In Search of the Afropolitan: Encounters, Conversations and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature

In Search of the Afropolitan: Encounters, Conversations and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature

by Eva Rask Knudsen, Ulla Rahbek


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In Search of the Afropolitan: Encounters, Conversations and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature by Eva Rask Knudsen, Ulla Rahbek

In Search of the Afropolitan explores human encounters and moments that speak to the challenges of being a 21st century African of the world. Against the background of an engaging evaluation of the heated debate on Afropolitanism and what constitutes an Afropolitan, the authors turn to literature and its intrinsic capacity for unfolding the human figure of the African as inherently complex and multidimensional. Through a detailed probing of the Afropolitan in literary narratives, the book enters into conversations about self-understanding and the signification of Africa in the contexts of global mobility.

The book conceives of Afropolitanism as a flexible space of inquiry that curbs the inclination to set the definition of the ‘ism’ in stone. Instead, it attempts to distil, through close-up character analyses, a multifarious sense of what it means to be Afropolitan in the contemporary moment. In that sense, the encounters we come across in the literary narratives produce unexpected ontological negotiations on what it means to be African in the world today. As a special feature of In Search of the Afropolitan, the authors’ conversations with prominent writers, thinkers, and critics provide a lively context for the ongoing debate on Afropolitanism and the Afropolitan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783483549
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 07/16/2016
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Eva Rask Knudsen is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Global Studies at the University of Copenhagen where she is also the convenor of literary and cultural studies. She has published widely on postcolonial and indigenous studies and is, among others, the author of The Circle and the Spiral: A Study of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori Literature (2004).

Ulla Rahbek is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Global Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She has published widely on postcolonial and Black British Studies and is, among others, the co-author of Modern Britain: Developments in Contemporary British Society (2012).

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In Search of the Afropolitan

Encounters, Conversations, and Contemporary Diasporic African Literature

By Eva Rask Knudsen, Ulla Rahbek

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Eva Rask Knudsen and Ulla Rahbek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-355-6


Afropolitanism — A Contested Field and Its Trajectories

Is Afropolitanism ... a signifier that is always excessive? ... For now, that remains undecided — but that is the beauty of it. ... In my judgement, we are at the beginning of a kind of questioning process....

My own sense is that these are two different types of imagining Afropolitanism. The non-elite group lives Afropolitanism through the imagination and the elite group lives Afropolitanism as an experience of being born across boundaries. Each group faces challenges. (chapter 2, 'The Authors in Conversation with Simon Gikandi')

As suggested in the opening pages of this book, Afropolitanism is a highly contentious field of study that has yet to mature into a comprehensive set of founding ideas that proponents as well as opponents can accept to work from as a bipartisan common ground. Some vouch for it, others emphatically do not. In our search for the figure of the Afropolitan in literary narratives we need, of course, to clear the ground on which we search and this must necessarily extend beyond the literary realm into theoretical and critical evaluations of Afropolitanism itself. Is Afropolitanism an enabling or an evasive term? Is it an empty signifier so loosely and openly conceived that it can absorb almost everything and so mean nothing specific at all, or is it a sliding or 'fat' signifier that is flexible enough to allow for continuous negotiations of its meaning? Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests the latter, but also adds that the fatness 'comes at the expense of a kind of coherence' because when a signifier is negotiable 'the fatness gives you lots to negotiate about' which will invariably create 'misunderstandings if you are operating under a label without recognising that other people have different understandings of it' (chapter 6, 'The Authors in Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah'). We agree with Appiah, but also consider this fatness to be part of the attraction of the term and its inclusive gestures, as suggested by Simon Gikandi in the epigraph above. If the challenge is to debunk outmoded and stale images of Africa and the African that urgently require renewal, or at the very least re-contemplation, Afropolitanism presents an advantageous position.

However, as a purportedly enabling way of studying African-derived culture in global contexts, in what specific ways is it new and can we point to a trajectory or a history for the term that provides sufficiently sustainable grounds for embracing it as a convincing approach to twenty-first-century global African culture? And if it is not only to be defined as a space of inquiry but also as an identity position, what characterises such an identity and why is it so contested? The field of Afropolitanism is still an emerging one and there is no easy way into such a space and an understanding of such an identity position. Thus, we take the long and winding road and attempt in this chapter to survey the open but contested field from which all chapters in this book take their cue. We begin by exploring Afropolitanism against Appiah's notion of cosmopolitanism before we move on to consider current theorisations and critiques of Afropolitanism. Then we consider a possible theoretical trajectory for Afropolitan ideas and finally explore the issue of identity from a cosmopolitan perspective that, unlike the models offered by more conventional identity thinking, can more fully illuminate the Afropolitan experience.

The challenges of belonging in and to the global age are manifold, in particular because increased mobility has not engendered a borderless world — far from it. Nevertheless, World Wide Web flows have shrunk distances between continents, nations, cultures, and peoples in unprecedented ways that make transcultural interaction and dialogue not only more immediately possible, but also absolutely imperative. Yet, under what rubric should we address such challenges, asks Appiah: 'Not "globalisation" [itself] ... that seem[s] to encompass everything, and nothing. Not "multiculturalism," another shape shifter, which so often designates the disease it purports to cure' (2007: xi). Appiah suggests that cosmopolitanism is a useful rubric, not in any elitist sense — as a celebratory 'unpleasant posture of superiority to the putative provincial' (2007: xi) — but as a habit of co-existence or a common conversational mode of interaction and exchange across boundaries and differences that stimulate recognition and responsibility. In Appiah's re-warped form, the goal of cosmopolitanism is not to reach consensus (on values and beliefs or morals); rather the basic premise of Appiah's cosmopolitan ideal is that 'we can, at best, agree to differ' (2007: 11). A cosmopolitan, in accordance with the etymology of the word, is 'a citizen of the world.' This can indeed be a trying position because it is at the same time a metaphorical and a grounded one. As it invokes both 'universal concern and respect for legitimate difference' (2007: xiii), the cultural outlook of a contemporary cosmopolitan may, when standing the test of being practised, put combined universal and local allegiances under pressure. What is particular about Appiah's sense of cosmopolitanism, however, is that it insists on intertwining the two spheres of universal and local in the conception of global citizenship. As fellow humans we have obligations to other humans that reach beyond those of our closest affiliations, but at the same time we are also obliged to observe and respect the value of individual human lives and the locally anchored and culture-specific values that shape them. Appiah advocates cosmopolitan ideas, or rather ideals, which may be anchored in national or local communities, but which reach beyond their boundaries. Although nations, or ethnic or racial communities, carry significant weight in shaping cosmopolitan citizens, 'no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilities to every other' (Appiah 2007: xiv). Even if Appiah's vision can be accused of eclipsing rather expediently the issues of inequality and racialisation that still permeate global discourses across boundaries, he does trace his ideas back to his own upbringing in Africa:

In the final message my father left for me and my sisters, he wrote, 'Remember you are citizens of the world.' ... He never saw a conflict between local partialities and a universal morality — between being part of the place you were and part of a broader human community. Raised with this father and an English mother, who was both deeply connected to our family in England and fully rooted in Ghana ... I always had a sense of family and tribe that was multiple and overlapping: nothing could have seemed more commonplace. (2007: xvi)

In Appiah's shorthand definition, cosmopolitanism is 'universality plus difference' (2008: 92). What, then, is the difference between cosmopolitanism and Afropolitanism, if the added difference in Appiah's equation may well be African? Readers of Taiye Selasi's essay 'Bye-Bye, Babar' will recall her emphatic claim that 'We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world' (Selasi 2005). This suggests that the Afropolitan is of a somewhat different cosmopolitan order as the new African identity pursued by her and other Afropolitan critics does more than add difference to an already manifest cosmopolitan ideal. Does Afropolitanism then represent Appiah's cosmopolitanism at its limit? Perhaps, but it allows us to approach Afropolitanism from an angle that invites open-minded debate loosened from the urge to distil difference into a singular meaning. As Selasi argues, Afropolitans 'belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many' (2005). Rather than feeling obliged by a commitment to a universal kind of global citizenship, the unhinging of home and belonging in Selasi's 2005 essay suggests that the Afropolitan is not concerned with notions of citizenship, whether universal and local, but rather interested in exploring a sense of African identity and community in mobility and worldliness. Still, as Appiah argues, the two conditions that make cosmopolitanism real are 'knowledge about the lives of other citizens, on the one hand, and the power to affect them, on the other' (2008: 87). In that sense it would seem that Afropolitans, due to their (globally) itinerant lives, are in a particularly advantageous position to realise the ethical responsibilities inherent in Appiah's proposition, yet in a specific counter-discursive way, because the knowledge they have also relates directly to what European or Western culture has made of African difference over centuries of imperial and colonial contact. Afropolitans employ that knowledge actively as power to effect a radical change in perception.

The Afropolitan may be seen as an African who refuses to be marginalised, prototyped, and cast as the antithetical Other on the cosmopolitan ground of Western modernity. On the other hand, as the cosmopolitan experience is concerned with the interaction of strangers on a shared ground, Appiah's focus on 'ethics in a world of strangers' is an appropriate one in our search for the Afropolitan: 'What do we talk about when we talk about difference. ... What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?' asks Appiah (2007: xix). Selasi and fellow Afropolitans may well want to add the equally significant question 'What do we owe ourselves by virtue of our shared African humanity?' before agreeing with Appiah that '[w]e can't hope to reach a final consensus on how to rank and order. ... That's why the model [we]'ll be returning to is that of conversation, and in particular conversation between people from different ways of life' (2007: xix). As a pun on the term cosmopolitanism, Afropolitanism both overlaps with and modifies Appiah's ideas. We distinguish between Appiah's cosmopolitanism, which is organised as a dialogical relationship between the universal and the local, and Afropolitanism, which explores the always fluctuating relationship between the global and the local. Appiah's cosmopolitanism is a philosophical formation that emphatically does not come with a 'policy' (2007: xviii), whereas Afropolitanism, in our view, is closely affiliated with Africa and its engagement with the world and therefore inherently philosophical as well as political. For the Afropolitan, of course, 'universal' and 'global' are not synonymous terms. Most Africans who embrace Afropolitanism as part of their cultural affiliation insist that the 'Afro' is an indispensable qualifier of their engagement with the world at large.

Afropolitanism is, most critics agree, an effect of and a response to African experiences of globalisation, yet this is arguably the only generally accepted claim that can be made about the term. But what is it specifically, if defined as more than the space of inquiry which is the working definition that we adhere to? Is it a particular cultural legacy of late modernity, a transcultural global phenomenon, a counter-culture, or a new twenty-first-century diaspora idea? Afropolitanism is a version of cosmopolitanism and a response to living diasporic lives but certainly, as we will explore, not merely a refurbished variant of already well-researched types of diaspora. Afropolitanism is a challenge, both in theoretical and practical terms, and it calls for a new vocabulary in twenty-first-century studies of African culture and identity.

Whatever the rubric we choose for a study of Afropolitanism, the term refers to the purposeful endeavour to think of Africa differently in a global context and it is articulated by Africans or African-derived individuals who invest 'part of [their] identity in the African continent' (Salami 20 September 2012). As Salami claims, '[a]ny conversation about Afropolitanism is inevitably connected to the African renaissance' (Salami 30 March 2013). As such, Afropolitanism is concerned with at least three immanent and interrelated projects: the correction of misrepresentations of Africa as modernity's silent and incapacitated victim; the joining of the continent and African diasporic communities through a punctuation of the tradition-modernity divide that has kept local and global Africa as related but separate categories in cultural discourses; and the mental de-framing of what it means to be African in a global age. The latter may prove to be the most unwieldy of these related ventures as it involves an ambush against conventional ideas about African authenticity. Elif Shafak argues that, like modernity itself, cosmopolitanism is not exclusively a Western prerogative or patent; as a modern practise it 'insists on the reality of blended selfhoods' and requires 'consciousness instead of blood and genes' to provide a 'mental/moral bridge between "I" and "humanity"' (Shafak quoted in Salami 18 February 2015). If to be cosmopolitan is not exclusively a Western but a modern ontological persuasion, why is it then that it tends to be associated with a disavowal of one's African culture, ponders Salami, quoting at length from Olufemi Taiwo's 2014 publication Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto and Taiwo's complaint that 'it is almost as if an African like me who deliberately embraces modernity as a way of life that promises at the present time a better template for remaking life and thought in Africa must be a dope; someone who is suffering from a pathological dependence on white people?' (Taiwo quoted in Salami 18 February 2015).

It is, of course, a well-known but eclipsed fact that modernity did not show up at Africa's doorstep yesterday. Modernity and cosmopolitanism are also African realities and part of African histories, and thus, as prominent critics have emphasised (e.g., Mbembe 2001 and 2007; Gikandi 2011) neither un-African nor merely African by approximation or through mimicry. Adopting Elif Shafak's metaphor of the bridge, Minna Salami suggests that '[i]n a similar vein, Afropolitanism could be seen as a mental/moral bridge between the "I", "Humanity", and "Africa." But is there a need for the added emphasis on Africa?' asks Salami '[a]nd does it result in the "Afro" being compromised by the "politan"?' In Salami's understanding it does not, because Afropolitanism is 'cosmopolitanism interwoven with Pan-Africanism' (Salami 18 February 2015). This is a daring understanding of the term worth pursuing because Salami steps right into the crossfire of current debates about Afropolitanism, with dedicated Afropolitans on one side and devoted Pan-Africans on the other. Is there perhaps a continuum of discourses on Africa from which we can begin to trace Afropolitanism, either as a development from or a break with former theoretical approaches?

In his foreword to Negotiating Afropolitanism, Simon Gikandi presents Afropolitanism as 'a new phenomenology of Africanness,' 'a way of being African in the world' that attempts to 'rethink African knowledge outside the trope of crisis' in search of what he calls 'a hermeneutics of redemption' (Gikandi 2011: 9). In that sense, Afropolitanism is a conscious response to the contagious malady of Afro-pessimism that comes from abiding by the idea of Africa as a fallen continent unable to recover from an array of dysfunctional political, economic, and cultural ailments that are seen, in resilient Western discourses, to fix Africa in the role of being the '"other" of modern reason and progress' (2011: 9). Without denying the dire statistics that speak to Africa's continued struggle to combat centuries of having been cast as the antithetical Other of European modernity, Gikandi welcomes 'the idiom of Afropolitanism [which] embraces movement across time and space as the condition of possibility of an African way of being' (2011: 10). In this, Gikandi implies, Afropolitanism marks a decisive ontological shift. In comparison with 'conventional' postcolonial studies of the African diaspora, Afropolitanism does not adopt the familiar terminology of the diaspora situation as a diagnostic category. Familiar symptoms such as being lost, suffocating under or succumbing to despair in the context of transnational lives are not recognised as foregone conclusions about irreversible 'loss' and unrepairable instability. Afropolitanism, Gikandi argues, offers an alternative way of 'coping with the disorientation of moral geographies at the end of modernity' (2011: 10) in which, ultimately, a 'new way of being African in the world' engages actively with hybridity as a bonus rather than a deficit: 'Dispersal implies a new ontology, not a tragic drama of sorrow' (2011: 10).

The upshot of Gikandi's introduction to Afropolitanism is that it reflects a contemporary desire for connecting local and global realities in a manner that is complementary rather than contradictory. Afropolitanism, he contends, aspires to:

[T]hink of African identities as both rooted in specific local geographies but also transcendental of them. To be Afropolitan is to be connected to knowable African communities, nations, and traditions; but it is also to live a life divided across cultures, languages, and states. It is to embrace and celebrate a state of cultural hybridity — to be of Africa and of other worlds at the same time. (Gikandi 2011: 9)

It is significant that Gikandi talks about lives 'across' rather than 'in-between' different cultural, linguistic, and national spaces, thus evading the sense of entrapment that is usually associated with the diaspora condition. What Gikandi's introductory discussion implies, then, is that the concept of hybridity needs to be re-thought in a twenty-first-century global context where it describes not so much an in-between-cultures position as it points to a capacity for transcultural manoeuvrability and negotiation. However, any evaluation of interlinked local and global realities is contingent on the particular vantage point of the critical (re)viewer. African-based Achille Mbembe, who is an Afropolitan thinker par excellence, foresaw, already in 2001, the need for new categories of meaning that match Africa's entanglement with the world. Where it may be argued that Gikandi's approach is concerned with a new way of 'being' African in the world as articulated from a position of an African who lives outside of Africa, Mbembe's critical intervention focuses on ways of 'seeing' Africa, from a local African perspective, as already inherently global. Although 'being' and 'seeing' are both parts of an ontological orientation and contingent upon one another, Mbembe suggests that ways of being African in the world draw in fact on particular ways of seeing Africa as already globally engaged. Thus, Mbembe's ideas are worth rehearsing for a deeper understanding of Afropolitanism as a comprehensive African philosophy on Africanness that emerges as much out of the African continent itself as of the African diaspora.


Excerpted from In Search of the Afropolitan by Eva Rask Knudsen, Ulla Rahbek. Copyright © 2016 Eva Rask Knudsen and Ulla Rahbek. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction: In Search of the Afropolitan / 1. Here, There or Everywhere? Afropolitan Locations / 2. ‘Coming soon or Collected Already’: Afropolitans on the Move / 3. Being and Becoming ‘Black’: The Politics of the Afropolitan / 4. Interviews with writers and critics / 5. Spontaneous Encounters and Unlikely Affiliations: Afropolitan Communities / 6. Style and Self-Awareness? The Gendered Afropolitan / 7. Borders, Barriers and Class(ification): The Less Fortunate Afropolitans / 8. Interviews with writers and critics / End Notes: Where to Afropolitan? Afropolitan Responsibility / Bibliography/ Index

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