A friend recently shared Brian Bwesigye’s compelling piece about author Helon Habila‘s review of NoViolet Buluwayo’s Man Booker shortlisted debutWe Need New Names. Bwesigye argues that Habila’s critique of Buluwayo’s novel is steeped in “Afropolitanism“–a concept whose origination is attributed to Ghana Must Go scribe Taiye Selasi. He adds, Habila’s position is in ironic danger of constricting the African experience in literature to “a single story,” a phenomenon writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently alerted promotes viewing the world through a myopic, self-centered lens.
If you haven’t listened to Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” check it out. In short she explains the single story as this: “Show a people the same way over and over again, and that is what they become.” She elaborates on the danger: “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.”
What struck me in Bwesigye’s piece were the self-defining terms we’ve created or come to cling to. Selasi’s “Afropolitan.” Habila’s “post-nationalist.”
They conjured the many terms African Americans have claimed to wrestle their/our identity from white Americans. “Negro.” “Black.” “Black-American.” “Afro-American.” “African-American.” “Nigga.”
All of them make me faintly sad.
I get why classification is rife. I have written in earlier posts that I am delighted to be known as an “African writer” because I feel there is just as much pride in it as being an “American writer.” It’s a statement in acknowledgment–and defiance–of the cultural allusion that certain identifiers are better than others. But even in this defiance, I too am trapped.
In the world we live in, it would be naive of me to demur racial, gender, national, et al classifiers as meaningless–though race in particular was constructed–because over the history of humankind they have come to be embedded with layers and layers of meaning. But what saddens me is that these (self-)identifiers are reactions to an overarching definition that we still seem to lend the most authority and credibility–the patriarchal, Eurocentric/American one. From the days of colonialism and slavery through today, blacks and all people of color have been trapped in a conversation–about ourselves!–that we didn’t even start.
Would we call ourselves Afropolitan, if the trope of the uneducated, untraveled, unexposed, wretched African hadn’t been so indelibly inscribed into our collective cultural consciousness by the Eurocentric storyteller? Would we be post-nationalist if we had not been forced to seek escape from volatile socioeconomic and political conditions; these created by a legacy of pernicious Western foreign policy and poor governance at home?
Would we, with a complexion spectrum that ranges from the deepest dark to the brightest light, call ourselves “black”? Would we allow white Americans to get away with calling themselves just “American” while people of color hyphenate? Would we tolerate the lumping of vastly varied cultures into the catchall “people of color?” Would we be claiming the term “nigga” for ourselves?
One of the most annoying things to me is to read a white character described simply as “he” or “she,” while anyone of any other color has to be explained. It happens in conversation too. This has been the norm for so long, it becomes almost comical when you become embroiled in the PC-version of the conversation, or when newscasters trip over themselves to say anything but a perpetrator’s race when reporting a crime.
I am preoccupied these days, in my writing and in my life, with getting to who we were before slavery/colonialism became the dominant narrative of the historic black experience. Who are we now? Though there are shared origins, histories, and experiences, I think the operative word is “we”. There is no single definer or identifier. There is so single story.