Traces of Binyavanga Wainaina’s address, “I am a Pan-Africanist, not an Afropolitan”, delivered at September’s African Studies Association UK 2012 conference, have lingered with me over the past few months: the image of invisible digital networks of texts reaching ghost-like across continents, genre-bending “digital pulp,” and a pan-African literature that moves via twitter and sms rather than by printing press and shipping container. If many earlier African print publications—such as popular magazines and newspapers—have been described as “ephemeral,” the new literary world that Wainaina depicts is distinctly spectral.
When I told Katie Reid of AiW that Wainaina’s lecture was haunting me, she suggested that “Africa in Words” might be an ideal space to “exorcise” these spirits. It turns out that Katie’s idea was more fitting than I first realized. Wainaina’s address was a kind of exorcism in its own right, an attempt to rid African literary and cultural studies of the ghost of Afropolitanism, a term that perhaps once held promise as a new theoretical lens and important counterweight to Afro-pessimism, but that has increasingly come to stand for empty style and culture commodification.
The origin of this portmanteau (created out of the words ‘African’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’) is usually traced to an article titled “Bye-Bye Barbar” by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, published in the LIP Magazine in 2005. Tuakli-Wosornu uses the term primarily to describe Africans living, and often born outside of, the continent. She writes, “Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many. 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.” Achille Mbembe later popularized this term in academic discourse with his 2006 essay “Afropolitanism,” in which he attempts to reterritorialize Afropolitanism, in part by drawing attention to the long history of migration to, from, and within the African continent. His interest is not only in Tuakli-Wosornu’s “global Africans” but also in the world in Africa. According to Mbembe, “cultural mixing” or “the interweaving of worlds” has long been an African “way of belonging to the world”—whether one resides on the continent or not (28).
And yet, 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. On the homepage ofAfropolitan magazine, based out of South Africa, we find an essay on the legacy of the ANC alongside an article titled, “Fashion Conscious Carpeting…so much more than just good looks!” as well as an ad for “Samsonite B-Lite Fresh” suitcases. There is also an Afropolitan Shop, which features kente-accented laptop bags amongst a host of other products from African designers. Touting the principle of “Trade Not Aid,” the Afropolitan Shop defines Afropolitanism as “a sensibility, a culture and a worldview.” We see how easily style and “worldview” become conflated, how not only products, but people and identities are commoditized. Indeed, it’s hard not to miss this in Tuakli-Wosornu’s description of stylish Africans “coming soon or collected already” in a Euro-American metropolitan center “near you.”
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