One is always being herded into two paddocks. Branded as an African Defender and thus Critic of the West or as an African Detractor and thus Friend of the West.
At 20, not knowing the familiar path I was treading, I wrote a paper defending clitoridectomy. The paper was a symptom of anxiety. Not that I felt deracinated—I have never been rooted enough to suffer that. Instead, I wanted to write with a different accent, to bend the knowledge paradigms around me so that I did not think through Hawthorne or Thoreau. And perhaps my copious writing on Kenyatta since then has been an attempt to return to that moment, to layer it, to over-write it, to move that symptom differently, and to recognize its anxiety as a bridge between Kenyatta and me. We share symptoms.
They are idiopathic.
There is an easy narrative to be written about alienation, dislocation, culture shock, and so on. A kind of narrative about the itch of unfamiliarity, the allergens of being unhomed. (How, then, can I write that my persistent allergies abated when I first arrived here? Acculturation produced new ones. One is homed by one’s allergies.)
Africa was never on my horizon.
I started my literary path with Shakespeare, and the renaissance remains foundational to my thinking, not least because of its borrowed understanding of human porosity in its return to Galenic models of the body—renewal is a return, and this is useful. And its mapping of bodily difference and vulnerability. Those terrible Irish nurse maids whose bodily effusions had the ability to corrupt Englishness. That insidious Irish air that invaded English pores. The white of Englishness against the un-white of Irishness.
From there, a path framed by modernist poetries extending into later post-modern experimentation, on the one side, and Harlem Renaissance poetries extending into the immediate post black aesthetic period, on the other. Littered with a sense of how to write about the stakes of a queer poetics.
Or what I think of, now, as my American period, before I knew better to call it the U.S. period.
(I confess, this narrative is not new, and I have versions of it elsewhere on this space; but I want to use it differently, to propel another way of thinking.)
A not inevitable turn to diaspora, to thinking about shared symptoms among men: Blyden, Du Bois, Kenyatta, Fanon, James. Shared itches, shared sore spots, similar scratch marks. We call this a pattern.
The itch of diaspora.
There remains little space to occupy the pollution of the middle, to live in the stimulation of frottage. One is deracinated or not. And this even from our most sophisticated thinkers. That one might be critical of home, of religion, of practices of belonging, this remains unthinkable.
Random conversation with Ethiopian cabbie.
He tells me that he has lived and traveled in Europe for 14 years and has now been in the States for 4. He asks about my beliefs. He tells me that only white people say the things I say. How easily we police each other, we who live away and cling stubbornly to our aerial roots.
One holds on to such roots precariously, inclining away from enforced depths. And is surprised to find oneself described as not. Is surprised to hear polite dismissals from disappointed seekers after authenticity. Is surprised to be asked to speak for a place one has never inhabited. This is my tree and that is my vine.
Those who know better mourn losses I am not sure I have. Asking after my hut, they forget Gikuyu is spoken in Star Wars.
I enter a conversation as a metonym. Kenyatta made me this way. Or C.L.R. James. Or Blyden. Or Fanon. Those Caribbean-born men who invented Africa. Maran, I look at you. Is this what it means to inhabit the desire of the Other? To be incarnated in someone else’s dream?
A slice. A cut.
Shylock got it wrong.
Not the pound of flesh. But the extractive pin-pricks of nettle-glances. A purifying ritual.
Wise shepherds know which weeds cause bloating, rot, death.
I am not sure those who shepherd Africanity are as wise, or really care.
Though metaphors of foot rot might be too much—perhaps jiggers.
I return from a session hosted by a friend in which I am enraged by the persistence of discourses on Africa, by the roles assumed, the performances enacted. The posturing and defensiveness by people with real money, real influence, real qualification.
My fictions tremble faced with their certitudes. Their inability to realize their fictions. That they undo and cannot risk being undone. I understand why students might text their lives away, to resist the undoing of pedagogy, its cuts into fantasies of wholeness, into illusions of mastery, into the fragility that attends learning.
One balances on the knife edge. And resists smiling.
It is too easy to perform the Africanity demanded of one. To speak with authority of countries one looks up on Wikipedia. To insist that Africa is not a country and then to speak as though it is one. To attempt to capture the texture of pan-African desires all the while hoping the complexity of coalition will register, and worrying that the lack of complexity always already attributed to Africa erases words like pan- and coalition and strategic and contingent, words reserved for other spaces, other places.
Of course, those whose accents do not sound African perform African-ness differently, if at all. And I have yet to master the staccato that consonants Africanity.
One grows tired of the mukwa that re-shapes skulls.
My mother tells me that I had a jigger when I was six years old. And I cried and screamed. She laughs at this memory. I have no memory of it. Yet metaphors of things burrowing into flesh inhabit my prose.
Africanity: a jigger.