Afropolitanism: Rewriting African mobility in the 21st century?

DANIEL OLAOLUWA WHYTE  |  4 JUNE 2022  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2022

Daniel Whyte, photo credit_ 'By Robert Sharp - CC BY-SA 4.0.png

Picture by Robert Sharp on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Sefi Atta’s 2012 novel, A Bit of Difference, opens with Deola Bello, a Nigerian character with a British passport. On a business trip from London to Atlanta, she wears silver hoops in her ears and rocks an Afro. She moves between global metropolitan cities easily, from London to Lagos to LA. The narrator of Helon Habila’s 2019 novel Travellers shares a similar privilege. With a US green card and married to an American wife, he moves from the States to Berlin to Basel without any difficulty. However, when he loses his passport and green card on a train back to Berlin from Basel, he becomes an insecure traveller. The narrator of Harare North by Brian Chikwava, on the other hand, is detained at once when he arrives at Gatwick airport, UK. Fleeing political turmoil in then Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the 22-year-old narrator does not have the privilege of characters like Deola Bello or Habila’s narrator. These three novels, important contributions to recent debates about Afropolitanism, remind us of what it means to be mobile and transnational for Africans in the era of globalisation still marked by inequalities.

 

British-American writer of Ghanaian and Nigerian origins Taiye Selasi, coined the word Afropolitanism in an essay published in 2005 titled ‘Bye-bye Babar (or what is an Afropolitan?)’. She used it to describe a category of Africans in the diaspora who can claim ties with multiple places. They can move with ease and their sense of self is tied to more than one place, usually a city in Africa and another or more in the West. Following its initial use by Selasi, criticisms have trailed the use of the term. Controversies abound as to what its meaning should be, what its potential relevance might be, or whether its pitfalls have made it irrelevant and thus should be discarded.

 

One of the most enduring criticisms has been that the term drowns out the voice of other Africans in the diaspora who do not have the same privileges and that it obscures the inequality that colours twenty-first-century life in its consumerist lifestyle and elitist leanings. It is no doubt important to point out these issues. Yet, that the term began as a social identity does not mean this should obscure its other potential uses. Even as a social identity, Afropolitanism does not claim to homogenise the African diaspora. It presents a form of cultural identity, as discussed by Stuart Hall, which is a process of becoming. It is a product of the past, but unlike previous articulations of African identities such as Negritude and Pan-Africanism, it is not steeped in the past. Rather, it is a subject of constant transformation and contestation. 

 

As a site of contestation, this means that the identity is not fixed, nor is it gotten automatically by the virtue of mobility. Afropolitanism can thus be adopted or not by both elite and non-elite diasporic Africans, as the narrator of Harare North does by ridiculing the lifestyle, calling Afropolitans ‘lapsed Africans’. It is, however, in this process of contestation that Afropolitanism becomes more useful as an analytical tool. It reveals the politics of mobility and the way socioeconomic disparities between migrants shape their lives in the diaspora. At the same time, it reveals the contest that necessitates the term and its consequent resistance to the ways Africans are seen abroad as well as the structures that limit their movement in the era of globalisation.

 

For characters like Deola Bello and Habila’s narrator who mirrors Afropolitanism, their movement is still attended by a tension that comes with being African in the world. This tension is cushioned by the socioeconomic and cultural securities they have, such as Western passports and well-paying jobs. It, however, manifests when they lose these privileges, as we see with Habila’s narrator. What my ongoing research points out then is that, rather than disregard Afropolitanism, it is worth engaging the term for the way it illuminates the politics of mobility and the negotiation of Afro-diasporic identities.

 

Afropolitanism presents a vision of world citizenship that some Africans desire, but which is inaccessible for many. For those who can, their modes of access also differ as the socioeconomic conditions of each migrant or group of migrants continue to shape their experiences in the diaspora. While the current era of globalisation presents an image of hypermobility and interconnectedness, this is inaccessible to many people. This is the ultimate irony of globalisation and global mobility. As these literary texts show, mobility is still unequally accessed, and for Africans without a certain cushion, travel is still less liberating. Perhaps then Afropolitanism can be a reminder of how unequal the world still is, and perhaps it can be an attempt toward changing the narrative about African mobility. 

Daniel Olaoluwa Whyte

Daniel Olaoluwa Whyte is a researcher with an interest in African and African Diaspora Studies. He is currently an MPhil student in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, where his research focuses on the representation of mobility in Afro-diasporic fiction. He tweets at @_DanWhyte.

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