African Identities: Race, Nation, and Culture in Ethnography, Pan-Africanism, and Black Literatures

By Kadiatu Kanneh | Go to book overview
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‘COMING HOME’

Pan-Africanisms and national identities

Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and bond with, one’s native place; what is true of all exile is not that home and love of home are lost, but that loss is inherent in the very existence of both.

(Edward Said, ‘Reflections on Exile’)

The political and literary struggles to locate and name Africa and its meanings involve a range of histories needing to be read in ways that acknowledge the various, specific textualities informing them. African identities become meaningful and politically contested within historically located debates and theories of race, nation, culture. The formation of postcolonial nation states, and the genesis of national consciousness in colonial African countries, are coherent within debates about pan-Africanism and within conceptions of Africa as a (heterogeneous) whole. In this chapter, I explore how African cultures become understood as national cultures, and how a discourse of modernity fundamentally informs constructions of African identities. The complicated relationship between colonial domination and indigenous self-understanding, the impact of Black diasporic thought on African knowledge and racial theories, and the significant gaps which frequently divide the African (coastal) capital from the rural interior in a long-standing and important ideological split between ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, are all factors that enable readings of African diasporic and Black identities as historically textured and politically determined constructs, contructs which rely on particular understandings of time, memory and race. In order to examine the relationship between specific national histories and pan-African consciousness, this chapter will move from a mapping of Sierra Leone as a colony and a nation, its significance in early Africanist thought and its importance as a site for exploring Creolised and diasporic Black cultures, to a reading of African-American appropriations of Africa as a focus for ‘racial’ memory and ideas of modernity. Sierra Leone will function as a case-study and a locus for examining how indigenous (‘traditional’, ‘tribal’) identities fit uneasily and disjunctively within a pan-Africanist framework that insists on the travelling modernity of Black cultures and on the primacy of the metropolis.

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