Fantasy, Ambivalence and the Afropolitan

I, like writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, am ever wary of the single story told about Africa. I’m tired of the single story told about everyone, actually. Should it be a privilege reserved for the few and mighty to be able to exist and be understood as containing multiple stories, multiple realities, a diversity of experiences, a range of differences?

My hope is that the final collection of work that will become the Dispatches from Afropolis anthology will help to radically disrupt the trend of a single story– whether it is a single story of Africa as full of chaos, poverty and abjection or a single story of self-assured, gorgeous Afropolitans strutting through London in vivid wax-print pumps or sipping palm-wine mojitos in Accra. We can  have one with the other. For, in fact, these realities exist right alongside (if not inextricable tied to) one another. The two are not mutually exclusive realities, and that is where I would like to situate this anthology– there, at that critical intersection of contradiction and ambivalence.

Since Taiye Selasi’s essay, black intellectuals from here to Jo-burg have sounded off for and against the idea of the Afropolitan. Much of the critique has centered around the lack of a class politics and a reliance on Western norms to express this Afropolitan sensibility. To some it would seem that afropolitanism is more about performing a Sex & the City-esque high-life and wrapping all that is problematic about Western culture and consumerism in a lush rainbow of “ethnic” prints and beadwork and calling it African Pride. One critique or analysis I have yet to fully hear articulated is how this consumption and expression of “African” aesthetics through fashion, style and art is tied to gender and sexuality — perhaps even a kind of budding attempt at complicating representation and even consumption (a politics of pleasure from the margins?) Could there be something a teensy-weensy bit subversive and transgressive about it all? Maybe? Just maybe.

At the same time no cultural production exists in a vacuum. We cannot extract afropolitanism from a context of global capital and commodification. We cannot deny that afropolitanism is produced and performed by a decidedly privileged class of African immigrants. So what are the implications, the limitations? Should the central question we ask be “Afropolitan, where are thy politics?” Is /should afropolitanism be positioned to call out and hold accountable the truths of corruption, violence, poverty, disparities, oppression etc. that exist across the continent (and everywhere else for that matter)? Does the Afropolitan have a clear political responsibility? Or should we leave afropolitanism to the realm of the transnational writers, artists, designers and intellectual elite? And in doing so, will we continue to create a chasm where art/culture and politics can find no effective strategies to coexist and enact change. Does afropolitanism want change or seek social justice?

For my part, I believe that we stand to lose so much when we police and create ontological boundaries of being and existing. We stand to lose much when we don’t account for slippage or incoherence in our identities and our politics. Is it possible to take stock of the gray, the contours of things that make no sense–that seem incongruous? Can we acknowledge the hybrid fiction/reality that afropolitanism creates? Is there power and agency in the fantasy and afrofuturistic aura of the Afropolitan? Can the Afropolitan exist without a collective identity politics, but rather express a myriad of individual politics and identities? Can the Afropolitan be conscious of its consumerism and still profess and enact a civic/political engagement with critical social issues at home and abroad? Or is the Afropolitan doomed to co-option?

And yes, all that being said, I’m open to the very real possibility that afropolitanism will run its course, that it is not really a “new” African sensibility at all, and we’ll find that it never held much of anything. Yet, I think it is much too early to make that determination– to say this does not fit into our “politics” or this flies in the face of our revered canon of postcolonial/Pan-African/negritude intellectuals (ie: Fanon, Cesaire et al). Politics, after all, should be about freedom and it should be subjected, routinely, to thorough self-reflection, interrogation and disruption.

Afropolitanism cannot be a catch-all, such is the limitation of language. We keep seeking new names to call our own, to encompass all we are– to replace the single story told about us all the time. The Afropolitan may be an expression of the ambivalence, realities, fantasy and hopes of some. But that does not mean it should be reduced to a single story or a single critique. Africans have long been spoken for and about– and so perhaps, a sensibility that rose from, an albeit privileged cadre of Africans, should be considered with care and engaged with on various levels with or without judgement. Perhaps.


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