Of the Dangers of the African Label


On March 6, 1957, Ghana's most prominent freedom fighter, Kwame Nkrumah, uttered in an address what is inarguably the most poetic inspiration for the struggle for a united Africa. "We are going to create our own Africa personality and identity. It is the only way we can show the world that we are ready for our own battles."  Mr. Nkrumah also added that Ghana's independence was "meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa."  In the more than half a century since then, African states have endeavored to unite their political, social, economic and security interests to leverage their bargaining positions abroad, promote good governance and attain peace and prosperity at home. However, the economic and political identification by African states and people with one another has undermined the enormous diversity of Africans before a world that already sees little benefit in differentiating the Liberian from the Ivorian.  

The African - whether in the east, south, west or north- has a single story. In the colonial version of the story, she is simple-minded, primitive and destitute. The current version of the story differs from the colonial version in tone but not in substance. It still remains true today that to be black and African is to be an object. And like all objects, the African derives her meaning and purpose from her objectifier.  Some might plausibly argue that the problem of the 21st century is the problem of climate change. But no informed person can deny that the most enduring problem of the past half millennia is the problem of the color line. Most specifically, the struggle to put an equal value on the life of a human in Africa as it is put in Europe and elsewhere.

The concept of race has always been fluid. During the Spanish invasion of the Americas, mixed-race Spanish Americans could buy their way out of darkness and inferiority. Through a process known as gracias al sacar, they could purchase whiteness and have the privileges that come with that identity conferred on them by the state. There is no marketplace for purchasing whiteness today, although, one could redeem herself by going to school, praying to Jesus, dressing in suits, eating with a cutlery and living in the West.

Being an African means more than just coming from Africa: It is a special label that is separate and inferior to blackness. It is being black and coming from Africa. The African label means a lot of things to many but generally, it means everything others don't want to be. As a teenager, I wondered why I stood out more than any other student in my high school in Western Massachusetts. Grant it, I had some unique personal qualities and was a favorite of most of my teachers but the interest in me extended far beyond that:  it was as if I was the physical manifestation of a myth about a sub-people from a sub-world.

At a ceremony in the fall of 2008, I met a gentleman by the name of Dongala. He had come from the Congo and was then teaching at a nearby college. We were introduced to each other, I am certain, by someone who thought Africans were always looking for other Africans. Just before Mr. Dongala departed, he gave me an advice that is so commonly given to young diasporan Africans: ``make Africa proud.`` Nevermind the only country in the continent that I know was Ghana.

A decade has passed since that chance encounter with Mr. Dongala. Since then, I have encountered a plethora of people from naive students who wondered if Africans went to school on the backs of animals to professors and so-called experts on Africa whose ignorance of their supposed areas of expertise is rivaled only by their hubris. In their writings, you would likely find references to other equally ignorant so-called African experts whose portrayal of Africans ranges between simplistic and glaringly ethnocentric and dehumanizing. The more leftists among them, the ``we are brothers and I love Africa`` types, tend to see themselves as the reincarnation of Christ in the flesh, the redeemers of the African people. They write about who Africans are and how they live even if the only Africans they know are the handful of local informants they paid. With the aid of the media, research, academic and government institutions, they tell the rest of the world - and particularly their sponsors- the very stories it needs to hear in order to feel better about itself and to salve its moral conscience. 

The African story is not even a story. It is a word, a single label: Africa. You need not explain: every classmate, neighbor and teacher knows what you mean when you say to them that you are going to Africa or you have an African friend. Except Africans themselves have no copyright over their own label. And herein lies a grave danger: because it is an imposed label, the African is coerced into viewing herself through an outside lens that is so narrow it can only see so much. To endear herself to the forces of global money and power, Africa must present herself in that very narrow image in which she is viewed. And in doing what is right for her many poor, she wrongs the majority on the African continent whose lives are much more dignified and much more diverse than portrayed.

It will be blasphemy for the American to be lump together with even the Mexican even though the two are neighbors. Similarly, it will be preposterous to lump the German and the Spanish together even though both speak the same money language. Even when we talk about Asians, we dare not lump the Chinese and the Indians or the Afghans and the Pakistanis together. Yet, when it comes to Africans, we refer not just to a people from a specific region of the world, but to an indistinguishable people whose identity is united around a set of myths and stereotypes that are only grounded in partial reality; a mass of primitive people devoid of any important nuance, a reducible people, a single nuclear family. And how can a people so easily defined and reduced ever be taken seriously?


Since the image is hardly anything beyond a starving child, a half-naked woman in a hut, an unsophisticated or simple-minded man, a content and subservient co-worker or a Swahili speaker, the fully clothed, nourished, articulate, intelligent, ambitious, sophisticated and Dagomba speaking African exist only in her own reality. Since no one on the continent is ever an African in the western perception of the term until a permanent or temporary migration abroad, migrants from Africa are hardly ever prepared to teach the world about the very heart of darkness. Even the educated ones have little choice but to repeat the very things they have learned about themselves abroad.'

The diversity in the continent is so large that even a country-level analysis can be grossly obscuring. To continue to treat Africans in words and in deeds as though they are a collection of sounds and symbols or are a people devoid of rigid boundaries along political, social, religious and ethnic lines and as though they belong to a single family is to grotesquely and unforgivably display ignorance and insecurity. To continue to be fascinated by the African beyond the contents of her ideas, beliefs and strivings is to other her so much so as to lose a sense of her humanity and ultimately your own.


The African cause can be championed without one or even a few Africans speaking on behalf of the more than a thousand million others on the continent. To speak of an African culture is to preposterously reduce more than a thousand million people with rigid cultural boundaries to a single set of ideas and to insult your own eyes and intellect. To speak of an African culture is to make Africa unrecognizable to most of its indigenes.


We can take for granted that many in Africa are poor just like we take for granted that many in the United States are in danger of being killed by someone with a gun without assuming that most Africans are poor or refusing to travel to the United States because of gun violence. The economic, social and political challenges facing Africa are enormous. However, they cannot be overcome without knowing exactly where in Africa and who in Africa is in need. The poor in Africa do not benefit if we deny there is poverty there. However, they also hardly benefit if we assume that everyone there is poor.

My grandmother, who is more than a hundred years old, is living the rest of her life not in Lagos, Nairobi or Johannesburg. In fact, life in those places is as alien to her as life on Mars. She speaks no Swahili or Afrikaans, she lives not in a mud house with a thatch roof and has never seen the beast of the forest. Yet, she lives on the same continent - somewhere in a small town in Ghana's northern Volta where life is fully being lived.

Mohammed Adawulai

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