African women—women from Africa, women expected to speak for and as Africa, women invited to events to be African—face the daunting burden of speaking, but not too well; understanding, but not too fluently; responding, but not too abrasively; knowing, but not too comprehensively. And always, always, upholding their dignity as African women. U.S.-based institutions invite African women to be African women: we want colorful head dressings so we can ooh and aah, appropriately chunky jewelry that socially conscious students can emulate, and down-home wisdom rendered in proverbs and riddles, references to ancient wisdom and secret knowledge.
Chimamanda Adichie visited the University of Maryland to participate in the Dean’s Lecture Series, and she said “fuck, fuck.”
It happened early during her session. And here’s the context. She described walking near her ancestral home, on the way to visit a favorite uncle. A woman who was walking ahead of her slipped and fell and said, “fuck, fuck.” And so Chimamanda repeated, “fuck, fuck,” several times as she told the story. In fact, the story became the words, “fuck, fuck.”
I loved this moment of her session. It was perfectly pitched. Calibrated to manage our expectations of Africanité. With this one gesture, Chimamanda refused to assume the mantle of the sage-like African woman who knows a lot, but not enough to ever intimidate U.S. hosts, who are all too willing to explain local customs.
“And this is a coke.
It’s a soda.
We drink it.
Short sentences to accommodate African brains.
Chimamanda Adichie said, “fuck, fuck.”
She said “fuck, “fuck” to emphasize a modernity that Africans, even those educated in the West, are rarely granted, especially when asked to speak as Africans. At such moments, those of us trained in elite institutions are supposed to forget we have read Hegel and Habermas and Foucault and Derrida and Agamben and Mill and Sartre, and to distill our “world views” into pithy sayings that involve our grandmothers, an indigenous plant, and a large earthen pot.
“Ressentiment is the third stone under my mother’s cooking pot.”
A wiser mind than mine can parse that.
Chimamanda Adichie said “fuck, fuck.”
I hear, of course, Binyavanga Wainaina saying “fuck,” and I wonder if this is the new African lecture strategy: to start all talks by breaking the Kola Nut of “fuck.” Or, at some moment, to break the frame with a “fuck, fuck.” If this is the strategy, sign me up. Because if a good “fuck, fuck” will get me out of playing African for people who should know better than to ask me to play African, then so be it.
In the spirit of Chimamanda and Binyavanga, say it with me: “fuck, fuck.”