Afropolitanism presents opportunities for disidentification, and thus potential for a world free from all forms of discriminations. As a social reinvention concept, it is relevant to people of African descent in the diaspora. But no matter how widely traveled or hybrid-cultured a person might be, there is always the origin of experience and identity. This essay attempts to provoke new ways of scrutinizing the promising, but equally elitist, concept of Afropolitanism.
»Nobody knows you,
You know not yourself.
And I, who am half in love with you,
What am I in love with?
My own imaginings?«
-D. H. Lawrence
In one way or the other, the desire to reject all forms of classification is a permanent human condition, for it is interesting to observe how the human experience congeals. We first learn, then unlearn, and then are shoved into perpetual turbulence. Day by day, as one discovers new knowledge about one’s surroundings and self, the illusion that bonds identities fragments, and so arises the danger of being self-centered – of being curtailed by our immediate experiences and privileges.
»It is true that Afropolitanism (denoting a brand of Africans of the world) identifies the weakness of Afrocentrism as a concept – for most ideas on Africa and the history of the black people of this world, as we know them today, are by-products of centuries of intimidations, exploitations, and oppressions.«
For some time now, the notion of a borderless world has been handed down from one consciousness to another. But it is also true that most of the boundaries that separate nations and continents were nonnexistent, even unimaginable, a century ago. It is the events of the past century that have drastically shaped identities. With each brutal war, for example, the location of the barbed wires and electric fences changes, and with them new pieces of identities emerge. And it is only natural that artists and intellectuals resist the fallacy of nationalism and absolutism of geographical identities.
Among some of the recent postcolonial ideas, the concept of Afropolitanism has grown increasingly problematic. Popularized by Taiye Selasi, and also explored by other writers, notably Binyavanga Wainaina and Achille Mbembe, the core of this concept on »African identities« is to become part of a world and not stand apart. Also, Afropolitanism dwells on social integration as a substitute for political action that, for example, dominated preceding ideas of African unity and Pan-Africanism. Opponents of Afropolitanism have suggested the potential of commodification of African identities, as well as the reproduction of western lifestyles.
It is true that Afropolitanism (denoting a brand of Africans of the world) identifies the weakness of Afrocentrism as a concept – for most ideas on Africa and the history of the black people of this world, as we know them today, are by-products of centuries of intimidations, exploitations, and oppressions. But it is also a hasty generalization to dismiss the cultural currency of these formerly exploited populations and the potency of their bleak and bitter legacies. While Afropolitanism is ideal, it is inconsistent with the reality that most people of African descent face, and even threaten to dissipate the value that they represent in world marked with an upsurge in discriminations and profiling.
»Among some of the recent postcolonial ideas, the concept of Afropolitanism has grown increasingly problematic.«
Increased tendencies toward racism and exclusion notwithstanding, Afropolitanism can only become too familiar for artists and intellectuals of African descent, as well as for those who might also identify with other geographical frames. For such artists and thinkers, bound to a peripatetic existence, the idea of home considerably fades away. But this, of course, is a strategy of reorganization and of coming to terms with the reality of hybridity amidst the politics of movement. Afropolitanism remains a solution in an ideal world, and as a method of overcoming the limitations of categorization, and which is often emphasized to show the otherness. This otherness, of course, can be relative to a western or Global Northern identity.
It can even be said that the proponents of Afropolitanism merely attempt to dismiss existing power structures. While laying foundations for dreams of posthuman sensibilities, in which concepts of otherness are integrated into everyday life, it is certain that the lenses only zoom and focus on a specific category of migrants. And so Afropolitanism can sound elitist and ignores the weight of movement faced by many people of African descent. For example, a migrant from an humble background in Kenya moving to Europe is likely to be categorized with stolen objects, and then, in spite of this acrimonious start, have to scale the steps of economic hierarchy, albeit without social or political protection.
If there is a boundless lesson that we can learn today, at this very moment, it is the speed at which ideas are evolving. Because of new ways of thinking, and because of the upsurge of nonhuman agencies, the concepts of otherness dominate popular narratives. Not only is the consideration one of cultural diversity, but also one of integrating nonhuman needs – such as ecological concerns. The magnitude of these forms of integration is ostensibly predominant in concepts of design and neoliberalism. Suddenly, remedies to existential crises lie in reevaluating the whole concept of humanism, and which greatly influences colonial motives.
It was the idea of civilizing barbaric or primitive societies – of transforming them into humans – that rationalized colonialism. Yet these societies intentionally engaged nature and optimized natural resources. It is only today, with the threat of global warming, that we can perceive the form of civilization that were part of the so-called »primitive societies.« It is unfortunate that it had to take centuries before the recognition of the otherness, of the cultural diversity and alternate realities in the world. Certainly, Afropolitanism is a dimension in the prism of otherness.
»Afropolitanism remains a solution in an ideal world, and as a method of overcoming the limitations of categorization, and which is often emphasized to show the otherness.«
There are many ways of interpreting Afropolitanism’s potentials and challenges. It is prudent, at this point, to admit that this concept has the prospect of deriving misconceptions. But also these misunderstandings can only be instrumental in banishing all forms of skepticism. Thoughts can only become clearer and ideas concrete. All narratives on the assumption of new identities for the African community in diaspora allude to the complexities of distance, of the relationship between the near and the far. And distance is relative and subjective; it is always a product of local identities.
It is these local identities and their resistance to exotic or foreign selves that Afropolitanism, as a contemporary ethnographic imagination, can fail to capture. Conflicts that exist in today’s multicultural societies are based on different aspects of distance, and those from »far,« or even embody physical traits associated with those from relatively distant regions, are objects of suspicion. With increased migration rates, and in reflection of population growth, the rapid influx of outsiders has become the projection screen for all modes of structural deficiencies and economic turbulence.
Placing oneself away from ethnographic realities, safely ensconced in the philosophical nest, is certainly a strategy of self-organization; of reinventing oneself and one’s society. It is apparent that Afropolitanism resonates with diaspora communities, and who, in essence, belong neither here nor there. These minority populations always have a disjunctive existence, and so considered strangers in the supposedly far and near regions – one being associated to their ancestral origins and the other to subjective experience.
Perhaps, what remains contentious is that Afropolitanism can suggest an acute dismissal of the aggregate layers of experience and legacies that preceded the present. The process of disidentification, of ridding oneself of universalized qualities, is the most demanding, as it requires dismantling values that determined the sense of belonging. In a world that spots color differences, and associates appearances to symbols of power relations, much is still to be learned by fully inserting values from communities in state of transformation into cosmopolitan societies.
Moreover, there are unresolved differences that cannot simply be eclipsed by a utopia, or by turning away the gaze in spite of all humiliations faced in everyday life by many people of African descent in the diaspora. One can even wonder if concepts of Europolitanism and Asiopolitanism exist. Besides, Afropolitanism can remotely allude to the concept of a »noble savage,« who, as Frantz Fanon notes, comes from »no place« and is »no person.« Within the clasps of cultural assimilation and integration, Afropolitanism can represent processes of distortion and disfigurement. Here, referencing the condition that one can only become part of a society if she denounces aspects of her family, or cultural, or even social origin.
And so, dismissing the potential of Afrocentric views is eliminating the chance of nourishing our multicultural society, where contradicting values must come in contact with contemporary realities. For those at crossroads in contemporary societies must struggle with difficulties of finding home in places that they are bound to perpetually remain strangers. These tensions are predominant in industrialized societies. As a way of coming to terms with the encroaching otherness, it is always safe to classify as a manner of asserting control in culturally diverse societies. Classifications can often precede social hierarchies and finely tuned machines of intimidation. Nevertheless, it is the absolutism and deception of categorization that Afropolitanism aptly confronts, but at the expense of examining the nature of contemporary life faced by many, and less privileged people of color.