Exorcizing Afropolitanism: Binyavanga Wainaina explains why “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan” at ASAUK 2012

[Reblogged from Africa In Words]

BinyavangaWainainaTraces of Binyavanga Wainaina’s address, “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan”, delivered at September’s African Studies Association UK 2012 conference, have lingered with me over the past few months: the image of invisible digital networks of texts reaching ghost-like across continents, genre-bending “digital pulp,” and a pan-African literature that moves via twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping container. If many earlier African print publications—such as popular magazines and newspapers—have been described as “ephemeral,” the new literary world that Wainaina depicts is distinctlyspectral.

When I told Katie Reid of AiW that Wainaina’s lecture was haunting me, she suggested that “Africa in Words” might be an ideal space to “exorcise” these spirits. It turns out that Katie’s idea was more fitting than I first realized. Wainaina’s address was a kind of exorcism in its own right, an attempt to rid African literary and cultural studies of the ghost of Afropolitanism, a term that perhaps once held promise as a new theoretical lens and important counterweight to Afro-pessimism, but that has increasingly come to stand for empty style and culture commodification.

The origin of this portmanteau (created out of the words ‘African’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’) is usually traced to an article titled “Bye-Bye Barbar” by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, published in the LIP Magazine in 2005. Tuakli-Wosornu uses the term primarily to describe Africans living, and often born outside of, the continent. She writes, “Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many. 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.”[1] Achille Mbembe later popularized this term in academic discourse with his 2006 essay “Afropolitanism,” in which he attempts to reterritorialize Afropolitanism, in part bydrawing attention to the long history of migration to, from, and within the African continent. His interest is not only in Tuakli-Wosornu’s “global Africans” but also in the world in Africa.[2] According to Mbembe, “cultural mixing” or “the interweaving of worlds” has long been an African “way of belonging to the world”—whether one resides on the continent or not (28).

And yet, for Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification—a phenomenon increasingly “product driven,” design focused, and “potentially funded by the West.” Through an Afropolitan lens, “travel is easy” and “people are fluid.” Certainly, magazines, designers, and business execs have seized the term for their own purposes. imagesOn the homepage of Afropolitan magazine, based out of South Africa, we find an essay on the legacy of the ANC alongside an article titled, “Fashion Conscious Carpeting…so much more than just good looks!” as well as an ad for “Samsonite B-Lite Fresh” suitcases.[3] There is also an Afropolitan Shop, which features kente-accented laptop bags amongst a host of other products from African designers. Touting the principle of “Trade Not Aid,” the Afropolitan Shop defines Afropolitanism as “a sensibility, a culture and a worldview.”[4] We see how easily style and “worldview” become conflated, how not only products, but people and identities are commoditized. Indeed, it’s hard not to miss this in Tuakli-Wosornu’s description of stylish Africans “coming soon or collected already” in a Euro-American metropolitan center “near you.”

Style, in and of itself, is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the attempt to begin with style, and then infuse it with substantive political consciousness that is problematic. For example, Tuakli-Wosornu maintains that “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at Medicine Bar on Thursdays,” but continues, “To be fair, a number of African professionals are returning; and there is consciousness among the ones who remain, an acute awareness among this brood of too-cool-for-schools that there’s work to be done.” Similarly, in a relatively recent article on Cnn.com titled “Young, urban and culturally savvy, meet the Afropolitans,” Afropolitan magazine’s editor, Brendah Nyakudya asserts that “to be a true Afropolitan takes more than a multi-cultural background and the right record collection—it means having a commitment to making the continent a better place.”[5] Although Mbembe’s position is perhaps more nuanced, it is strikingly similar. Distinguishing Afropolitanism from pan-Africanism and négritude, Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as “an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity—which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world” (29). While Mbembe warns that pan-Africanism, by contrast, has become “institutionalized and ossified” and can slip easily and dangerously into nativism, we can perhaps also see that its longer history of Africa-centered engagement creates a more stable foundation—which, unlike Afropolitanism, is less likely to be used for aesthetic purposes alone. Afropolitanism, it seems, is a portmanteau in more ways than one: it is a general brand of cosmopolitanism cloaked in African style, as well as a literal “coat hanger” for changing fashions. Hence Wainaina’s intervention, his exorcism of this ghost that several years ago could have perhaps been seen as a lively spirit.

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