Familiar Ground

Familiar Ground

From Nairobi, ADOS feels as familiar as Luo Nyanza and Kikuyu Central, those claims that tether identity to place, not with the sense of origin, but with the force of autochthony: not those native to a place, but those who claim the privilege of settlement and the reparations due to the settled. As Rinaldo Walcott and others keep pointing out, any discussion of reparations must include not only a critique of capitalism, but a way to imagine freedom—to pursue the long emancipation, to use Rinaldo’s language—beyond what capitalism can imagine. The global color line is, after all, a line subtended by capitalism, based on global exploitation, on the flows that created and distended borders, on the exploitation that is distributed unevenly, but always with devastating effects to the wretched of the earth.

Reparations cannot be imagined within the death-making logics and practices of capitalism, not if those reparations pursue freedom. Not all of us want freedom. Not all of us want freedom for each other. Not all of us want freedom for strangers.


I suspect coming from Kenya made Paul Gilroy’s critique of ethnic absolutisms resonate differently for me. Where his work saw Eastern Europe, I saw the quotidian of the Wambui Otieno case, probably the most formative legal case of my childhood, if not my generation.

Briefly, Wambui, a freedom fighter across political and socio-cultural spaces, was married to S.M. Otieno, a prominent lawyer. When S.M. died, his family claimed he should be buried at his ancestral home, not the home he had built and shared with Wambui. It was a case about what home counted as home and for whom. It was a case about what one could claim, what claimed one, how the law assessed these claims, and what claims the law recognized as claims.

In one version: a wife wanted to bury her husband.

In another version: a clan wanted to bury their own.

A patriarchal court founded on white supremacist beliefs and practices, embedded in the human-making project of colonial modernity, which needs race and ethnicity to create and police hierarchies and borders, to distinguish humans from lesser- and non-humans—this is the function of race and ethnicity—chose to uphold itself.

Wambui lost. And, with that loss, race and ethnic borders and hierarchies were policed. Race, in the form of the colonial laws and reasoning that chose patriarchy and ethnicity over the instability that choosing Wambui would have created. Ethnicity, in the name of tradition that wedded place to custom, blood to land. Ethnicity does something that race does not, and while colonial modernity subtends both, it does so with different effects.

Crudely: race weds human being and unhumaning to capitalism, and works through compulsory heterosexuality and optional homonormativity to place and displace, to make generations.

Crudely: ethnicity weds identity to place, and works through deracination and compulsory heterosexuality to root and deracinate, to make generations.

Race and ethnicity buttress each other. Both are fictions with real effects, tied to how we experience ourselves as human. Tied, that is, to experiences of pleasure and unpleasure, uses of common sense and trained education, practices and logics of sociality and isolation, political convictions and spiritual expressions. Identity, Marlon Ross writes, can be pleasurable. For identity—a word I dislike very much and try not to use—one can substitute belonging and attachment: who is claimed, who claims, what is claimed, what claims, and the socialities and relations and structures and institutions that assess all such claims.


Perhaps it is not my place to comment on ADOS—after all, I am no longer a legal alien in the U.S. While my thinking will always be marked by my training there—and I continue to find my intellectual community there—I have tried to move my thinking and the objects I study elsewhere, albeit with little success.

Yet. Yet. Yet.

By some odd quirk, the book I have been working on locates itself at the seams of Afro-diaspora and Africa, and takes the dispersed fiction of Afro-diaspora as a model for thinking about Africa: Africa is not the ground to which a dispersed Afro-diaspora aspires, but is, itself, a dispersed fiction that comes into view only through Afro-diaspora. Not origin and dispersal, home and away, but relations of proximity and distance. Here, you must imagine forced proximities, their pleasures and irritations.

I have been trying to work at this seam—often I term it a suture, violently sewn. To see what might be possible in shared quests for freedom, across geohistorical difference. A Lordean beat: you work across difference with those who share the same goal, freedom.

Demands for reparations that are not anchored in and dedicated to pursuing freedom produce the race-ethnicity limitations capitalism imagines and manages.


Deracination is not sexy. It takes a far more agile mind than I possess to fetishize homelessness, and I do not trust people with “good” passports and economic security who celebrate “rootlessness.” To the glib reading of Gilroy as “roots and routes,” I would point to the many types of root-work that subtend Afro-diaspora and Africa, making worlds in dreams and trances, through ancestors and ghosts, in haunting sounds and lingering flavors, in body vernaculars and spirit travels.


I started with a lie.

Kenyans say Luo Nyanza. We almost never say Kikuyu Central. The unmarked is taken as the normative. An easy lesson. To mark is to question claims for belonging. Another easy lesson: to mark is to question claims for belonging. So I mark, to point to the work of race and ethnicity, as people-making, place-embedding structures and practices.

Lies are useful. For many of us, they provide survival and pleasure. Fictions are not necessarily lies. They, too, enable us to make life and living.

ADOS, subtended by race and ethnicity, is a dangerous lie, but not an unexpected one. Repression shrinks imaginations and, in its grip, freedom-pursuing ideas can be easily coopted.

It becomes difficult to imagine freedom. Increasingly. We need our poets for that dangerous work, that leap from which so many of us shrink. That leap onto unfamiliar ground, that ground that may nurture freedom dreams and practices.

4 thoughts on “Familiar Ground

  1. I have always found the statement Luo Nyanza interesting or curious for lack of a better word. What does adding Nyanza to it do? Especially when, other than the KIsii, Nyanza is dominantly Luo? Is it to segregate, but to what end?

    1. In the colonial era, it was used to restrain movement: you were not supposed to leave the “area” assigned to your “people” without special permission. Surveillance. Kipande Pass. Also, a way to restrict freedom pursuing coalitions across colonial-ethnic borders. From here, we get the idea of “upcountry” as “home,” which takes away other histories of movement and mixing and settling and roaming.

      As happens with all colonial technologies, this restriction was seized by the restricted to create political solidarities: we, the people assembled like this, are a people, and will fight as a people for this place assigned to us as our land. Something backfired. Perhaps inevitably. (Here: settlement meets reparation.)

      And this continues into the post-independent period: restriction breeding coalition, coalition taking on place-identity terms, place-identity terms and practices massaged into (necessary) ethno-nationalisms—we have enemies coming to destroy us in our homes.

      But, also, the marking: those marked through place-identity terms being assigned their place in a national imagination, so imagined as out of place in other spaces, especially the national stage, which must remain unmarked to be national.

      I could go on, but you get the idea.

  2. Imagined communities, once imagined, carry too much reality, too much meaning. Overdetermined. How do we begin to address this? In the US the custom of fixing identity and loyalty is powerful. Football fans. It is ridiculous. So much “loyalty” to a team that does nothing whatever in reality. The billions of US dollars devoted to team fandom could go a long way toward ameliorating any given social ill resulting from capitalism. But Americans loyally feed this beast and are not in the least prepared to see it slain, even the ones who suffer the most because of it.

    Given the peasant loyalty to the dragon, doesn’t reparations seem like a reasonable way, not only to benefit a long-abused minority, but to demonstrate to those whose histories have been white-washed that there was abuse, exploitation, inhumanity? And wouldn’t it be a bit of a coup that a capitalist society is legally bound to acknowledge it?

    1. Absolutely yes to reparations. Absolutely no to how ADOS are framing reparations in xenophobic, nativist terms. I’m honestly not sure it’s possible to imagine reparation within capitalism. I’ll leave that discussion to the experts.

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