As those of an Antillean, our observations and conclusions are valid only for the French Antilles—at least regarding the black man on his home territory. A study needs to be made to explain the differences between Antilleans and Africans. One day perhaps we shall conduct such a study. Perhaps it will no longer be necessary, in which case we can but have reason for applause. (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks)
For what, at bottom, distinguished the Americans from the Negroes who surrounded us, men from Nigeria, Senegal, Barbados, Martinique—so many names for so many disciplines—was the banal and abruptly quite overwhelming fact that we had been born in a society, which, in a way quite inconceivable for Africans, and no longer real for Europeans, was open, and, in a sense, which has nothing to do with justice or injustice, was free. It was a society, in short, in which nothing was fixed and we had therefore been born to a greater number of possibilities, wretched as a these possibilities seemed at the instant of our birth. (Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name)
How does someone trained through race—focusing especially on the U.S. and the Caribbean—think about ethnicity? I have been trying to figure out the knottiness that ethnicity presents for race-training, even given the portability of “difference.” By portability, I mean how difference is often figured along similar sense-based apprehensions. Even with slight variations, alien-ness is understood as unassimilable or corrupting, and often both.
One need only think of the peculiar way “smell” demarcates difference.
From here, it has been easier to forget how ethnicity proliferates difference; being African in the U.S. requires a particular forgetting of how bodies speak, losing a certain fluency in names and features, geographies and genealogies. After many years, I still cannot hear the slight variations that I am told mark geography in the U.S. I have not yet learned how to hear them.
Following Kenneth Burke, one might call this trained incapacity. If I am no longer fluent in Kenyan difference, I can still bluff.
One might say that the practices of Kenyan ethnicity are much too diffuse to be accounted for by Afro-diasporic, which is to say, racialized logics of difference. But thinking through colonial modernity requires re-orienting one’s genealogies. Thinking, for instance, of how slave-making difference subtends African-Kenyan ethnicity.
But this is not the same as saying that race, as framed in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, provides the template for the ethnic-production of colonial modernity. Textures matter. It is to say that one cannot abstract ethnic-production from the difference race and racialization make in colonial modernity.
I’m thinking about this race-ethnicity suture as I work through Kenyatta’s writing which uses “people” and “nation” and “tribe” and “race” to embed the Gikuyu within colonial modernity. In turning to Kenyatta after the Afro-Jamaican Claude McKay, I’m having to re-tool, re-frame, re-encounter terms that look the same and even taste the same, but have different effects.
Ethnicity in Kenya is not the same as ethnicity in the U.S. This seems like a banal point, but it’s one worth making.
Were I more Sedgwickian, that sentence might have read: ethnicity in Kenya is not the same as ethnicity in the U.S., but a comparative project must reckon with their relative weights. Which is to say, one should not assume that the weight of one trumps the weight of the other, even though the globalization of terror’s visual logic drives us to privilege the U.S. eye.
One might write this as: what it means to look Somali in Amsterdam, Baltimore, and Nairobi.
“The African” recurs in McKay, Baldwin, and Fanon as strange. Cullen sings it right:
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
“Here no” recurs as the place from which McKay, Baldwin, and Fanon write.
I come to “here no” from a “there no.” Seduced and bewildered by Cullen’s images of fantasy-Africa. (And the failure to ever sound from “here no”)
One hears the Americanized African—these terms must be used—sustain Americanization for only so long. A word slips out, a facial expression, a trace of that “there no” that provokes the eternal question: “where are you from”?
One might put the matter this way: to think about ethnicity through race as currently constituted in the U.S. requires cultural translation. Simultaneously, one cannot think of ethnicity without the racial production of difference termed colonial modernity.
How these times “touch” might be the core of an ongoing project.
The tradition I invoke—Cullen, Baldwin, Fanon, to which we might add Pauline Hopkins and Gwendolyn Bennett—reads Africa as fabulation. From Tavia Nyong’o, I learn to think of fabulation as a kind of faction (fact-fiction), an ongoing making of space-place-time (geo-history) and of producing collectivities anchored in such fabulation. Ashis Nandy might call this necessary myth-making.
Reading through this factioning (factionalizing? fabulating?) taught me how to ask questions about ethnicity and its fabulation, a labor that, as I discovered, Kenyan historians had undertaken since at least the early 70s.
Myth is tenacious and also profitable, as it creates and sustains and expands alliances.
To think about ethnicity:race requires navigating the various interweaving strands of “privilege,” as Mehul Gohil reminds me.
This might be biographical—never autobiographical. A question of how to read a there archive from a here archive. A way to think about diaspora and colonial modernity, about the global life of the afterlife of slavery.
It is also, as I continue to discover, about the resistance posed by objects (echoes of Fred Moten here). About the thinking created as one tries to see around corners, to unjungle eroded landscapes and diverted waterways. To think about the ongoing work of faction.
The sustained attention one pays to an object as it emerges, takes shape, eludes apprehension, slides away, moves closer, seduces.
I’m trying to see around the corner to a thought that keeps sliding away.