Literature and Activism in London and Berlin
This book traces the theoretical beginnings of Afropolitanism and moves on to explore Afropolitan practices in London and Berlin. Afropolitanism can take different forms, such as that of an identity, a political and ethical stance, a dead–end road, networks, a collective self–care practice or a strategic label. In spite of the harsh criticism, Afropolitanism is attractive for people to deal with the meanings of Africa and Africanness, questions of belonging, equal rights and opportunities.
While not a unitary project, the vast variety of Afropolitan practices provide approaches to contemporary political problems in Europe and beyond. In this book, Afropolitan practices are read against the specific context of German and British colonial histories and structures of racism, the histories of Black Europeans, and contemporary right–wing resurgence in Germany and England, respectively.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Introduction Afropolitanism and Convivial Scholarship
- Part I Emerging Afropolitanisms
- Chapter 1 Taiye Selasi: Afropolitanism as an identity
- Chapter 2 Achille Mbembe: Afropolitanism as a political and ethical stance
- Part II Afropolitanism in London
- Chapter 3 Brian Chikwava: Afropolitanism as a dead-end road
- Chapter 4 Afropolitan London: Afropolitanism as co-existing networks
- Part III Afropolitanism in Berlin
- Chapter 5 Afropolitan Berlin: Afropolitanism as collective self-care
- Chapter 6 SchwarzRund: Afropolitanism as a strategic label
- Conclusion Afropolitan theory, practices and futures
- Works Cited
- Series index
I acknowledge the terrific privileges that allowed me to write the following pages.
This book would not have come to life without the openness of several artists and activists in London and Berlin, who agreed to discuss their Afropolitan practices with me. In fact, many chapters of this book owe an enormous debt of gratitude to their protagonists. Many thanks to Minna Salami, C. T., SchwarzRund, Jacqueline Mayen and Isaiah Lopaz.
I am thankful that I had the opportunity to do this research as part of the Research Training Group minor cosmopolitanisms at the University of Potsdam, which is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – 265331351/RTG 2130 minor cosmopolitanisms. All supervisors, coordinators and fellows of the RTG have been a reliable support network throughout the last couple of years. A special thank you goes to Nicole Waller and Lars Eckstein for supervising my project as well as to Sara Morais dos Santos Bruss, Irene Hilden and Lucy Gasser for the endless hours we spent together in the library and the constructive and honest feedback on earlier drafts. Thanks to Judith Coffey and Anke Bartels for helping with all organizational matters. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to travel to Cape Town within the framework of the RTG and I thank Francis Nyamnjoh for welcoming me at UCT.
I would have never reached the point in my life of starting this project without Lisa Nechutnys. Katrina Schlunke offered advice and inspiration when the project was still only a vague idea. Thanks for reading and commenting on still unfinished chapters, for offering kind words and polishing my English, Lina Fricke, Farai von Pentz, Johanna Heide and Jennifer Wawrzinek, Luci Wagner, Susannah Sundman, Anna Martin Beaumont, Andrew Erickson and Chandrakala Gedappu. Thanks to Geoff Rodoreda for in-depth copy editing and proof reading; to Nina Jürgens for indexing the book; to Peter Lang for giving this book a home and, especially, to Tiffany Florvil and Vanessa Plumly, the editors of the series Imagining Black Europe.
A final thank you to Gunhild, Fokko, Rike, Wolle, Doro and Felix.
Afropolitanism and Convivial Scholarship
In 2018, my colleague Sara Morais dos Santos Bruss and I organized the panel “The body as a site of pleasure and pain” for our Research Training Group’s public conference “Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany. On that occasion, I invited t-shirt artist and activist Isaiah Lopaz to speak at our panel. Lopaz uses white t-shirts and prints racial slurs or microaggressions on them in black letters to open conversations about race and racism. The derogatory content on the t-shirts documents what some white people in Berlin actually say to him. One t-shirt displays the question, “where are you from?” In his TEDx Talk, Lopaz explains that white people have directed the same question in a myriad of variations at him, like “where are you really from?”, “where did you come from before America?”, “where are your parents from?”, “what are your roots?” (2019). The Afropolitan author Taiye Selasi speaks of similar experiences. In the global North, the white majority society often approaches Black people and People of Color with this question, which in many cases serves as a code for “why are you here?” or “will you go back?” (2014).
Encapsulated in as simple a question as “where are you from?” is the implication of unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunities. Within a predominantly white context, a closer look at the question of origins by white interrogators and Black interrogated reveals various, well-established misconceptions. It wrongly implies that the global North should be homogenously white, and it denies People of Color and Black people the right to call these parts of the world home (or one of their homes). This reductive way of thinking ignores that Black presence in the global North and (post-)colonial migration are directly related to European colonial endeavors – or as Ambalavener Sivanandan puts it, “[w]e are here because ←1 | 2→you were there” (Sivanandan in Younge 2018). Moreover, the question tends to speak of surprise that people who are associated with non-white parts of the world might move around as freely as a vast number of white people. It points to an imaginary divide that cosmopolitans, professional travelers, tourists and expats are white, whereas migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are not. This dichotomy supports a reductive perspective of the global North as a desirable destination for people who seek security, education and economic success. At the same time, the white majority society associates Blackness with being forever foreign to the global North, belonging only really to Africa. Blackness, then, becomes interchangeable with African and a whole host of stereotypes. These stereotypes go hand in hand with white people’s prevailing misconceptions of the African continent that are a legacy of European endeavors to legitimize colonialism.
During colonial times, Europeans constructed Africans as others by ascribing an inherent difference or strangeness to the people of a whole continent, and they made hierarchical distinctions on the basis of that ascription. This act of demarcation has had real consequences, because it happened within existing, unequal power structures: those who did and continue to do the othering, white Europeans, speak and act from positions of power, to mark those they deem unlike themselves other and inferior. To bolster the construction of otherness, Europeans practiced scientific racism (“race research”) and were actually looking for physical differences that would legitimize the superiority and inferiority of certain people (Arndt and Ofuatey-Alazard 2011; Conrad 2012). Nowadays, Africa is inadequately represented as poverty ridden, disease carrying, generally backward and, above all, as a singular place in the public consciousness of Europe and North America. These dualistic and simplistic ways of thinking are a legacy of colonial times and deserve even more outspoken questioning.
It is such dualism that is often at the basis of questions like “where are you from?” and Lopaz’s t-shirts express a desire to question precisely these dominant narratives. When organizing the panel for the “Minor Cosmopolitan Weekend,” I already knew not to ask Lopaz certain questions but our different positions clearly resulted in caution on both sides. I thought it wise to let Lopaz know that he would be speaking at an event organized by mostly white people like myself and probably in front of a ←2 | 3→mostly white audience. My co-organizer Sara Morais dos Santos Bruss and I also offered to send the questions for the panel beforehand, which Lopaz gladly accepted. He put it nicely in his email to us that he was a little bit suspicious (he said curious) about what it means to ask people of Black African descent to discuss this topic (the body as a site of pleasure and pain). He stressed that for him as an African American living in Europe to talk about his work in connection to what we suggested was heavily loaded.
I may have been involved in increasing his suspicion because in our email conversation leading up to the event I misread his artwork and the photos he takes of himself wearing the t-shirts in different locations in Berlin as performance. On his artist page on Facebook, called Him Noir, Lopaz states that he finds it tiring to do mostly unpaid educational work for white people, all the time. But in preparation for the event (for which he was paid), he took the time to correct me: he does not perform racism; the images he creates are installations. So, my remark must have indicated that I understood his art as a form of public re-enactment of racism when, in fact, racism is performed by white people, for example, when they ask him and other Black people in Germany “where are you from?” The performance of racism is what is done to Lopaz’s body, which is coded and classified as Black/other. Lopaz’s installations serve as an intervention to criticize performances of racism and to signal to other Black people who may be experiencing the same that he sees them (cf. Mohdin 2018). Using his body and the Berlin environment for the installations implies a productive dissolution of the line between art and real life. His work addresses specific experiences in the Berlin context.
For the panel, I invited a second speaker, Linda Gabriel, a Zimbabwean poetry performer. Her poetry addresses issues like women’s health, sexual harassment and female sexual pleasure. It struck me that being a woman myself, it felt much easier to have conversations with Gabriel about her work. We related easily through our shared position as women and only brushed the question of race in the preparation for the event. This shows how similarities can erase lived differences at the same time that people are able to unite on common ground. How to connect over thin threads of similarities without disregarding differences is one of the main concerns ←3 | 4→of Afropolitanism and also of this book. This certainly involves acknowledging one’s own mistakes.
Thus, my recounting of organizing this event serves to illustrate the workings of perceived sameness and difference, and how they affect people’s interaction in the contemporary world with its entangled histories. In this book, I offer further insights into dealing with different aspects of one’s own and other people’s identities via the concept of Afropolitanism. In response to the aforementioned problematic inclinations encapsulated in the question “where are you from?”, which include racial bias and a reductive image of Africa(ns), a growing number of mobile people of African descent who frequently cross national borders and challenge common, narrow and limiting ideas of identity and belonging. The concept of Afropolitanism – a compound of African and cosmopolitan – speaks precisely to these problems.
African Studies scholar Susanne Gehrmann points out that “[w]hat distinguishes the Afropolitan from the ‘common cosmopolitan’ is his/her privileged bonding with Africa” (2016: 63) and I would add, in many cases, an awareness of the inequality experienced because of it. The “major” or unmarked cosmopolitanism, in contrast, seems to only encompass white, often male, privileged travelers. This notion of cosmopolitanism originates in the Enlightenment and draws on Kantian thought, that is, a normative understanding of the modern subject and an outspoken advocacy of liberalism. The conceptual boundaries of this limited understanding of a cosmopolitanism for the greater good have been probed in recent years and a spectrum from minor to major cosmopolitanisms developed which continues to diversify. Cosmopolitanisms in the plural are “now seen to be as various as the sociohistorical sites and situations of multiple membership from which they emerged and which [are] therefore the business of social sciences like anthropology, sociology and history rather than a topic reserved to political theory and moral philosophy” (Lemos Horta and Robbins 2017: 1). The plurality of cosmopolitanisms comes with a number of agendas; its discussions center on legal, political, philosophical and cultural implications of an increasingly interconnected world. In the case of Afropolitanism, it offers a particular focus on the experience of ←4 | 5→mobile Africans. Valérie Orlando asserts optimistically that “Afropolitanism connotes movement forward and becoming something other than the stereotypes associated with the [African] continent as defined by Western, most particularly Euro-American, sociopolitical and economic standards” (2013: 277).
I understand Afropolitanism as an invitation to a dialog about the categorization of people and the borders between them. Through Afropolitanism an interest in a multiplicity of nuanced perspectives of Africanness in relation to mobility and the world at large can be addressed creatively. Accordingly, Afropolitanism finds expression primarily in creative fields such as literature, art and fashion. I begin this book, which covers each of these fields, by acknowledging the heterogeneity that currently characterizes how people understand and use Afropolitanism. Instead of asking what Afropolitanism is, I intend to explore what Afropolitanism does. In the selected instances of Afropolitanism, on which I follow up in the chapters of this book, I show that Afropolitanism can be created as an identity, as a political and ethical stance, as a dead-end road, as networks of people, as a collective self-care practice or as a strategic label. People of African descent make use of Afropolitanism with specific intentions and adapt it to their contexts and spheres of influence. With my analyses, I aim at laying bare the contemporary Afropolitan strategies that react to the immediate political climate here in Western Europe and thus relate my readings of Afropolitanism to Europe’s general swing to the right, the scapegoating of migration as “the mother of all problems” (Eddy 2018) and the (institutional) legacies of colonial history. In my readings of Afropolitanism, I focus on the cities of London and Berlin, sites of a number of projects and activities that have been linked to Afropolitanism and exemplify the Afropolitan strategy to embrace the local, that is, the micro level, the immediate urban context and to relate these to broader, even global concerns. Afropolitanism engages with the complexities of contemporary identities and intervenes in reductive or dualistic thinking patterns manifested in structural inequalities.←5 | 6→
To illustrate my point of departure, I will provide a brief overview of the emergence of Afropolitanism as a global phenomenon. The novelist Taiye Selasi and the political theorist Achille Mbembe are immediately associated with the coinage of the term and its fundamental theorization. Selasi’s short essay “Bye-bye Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)” was published in 2005 in an online magazine with only a handful of issues. Two years later, Mbembe’s similarly short piece “Afropolitanism” was a contribution to an essay collection entitled Africa Remix – Contemporary Art of a Continent (2007) that accompanied a touring exhibition of the same name. In spite of the small number of pages, Selasi and Mbembe’s respective pieces have been widely recognized in Africa, Europe and North America. Carli Coetzee notes that in academia, the term’s visibility increased mostly because of its critics (2016: 101), whereas many writers, artists and musicians willingly identify with Afropolitanism (e.g. Minna Salami, Teju Cole, Blitz the Ambassador). There are Afropolitan Meet-Up1 groups in the UK and the US and a popular Afropolitan magazine in South Africa. Cultural institutions eagerly embraced Afropolitanism in the form of new catchy event slogans. For example, the Houston Museum of African American Culture hosted a symposium on “The New Beat of Afropolitans” and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London invited the public to a massive “Friday Late Afropolitan” event.
- VIII, 276
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Hardcover)
- Publication date
- 2022 (January)
- Afropolitanism African and African Diasporic Literature Afropolitan Culture in Europe Afropolitan Berlin Afropolitan London Racism Anna von Rath Afropolitan Encounters
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. VIII, 276 pp.