African Homecoming?

Last week I attended an event called “African Homecoming” which was organized by Bamba Nazar. I was curious to see if this event would be any different from all the other Black organized events I’ve been to. The short answer is no, it wasn’t.

The focus in the event betrayed our geographical location, historical background, and class privilege. As Charl Landvreugd, one of the discussants, pointed out, these factors enable us to be “salon socialists,” who can debate a possible repatriation and “revolutionary” acts in spaces of relative comfort. Here we were talking about a possible return to Africa, whether actual or philosophical, while asylum seekers from countries in Africa are risking life and limb to get to European soil. Most of them end up languishing in State sponsored detention camps. Those who live here undocumented live under the constant threat of being rounded up and imprisoned in order to keep “us” safe.

Our orientation toward the trans-Atlantic slave trade not only erases the Indian Ocean slave trade, it also reproduces the dominant narrative/perspective concerning the African peoples who were enslaved. The Indian Ocean slave trade displaced many East Africans, too. However, as a result of our orientation we did not discuss how the African descended peoples in South Asia, who are among the poorest of the poor in Asia, fit into this narrative of “African Homecoming”. It’s doubtful that the Siddi or Makrani are having debates on this emerging Pan-Africanism that seems to have captured the imagination of Black people in the West. There was also no mention of the Afro-Turks, for instance, who are much closer to home, or how the state of Israel is imprisoning African migrants.

For those of us living “here,” whether we like it or not, we are Europeans. I grew up within a European context. I have made friends, defined myself, tried to reinvent myself, loved, fucked, daydreamed, expressed myself, struggled with myself within a European context. And while I am part of the African diaspora, I am also, or even more so, part of the Caribbean diaspora. African descended peoples from the Caribbean living in Europe are twice removed. Caribbean identity today is enmeshed between two diasporic events. We inhabit “a space of flows,” to use the concept of urban theorist Manuel Castells. Our ancestors were stolen. We come from lands that were stolen, and now we exist as Allochtonen, those who are not from this soil, in Europe. We are peoples without true homes.

I believe this feeling of being in a permanent state of transitness is what lies at the centre of this romantic longing for “Mother Africa” – that magical home to which we have to return in order to be healed. We don’t have the security of home, the security of belonging, of rootedness because we have built this “here.” Of course, we and our ancestors have contributed to the construction of this “here,” but we weren’t here when “here” was being built; we were over “there.” To be clear, I am not denying the presence of Black people in Europe. As William Ackah writes, “[A]frican presence in Europe can be traced back to Roman times, yet African peoples within European spaces are continually perceived and often treated as new migrants with no sense of an historical attachment to European soil.” Colonial bodies, by which I mean people from (former) Dutch colonies and their descendents, are perceived as neither “here,” nor “there.” During the Olympics Churandy Martina was claimed as one of “us,” that is Dutch, yet at the same time he is also a non-Western Allochtoon.

Diasporic returns to “Africa” are often romanticized as triumphant homecomings that have been pre-destined from the moment of departure. The “Africa” in these narratives is also a particular construction of Africa, as sub-Saharan, Black, and mostly West-African. There was talk of solidarity with “Africans,” however, I doubt people were talking about solidarity with Moroccans, Egyptians, Algerians, Libyans, Tunisians who are all equally African. We are simply reproducing a colonialist relationship in which Africa is romanticized, non-consensually appropriated, mined, reduced to its symbolic value and transported for use. Africa, as a symbolic landscape, can cross borders freely, while African bodies are policed, subjected to interrogation, and excluded.

Moreover, as an African descended same gender loving man living in the Netherlands my location, history, and politics have shaped my relationship with Africa to a large extent. Hence any possible return to Africa is fraught with not only divergent desires and erotics that defy normative nationalist and kin affiliations and bonds, but also (possibly) divergent politics. Like James Baldwin pointed out we can go to Africa, but we cannot go back to Africa. If you think you think you can go back to Africa, you’re likely to be disappointed. We were not born in Africa.  Ama van Dantzig highlighted the reality that to Ghanaians there’s very little difference between White Westerners and African Americans, or Black Europeans.

I see this unproblematic, idealized return as a way of not engaging the problematics of moving, feeling, (not) belonging and articulating oneself in a space of privilege, a space that is coded White. Because we are racialized as “Black” we already enter spaces at an angle. The political contexts in which we operate are largely determined by the State. Those of us who live in Fortress Europe, which is obsessed with danger, safety, Others, community, its own survival, are at once privileged and oppressed. However, it’s problematic when we “self-subalternise” because of the politics of exclusion in Fortress Europe.

M. Neelika Jayawardane writes, quoting Rey Chow, “the tendency to ‘self-subalternise’ – where relatively privileged intellectuals from ‘other’ nations identify themselves as victims of the institutions and systems that allowed them entry into the very positions of power and authority that they enjoy – has robbed these ‘terms of oppression of their critical and oppositional import, thus depriving the oppressed of even the vocabulary of protest and rightful demand’.” I have been asking myself whether Black people in Europe are truly “subaltern”. I myself have used this term (and other post-colonial terminologies) to describe my lived reality, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that these terms do not fit, nor feel entirely right. Unlike, those who “cannot speak” I have the space to make decisions in my own time, to debate, to think on, to move about, to define, and redefine – despite the fact that I am still “Othered,” excluded, and invisibilized. I can “self-subalternise,” yet the fact remains that I am comfortably “here” whilst the Siddi and Makrani are over “there.” Having said that, I have an ambiguous relationship with Europe. I am, as M. Neelika Jayawardane put it so eloquently, the “‘unreconciled material residue’ of empire, a negativity that demands to be incorporated, and remains oppositional to incorporation.”

How can African descended folks “here” build deep relationships of solidarity with African descended peoples over “there” when opportunities to meet them are rare, or near impossible, due to travel restrictions? How can we build relationships of solidarity across differences and mutually incomprehensible languages? These factors hamper the free exchange of information, and silence those voices that do not have access to computers/the Internet and that are not familiar with English/post-colonial terms.