Retrospect
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EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

Understanding Afropolitanism 

Understanding Afropolitanism 

Afropolitanism has evolved from a rubric for describing an individual’s transnational identity to a phenomenon that accounts for the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of an individual and community with African heritage. The neologism, a recent one at that, is continuously in the process of being defined and redefined as supporters and critics alike challenge the epistemology and value given to it. This piece will trace Afropolitanism’s genealogy, focusing on the vanguards of the notion as well as its shortcomings. 

The origins of the term ‘Afropolitan’ have been traced back to an article originally published in the LIP Magazine edition of March 2005 by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, now Taiye Selasi, titled ‘Bye-bye, Babar (Or: What Is an Afropolitan?)’. Playing on the line actor Eddie Murphy delivers in the feature film Coming to America, Selasi not only draws attention to the widespread concept of Africa fabricated by Western thinkers and media but also to the present globalised state of the world. Drawing on her personal experience of diaspora – being of Ghanaian-Nigerian descent, born in Britain and raised in America; she also lived in multiple European cities including Berlin and Rome – she characterises the Afropolitan as someone you will know when you see based on: 

‘… our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic success. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian/Jamaican, Nigerian/Swiss; others are merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic language or two, we understand some indigenous language(s) and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on the Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or simply an Auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the institutions (corporate, academic) that know us for our famed work ethic. We are Afropolitans – not citizens, but Africans, of the world.’ 

Selasi traces the genealogy of the Afropolitan to the 1960s when young and gifted Africans left the continent in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad due to the unrest and uncertainty during the decolonisation process. Approximately 27,000 skilled Africans departed for the West between 1960 and 1975 and 40,000 between 1975 and 1984. By 1987 this number had nearly doubled, with people migrating predominately to the popular destinations of Canada, Britain, and the United States of America, and some on scholarship, a result of Cold War politics, to areas like Poland and Germany. The original diasporic individual sought security in traditional professions whereas their children, the first-generation immigrants, redefined what it was to be African in the twenty-first century by branching into fields of media, politics and music. Selasi notes prominent figures such as Claude Gruzintsky and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as part of the ‘twenty-first century African’ whose distinguishability is the willingness to engage with, critique and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them.  

A prominent feature here is the rejection of essentialism the Afropolitan values through comprehending what is failing in Africa while simultaneously honouring what is unique. Being African to this generation, according to Selasi, means transcending the stereotypes and media representations of hunger, war, and poverty, yet it carries a sense of shame for not identifying purely with one’s parents’ culture, a culture depicted as ‘less advanced’. What is left for the diasporic African is the task, ‘to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources,’ in this uncomfortable space of cultural ‘otherness’, what Selasi describes as being ‘lost in transnation’. Ultimately, she suggests that identity in this case must be built among the dimensions of nation, race, and culture with subtle tensions, in hopes of defining the relationship to one’s loci. How one is perceived is in part a matter of affect. The progression of a national identity is cultivated subjectively through individual choices (from passports to pronunciations) which are often subconsciously implemented into one’s personality. Similarly, race is a question of politics rather than pigmentation, as being Black is a matter of subjectivity and relative to where one locates oneself in the history that constructed ‘Blackness’ along with the political process that continues to configure it. Selasi rounds-up her definition by stating: ‘If nothing else, the Afropolitan knows that nothing is neatly black or white; that ‘to be’ anything… is largely to act the part’. 

Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe situates Selasi’s neologism within a pedagogic realm, transforming a conversation identity and diaspora into an epistemological discussion. Mbembe claims there to be three paradigms dominating African discourse: firstly, the variations of anticolonial nationalism; secondly, the forms of ‘African socialism’ developed from reinterpretations of Marxism; and lastly, Pan-Africanism’s influence on racial and transnational solidarity. He states that these have all become institutionalised and ossified, incompetent in analysing newer transitions as, being a product of their time, they inhibit any ability to contribute to contemporary thought on culture and democracy. Diaspora is a sphere these dominant discourses fall short of as new generations start to reconfigure who is African and who is not away from the traditional understanding that was measured by racial difference. African citizenship can therefore be claimed by a wider range of persons who are not merely Black Africans but producers of influential African art and culture in diasporic communities of the globalised world. Mbembe highlights the fact that one is unable to classify who is African and who is not without taking into account the immense history of mobility outside and within the continent. Africa has been a point of departure and arrival for centuries, mainly represented by routes across the Maghreb, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. This ‘worlds-in-movement’ phenomenon reflects pre-colonial histories of internal mobility before being compromised by the ‘Scramble for Africa’ which must be taken into account to be completely understood. Mbembe suggests this phenomenon be studied through the facets of dispersion and immersion; recognising the fundamentalist theory of ‘custom’ and ‘autochthony’ as redundant and considering the cultural complexities of diaspora as, ‘it is this cultural, historical, and aesthetic sensitivity that underlies the term ‘Afropolitanism’. 

Chielozona Eze has further applied the neologism to tackle the question of identity, reinforcing Selasi’s point that, ‘identity is no longer shaped exclusively by geography, blood, or culture understood in oppositional terms. On the contrary, identity is now relational.’ Thus, by challenging the operational definition of Africa, one is not rejecting the continent or concept but rather advocating for a new and more nuanced comprehension of identity. Furthermore, Eze highlights the fact that reality in the twenty-first century is globalised by technological innovation; it is hyperlinked and therefore hypercultural, producing a culture and identity that is delocalised. Inquiring what it means to be African, to stake that claim in a world where people are supposedly no longer recognisable is the foundation of Eze’s epistemology regarding Afropolitanism.

In the 1980s and 1990s, one’s authenticity as an African was defined by denouncing any explicit cultural identification with the oppressive Occident while simultaneously trying to establish a common identity for all people with dark skins. Ideologies and organisations such as Pan-Africanism, Garveyism and the values of the Nation of Islam all aligned with this notion of solidarity through denial of Western constructs. The vanguard of this reproval was the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe who promoted the representation of African identity through African literature. Contextually, being African held a certain implication attached to being Black, which was consequentially seen as a disability of not being European, an ‘other’. Eze sympathises with this generation of Achebean thinkers as by resisting the notion of European-ness, they were subconsciously adopting a nativist, relativist, and autochthonous stance which was respectively effective during the time where generations of African and African heritage had to fight an overwhelmingly racist world. The globalised world of the twenty-first century highlights the pitfalls of these ideologies which are inherently essentialist, an epistemological notion Afropolitanism strictly rebuts.  

There has been as much criticism as there has been praise for the neologism in all its forms. Amatoritsero Ede approaches Afropolitanism from a cultural materialist angle drawing attention to the restrictions of the term and emphasising that it is a predominately metropolitan concept of self-representation and Black agency amongst creatives and businesspersons who are either exiled, migrants, or diasporic. By privileging aesthetics over ethics, Ede stresses that: 

‘While the idea of Africa cannot be said to have been temporally static, its Afropolitan… disavowal does not constitute a sophisticated or nuanced expression of African difference but rather the desire for metropolitan sameness simply because it is powerful.’ 

Emma Dabiri and Maximillian Feldner have each further explored this exclusivity of the Afropolitan, calling out the elitism and affluence attached to the neologism by reinforcing Ede’s perspective that Afropolitanism only extends: 

‘To members of metropolitan societies who have acquired symbolic capital and enjoy financial freedom, while excluding a whole host of African migrant populations who lack means and agency.’  

Dabiri is particularly curious about Afropolitanism’s antagonism with consumerism which she states is well documented amongst Afropolitans and parallel to elitism and commercialism. Drawing much inspiration from the works of Frantz Fanon, she poses the question:  

‘In what way does Afropolitanism go about challenging the enduring problematics of duality and compartmentalised society, identified by Fanon as one of the major stumbling blocks to African post-colonial independence?’ 

Dabiri makes the important connection that economic landscapes engineered by external organisations support the compartmentalised societies Fanon identified as ‘a dual economy.’ She stresses that the problem is not that the Afropolitan is privileged, it is the threat that this will become the dominating narrative representing Africa, further drowning out the voices of marginalised groups. Self-declared Afropolitans such as Mina Salami (founder of the MsAfropolitan website) admit that Afropolitanism possibly goes ‘overboard in commodifying African culture’, submitting to the fulcrum of consumerism and commodification: capitalism. The commodification of ‘African-y’ stuff is explicitly visible on Afropolitan online platforms and are described by Fanon as a ‘cult of local products’ which are attached by character to the colonial period, thus maintaining a Eurocentric idea of what Africa is. Paul Gilroy elaborates on this by arguing that commodity culture results in a reasonable sacrifice of Black culture, particularly the elements that intrigue white people are a conduit to corporate interest. Dabiri identifies this in Western media as producers are enthusiastic to support Afropolitanism due to a demand for a ‘more pure’ form of Black culture and thus interest in the continent peaks, a prescient of Fanon’s as he described the activities of the national bourgeoise ‘of the intermediary type’. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk on the Danger of the Single Story comes to mind here as a Black culture is deemed to be homogeneous, she hopes to remind that, ‘while we may all be Africans, there is a huge gap between my African experience and that of my father’s houseboy.’ Dabiri goes on to emphasise that Selasi’s Afropolitan goes beyond openness to something that includes American and European qualities. It isn’t the experience of a ‘Hipster Africa’ that agitates Dabiri, but the narrative that it represents something somewhat progressive as she states that: 

‘It seems again that African progress is measured by the extent to which it can reproduce a Western lifestyle, now without having to physically be in the West.’  

For Dabiri, it is more interesting to focus on how countries within Africa interact, a notion that she labels as contemporary Pan-Africanism where a continental internationality is fostered rather than the approval of the West. 

The legacy of oppressive systems since globalisation has made the world ‘smaller’ is its continuing effect on cultures, traditions, families and politics while simultaneously increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots, thus encouraging a fundamentalist thinking and behaviour as people seek to protect their cultural heritage from external forces. Afropolitanism in performance is striving towards this Fanonist notion by accepting that:  

‘No human being can exist in complete independence from a nation or a culture. Yet… while individuals might be geographically bound within a nation, while they might be located within a given culture, their imaginations are not; they can transcend boundaries’. 

Written by Megan Sickmueller.

 Bibliography

Dabiri, E. ‘Why I am (still) not an Afropolitan’ in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1. (2016) 

Ede, A. ‘The Politics of Afropolitanism’ in Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (March 2016) 

Eze, Chielozona. ‘Rethinking African culture and identity: the Afropolitan model’ in Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2. (2014) 

Eze, Chielozona. We, Afropolitans in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1. (March, 2016) 

Mbembe, Achille. ‘Afropolitanism.’ Cosmopolitanisms. New York, USA: New York University Press, 2020. 

Salami, Minna. ‘My Views on Afropolitanism’, October 7 2015. https://msafropolitan.com/ 

Tuakli-Wosornu, Taiye. ‘Bye-bye, Babar (Or: What Is An Afropolitan?)’ in The International Review of African American Art, Vol. 22:3, 2009. pg 36-38 

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