenous beliefs and their respective practitioners, well, I get really riled up. To quote Ancesrtal Voices: Esoteric Knowledge

Since 9/11 ‘religious tolerance’ has become a key phrase in the mainstream, emphasising the need for respect of other faiths even if we do not share them. But does this apply to all? African spirituality despite being the oldest spiritual thought and expression known to humanity, is the least acknowledged and the most disregarded by society.

Our widely accepted alleged lack of contribution to the history of the world is barely being challenged in this new “we are Afrikan” “This is New Afrika (TINA)” fever that has taken us over and question is “what exactly is it that we are trying to achieve here with all this awesomeness around us?” As a people who for the last few centuries have been taught that we were nothing but uncivilized savages and barbarians surely this should not be the case in our demand for respect and recognition. For a long time it was believed that we were lesser and today, in more subtle ways, the same message is still being conveyed. Western science and the foreign religions all supported this belief. The belief that we are not completely human and that we are as good as mules to be exploited to the fullest by the more “superior” other. We have been taught to feel ashamed of our physical, social and cultural identities. Told that they were things in desperate need of remedying. This remedy? To aspire as far as possible to “elevate” ourselves to the level of other more superior cultures and races. We have challenged this of course but the narrative has not been about our competitiveness based on the identities of our ancestors prior to the forced assimilation but based on our ability to assimilate post the indoctrination.

We shun our traditions and call them harmful primitive and uncivilized, and this in the absence of historically common place prompting or encouragement from our oppressors. It is now a voluntary action on our part. When we do embrace them, we only embrace the commodified and bastardized (sometimes harmful) cultures and traditions the same way as the visitor does because we are now the visitors ourselves. Practices and beliefs that defined us in ancient times are now just as exotic to us as they are to the visitor that is enticed by the “beauty” of certain aspects of the other. But of course we are. Why wouldn’t we be? We have arrived after all. We are now included in the inner circle of whiteness and we have proven our right to be so. We will, as outsiders and “foreigners”, group our hundreds of cultures and merge them into one that is called Afrikan. Afrikan music, Afrikan print, Afrikan art, Afrikan language, Afrikan culture, Afrikan woman, Afrikan man. It is all one big village after all and we are all the same. We have created this homogenized product (not to be mistaken with united) that is to be pimped off to the world, including the peoples of Afrika themselves as a brand but this time we are doing it ourselves. Viva la revolucion! (tongue lodged firmly in cheek).

 

As if that’s not enough there does not appear to be a desire to really understand, respect, value or embody this culture, its origins or its journey into the future. Caucasians on the whole, even in their progressiveness and modernity, wear their whiteness with pride. They wear their “supremacy” and their privilege with pride. It is so embedded in them that it has practically become a part of their DNA. Even with the pan cultural or neo liberal, who may feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of their realities or may envy certain attributes in other people’s realities, one thing that remains certain is that they never truly feel shame or hatred towards their whiteness. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not! However, why do we not do that with our us-ness. Why is it so important to us to qualify ourselves by demanding a right to “white” pride and denouncing our right to “black” pride?

We define our success using their standards of measurement, be they modern or post modern. Our grasp of western forms of education puts us above others but never our grasp of our own forms of education. We no longer recognise or accept different ways of doing, knowing and being that exist outside of western formal structures. We will judge each other harsher for our inability to articulate ourselves in western languages than we do for our inability to articulate ourselves in our native tongues. In fact, the latter is more often applauded than ridiculed. We will take pride in the size, grandeur and location of our homes than we do in our family relations. We personalise wealth and limit it to the nuclear family and term that progress while doing away with recognising that family goes beyond the nuclear and family wealth is not just reserved for the nuclear. We focus more on the duration of our life spans than the positive impact on others that we make in our life times however long or short they may be.

Sure, we need to look towards the future, modernise and keep up with the times but at what and whose expense? Can we truly demand an equal share of the pie when we don’t really believe that we deserve it as we are? Can we really consider ourselves a formidable force to be reckoned with if we are just but trees without roots? We are convinced that we need to let go of the past and catch up with the rest of the world in the future and yet the rest of the world knows exactly what their past is, how it informs their present and how it will define their future and their role therein. Surviving monarchies in the west not only continue to exist but continue to be respected and yet the surviving  monarchies on the continent are held up for public scrutiny or completely ignored. I believe that as a group of peoples that have been taught to hate ourselves we desperately need to love ourselves first, find pride in where we come from and the contribution we have made to civilization and the modern world before we can seek to position ourselves at the global table. Until we do this, I believe that whatever or however many places we secure at said table, we will always be bottom feeders, be it explicitly or implicitly. Pride in ourselves is great and always welcome, but it is what informs and inspires that pride that is paramount. Afropolitanism can either make or break us and so I believe we must proceed with caution.

 

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

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