WORDS: FANTA SYLLA
“First, we must recognize each other.”
– Audre Lorde
Twice I’ve been invited to discuss my experience as a young black woman born and living in France in two different panels organized by Syracuse University’s program Paris Noir.
Lead by Professor Jane Mayes, Paris Noir seeks to connect mostly Black American students to Black French history and Black French contemporary life. The gesture must be situated in the long legacy of transatlantic and pan-africanist exchange between Black Americans and the rest of the diaspora. A lot of time, a woman is behind the initiative, whether it is Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde and, as Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminded us in a poetic tribute, Cheryll Y. Greene who encouraged Black American women to seek their sisters and brothers outside of the U.S. In the same tribute, Gumbs uses the words “weighted privilege of U.S. citizenship” and this will help me articulate a few thoughts about so-called Black American privilege and hypervisibility.
Frequently, the diaspora debate crystallizes around Black American hypervisibility and privilege, the two words confusing each other almost always.
Diaspora conversations online can go from funny to vicious real quick. They reflect a long, complicated history and the violence is the product of effective complexes between Black Africans and Black Caribbeans, Black Caribbeans and Black Americans, and Black Africans and Black Americans. Frantz Fanon has documented these complexes in a text called “Africans and Antilleans”. James Baldwin tackled it in his lucid “Princes and Powers” back in 1957. This isn’t new and we shouldn’t be surprised that tensions and misunderstandings between us exist. We have been separated and pitted against each other. We have lost each other and now we find ourselves in the space that is the internet having to confront our dissimilarities. These interactions have to be electric, tense, violent and sometimes full of resentment, bitterness, and envy.
Frequently, the diaspora debate crystallizes around Black American hypervisibility and privilege, the two words confusing each other almost always. The naivety is to think that Black American presence in the media, Black American celebrities or the publicized discourse on antiblackness in America is a sign that Black people in the U.S. have a better life. The relative cultural dominance of Black Americans is a by-product of American soft power. Reading cultural criticism taught me that what I had seen of Black Americans was completely superficial, that rarely were they in possession of the means of production of this visibility. I came to realize that I didn’t know shit about Black American culture before going to the U.S. and interacting with real Black people off and online.
There is American hegemony. And there is the natural consequence of centuries of creation and labor. Black Americans carved their own cultural spaces and imprinted their presence in the world with grace and urgent invention. We should always remember that they are descendants of deported Africans turned into slaves who have been snatched from their lands, cultures, and languages. Recognizing the greatness of Black American history and culture doesn’t remove anything from the genius of other cultures within the diaspora. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
On my side of the internet, a lot of these Black Diaspora quarrels are spurred by Black Africans living in the West struggling with post-colonial/immigrant guilt and identity issues. It’s like they can only claim/affirm their African heritage by accusing other Black people of inauthenticity or appropriation. They are usually the one’s thinking they own African identity, how it manifests itself, how it is circumscribed. They are also dedicated to proving that African cultures are diverse, complex and legitimate; something that only Africans living in the West need to prove because as far as I know Africans in the continent know that already.
Recognizing the greatness of Black American history and culture doesn’t remove anything from the genius of other cultures within the diaspora.
Can Black Americans appropriate African cultures? In a much-talked-about article on appropriation published on Afropunk, Zipporah Gene said “Yes.” However, the violence of the question and of the response given by the writer resides in the erasure of Black Americans’ African heritage and more importantly in the way it never occurred to the mind of the writer that Black Americans could retrace their ancestry back to the tribes they are presumably appropriating. This insensitivity also permeates in an article written by Ainehi Edoro for the Guardian about the critical reception of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. She deplores the fact that publications such as NPR, ELLE, and Vogue – the websites we should all trust when it comes to the coverage of Blacks – positioned Beyoncé as the discoverer of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire. My first reaction was: Who cares what Bethany from NPR says about this intentionally Black project? Then I continued reading. Here are some beautiful excerpts:
“Shire’s poetry which, among other things, was first used to give an account of the lives of African women before it was adapted to tell the story of women’s lives in America.”
“Shire’s poetry prepares the way for Beyoncé’s work and, in a sense, makes it possible: African literature provides the terms on which Beyoncé’s work can be made intelligible.”
“African literature shines a light on Beyoncé’s work, not the other way round.”
All this hostility because Caroline from Vogue couldn’t do her homework!
In needing to prove that African literature is strong, versatile, aesthetically complex with no need of Western gaze to acknowledge it’s existence, the writer completely erases Beyoncé’s creative license and auteurship as a southern Black American woman. It is sad because so much is lost here. So much of what is actually happening online, the relationships that are being fostered between Black people from all over the world, the cultural exchanges that inevitably exist, the cultural retention, all of this is lost in the desire to counter-act an imperialism that is not real in this case. If one has spent any time over the past two years on the internet, one has encountered the work of Adichie and Shire. Warsan Shire is appreciated by young women from all over the world and Adichie went viral after her TED talk The Danger of A Single Story. They were popular way before Beyoncé/Lemonade —that is why Beyoncé was able to find them.
When Kendrick Lamar poetically put Compton-in-Africa during his Grammy performance earlier this year, while most of the reactions on my timeline were positive, the Black African living in the West contrarian side of the Internet (mostly children of African immigrants in France and the U.S.) started tweeting about appropriation and how.…this didn’t sit well with them. The fear of mythologizing, of reducing Africa to a country-less map and appropriation by a man who didn’t articulate his identity perfectly for the critics. Those anxieties are reasonable. But, I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Does Kendrick Lamar have the power to turn Africa into a country? Is this not just another example of the impulsive way Black Africans like to police Black Americans relationship to the continent?
I write a lot about cultural products and about Black American actresses. And I am grateful each time I am allowed to do so. I feel indebted to many Black American writers, theorists, filmmakers, musicians and artists thanks to whom I was able to construct myself while growing up in a country that didn’t recognize me. They gave me the language to articulate the specificity of my experience. It occurred to me when Prince and Muhammad Ali died: that Black people all over the world have made Black American icons their own without them ever questioning the legitimacy of this ownership.
Black Africans invest in respectability politics in order to shield themselves from the anti-blackness Black Americans experience.
When I was studying in the U.S., I would babysit three boys, the sons of a Senegalese immigrant woman. They were hyperactive and impertinent. Whenever I’d go outside I was super vigilant. They were very young. But, what is youth and childhood to a Black child in America? I remember their mother having disparaging comments about Black Americans. And I thought about the danger of holding such ideas when one has birthed three Black American boys. After Amadou Diallo, after Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in the gated community he lived in while I was still studying and taking care of these boys.
This way of distancing herself and her children from Black Americans is typical of the way African immigrants usually behave when arriving in America. Black Africans invest in respectability politics in order to shield themselves from the anti-blackness Black Americans experience. But, the case of Amadou Diallo tells us that bullets don’t care about your country of origin when you are Black.
Weighted privilege: the mobility that a U.S. passport or an American citizenship can grant is not available to all Black Americans. The existence of Black celebrities shouldn’t hide the number of deaths at the hands of the police or the general neglect of Black American life in the medical system. Katrina, Ferguson, Baltimore, Flint, show the precariousness of Black American life and the vulnerability of these lives in an anti-black country with liberal gun laws. These conditions ridicule the concept of Black American privilege. Hypervisibility doesn’t stop bullets. On the contrary, America is a war zone for most Black people and in that Black Americans share more with unprivileged Black Africans in the continent than bougie middle-class Africans in the West will ever share.