Editorial: Whose Diaspora Is This Anyway? Continental Africans Trying on and Troubling Diasporic Identity

By Wright, Handel Kashope | Critical Arts, January-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Editorial: Whose Diaspora Is This Anyway? Continental Africans Trying on and Troubling Diasporic Identity


Wright, Handel Kashope, Critical Arts


Introduction: Diaspora and the Complexity of African Identity

   No matter where you come from
   As long as you're a black man
   You're an African.

   (Peter Tosh, "African")

   Since I was born in the Antilles, my observations and my conclusions
   are valid only for the Antilles--at least concerning the black man
   at
   home. Another book could be dedicated to explaining the differences
   that separate the Negro of the Antilles and the Negro of Africa.
   Perhaps
   one day I shall write it. Perhaps too it will no longer be
   necessary--a
   fact for which we could only congratulate ourselves.

   (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask)

   Its not where you're from, its where you're at.

   (Rakim, in Paul Gilroy, Small Acts)

   Just because the mangrove tree lives in the middle of a river,
   that does not make it a crocodile.

   (Nigerian proverb, in Ola Rotimi, The Gods Are Not to Blame)

   our voices rise,
   angled against the equator;
   we think Kew gardens and
   Browning, even that eve bitter
   so cold, and against St. Agnes;
   for, the seasons right, we go
   (one foot raised up
   against the navel)
   on pilgrimages.
   for, having believed, then
   men love to go on pilgrimages.

   (Lemuel Johnson, "A Dance of Pilgrims")

   In terms of my cultural and more specifically musical
   identifications,
   I'm as white, queer, English, and black as I am Pakistani.

   (Nabeel Zuberi, Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music)

Each of the half dozen brief excerpts above could be read as saying something about Africans, either continental or diasporic or both. Read in the sequence in which they appear here, they are a series of statements about African identity and location, each of which serves to endorse, complicate or trouble the others. The lyrics from Jamaican Peter Tosh's (1976) reggae song, "African" identifies a collective African identity based on blackness as a fundamental unifying characteristic that unites (or ought to unite) all black people, irrespective of current location. The excerpt from Martiniquean Franz Fanon's (1967) Black Skin, White Masks portrays identity based on a similar underlying notion of racial unity but it complicates Tosh's portrayal by insisting there are significant differences between continental and diasporic Africans, due in part to their different experiences, which are in turn related to their different locations. The black English hip-hop artist Rakim's (in Paul Gilroy, 1993) postmodern assertion is unabashedly presentist and location centred, insisting that black identity is not about some master narrative of one's history or distant ancestral 'home' (Africa) but is being forged in the here and now (somewhere outside the continent and moment to moment) from the hodgepodge of cultural elements available to one and which one produces. The Nigerian proverb employed in Ola Rotimi's (1971) play goes against Rakim's presentist and hybrid notion of identity by insisting on the discreteness and permanence of identity and on difference as alterity, irrespective of supposedly shared cultural and physical environment. The excerpt from the Sierra Leonean Lemuel Johnson's (1995) poem, "A Dance of Pilgrims" troubles virtually all the previous depictions, going against the grain of both postmodern notions of identity and modernist portrayals of Africa and Africans by portraying continental Africans who refuse to be fixed in an African location and culture, who prefer to both wax nostalgic about the (former) colonizer's home and culture as partly theirs as well and to actually sojourn periodically in pilgrimage from their African margin to the(ir) European mother/promise land. Finally, the quote from Pakistani-English academic Nabeel Zuberi's (2001) book troubles a crucial and taken-for-granted idea underlying all of the previous depictions, namely that African diaspora and black diaspora are synonymous, by introducing a British, more comprehensive notion of blackness (that includes South Asianess), insisting on the importance of a multiplicity of identifications over a singular identity, troubling the heteronormativity of blackness by naming queer blackness, and identifying a reconceptualized blackness as part of the diaspora of the Indian sub-continent rather than Africa. …

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