‘Semi-politan’ cartographies: resituating self through obsolete and new technologies
Recently, Momtaza Mehri, who goes by the Twitter handle @RuffneckRefuge, tweeted: ‘africans being deported in israel, kidnapped in libya, shot at indiscriminately in italy & the afropean passport posse is still bragging about how cosmopolitan they are.’1
Across oceans and borders, Africans on the move nodded in agreement.
Mehri – a poet and essayist whose ‘heart splits across three continents: Europe, East Africa and the Middle East’2 – recalls, in a BBC interview, the gamble her own family made in crossing to safety, and how routinely other African immigrants, too, must trust their lives to the sea and rickety vessels. She also recalls the networks through which Somali immigrants aided each other, introducing them to cartographies beyond the official city and tube-train maps; these were cartographies of knowledge that fellow immigrants created to help new arrivals navigate impenetrable bureaucracies in their new urban and national landscapes – how to deal with London job applications, for instance, which requires a list of references from people you have known for five years but who are not related to you (how is this possible, she asks, when you have only just arrived in the country, and your family has not yet entered its structures?).
Those of us who are less privileged undertake hazardous journeys because we, too, wish to access better social, economic and political possibilities. However, we have long known that immigration is not only about mobility, that it cuts people off from their social worlds, and that they often end up leading lives that reflect the violence of immigration – where their social value has been decimated and where they have little access to agency.
When we arrive in the geopolitical West – if we are lucky – we will be linked to fellow immigrants, with their collective knowledge of how to ‘work’ what seems, at first, to be an impenetrable system. This collective memory, informing us about how to navigate the systems of our often inhospitable new countries, helps us to better face the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles meant to discourage us from accessing mobility. (In the United States, this impossible and essentially inaccessible mobility is named the ‘American Dream’; it conveys a powerful mythology about ordinary citizens’ magical ability to access class mobility and power, while surreptitiously communicating that this access is limited by white supremacist structures.) Part of what we learn from fellow immigrants is how to access legal services for visa applications for oneself or relatives, how to fill out paperwork for educational institutions, how to apply for public assistance or welfare, how to deal with a difficult or unscrupulous landlord, and about the support services such as church food pantries that welcome immigrant and low-income communities. A friend, an auntie, a person another person knows who has a somebody they can reach out to. It is this informal network of whispers – an undocumented web of knowledge – that helps us out of the ignominy of invisibility. It is through this network that we refashion ourselves as immigrants.
To those who experience such erasures – those systematic roadblocks to geographic, economic and social mobility – and must work to refashion their subjectivities in hostile geographies, glib attempts to locate Africanity through references to networks of privilege and access to capital seem facile at best. At worst, such attempts to align African identity with idealised cosmopolitanism seem to imbricate themselves in erasures of far more ordinary African immigrant experiences. To imagine oneself as a boundary-defying Afro-politan, when that mobility is facilitated by European Union or US passports – documents imbued with the magical ability to transport bearers seamlessly through barriers that deter the movement of the vast majority of African immigrants – means that this powerful subjectivity is limited to, and designed for, a few.
In this essay, I am interested in exploring the ways in which less fashionable, less mobile immigrants – agricultural and service sector workers, the undocumented, the refuge and asylum seekers – create bulwarks of support in order to solidify their footing in the most transient moments of their lives. My interest lies in paying attention to vulnerabilities and impossibilities, the cantilevers and flying buttresses holding up our lives – those often impossible, invisible lives that soar far and above what they were expected to.
Here, I address the ways in which second- and third-generation children of those less mobile immigrants reference and resignify old – almost obsolete – technologies, as well as embarrassingly kitschy ‘Africa’ ephemera that their parents brought with them in an attempt to refashion our own places in the world. These diasporic, ‘semi-politan’ generations amalgamate old technologies –through which their parents transported and archived fragments of home – with digital technologies; they reframe and reutilise this ephemera – evidence of loss, longing and lack of mobility – in order to redefine, rewrite, and resound selfhoods. In particular, I focus on the ways in which the mixtape – containing pop music, recordings of performed (or oral) poetry, and sermons by beloved imams and preachers – became pathways along which subsequent generations relocate selfhood, and how the sounds that older generations carried with them infiltrate the ways new generations situate themselves in the world.
This new generation of ‘semi-politans’ have not only become adept at using social media networks to create complex architectures and cartographies that allow them to reconstruct identities more powerful and stable than those of the travellers who came before them, but also to proudly emphasise their deterritorialised, unhomed statuses. Their ability to share experiences via social media sites has offered them almost unlimited access to people of their own and diverse other diasporas, as well as to worlds that were inaccessible to those who were forced to leave homescapes in the twentieth century. Rather than experience a sharp rupture between the past and the present, mediated solely by small boxes of ephemera that remind us who we are and where we came from, semi-politans of the twenty-first century are more easily able to ‘mix-tape’ experiences and identities.
Their immersion in the language of diaspora theory, and ability (perhaps it is even a preference) to remain in a destabilised position – at once deterritorialised and situated – has given them the confidence to critique others’ glib analyses of their lives, and to do away with the uncritical embrace of celebrated figures. For example, when Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama was unveiled in early February this year, and everyone was busy piling on the accolades, Mehri tweeted: ‘he looks like he’s about to destroy toxic masculinity & then my homeland all before noon.’3
As one might note in Mehri’s Twitter feed, the critique is often sharp, and the survivor’s ironic laughter deep with resonance. That humour destabilises the swagger of the overconfident academic critic and the uncritical –politan. Her generation’s ease with old and new technologies, their embrace of the ‘obsolete’, the kitsch, as well as the painful aspects of their experiences – along with their confidence as diasporic, political subjects – means that they have access to a far richer toolbox than those who are interested in glossing over the less presentable portions of diasporic experiences.
Afropolitanism and Afropolitanism lite
What does the enduring popularity of the term ‘Afropolitan’ tell us? In the 2000s, it came to have an enduring place in the lexicon of the digital landscape, where identity is re-engineered through clever wordplays. But behind this rush to embrace the term is our desire to signal our distance from cultural baggage – weighted loads created by white supremacist ideology – attached to being of ‘Africa’. Calling ourselves ‘Afropolitan’ became a shortcut to aligning ourselves with progress, without all the problematic attendant woes that come with ‘development’-speak; it became a way to denote loyalty and attachment – authenticity without the limitations, a stand-in for freedom. It captures our aspirations for mobility – our desire to propel ourselves beyond conventional borders and limitations attached to what the world regards as ‘African’.
But long before the 2000s renewed our desires to change and challenge tired old tropes that Eurocentric ideologies associated with being ‘African’, there were travellers, itinerants and nomads who came before us. They, too, wished to be mobile, to be a part of the same modernity as those they saw enjoying it. They looked at Europeans – those fashionable, powerful, self-propagating and self-propelling –politans who seemed to skip through countries, ideologies, material possessions and sexual and romantic partners, limited by imagination alone – and wanted what they had. After all, if it is evident that power was connected to mobility, who wouldn’t want both?
Such is the power of Afropolitanism, and the respectability politics it embraces, that certain scholars vie to claim responsibility for inventing the term – no matter how far-reaching and fabulous such assertions may be.4 In fact, musicians may have been the first to coin terms for this magical ability to create slippages between identities, usually not permitted to those from Africa. They were mutinous against the borders that Europeans had drawn on the continent, intended to limit us to one place, to lock us within a time frame and an identity that was conveniently in a past that did not threaten white supremacy. In fact, more than a decade before Blitz the Ambassador recorded Afropolitan Dreams, the word was reportedly in usage, particularly within francophone urban regions; a friend who is well versed in francophone music, Siddhartha Mitter, introduced me to Mama Gangster’s 1998 hip-hop album Mama Intellect – Afropolitain.5 And Aaron Bady, the erstwhile @zunguzungu on Twitter, tells me: ‘In 1989, the Cameroonian-Parisian musician Manu Dibango claimed – in his ghost-written but authorized autobiography, Three Kilos of Coffee – to have ‘defined himself as African and European at one and the same time’ and to have ‘founded the concept “negro-politain”’.6
If to be African, black and ‘negro’ was to be an immobilised non-subject, musicians, who had skills and knowledge that the colonial ‘master’ desired – granted, that desire was often for dubious and problematic reasons, including the marginalisation of African performers through the lenses of fetishism and primitivism – then African musicians were able to achieve this remarkable feat, travelling (literally and more metaphorically) between Europe and the tidily demarcated continental shelf of Africa. They were African, black and –politan – mobile, free and unruly, free of the attachments associated with being bounded by an African national identity and passport. They were uncontained by that long history of white supremacist thought, power relations intended to maintain European economic and political ascendancy, and their own people’s colonised mindsets. They moved stylishly – if not seamlessly or with complete ease – between what seemed like closed-off geographical, social, intellectual and creative boundaries. They seemed – at least in their public personas – unburdened by the narrative and image repertoires that Europe had strapped to our backs.
The fact that they had to fashion a new word, a term to differentiate themselves from the usual labels and epithets thrown at them, as well as from their well-meaning patriots’ desire to claim them as their own (thereby attempting to ensure that they did not escape the boundaries of the nation or colonially and post-colonially inherited notions of African identity), tells us that nothing they already had in their vocabularies would suffice.
Yet, while I may have ambivalent sympathies towards the limiting histories that gave birth to Afropolitanism, I have outright disagreements with uncritical love for any –politanism that fixates on a mobility available solely to those with privileged passports, social statuses and bank accounts.
I understand that Afropolitanism was meant to redirect us from the jarring and pervasive soundscape of Afropessimist thought. I also get that the politics of Afropolitanism offered an antidote to racist misconceptions. But it also seems like a weak reaction to Eurocentric racism and structural roadblocks to black mobility. My own opinion is that bringing out the weaponry of respectability to prove racists wrong – loudly listing our exceptional (and very stylish) existences, amazing inventions, high levels of education surpassing those of native-born people – is of little value. At best, such attempts fall on deaf ears (perhaps we only say it so that we can hear ourselves and believe it). At worst, it is undignifying – an act of begging, at the doors of power, asking to be seen as we really are. Our experiences of mobility need not be limited to a binary that sees us as victims marked solely by a lack of agency on the one hand, or as rapacious beneficiaries of market-driven globalisation on the other. As Emma Dabiri pointed out back in 2013: ‘defining yourself as Afropolitan isn’t the only alternative to the Afro-pessimism narrative.’7
In her article ‘Part-Time Africans, Europolitans and “Africa Lite”’, Grace Musila gets to the heart of our ‘dis-ease with the promises of Afropolitanism’: our discomfort, she writes, is due to the fact that though it may be ‘rich in conceptual and ideological promise’, the ‘rosy picture of connectivity, heterogeneous blends of cultures and […] ethos of tolerance’ is dependent on ‘global capital and its attendant consumer cultures’ and whether immigrants can access those ‘circuits of consumption’ (p. 110).8
Further, Afropolitanism’s rah-rah boosterism conveniently forgets the dissonance with which many immigrants live. It does not address the reluctance of immigrants to give up the habits of ‘home’, or the opposition we face from our host communities. Cities – though they may seem like portals into luxurious, pleasurable consumption and affluence – create conditions in which the less privileged itinerant is immobilised. Most not-well-connected economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who cross national or rural-urban boundaries often experience cities as inaccessible locations that neither favour their desire for mobility nor fulfil the dreams that propelled them there in the first place. We often find ourselves trapped in geographical, political, social, psychological and emotional infrastructures that do not permit us to move. We cannot escape the emotional ties to old structures either – sending home money, hosting relatives who descend upon us with little warning and with few realistic expectations. This is the shadow side of the bright Afropolitan dream.
For those without legal and economic access, cities reflect the structures and psychology of airport transit lounges: places where luxurious, pleasurable consumption and affluence are laid out as though it is within reach – a myriad of readily accessible food choices, perfumes, liquors and speciality items displayed inviting us to partake in the brotherhood of consumption. We are invited to linger in this in-between space, but little allowance for rest is offered – the chairs are inevitably uncomfortable, and designed to make us not wish to linger. We know that all of what is available to our eyes is not available to our wallets. And as all of us who have been at the mercy of immigration officials at airports know, this is a border, where we are at our most vulnerable. It is the space in which the agents of state have most power over our bodies, and over our mobility. It is where our ‘home’ state offers little protection, and our destination state is not yet willing to accept us. These in-between spaces of cities are where we are most penetrable to the state, most written on and inscribed by the state.
In 2018 – when only fools will pretend that we are not being profiled by immigration officials, roving border patrol officers and the panopticon of our neighbours’ collective, policing gaze – we know that some of us will be shot down, or harmed, with increasing frequency. While some privileged African immigrants may appear to be mobile – with decades clocked up in North America or Europe – we may nonetheless be sharply dissociated from the political structures of our new nations, which respond to our numbers by passing ever more stringent laws and policies to prevent our integration. Even those who may be affluent and able to access class privileges are hardly at ease. While some of us may, as Musila notes, develop a ‘sharp grasp of the cultural logics of these places’ (p. 111), we remain consciously and strikingly dissociated from our new nations – precisely because we understand exactly how our neighbours view us. We know how far we can get before proverbial doors will be closed, before we meet resistance masquerading as concern for social or professional standards; we prepare ourselves for the othering statements and microaggresions. We are constantly wary.
Yes, we have WhatsApp and Skype, Twitter and Facebook, tools with which we stay connected with other diasporic bodies – be they those that hail from our own geographic and genetic backgrounds, or those who have experienced similar exoduses caused by violent eruptions elsewhere. Yet we remain profoundly disconnected, psychologically and emotionally, from the nations in which we find ourselves.
Mixtapes and soundscapes
Music – and the mixtape, in particular, before the age of the Internet, MP3 and YouTube – played a significant part in creating methodologies for resettling the unsettled immigrant self. These tapes, shared and circulated within communities, revealed routes to homeplaces that existed only in our imaginaries. The sounds they carried provided structures of solace and sanity.
In a recent segment on Chicago’s WBEZ, Daniel Musisi, the station’s master control engineer and resident music expert (who also doubles as a DJ named Moose), remembers how his Ugandan-born mother would play a particular Gold Maxelle tape – showcasing songs circulating in the early 1980s among Philadelphia’s African immigrants – over and over again. It was a fixture on the cassette player when company came over; and when she was cleaning the house, she blasted it, ‘to make the housework easier’. In an interview with her son, she remembers that when she first arrived in the United States in the mid–1970s, she met ‘other Africans’ from a broad range of countries, with whom she socialised, shared meals – and among whom these mixtapes circulated, as a way of sharing a soundscape that substituted for home. When she listened to this music, she remembered standing at the taxi rank back in her home town, where music was always blaring out of music shops, helping to pass the time spent waiting for transport. This particular tape that she acquired in Philadelphia has no tracklist, no artist list, but it did have ‘Rochereau’ written on the label. Musisi eventually learned that the label had been inspired by Congolese global star Tabu Ley Rochereau. The tape also contained songs by ‘The Queen of Congolese’, M’bilia Bel, Trinidadian calypso king Mighty Sparrow, and Jamaican Jimmy Riley, as well as Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ and the Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney duet ‘The Girl Is Mine’.
Musisi knew that his mother’s favourite mixtape had been compiled by Sammy Ayany, a young Kenyan living in Philadelphia at the same time as Moose’s mother; he had taken care to label the tape ‘Property of Sammy Ayany’ – an attempt at ensuring ownership that apparently had little effect. Rather, the ownership of this desirable object, more than any other object, was mobile; its identity too – a collection of broad pan-African auditory signals – was generous enough to include Caribbean calypso and African-American pop.9
Mehri, the poet, remembers the cassette tapes her parents brought, with recordings of Somali poetry, particularly ‘gabay’ – a pastoral poetry that is heard, not written, and often handed down through the generations – and texts with hilariously didactic poetry, including one that warns people about the dangers of speeding. There were also proverbs Mehri had to learn that were too abstract and specific to a time and a location. Her mother used to tell her, for instance, ‘Only Italians and divorcees walk in a different, sophisticated way’ – a proverb that arose because at the time her parents lived in Somalia, those were the two groups who ‘showed off’: the divorcees dressed in their best and who walked ‘in a strange and beautiful way’; the Italian men, too, strutted like ‘peacocks’.
She bridged the gaps in her disconnect – between her disaporic self, and the denigrating comments of her London school teachers, intended to diminish her person – by blogging and by cruising the Internet, reading celebrity news and gossip, make-up and hair tips, the English Romantic poets, snippets of Maya Anjelou poetry quoted on someone’s page, and illegal PDFs of Chicano poetry shared by her posse of Internet friends. In between, she would hear the narratives of those whose journey did not end well – for whom nations failed, whose boats promising to take them to safer landscapes sank, and for whom the cartographies of survival fell short.
Mehri’s words speak to the fabulism and realism of the immigrant’s repertoire, the poetics necessary for surviving difficult passages and even more difficult attempts to resettle one’s person after so much unsettlement. When we listen to her poetry, we hear the enormity of the impact of this continuing experience of unhoming-and-attempted-homing, and the fragmentations that such processes produce. But we also hear that her voice is rich with the resonances inherent to a layered existence. The fragments that are part of her fractured experience – the words of her fellow poets, the tapes and proverbs transported by her parents, repetitive news narratives of disastrous ends met by African immigrants, WhatsApp messages conveying condolences for a lost relative – all of these form the basis of the narrative and soundscapes that inform her voice.
These tapes, circulated and overplayed to the point of distortion, had a function as important to survival as knowledge of how to navigate the legal and bureaucratic systems of aid in our new countries. If knowledge of legal and bureaucratic systems helped our bodies to survive, the informal economy of the mixtape exchange helped us to survive psychologically and emotionally.
Although many immigrants resist the new, continuing to locate themselves in geographies and timescapes to which they cannot return, the ‘soft diplomacy’ of mixtapes helped even the most resistant to expand their identities towards more generous categories of being ‘African’ and ‘Black’. Typically, the music we bring with us is intended to reproduce familiar rhythms, lyrics, concerns and world views; it aids our desire to maintain our attachments to our ‘old selves’. We refuse to hear jarring sounds that remind us that the place we call home has moved on, or changed – signalling that we no longer have a rightful, easy belonging there. However, mixtapes have a remarkable ability to expand one’s sense of belonging towards a broader and more welcoming identity.
Our new nations demanded we assimilate and erase markers of former belonging, violently excise former attachments – all the while reminding us of our otherness. In these isolating and, at times, hostile places, the soundscapes providing access to a broader way of identifying the self with ‘Africa’ or with ‘Blackness’, politically or socially speaking, was nothing short of a necessary survival technique. It is a survival technique that later generations expanded into creative acts, dubbing their own voices and new sounds over and alongside the old tracks.
In landscapes in which we learned the sound of who we are, we were audible, understood; in our new locations, our sounds are often misunderstood, turned down, inaudible. We take with us these soundscapes we associate with ‘home’ – what we lost, what we can no longer access. That soundscape includes the violence and dislocation created by being unhomed. Both are intimately connected to our attempts at refashioning selfhoods in new locations that sometimes refuse to hear us.
The phonemes sounding out persons – these undersonics – keep on flowing beneath our material existences and our acknowledged worlds. The micro-nodules of sound that make up our memory of self have a materiality, a politics and a poetics that effect us as individuals and a community; they are imprinted into us, resonating within us even as our bodies migrate. They survive, even as we move through inhospitable environments determined to silence us.
Creative theorisation: materialising present selves through the ‘poverty archive’
The aim of African Mobilities is to revise the ways in which we prepare for new geographies of African migration – in material and structural ways, as well as through digital technologies. As part of this re-visionist exercise, I propose that we open up what Pumla Dineo Gqola calls ‘creative theorisation’ and the significance of ‘re-memory’ in order to explore new epistemologies and ontologies for thinking about African mobility. Creative theorisation, and re-memory, notes Gqola, are acts of ‘filling in, recasting, relooking, reformulating (both of memory and history)’.10 Gqola offers a framework for thinking about our impetus to create. Although creative theorisation is rarely addressed in popular and received notions of how diaspora functions, it is essential for re-establishing our personhoods after experiencing destabilising – and sometimes dehumanising – ruptures. Looking at creative acts as a means of ‘theorising’ our present experiences – how we create routes to the past, even when those routes are fragmented or blocked – allows us to honour and value vernacular forms of theorising. These methodologies of theorising the self, using creative acts as the conduit, allows us to step back into our bodies, histories and experiences, from which we have often been estranged through violent or broken pasts.
For diasporic people who came from families well connected enough to networks of power and privilege – who had access to objects, land and dwellings handed down through generations, recorded music, cameras, rolls of film and even home movie-making equipment – there is an abundance of uncanny evidence of ‘home’, residuals linking us to our lineages. We return to these archives to re-collect ourselves when we experience disruptions in our usual seamless connections to stabilising lineages, when we lose our tethering to our stable understanding of self. Unmoored by pain, in mourning for beloved places and people, we return to stockpiles that faithfully preserve worlds we can no longer access.
But for many, material records containing evidence of belonging are less abundant. If the rupture in one’s history is violent enough, resulting in disruption to family attachments to home spaces, there will inevitably be a complete absence of that stabilising archive of narratives, images and objects. While those from more stable political and national narratives can rely on the technologies of the twentieth century to contain a rich archive of belonging, those whose histories were violently interrupted will find themselves searching for lost layers of sounds, photographic images and narratives. The resulting lacunae in family auditory, image and material object ‘banks’ also result in estrangement from our pathways of imaginary return.
That dearth of material evidence of self, as well as the separation from ‘normative’ narratives of modernity, leaves us with an abundance of longing. It also means that our existences often seem poorer, somehow lacking, because the richness and complexity afforded to those with more stable archives is denied to us. We are left to recreate imagined returns through what I call a ‘poverty archive’. Those reduced archives signify, for me, the contradictions of displacement – the diminished sense of history and self with which we are forced to contend, the desire to establish belonging through metaphorical returns, and the impossibility of return.
Inheriting that poverty archive is, I believe, the reason that many second- and third-generation children of immigrants, refugees and exiles are so driven to recreate their lives into being not only through imagined returns but by expanding the (reduced) archive. Marianne Hirsch, in her groundbreaking article ‘Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile’ – detailing the ways in which traumatic memory is transmitted in families of those who survived the Holocaust, and the effects of that received trauma on the second generation – named the phenomenon ‘post-memory’.11 Hirsch explains that this transmitted trauma, as well as the alienation created by not having been present there – and thus unable to share the experiences that caused and created one’s family’s upheavals and suffering – produces powerful longings in the generation born to survivors. The second and third generations long to be a part of a world to which it is impossible to return, partly because of temporal shifts, but also because that world about which their parents speak has been physically destroyed:
‘Children of survivors live at a further temporal and spatial remove from that decimated world. The distance separating them from the locus of origin is the radical break of unknowable and incomprehensible persecution; for those born after, it is a break impossible to bridge.’ 12
Hirsch explains that, despite the geographical and temporal distances separating the next generation from their parents’ ‘decimated worlds’, the depth of trauma, ‘mourning and memory […] imparts […] something akin to memory’.13 This ‘belated’ generation grows up ‘dominated by narratives that preceded their birth’, with their own experiences and narratives being ‘evacuated’ by the experiences of their parents; yet despite their intricate connections with their parents’ trauma, they find that they are unable to fully understand the traumatic memories of their parents or to recreate their worlds.14
‘Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.’15
Hirsch points out that latter generations, who arrive post-trauma, are only able to access the ‘voids’ of disappeared worlds by creatively producing aesthetic works connecting their own longing to belong to what is, essentially, a received, and imagined version of the past; this hunger to learn, access and belong, she argues, produces ‘diasporic aesthetics of temporal and spatial exile that needs simultaneously to rebuild and to mourn,’ inventing in order to ‘relocate’ themselves in time and space.16
Here, I wish to emphasise that I am not equating the experiences of Holocaust survivors and that of their children with those of other displaced people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; rather, I am attempting to note that there are fractured parallels, with varying degrees of separation, between the experiences of the ‘post-memory’ generation and those of the children of other displaced people. These parallels become especially apparent when it comes to immigrant children’s desire to insert themselves into their parents’ worlds, a desire heightened by hearing the sounds and seeing images that convey a glimpse into their parents’ past lives. Similar to the ‘post-memory generation’, the children of post-colonial migrants – displaced as a result of ethnically motivated pogroms, systematic violence and state-sponsored brutality, and at other times by structural and economic violence that is more difficult to identify – seek out evidence of the pasts they cannot be a part of, but to which they feel powerfully connected.
For the immigrant, the exile and the displaced – whether that displacement is a result of economic, environmental or violent political upheavals – repetitive returns to often idealised, lost locations, via sound banks and images of family events in which they may well have been too young to take part, is an act of circumnavigating the trauma of dislocation. Sound recordings, photographs and rarer collections of moving images become containers of emanations of the past, essential to narrating the condition of being post-violence, post-war, post-colonial.
Because of their desire to recreate the worlds they lost, children of post-colonial immigrants, refugees, exiles and asylum seekers are often accused of having ‘[t]oo deep an attachment to territoriality and locatedness’.17 Attachments to old territories, and the wounds that our parents brought with them, produce unseemly fissures in subsequent generations, which make it difficult for us to mould ourselves into our new social and physical geographies. They prevent us from cultivating the native’s ‘seamless’ behaviour and psychology – identities without ruptures. While we may initially attempt to mimic the native’s idealised characteristics – appearing to have little to no apparent fractures in our identity – we journey on to create something new, something we can call our own. That new journey begins when we find out that the expectations of our parents to remain still (as if we had never left their ‘home’) and of our new nations (to amalgamate ourselves seamlessly into its monolithic identity) are impossible and self-defeating tasks.
Acts of creative theorisation allow us to tell complex narratives about dislocation and fracture, as well as the (mostly hopeless) attempt to put ourselves ‘back together again,’ like the broken Humpty Dumpty in the English nursery rhyme. Creative theorisation reaches back to once stable histories – evidence of belonging and of belongings, ordinary customs and rituals repeated, of banal moments recorded as part of the story of rootedness in geographical and cultural location. We look to objects and practices – even though they are infamously unstable: physically, they deteriorate; and conceptually, socially and politically, they shift meaning, confounding our wish for things to contain stable, documentary narratives or confirm the past we believe to be ‘true’. Referencing these ‘lost’ objects and practices is indicative of our psychological need to return to pasts that are no longer physically – or emotionally – available. But if accompanied by acts of creation, these acts of remembering and mourning help us to re-establish our unmoored selves and enrich our poverty archives.
Creative exercises of remapping and relocating selves can come in the form of producing a material object with functional, aesthetic and survivalist purposes, a vegetable or flower garden grown from seeds secreted away during one’s passage, a passed-down recipe for which ingredients are not available in the new country, or snatches of a song one’s mother sings as she does her housework. This, I believe, is why so many children of the second and third generation have taken to assiduously researching YouTube and recipe websites in order to learn to cook the way their mother and grandmother did, photographic archives for images of cities they never saw, and digitised recordings of the voices and music of their ancestors.
The precarious architectures of our survival methodologies illustrate the violence inherent in mobility. These performative acts, these interwoven and cobbled-together narratives, songs, material objects and ways of feeding our emotional and intellectual palates are explorations that are part of mourning and recovery. They are essential to how we are learning to live with fragmentations and amalgamations. This is our mixtape, with which we map routes to generations, landscapes and ways of being that are now inaccessible to us. We know that these soundscapes are contained within us; and even though the mixtape is often a poor recording that is fragmented and taped over, it does, after all, contain a hit list of our ancestral greatest loves.
The relationship we build with this archive – rich, broken and elusive as it is – as well as the fresh, new notes we create to overlay the broken segments, is essential to our contradictory attempts (and refusals) to assimilate.
BIO: M. Neelika Jayawardane is a recipient of the 2018 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for a book project on the Afrapix, a South African photographers’ agency that operated during the last decade of apartheid. She is associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Oswego, an honorary research associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) and a founding member of the online magazine Africa is a Country. Along with academic publications, her writing is featured in Al Jazeera English, Transition, Aperture, Contemporary And (C&), Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, Even Magazine and Research in African Literatures.
1. Momtaza Mehri, @RuffneckRefugee, 7:41 pm, 6 February 2018; https://twitter.com/RuffneckRefugee/status/961022070732836864.
2. BBC R4, ‘Pick a Sky and Name It’, 14 January 2018; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098n8z9.
3. Momtaza Mehri, @RuffneckRefugee, 1:10 pm, 12 February 2018; https://twitter.com/RuffneckRefugee/status/963098104844169217. .
4. Achille Mbembe first used the term in ‘Afropolitanism’ in Njami Simon and Lucy Durán (eds.), Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, translated by Laurent Chauvet, Johannesburg/Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2005, pp. 26–30. While he may be credited with disseminating the term among academics, writer Taiye Selasi also put forward the term in her 2005 essay ‘Bye-Bye Babar’ (see Taiye Selasi, ‘Bye-Bye Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)’, The LIP Magazine, 3 March 2005. This essay, though published in the same year as Mbembe’s, only went viral later, Selasi maintains, after two subsequent publications: in a catalogue published by Michael Stevenson Gallery in South Africa in 2006, and in The Nation newspaper in Nairobi on 4 September 2007 (here, it was published as ‘Africa Insight – the New Africans Called Afropolitans’ by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu; http://afrikanisation.blogspot.com/2007/09/africa-insight-new-africans-called.html). Her reinvigorated essay popularised the use of the term among the general public. However, she reiterates, in a Transition Magazine interview with Aaron Bady, that she did not invent the term; for further discussion, see Aaron Bady, ‘From that stranded place: a conversation with Taiye Selasi’, Transition: An International Review, vol. 117, pp. 148–65, here p. 160.
5. Mama Intellect – Afropolitain, France, 1998; https://www.discogs.com/Mama-Intellect-Afropolitain/release/3087442.
6. Aaron Bady, https://twitter.com/zunguzungu/status/958899799620661248. @zunguzungu, 7:08 pm, 31 January 2018.
7. Emma Dabiri, ‘Afro-Rebel (Or Why I Am Not an Afropolitan)’, Black Girl Dancing at Lughnasa, 9 July 2013. http://thediasporadiva.tumblr.com/post/55036008288/afro-rebel-or-why-i-am-not-an-afropolitan [accessed 18 February 2018].
8. Grace A. Musila, ‘Part-Time Africans, Europolitans and “Africa Lite”’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 28, no. 1 ( 2015), pp. 109–13, here p. 110.
9. Julian Hayda and Jerome McDonnell, ‘Global Notes: How African Immigrants in the 1980s “Got Down” With Music From Home’, WEBZ 91.5 Chicago, 17 January 2018; https://www.wbez.org/shows/worldview/global-notes-how-african-immigrants-in-the-1980s-got-down-with-music-from-home/24a48e9c-75fc-4570-8495-31dd7d017872.
10. Pumla Dineo Gqola, What Is Slavery to Me? Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010, here p. 8.
11. Marianne Hirsch first refers to the term ‘post-memory’ in her article ‘Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory’, Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture: vol. 15, no. (1992–93), pp. 3-29.
12. Marianne Hirsch, ‘Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile’, Poetics Today, vol. 17, no. 4 (1996), pp. 659–86, here p. 662.
13. Ibid., 662.
14. Ibid., 662.
15. Ibid., 662.
16. Ibid., 664.
17. Griselda Pollock, ‘Back to Africa: From Natal to Natal in the Locations of Memory’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, vol. 5, nos. 1+2 (2006), pp. 49–72, here p. 62.