Our American Now

England was rolling moss and gathering buds and saving nines, Princess Di in a long dress, and First Aid English to fix our broken tongues. BBC Shakespeare with dowdy sets and James Bond the glamor of attachment. Pictures in an album, the silence we misread as enchantment. Now, the smiles seem a little sadder. Stiff upper lips.

We are different now.

Then: the excitement of speaking English properly. To be Eliza Doolittle. The strangeness of the U.S. accent. Exotic. Kiswahili by Lionel Richie. My father said no to the U.S., convinced it was still barbaric. No fit place to acquire an education. A country squire trapped in his peasant past.

America offered amnesia, unending mobility, accumulation that was not unseemly.

We are ruder now.

Tavia Nyong’o has argued that Barack Obama is the first postcolonial president in the U.S. Uhuru Kenyatta is the first U.S.-educated president of Kenya. If, as so many writers have argued, the U.S. is the great nation founded on forgetting, president Kenyatta’s U.S.-style inauguration following a U.S.-style Bush v. Gore court case has implications for Kenyan memory-work and historical reconstruction. This is not a matter of documentation or truth, but about the urgency and importance attached to memory-work in our ongoing state of crisis. (To be “under-developed” or “developing” or “third world” is to be in a perpetual state of crisis, one intensified by the “global war on terror.”)

The almost ritual invocation of Bush v. Gore during the Supreme Court hearings on the presidential election suggests that we have entered a newly Americanized frame of reference. It marked, I think, a certain departure from the promiscuous cultural mixings we see in popular culture: the adoption of U.S. spelling by Kenyan publications, the presence of more U.S.-style eating establishments, even as our bookstores remain heavily British. Since 2003, when president Kibaki assumed office, many U.S.-trained professionals have “returned” to Kenya or have been instrumental in setting up and engaging with local institutions. One could argue this has been true since at least the late 1960s, but the invocation of Bush v. Gore during the televised Supreme Court hearing formalized a transition in how Kenya is to be thought. (We aspire to be “like” the U.S. as it has grown increasingly repressive, domestically and internationally; that requires a different writing occasion.)

I’m interested in what it means to be “like” the U.S. for memory-work. James Baldwin is my guide here.

Perhaps no country is as anxious about historical memory and memory-work as the U.S. History books are scrubbed clean, public memory denied, the thing happening at the moment described as not-happening, the known classified, the unknown classified, the previously known classified, and memory trained to anticipate the future. The now-here is to be forgotten for a tense predicated on an ever unfolding expansive future. Save room on your camera-phone for what will unfold. Erase the past if you need to. Memory is what is to happen. Memory is desire.

In “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin writes, “About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified.” An interest predicated on a not-here, not-now, anchored in a desire to own something not yet describable, something “experimental.” How to read Baldwin’s desire in this early writing?

Baldwin understands white America’s desire, a “we” he inhabits and makes thinkable and impossible:

Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white. When it has become blank, the past as thoroughly washed from the black face as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished – at least it will have ceased to be visible, which we imagine to be much the same thing. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Who is this writing “we”? What act of forgetting must be undertaken to blank it and accept it as “we”? I must struggle to remember the “I” who is writing the (im)possible we.

He adds,

The making of an American begins at that point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history – in a way it is our history – and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today. (“Many Thousands Gone”)

Kenya’s American Now is about a relationship to history and to memory and to feeling. It is present in Vision2030, a collective vision predicated on eliminating the unsightly and the unproductive from public view and collective memory; it is present in many shiny plans to develop an educational system predicated on producing appropriate “skills” for new industries that will transform us; it is present in the current attempts to depict the ICC as an imperial invader that took over a Kenyan process and marginalized Kenyan voices; it is present in (successful) attempts to criminalize IDPs, the “welfare mothers” of Kenya; it is present in the new accents on TV that erase traces of other pasts, other affiliations; it is present in the desire for forgettability; it is there in the enforcement of that forgettability.

Kenya’s America Now is about desiring the memory of tomorrow: what is to be made and who we will be constantly overwrites the who and where we have been, those things that “hold us back in bondage.” Kenya’s America Now is being produced by our politicians, our religious leaders, our business leaders, our intellectuals, and our artists, all looking away from here-now and then-there, the Egypt we left and the desert we crossed. We are in a new land of free computes and free maternity care and free secondary education and it is bright and shiny and new and only fools would dare try to look back.

Remember Lot’s Wife.