There is opportunity to situate modalities of the post-colonial within the American race project – and vice versa.
In 2015, novelist Taiye Selasi wrote an op-ed in The Guardian online newspaper, in which she critiqued the apparent fixation with classifying literature by writers tracing their origins to the African continent as only African. She lamented the “pigeonholing” and “prioritization of perceived cultural allegiance over creative output. [In which] the most scathing critique of the African writer is not that she is insufficiently talented, but that she is insufficiently African.” (Selasi T., 2015) Selasi argues in that commentary that the question of who is sufficiently an African writer is nonsensical. Instead, she advocates a hybrid understanding of the writers’ identities in which “their African-ness [while] peculiar to the diasporic experience, and their American-ness peculiar to the immigrant one, they are legitimate identities, no less comprehensible for being multiple.” Selasi condemns the confined parameters within which modern African writing operates; “the novelist is assumed to be or accused of writing for the west, producing explanatory ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction.” This argument, she continues “denies both the agency and artistry of the writer while threatening to obscure, I think, the actual source of the unease.” Keenly aware of these limits as they affect her own work, Selasi self- identifies as a “Ghanaian, Nigerian and cosmopolitan” who belongs to the African diaspora and who doesn’t need at every turn to “to suss out who [she is].”
Selasi’s opinion piece was in response to several critiques of the lifestyle and literary genre she helped name and mainstream—Afropolitanism. In the 2005 article titled “Bye-Bye Babar” published in the Lip Magazine, she had outlined a vision for an African unencumbered by the stereotype and timidity that pervaded western media and intellectuals. Critiques followed of her vision, and on the limits of the Afropolitan ideal; and although others such as Achille Mbembe joined in scoping out this new discursive mold, there was little substantive engagement and response by Selasi before the Guardian article. In this essay, I am interested in the dialectic thread that connects some of the thematic concerns in Afropolitanism to trans – and post-national methodologies of studying the African diaspora. I begin with a brief history of the debates in textual interpretation as they apply to African literatures; this is especially informative in understanding some of the critiques to Afropolitanism later in the essay. I then trace the origins of the transnational diaspora and its literatures and histories, focusing specifically on how slavery and colonization simultaneously informed the thematics and interpretive traditions of Black literatures generally defined. I conclude with a consideration of the place of Afropolitanism within the framework of transnational theories; I argue that while Afropolitanism might borrow from the histories of Afrocentric literatures and methods of diasporic historiographies, and while its analytical bent is somewhat transnational, the emergent limitation is in its inadvertent erasure of Africans in favor of an amorphous idea of Africa.
Textual Transactions and African Literary Criticism
An important question in literary criticism of African writing has been the very question of what constitutes African literature. While this dispute continues, it is noteworthy that such debates are significant in their own rights, as well as to the eventual interpretative enterprise such as what I attempt here. Leif Lorentzon, for example, deals at length with the general exclusion of African oral tradition in most discussions of literature. In analyzing Peter Widdowson’s Literature, he critiques the contradictory manner in which Widdowson affects to analyze the contemporary function of literature while excluding any mention of African oral literatures. (Lorentzon, 2017, p. 2) Widdowson declares, "Literature, in this book, will refer to written works," an apparent exclusionary definition that curtails the function of African oral literature. (Widdowson, 1999, p. 15) In addition to the content of those literatures, are more subjective questions concerning authorial legibility. Are African literatures only works by Africans who live in Africa? Are they inclusive of literature that only treats Africa as a subject? What of those works by Africans set outside the continent – are these African literatures? Reasoned answers to all of these questions are beyond the scope of this short essay. Instead, I propose to think through how to read these literatures and their thematics given varying historical contexts, leaving the descriptive question for a later time. Accordingly, the analysis here is not of particular works, but of the overarching ideological formation that describes – or is described in – them. I intend to outline in general terms the debates around a transnational African literary method that originates in the diaspora, as well as its incipient claims on agency and license as outlined in Selasi’s commentary above.
The initial question arises: if there is no such thing as a monolithic African or an experience to which they are attached, is it possible to describe African literatures on thematics alone? What makes the lenses of “mourning and melancholy, of inherited traumas and memories, which define the new African literary generation...” peculiarly definitive of African writing in the present? Can the argument hold, of an Africa beyond stereotype and yet one that inherently finds its name in the past? And what do we do with the ethnic discourse that - despite ardent denials by some writers – still centers Afropolitan works of literature? What do we make of the fact that Nigerians in America who claim however many cosmopolitan homes and locales, scenes of origin and migration, still primarily negotiate these ethnic identities in the diaspora?
To perform a reading of Afropolitan literature in the diaspora, I borrow from innovative scholarship on textual transactions and textual cultures to analyse the role of license in establishing textual coherence within literature. A text can be defined in numerous ways: Vivienne Brown proffers that “Th[e] etymology of the word 'text' is apparent in expressions that refer to the 'weaving' of a story, the 'thread' of an argument, or the 'texture' of a piece of writing. A 'text' may thus be taken to be a weaving or a network of analytic, conceptual, logical, and theoretical relations that is woven with the threads of language.” (Brown, 2003, p. 548) Another argument on texture is by Robert Scholes, who offers that textuality has a dual aspect as a pedagogical tool for expanding the range of scholarship and “broadening of the objects we study and teach to include all the media and modes of expression” in addition to “changing the way we look at texts to combine the perspectives of creator and consumer, writer and reader.” (Scholes, 2011)Viewed this way “the study of textuality involves looking at works that function powerfully in our world, and considering both what they mean and how they mean.” Finally, Peter Stockwell relates textuality to the study of literatures in this way: “The proper business of literary criticism is the description of readings. Readings consist of the interaction of texts and humans. Humans are comprised of minds, bodies and shared experiences. Texts are the objects produced by people drawing on these resources. Textuality is the outcome of the workings of shared cognitive mechanics, evident in texts and readings. Texture is the experienced quality of textuality.” (Stockwell, 2009) Both Stockwell and Scholes foreground a textual transaction between the writer of a text and their context as significant for the coherence of a work of literature.
The reading of textuality I engage below is not strictly philological or tied to the understanding of the text in the strict linguistic sense. I assume Stockwell’s deductive stance that originates literary criticism in the experience that produces a text. I am, however, hesitant to make the intentionalist leap and impute either a conscious objective to an author as a basis for textual interpretation or to claim evidence for inferring the intent of meaning between a writer and their work. (Brown, 2003, p. 546) With this in mind, I read Afropolitan literary claims as performing a transaction between an author’s environment and the text they produce. This negotiation of context for meaning forms a textual transaction in which the writer engages their work of literature in broad conversations in which their meaning is legible by the rules that govern whatever discourses they seek to enter. What Selasi terms “cultural allegiance” is on the contrary textual coherence within the vernaculars that permeate African literary discourse.
As a concrete example, a text that engages concrete historical moments such as Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is insufficiently read if the only consideration is of creative license. The textual transactions between Adichie’s life as a Nigerian herself, the very specter of nativism in post-independence Nigeria, and the globalized political interests that catalyzed the Biafran War are all important for the coherence of that piece of literature. This reading of a text as a product of context implies a consistent cultural or historical bent to textual coherence. The nuances of each consideration – whether an author’s bias to a subject or their intention – mean the result of each discrete reading can produce meaning not entirely cohesive for a coherent characterization of an author’s lived experience. Creative license is thus an unstable ground on which to navigate inconsistencies in literary themes. Intellectual tradition on textuality, textual transactions, and textual cultures – all distinctive but related ways of understanding the text as a social and socialized production are informative in positioning the implicit representations on the text as social commentary. Occupying the crevasse between cultural allegiance and creative license is an emergent nontrivial literary tradition that seeks to speak on Africa while disavowing critical commitment to the continent in claiming African identity. In the past this took several forms, most notedly in the garb Afro-pessimism; today it takes the form of Afropolitanism.
Literature from the Black Atlantic to the Colonial Subject
An informative source from which to understand the rise of Afropolitanism, is a brief history of diasporic literature in America. The autobiographical form of the slave narrative was an important archive for studying the African diaspora. This is revealing of the discipline’s past and pre-emptive of the epistemological challenges these narratives present as constructive analytics with which to understand the African diaspora as both post-slavery and post-colonial. The broad strokes from the slave autobiography (Fredrick Douglas, Phillis Wheatley &c.), to post-slavery origins of black intellectual production (DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells &c.), and contemporary neo- slave narratives (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker etc.) fixed diaspora literatures as primarily Atlantic experiences. As Goyal points out, the study of diaspora today is pre-eminently circumscribed to the study of the African American experience, adding that, “...to open up the script of diaspora itself, we still need more multifaceted histories and models that conceptualize diaspora beyond dualistic methods such as Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. (Goyal, We Need New Diasporas, 2017, p. 641) These “new diasporas” are not only significant in adjusting heuristic methods of understanding the experiences of Afro-descendants in the western world, but also of the impact and currency of diaspora scholarship on African intellectual production, and on post-coloniality. The material questions grounding diaspora scholarship – the historiography of people between sites of origin/ “home” and sites of settlement/ “diaspora” – refute a circumscription and privileging of one environment of memory over another. (Clark, 1991, p. 42) Hence a cursory observation lends credence to the thesis that simply there is need to study African diaspora beyond the customary migration trope evident in such methods as the Black Atlantic, and with such archives as that allow a complex appreciation of diaspora beyond models of origin and authenticity.
Yet, it is not only in the study of the African diaspora where one must rely initially and primarily on the autobiography, the necessity also reveals itself in any discipline that studies racial minority diasporas in the global north - whether Chicano/a or Asian. These former subjects of empire begin their modern histories by extending the oral historiography into the ostensibly objective present through the biographical form. Hence, the history of the African diaspora in many ways follows the contours and chronological trajectory of published genres by black intellectuals. As aforementioned, following the autobiography and the poem came the neo-slave narratives in the 80s; analyses of the diasporic experience similarly remain faithful to this trajectory – analyses either of primary biographical archives or of fiction and the reinvention of the black past in the present. How do African works of literature negotiate these transnational literary histories?
Similar to other racial minorities, Africans, dehumanized by the imperial encounter embodied in the colonial project not only ceased to be human before imperial logic but ceased to have a history to be spoken of. Perhaps no historian is at once notorious and eminent as is Hugh Trevor-Roper in demonstrating the role and conniving prowess of empire and its epistemological plunder. In widely publicized lectures by the BBC at the University of Sussex roper declared concerning African history:
It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present, there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history. (Trevor-Roper, 1965)
Roper proceeds from this point to defend the soundness of his argument; that history is necessarily deterministic, and that while Africans led complex lives worthy of attention from sociologists and anthropologists – curiously not of interest to the Africans themselves – historical determinism rendered those lives and their complexities “phantasmagoria” in the grand scheme of empire and imperialism; that African history is only relevant in demonstrating the aptitude of empire and the fortune that is European civilization. It was futile then to focus the historiographical enterprise on “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped...” declares Trevor-Roper in conclusion.
The logic of Eurocentrism was partially to declare monopoly of the diaspora, for it is imperialism that gave rise to the African diaspora if we are to understand it only as predicated on forced transatlantic migration. (Wright, 2004, pp. xii-xiii) “Look, a Negro!” goes the white declaration, and the “fact of blackness” is fixed upon the imperial subject, the black alterity is created and returned to the black subject “sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning,” Fanon announces. (Fanon, 1967) The history of the black skin is thus masked in white historiography in its public unabashed gesture of calling, gazing and fixing. The liminal space within which the black intellectual deals, the duality “between the world and me” in Fanon, Du Bois, and Richard Wright, is not only concerned with refutation and reconstruction but significantly, with the reclamation of the African diaspora as black.
Historians of the African diaspora have summarily critiqued this Eurocentric historical method, proposing various alternative methodologies with which to appraise the epistemological foundation of the African diaspora. From academic tools such as Negritude and Black Feminist Thought to political tools such as Pan-Africanism, the response to the empire’s epistemology remains grounded in the proving of African humanity, ingenuity and therefore liberty. Aime Cesaire famously speaks of the death of human value in the colonial project, charging “between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance.” (Cesaire, 2000, p. 34) Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks of Burke’s “concord of sensibilities” in his recounting of the distance between the enlightenment’s privileging of the written word and the African classical slave narrative’s reliance on the oral tradition: “Blacks were reasonable, and hence ‘men,’ only if they could demonstrate mastery of ‘the arts and sciences’- that is, writing.” In laying out this thesis, Gates notes the further epistemological distance Cesaire rails against by noting that while the ability to reason was expected of the European, the absence of this faculty was likewise presumed in the colored people of the world.
This rich tradition of critique and counter-narration of Eurocentrism is the ground upon which Afropolitanism emerges and grows.
As abovementioned, the Afropolitan author/citizen as commonly understood came into broad use from Taiye Selasi’s March 2005 article titled “Bye-Bye Babar” in The Lip Magazine. In that article, Selasi describes urban Africans “living in cities around the globe, [who] belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” (Selasi T., 2005) Remarkably, the Afropolitans Selasi envisions are not in Africa exactly, nor are they any African in the diaspora: “They (read: we) are Afropolitans – the newest generation of African emigrants, coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you. You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes,” she says. The Afropolitan is at home in a “G8 city or two (or three) that [they] know like the backs of [their] hands, ... [They] are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.” Selasi is not describing a literary genre per se, rather she considers it a description of a critical consciousness that complicates Africa while honoring an intellectual and cultural legacy. The thematics that occupy the Afropolitan identity are the negotiation of the nation, race, and culture, “[that]we must define our relationship to the places we live; how British or American we are (or act) is in part a matter of affect,” she says. Broadly, Selasi envisions an aesthetic and consciousness of an African descended person in the western world who at once negotiate their existence in these diasporas as fraught and complex, while also facing their African ancestry and its complicated history to their new global “home.”
Aside from Selasi, an academic intervention into the definition and utility of Afropolitanism is by Achille Mbembe. In his essay “Afropolitanism,” he describes Afropolitanism as
an aesthetic and a particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world, refusing on principle any form of victim identity – which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world. It is also a political and cultural stance in relation to the nation, to race and to the issue of difference in general. (Mbembe, Afropolitanism, 2007, pp. 28-29)
Hence, the Afropolitan is a native of the world, with their residency premised on negotiating a fluid identity for which Africa is an idea, and less a geography. An appeal of this approach as noted by Dabiri is its potential for “vacating the seduction of pernicious racialized thinking, its recognition of African identities as fluid, and the notion that the African past is characterized by mixing, blending and superimposing.” (Dabiri, 2014) In this way, Afropolitanism adds to black intellectual thought that seeks to challenge the deficiencies of Afrocentric frameworks such as Negritude and Pan-Africanism. If Afrocentrism negotiated African identities in the aftermath of the colonial encounter, Afropolitanism attempts to negotiate a globalized world in which the spatial location of African culture is liminal, ephemeral and uninterrupted. In the 60s in African literature negotiated the discursive salience of post-colonialism and neo-colonialism as primary schematics in the works of writers of that era. Similarly, the Afropolitan moment while concerning itself with the aftermath of this literary tradition has the distinctive mark of considering the neoliberal order and migration of a new African diaspora after the political independence of most African countries.
In a review of the “Flow” exhibition at the Studio Art Museum in Harlem, Holland Cotter notes “Afropolitanism is the modish tag for new work made by young African artists both in and outside Africa. What unites the artists is a shared view of Africa, less as a place than as a concept; a cultural force, one that runs through the world the way a gulf stream runs through an ocean: part of the whole, but with its own tides and temperatures.” (Cotter, 2008) The Afropolitan artist did not simply gain acceptance into the art world as a matter of course, the very transaction between the artist and their art was curated for an essential aesthetic. These artists “could wrap themselves in evidence of their origins, or wear that evidence lightly, or not at all, the first option being preferred by the market,” notes Cotter. The challenge for Afropolitan literature is no different.
Thus, Afropolitanism while a fraught label, its uncontroversial task is a conception of African identity in the diaspora amidst the neoliberal global order. Afropolitan literature borrows from a rich tradition by the first generation of African writers such as Grace Ogot, Chinua Achebe &c., whose works cantered the immediate post-colonial concerns of the 50s and 60s, as well as the second generation writing in the 70s and 80s (such as Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga etc.) and their concerns about living in independent Africa. The generational and thematic difference is that while the first and second generations of writers navigated Africa as a geographical reality, the third generation in which Afropolitanism operates (spanning the decades following the new millennium), treat Africa as a malleable literary concept. A concerted post-nationalist tradition is emergent in Afropolitanism, one that seeks to speak about an Africa, without necessarily treating African people.
The very term “Afropolitanism” itself as a labeling tool is most fallible for the following reason: inherent in its most familiar imageries is a fixity on who an African is, with the addendum that those stereotypes of the continent function in cosmopolitan western geography. The analysis on textual transactions above demonstrates that implicit in attempts at locating Africa in a text is a deliberate divorce between a text’s typology and its coherence. Stated differently, Afropolitan literature as texts on Africa imbue social hermeneutics on their own beyond internal meanings. They perform a social commentary irrelevant of the absence of an intentionalist reading.
Since the publication of Selasi’s 2003 piece and of Mbembe’s article in 2007, there continues to be a debate on the motivations that inform an Afropolitan analytic and aesthetic. Critics generally point to three issues; Afropolitanism’s neoliberal proximity; its reductive erasure of Africans; and its historicizing of Africa by analogy to a western cosmopolitanism.
In an article titled “Exorcizing Afropolitanism,” Stephanie Santana reflects on a talk by Binyavanga Wainaina in which he declares “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan.” (Santana, 2013) She notes that “for Wainaina, Afropolitanism has become the marker of crude cultural commodification—a phenomenon increasingly “product driven,” design focused, and “potentially funded by the West.” Through an Afropolitan lens, “travel is easy” and “people are fluid.” Certainly, magazines, designers, and business execs have seized the term for their own purposes.” The Afropolitan aesthetic that finds home in a G8 city and knows it like the back of its hand, that blends London fashion with New York jargon is a luxury not many continental Africans can afford. In a critical meditation on the aforementioned “Flow” exhibition, Ogbechie notes the contradictory operation of the Afropolitan analytic as a post-national project:
The problem here of course is that contemporary curators and critics argue for the global identity of contemporary practice but I believe ... that such arguments are illusory. Africans have almost absolute immobility in a contemporary global world that works very hard to keep Africans in their place on the African continent...There is no immigration policy anywhere in the Western world that welcomes Africans and evidence of major bias against African global mobility abounds in international media. (Ogbechie, 2008)
The obvious incongruity in Afropolitan art – which I extend to its literature as well – is that the mobility that grounds an Afropolitan in the western world is neither innocent of controversy nor devoid of class dimensions tied to one’s economic standing relative to continental Africans. Simply put, there is no Afropolitan aesthetic or culture without negotiation of the neoliberal economy as affecting the African continent proper. The mobility from any place in Africa to a “jazz lounge near you” as Selasi envisions it, is not a given that simply materializes to cool and uppity Africans.
When analysed for its value in Afropolitanism the neoliberal economic order has the curative value of rendering the urban cosmopolitan vision a stale representative implement. Ogbechie quoted above urges, “consider also that all the exhibitions produced to tout the “internationalization” of African art rarely make it back to Africa and are not accessible to Africa-based artists except through the internet. This is itself points to their marginalization.” Therefore, it is not simply that this economic order sifts for palpable images and ideas of Africa and its willing performers, more crucially it renders those images illegible on the continent itself – the “Afro” and the “politan” are inconsistent subjects of an order that hides one from the other. A culture produced for the consumption of the west – the “near you” that Selasi speaks to – has the risk of a “commodification of dissent” and critical engagements of the legacies of colonial economics. (Dabiri, 2014) Globalization has advantaged African elites and fomented compartmentalized societies, Afropolitanism’s blindness to these economic realities imply the value of intellectual production is “determined by our ability to produce African flavored versions of Western convention and form.” (Dabiri, 2014) The result is a reductive portrayal of African experiences.
The second critique of Afropolitanism is the ubiquity of Africa amidst a dearth of Africans in its narratives – a subjective erasure. Commenting on the “internationalization” of African art, and referring to Cotter’s observation on the treatment of Africa as a concept, rather than a concrete geographical place, Ogbechie notes: “Coming from an intellectual history in which philosophers like Hegel declared that Africa was no part of history, contemporary discourses grudgingly concede Africa’s historicity but argue about its concrete geographical existence.” This is not to say – as Selasi argues – that the critique is on whether Afropolitans are authentic Africans, rather the claim is that as a result of the aforementioned discursive tethering between Afropolitanism and cultural commodification, the very absence of Africans in this post-national trope does not help its cause. Contrary to Mbembe’s positioning of Afropolitanism as a counter to narratives of victimhood, I think the binary presented between the cosmopolitan and the non-victim is a false one. But the absence of the African in Afropolitan narrative is not an accident;
Global discourses mask obvious relationships of power, not the least of which is the power to frame and if necessary silence discourse. Western discourses largely define Africans as blank slates that can be interpreted to conform to Western ideals. One of the truly horrendous problems of scholarship in African art history is the extent to which Africa is denied any credit for its own knowledge systems and forms of cultural production. This is conundrum of our age, a dastardly version of the lament of the Ancient Mariner: “Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink”. In contemporary art discourses, “Africa” is everywhere but the African continent itself is everywhere invisible. (Ogbechie, 2008)
In this indictment of Afropolitanism’s obsession with an urban, globalized, privileged, stateless African, Ogbechie provides us with another insight: what Selasi claims to be “the agency and artistry of the writer” is in reality an abrogation and denial of a reading of textual transactions between the authorial claim of African ancestry, and their treatment of an African geography. Essentially, Selasi attempts to cling to license as the carte blanche that allows an uncomplicated reckoning with the discord between the idea of Africa the Afropolitan may treat when it is divorced from the realities of its geography.
In this light, Selasi’s argument is inconsistent between what she terms “cultural allegiance” and “creative output” - a dichotomy is false that imagines textuality without the context in which the specific text coheres. What of the accusation that the Afropolitan “writ[es] for the west, producing explanatory ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction”? (Selasi T., 2015) When read without Africans as Ogbechie presents above, Afropolitan fiction goes beyond masquerading as ethnographies, they become refurbished single stories. To write about African poverty or to critique its politics from a “law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near [the western historiography]” is not a radical claim of agency and license, it is instead the revelation of a fealty to the socioeconomic interests that bind the African in the west to the elite on the continent – it is not a revolutionary critique that attempts a global reckoning with an idea of Africa while gingerly sidestepping its physical realities. The idea that a text’s accountability for its context is cultural allegiance is simply inchoate; trading in “African” stories without caring for their complex stations as diasporic residents is a rich dose of obliviousness from this argument.
The final critique then is that Afropolitanism is tethered to historiography that seeks to conceive of Africa as analogous to the metropolises of the western world. The inherent claim to agency is not in service of a divergent African story, but that it can be told on the same media and with similar styles to the history of the western world. Santana notes that “style, in and of itself, is not really the issue. Rather, it’s the attempt to begin with style, and then infuse it with substantive political consciousness that is problematic.” (Santana, 2013) Not only do Afropolitan tropes obscure continental African art and literatures, their steeped concern to fit into a cosmopolitan aesthetic in proximity to western metropoles means the ideas of Africa for these literatures are those in tandem with concerns of the metropole. Hence the question is not normative of why Africans are burdened with representation; they are positively burdened immaterial of authorial interpretation of a work of literature. There does not exist an aesthetic for “Europolitan” or “Ameripolitan” – the modernity and fit within western epistemology is understood as a given. Afropolitanism does itself a great disservice in seeking to perform African identities without troubling the core/periphery typology along which its literatures and art seem to function.
Afropolitanism and the Transnational
Given Africa’s colonial history, Afropolitanism enters at the juncture between cultural nationalist discourses such as Negritude, Afrocentrism and Pan-Africanism, and those transnational methodologies such as Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. Unlike the cultural nationalism that pervaded the end of the colonial era and sought to “bypass the historical experience of slavery to arrive at a prehistoric mystical Africa frozen in time,” transnational frameworks have the wisdom of refuting Eurocentric essentialization of Africa as anterior to modernity. (Goyal, Africa and the Black Atlantic, 2014) However, it is contentious whether Gilroy’s intention to center the Black Atlantic gels with an interpretation of Africa that is scarce both in its analysis of the Atlantic and of Africa as geography. Afropolitanism, it would seem, at once engages in the “nostalgic, triumphalist, and compensatory” concerns that characterized Afrocentrism, while distancing itself from the political concerns that center debates on authenticity. (Goyal, Africa and the Black Atlantic, 2014) Thus, the limits of transnationalism as concerned with non-synchrony and fracture – the ““living memory of the changing same” (Gilroy, 1993, p. 198) – when taken together with the economic and subjective critiques of Afropolitanism reveal a chasm between a methodology unencumbered by nativity and one that analyses an Africa without Africans entirely. The function of the Black Atlantic in critiquing race projects and exploring black memory empowers narratives that allow Africans in the diaspora to contend with the west as a scene of colonial memory, while simultaneously rendering Africa itself invisible beyond a scene of ideological origin and contention.
In the final analysis, Atlantic slavery and colonialism sought to dehumanize and objectify Africans. The economics of a neoliberal globalized world has brought these Africans into contact with the former colonial masters in different configurations; whether as descendants of former slaves or as citizens of former empires. Afropolitanism is an additional method of thinking about the place of these descendants in the diaspora and their relation to modernity in the contemporary moment. Yet for all its successes and potential insights, Afropolitanism as imagined in the present: its tethering to the neoliberal economy and its commodification of Africa, its focus on an idea of Africa rather than its geography, and its attempt to historicize through analogy, make it an unsatisfactory transnational methodology. Additionally, when considered alongside the limitations of those transnational methodologies in the study of African peoples outside the grasp of Atlantic slavery, the insufficiency of Afropolitanism renders it a luxurious dressing of Afrocentric frameworks, albeit in close proximity to the western world.
Given the foregoing, there is a necessity for a remedial methodology to speak to the valid interventions of diaspora studies to black historiography writ large, while recognizing that aspects of transnational methodologies are necessarily inadequate for African immigrants in the United States and the western world. Studies of diaspora require frameworks steeped in the awareness that “the epistemological ‘limits’ of [ethno-national frameworks] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other discordant even dissident histories and voices” from which a study of African emigrants begins. (Bhabha, 1994, pp. 6-7) There is opportunity to situate modalities of the post-colonial within the American race project – and vice versa, thereby troubling both the limitations of the Afropolitan tropes of mobility-induced anxiety, as well as the migratory concerns centered in a Black Atlantic.
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