Appropriating The Self- Revisiting The Africa of Our Imaginations

200px-Imaro4In the wake of a controversy over who the culture of an entire continent belongs to within the context of its far-flung descendants (many quite involuntarily flung at that), I revisit a set of blog posts I wrote several years ago regarding speculative fiction, world building, “appropriation” and the Africa of our imaginations. Can one appropriate the self?

A Question of Appropriation

The article by writer Zipporah Gene that kicked off a maelstrom seemed destined to do so by its provocative title: Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks Yes that Means Everyone at Afropunk Too.

When I read those opening words, I thought to myself–“Well, this is either going to be a really nuanced and complex unpacking of issues of culture, adaptation and power rooted in specific histories…or a not very well thought-out piece that’s going to implode under the weight of its own assumptions.” Guess which way it went?

My first grince (a groan + a wince) was the presence of the word “tribal” throughout the article, a term that numerous African scholars and activists have been railing and writing against for several decades.To see it in this title, given the call for a respect for African culture, was rather…ironic.

In the piece, the author chided what was termed “cultural appropriation” by African-Americans of African dress, body art and style–an act seemingly done without meaning or understanding. The most flagrant offender singled out was the annual Afropunk festival held in Brooklyn (and other cities) with its wide eclectic range of Afro-Diasporic styles–a happening recently Columbused by the likes of Vogue in 2014 and catapulted into mass media. The meshing and use of these cultural styles by African-Americans was compared to “a White Australian guy with dreadlocks.” African-Americans were derided as persons who simply take elements of African culture and uses them as decoration without meaning or purpose. And it meandered a downhill route from there.

Numerous think pieces have been written regarding the article’s flaws. I suppose it’s only fair I give my own.

  • Many of the people at Afropunk are African-American by nationality but not perhaps by too many generations. This is New York after all. This is BROOKLYN. A good number were likely of recent African heritage. Others were of West Indian heritage. They were at times bringing together and mixing styles from Africa itself or styles that were not distinctly African at all, but created in the West Indian calabash of cultures so evident in events like Carnival. So “all the people at Afropunk” was a grand assumption that showed little understanding of the geographic context. Choosing exactly “who was who” is something the author could not have done through a few Instagram photos–unless the distinctly African-Americans were holding up some kind of “been here since Richard Allen and em'” badges. Given however the long circulation of black West Indians within the American fabric (Denmark Vesey, who planned one of the largest slave revolts in the country in 1822 South Carolina, was born and raised primarily in the West Indies until adulthood), demarcating those lines ain’t too easy either.
  • Words mean things. Cultural appropriation is a term denoting power, within a context of colonialism and exploitation in the Euro-Western world. There is no comparable historical context of colonialism, exploitation and unequal power dynamic between the descendants of the Black Atlantic and the larger African continent. There is a discussion to be had about cultural adaptation and sharing. There is also a discussion to be had about African-Americans existing within the media empire of the United States (which I’ll touch on later). But terming it “cultural appropriation,” given that term’s broader meanings, is about as useful and hollow as “reverse racism.” Words, again, they mean things.
  • The African Diaspora is made up overwhelmingly of the descendants of the trans Atlantic slave trade. Before 1820, other than the Spanish, more Africans arrived through the slave trade to the Americas than anyone else. For a very long time, the Americas of the Atlantic world was indeed very BLACK. Those descendants arrived with a cultural fabric that stretches across lands, people and ethnic groups from multiple locations in Africa. Those varied African cultures and people intermixed, exchanged, and fused over generations–so that Central African and West African deities would meet in “New World” creations like Candomble, Santeria and Vodou. These were further fused with the varied non-African cultures they encountered, creating wholly new traditions–many of them yet imbued with distant transliterated echoes of the African past. This synthesis is a unique experience that “cultural appropriation” does not begin to define, one that continues as the descendants of that forced migration across the Atlantic continue to reach back and draw in cultural traits, re-adapting and imbuing them with meanings that define their present existence. It is more than an “aesthetic.” It is more than a “White Australian guy with dreadlocks.” It is for some, as one writer termed it, a form of healing. Any discussion about Africa’s far-flung descendants, generations removed, must take this experience into account if we’re to have an honest or serious understanding.
  • African cultures do not remain locked into their one specific part of the continent. African artists especially have been borrowing and fusing from disparate cultures for decades. More well-known musicians like Angelique Kidjo, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, etc. drew on their own cultural backgrounds, and from across the continent as well–part of a Pan-Africanist vision that has old roots and part of the normality of human cultural exchange. This synthesis can be seen in African visual art, pop culture and literature. It’s not as if continental Africans all exist in balkanized communities and don’t share across ethnic, national or regional boundaries. And, as in anything else, this cultural borrowing is shaped by issues of power and access–and not equal in its occurrence or consumption.
  • Contrary to mythic tropes about Africa, the continent is not “Dark” nor has it been locked in some stasis of “noble” or “savage” primitivism. Africa and Africans have long engaged in cultural sharing and exchanges. The medieval Swahili city states adapted cultures from across the Indian Ocean and Asia, as they adapted African cultures in turn–creating traditions that now have roots across continents. West African and Central African cuisine was phenomenally altered as early Portuguese and Spanish traders brought American produce like peppers in the Columbian Exchange in the 1500s. A century later, the mass importation of Africans as slaves would send this newly created cuisine flowing back across the Atlantic–re-seeding the Americas with tastes and flavors both different and familiar. African culture is not “static,” either in the past or present day.
  • Cultural exchange across the African Diaspora does not flow in a singular current, it is bi-directional. When slavery ended in Brazil, some Afro-Brazilians returned to West Africa, bringing with them the synthesis of varied African groups in Brazil and non-African traits back to the continent. In the 1930s Ghana Highlife, the ancestor to much of modern African music, blended African sounds with Trinidadian calypso, African-American jazz and numerous other elements to create its distinction. In the 1970s Fela Kuti merged these already blended styles, borrowed stylistically across African ethnic groups, added in African-American soul and fused a new form of Afrobeat. Today, African music, dress, dance and style, is as much a product of internal culture as it is the cultural music, dress, dance and style of the Americas. Soca and reggae punctuate African popular music and style today on nearly every level. Hip Hop, born of Afro-Latins, Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans in the Bronx, touches every corner of the continent. African club dance styles are fusing with West Indian and African-American dances through the power of Youtube, creating forms that are as much the product of the Diaspora as they are the continent. So the cultural sharing happens both ways.
  • That thing you think is “African” may not be. Alongside this understanding of non-static African culture, is the mistake of assuming that everything labeled “African” has definitive African roots there. Many African patterns and textiles for instance have their roots in Indonesia, a product of the Dutch colonial exchange. Are they African now in their utilization and the meaning they’ve been given? Certainly. But their roots are multifaceted, and their meanings from Indonesia have been translated to fit the African experience. Returning to that “White Australian guy with dreadlocks”…the origin of “dreadlocks” as a modern hairstyle remains in dispute. It’s usually traced to the Rastafarian Movement of Jamaica, who in turn often assert a root to film images of the anti-colonial Mau Mau Movement of Kenya. But many assert its origins likely lay in East Indian hairstyles of Hindu holy men, which is the most likely origin of gangja smoking. So that quintessential hairstyle that now defines black existence across the Diaspora, may have had its roots in South Asia and not Africa. It was certainly popularized by Afro-Jamaicans, not continental Africans. Like Indonesian textiles in African print, do dreadlocks now have a different meaning rooted in the Black Diasporic experience? Certainly. Was their popularity in the modern world across varied cultures a product of black culture? Again, certainly. But the roots are complex. So every person you see at Afropunk or at West Indian Carnival may not be pulling on an age-old “African” trait–at least not directly–but something reinvented and created within the experience of the Black Atlantic.

This in the end (and much more I’m certain) is what the article neglected to take into account. And that’s a shame. Because there is a worthy discussion to be had here. And that revolves around power and access inherent in this cultural sharing (and consumption) when dealing most specifically with the American part of the Diaspora. There is a privilege there. And while it is marginalized within the West and is incomparable (historically or in sheer depth) to the broader white hegemonic privilege, it exists nevertheless.

I attempted to touch on this back in 2012, in a 3-part series titled “Spears, Sorcery & Double-Consciousness.” The purpose was to explore this very issue, but within the genre of speculative fiction. There I tackled questions of identity and cultural adaptation in speculative fiction created in the West that re-imagine Africa. I also pondered the issue of “appropriation,” and asked what it meant when the marginalized “other” in the West looks out upon the “others” of the non-Western world.

But if we’re going to have that conversation the unique history of the Black Diaspora and its long relationship(s) to Africa must be examined and understood. Because none of this is new.

Negotiating Identity in the Afro-America(s)

What is Africa to me? Copper sun or scarlet sea / Jungle star or jungle track / Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang / When the birds of Eden sang? / One three centuries removed / From the scenes his fathers loved / Spicy grove, cinnamon tree / What is Africa to me?–Countee Cullen, Heritage (1925)

When Countee Cullen wrote the first stanza to his lengthy poem, he was participating in a long-practiced ritual of black negotiation of identity and culture in the Western World–one that had been echoed and explored by poets like Phyllis Wheatley, writers like Alexandre Dumas and revolutionaries like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared on his founding of the new republic of Haiti: “I have avenged America!” This was part and parcel of what had brought the Black Atlantic into being: circulating culture, ideas, thoughts and human bodies across an ocean, kingdoms, empires and nation-states.

As early as 1897, the social activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois in his expose, Strivings of the Negro People, called the discordant sense of belonging and alienation of African-American existence the “double-consciousness,” created through the “othering” of people of African descent in the United States that reduced them to a state of colonized persons:
One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with [wish] to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
Du Bois in the “Negro” links himself to Africa. It is the Negro’s dark skin, his very “blood” that marks him as different, the “other,” set apart from the dominant “whiteness” that typifies American self-perception. For Du Bois, Africa was a distant home, a place of “Negro beginnings,” distinguished by ancient kingdoms and rulers–whose deeds and imagery would appear in later books or headline the NAACP Crisis, which he managed. Neither was Du Bois unfamiliar with the Africa of the present, becoming a staunch Pan-Africanist and helping to draft the anti-colonial London Resolutions of the Second Pan-African Congress of 1921, insisting that Africa be ruled by Africans.

In 1911, the Afro-Puerto Rican historian and social activist Arturo Schomburg joined with the African-American journalist and Pan-African nationalist John Edward Bruce to set about their own search for identity. Schomburg was born in Spanish held Puerto Rico to a black mother from St. Croix (then a Danish Caribbean island) and a German merchant. Bruce had been born a slave in Maryland five years before the Civil War. In Harlem, both men joined a gathering of intellectual minds from across the Black Atlantic, leading them to found the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911. The society, which was predated by the 1897 American Negro Historical Society, brought together African-American, African and Afro-Caribbean scholars–combining the minds of the Black Atlantic. Their aims were to create a history of “the Negro race” irrespective of regional or national boundaries–during a time when such things were defined by European colonization or American hegemony.

Schomburg and Bruce’s cross-cultural endeavors and Du Bois’s aspirations were one of the varied influences that helped spark the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Writers like Countee Cullen pulled on histories and cultures across the diaspora, and tried to identify their place in relationship to an American present and a nebulous African past.

For many Renaissance writers, Africa was not just an “exotic” allure, but a genealogical memory of which they had been robbed. The Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay in his 1922 Outcast, spoke of this theft, stating: “For I was born, far from my native clime,/ Under the white man’s menace, out of time.” Gwendolyn Bennett in her 1920s poems dreamt of an Africa of “slim palm trees” and “lithe Negro girls,” where she could listen to “silent sands, / Singing to the moon” before the face of the Sphinx, and hear the “chanting / Around a heathen fire / Of a strange black race.” This was the glorious Africa she believed surged within the sad souls of an oppressed people, that lay “hidden” behind the dehumanizing “minstrel-smile.”

In the early 1920s, the poet Langston Hughes traveled throughout much of West and Central Africa. The Africa he saw, fractured by class, caste and in the grip of European colonialism, was far from the romantic ideals set forth in his earlier poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Nevertheless, it remained a source of pride and continued to appear in his writings. It is this attachment to Africa, this loyalty and longing for a perceived ancestral home, that would unite so much of the black Western world against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Visions of Africa, sometimes stereotyped, sometimes romanticized, was a source of pride and power, a place to which Black identity could anchor and return. It was an identity that would negate the grip of white supremacy in its varying forms of historical exclusion, scientific racism, Jim Crow terrorism, and colonialism. It was in many ways the Africa of our imagination.

The Africa of Our Imaginations

The negotiation of identity to the African past, and present, remained key throughout the ages–by radical historians like the Jamaican-American J.A. Rogers to Nina Simone’s Afro-Cosmopolitan existence. It has as well been a theme within the works of speculative fiction, which has sought to re-imagine Africa into fantasy pasts, retro-futures, near futures and beyond. While writers on the continent, or more recently migrated, are today ushering in an African SFF cultural Renaissance, some of the pioneering works of speculative fiction featuring Africa came early from those in the Diaspora.

As early as 1903 African-American writer Pauline Hopkins published a serial of short stories in the magazine Colored American (which she would later take over as editor) called Of One Blood; Or, The Hidden Self. Subverting the tropes of white supremacy and black inferiority, the stories follow an African-American named Reuel Briggs. Raised on the racism so pervasive in America, Briggs has come to believe in his own inferiority and has little concern of the black past. This changes when he travels to Ethiopia and finds the lost 6000 year old ancient city of Telessar, which uses futurist technology based on crystals, suspended animation and a means of telepathy.

Pauline’s novel is one of the first by an African-American that uses an African setting, and pulls on historical romance, science fiction, fantasy and mystery to confront–and in some ways overthrow–white supremacy. Hopkins in fact stated the story had social and political relevance, and was intended to “raise the stigma of degradation from [the Black] race.” In 1905 she followed with a pamphlet on African history titled “A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants.”

George Schuyler pulled on an African setting in part again in the 1930s, creating his Black Empire–the story of an African-American mad scientist, Dr. Belsidius, who draws together the Black Diaspora to overthrow European colonialism in Africa. Dr. Belsidius and his shadowy Black Internationale manage to free Africa in the end, creating a new futurist society in a world where the shackles of white hegemony have been broken. Unlike Pauline Hopkins, Schuyler was writing satire, meant to mock rather than inspire. Yet in its ultimate utopian goals, it was a vision of using speculative fiction to both negotiating and bridging identities across the Atlantic.

The tradition has continued, from Octavia Butler to Sun Ra, whose speculative imaginings of Africa and the diaspora–past, present and future–have been termed Afrofuturism. And of course all of this is joined by African writers engaged in magical realism like Ben Okri’s Starbook or Nnedi Okorafor’s modern and futurist African-inspired fantasy. My own involvement with re-imagining Africa and cultural borrowing and adaptation have mostly however been in more traditional fantasy. And the progenitor of this style is undoubtedly Charles Saunders.

In the 1970s, African-American (now Afro-Canadian) writer Charles Saunders began publishing short fantasy stories in small magazine presses. From the beginning, his stories pulled on African history, as opposed to, as he put it, “the usual Celtic, Arthurian and Scandinavian underpinnings” that dominated (and continue to dominate) the modern fantasy shelves of bookstores. “I saw a need,” Saunders claimed, “and believed I could fulfill it.” This would lead to the now famous and ground-breaking Imaro saga. Set in a precolonial African-based world of spears, monsters and magic called Nyumbani, Imaro tells the tale of an outcast warrior and his larger-than-life quest for his unknown origins.

Saunders, who had grown up reading the likes of Edward Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels and Robert E. Howard’s Conan, struck upon the idea of writing fantasy during the heady political days of the 1960s–in part due to the heightened race consciousness about identity and Africa, which he credits to a good number of African students at his predominantly black college: “I started reading more about the history and culture of Africa. And I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course.”

Saunders legacy dots the attempts at traditional fantasy in the Black Diaspora.* In 2008, indie author Milton J. Davis introduced the aptly named world of Uhuru in his Meji saga. Like Saunders, Davis was inspired by a diversity of popular speculative fiction, including Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert E. Howard. After reading the Guadeloupean author Maryse Conde’s Segu, a work of historical fiction depicting 18th century West Africa, he was inspired to create a fantasy world drawing on African history and mythos. By 2011, having been introduced to each other through their respective works, Saunders and Davis collaborated to co-edit a volume of writings called Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology. Saunders had coined the term Sword and Soul sometime after 2005, to make the sub-genre distinct from the larger Euro-dominated Sword and Sorcery. The anthology had a followup in 2014 called Sisters of the Spear: an anthology of “seventeen original and exciting” fantasy tales featuring heroines of color, set in realms of magic, monsters and myth outside of the Eurocentric norm.

Appropriating the Self

I was not only a fan of those works, but a contributor.

Though my fantasy writing isn’t always “Sword & Soul,” I found my first alternative visions to mainstream fantasy in Africa’s varied histories, languages, folklore and cultures. These worlds are not Africa per se (you wouldn’t recognize it on any map), but drawn from various composites and semblances to people, kingdoms and myth.

Charles Saunders called his act of cultural adaptation and reconfiguration, gumbo:

Everything I absorb goes into a constantly simmering gumbo in my imagination and, when I write, I dip a ladle into that gumbo, and I’m always surprised at what comes out. It’s usually a ‘what-if’, as in ‘what if the Zulus and Masai were neighbours?’ or ‘what if the chemosit, a mythical monster of Mali, were real?’ or ‘what if an African group had domesticated the Cape buffalo and used it for warfare?’

And that is of course at the heart of speculative fiction in the Diaspora and the Africa of our imaginations. Like a DJ, it engages in the fine art of sampling, stringing together beats to create an original track. It’s as much the means to Charles Saunders fictional Nyumbani to that painted Afrofuturist face at Afropunk. And while both Saunders and those celebrants at Afropunk are marginalized voices, they are born within the Western landscape.

There is a privilege in being Western, even at its fringes. How does this power play out in our re-imagining of Africa? What aesthetic are we using as we pick and choose from this larger African milieu? How does our blending and synthesis of African culture–something we’ve been doing in the Diaspora since “talking half African” in the belly of those ships–rewrite and re-purpose Africa for our own means?

I view these imagined Africas of my creation as subversions of the dominant Eurocentric narrative: a type of postcolonial fantasy. But by our juxtaposition in the global consumption capital of the world, are we afforded a unique access to consume these distant cultures as we see fit? How does this fit into the larger issue of visibility and access within America’s mass media hegemony?

Is there a way in negotiating our identity, within the context of the psychic terror of the Middle Passage that brought it into being, that we can engage in some introspection? And can those from whom we are borrowing find empathy for this unique position? Further, how do they in turn consume the culture of the Black Diaspora (with all its media wrought distortions) that is consistently streamed across their radios, televisions, computer screens and smartphones? Is that Hip Hop group in Luanda dressed in the style of the Bronx born B-boy given leave to hurl “nigga” so casually? A term born in an Afro-American context? Is it his to use as well, added to his own particular history and negotiation of race, colonialism and identity?

Answers to those questions? Sorry, I don’t have them. But they deserve a discussion. And they deserve (need) to be unpacked in the context of our multiple intersecting histories. That however requires care, depth and some mutual understandings–ill afforded by provocative accusations that breed more acrimony than conversation.

*There are African writers, both on the continent or in the Diaspora, doing this more traditional fantasy writing. African fantasy writer Anthony Kwamu is the author of Timbuktu Chronicles: Aida and the Chosen Soldier, and recently contributed the story The General’s Daughter to Griots. Indie Nigerian author Ifedayo Adigwe Akintomide draws on traditional Africa to tell his tale of the sword-and-spear wielding Konga, who battles monsters, magic and gods in kingdoms like Ile-Ife. The blog Indi-gene-ous, started in 2011, features fantasy stories written by Nigerian author Gene O. The blog’s stated purpose is “to create and promote African fantasy . . . though most of the tales . . . may not be set in actual African locations or be about actual traditions, all the characters, environments, stories and ideas are drawn from the rich historical diverse cultures of the great continent of Africa.”

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