In Search of Africa by Manthia Diawara (Harvard University Press, 1998)
by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante
Yesterday I participated as Nana Okru Asante Peasah, the Kyidomhene of Tafo, in the awesome celebration of the New Yams in the sacred grove of the Birim River. Now it is the morning of another day and the dull gray sky of the rainy season covers the beautiful hill city of Kumasi like a warm humid blanket. Here in the African rain forest I am reading for the third time Manthia Diawara's In Search of Africa. Diawara is a gifted technician in the postmodern sense and the book keeps my attention though, as he admits, the organization is challenging. Quite frankly there are entire sections that could have been edited out like the piece on Superfly and Shaft without any loss to the main points in the book.
The book is organized around four situations: Sartre and African Modernism, Richard Wright and Modern Africa, Malcolm X: Conversionists versus Culturalists, and Homeboy Cosmopolitanism. The idea is to loosely follow Sartre's organization in Situations. But the work has the feel of a quilt rather than a Kente cloth, it is pieced rather than woven. One gets this experience even though the editing of the project tries hard to make the seams invisible. It is the quality of Diawara's gift with conversation and his wonderful ability to self-reveal that holds the attention of the reader.
The principal myth in this work revolves around exile and modernism. Diawara, a professor at New York University, has spent most of his life outside of the community of his birth. In a sense, the story he tells in the book is one not just of up-rootedness but of unrootedness, fluidity, fleeting moments, disconnections, and historical discontinuities. Diawara finds in his childhood experiences with Sidime Laye the only groundedness to his own life. Laye's story is both a compass and ballast for us to locate and center Diawara. When they were young in Guinea, Diawara and Laye were inseparable as friends, enjoying the possibilities of the revolution as envisioned by President Sekou Toure, the legendary African leader, who defied De Gaulle and claimed independence for Guinea. Laye was the brightest, most charismatic, and most likely to succeed of Diawara's compatriots. In the end they would both tire of Sekou Toure for different reasons.
Diawara's father, a Malian, was accused of working against the Guinean Revolution and the family was forced to leave Guinea along with many others soon after independence. And although Sidime Laye's family had stayed and instead of being “a big person” in the government, as Diawara had predicted when young, Sidime Laye had become an accomplished sculptor. On the other hand, Diawara had become "modern", the cosmopolite; in other words, he was the person he had thought Sidime would become. Instead Sidime, when Diawara found him was creating ritual masks, in effect a keeper of tradition.
I have serious arguments with the point-of-view in most of this book despite my appreciation of Diawara's masterful narrative style in his various vignettes. In Search Of Africa is one more book in a growing line –; Kwame Appiah's In My Father's House, Keith Richburg's Out of America, Henry Louis Gates' Colored People--of works that might be seen as une révélation complexée. In English, the idea is to "put down" not just oneself but one's culture, particularly African culture. The interest appears to be the denial of Africa in its historical context and the location of Africa in the Western mind and mode. Thus, Diawara, an intelligent man, demonstrates the tension in his own insights into Africa. He searches for it and, I believe, finds it but because he is blinded by the concepts of the west cannot recognize the object itself. It remains invisible even as he handles it, discusses it with writers, and comments on it. Yet he does not embrace it because for him to embrace Africa as seen by William Sassine and Sidime Laye is to embrace essentialism and for Diawara there is nothing more anti-modernist than essentialism. He says of Salif Keita, he "is modern because he defies the dictates of clan and caste." (p.96) But, of course, it is not essentialism that is problematic, but immutabilism. Joel Kotkin's book Tribes explained precisely how the British, Jewish, Japanese, Hindu, and Chinese people were prepared for the post modern world by virtue of their strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity. Why should rebellion against ethnicity or cultural heritage necessarily be a mark of modernity? Rebellion against ethnic triumphalism and ethnic dominance is much more a key to modernity than the simple appreciation of one's ancestors. Opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Africanism are far more telling about our belief and acceptance of modernity than our denial of ancestral cultures.
I believe that what lurks underneath Diawara's In Search of Africa is the fear of inferiority, or perhaps, the fear of being left behind Europe. The aim, therefore, is to recast African history in the light of European intellectual traditions. This is a lethal form of racism, a new form to be sure, but the latest manifestation of the old form.
Refining The Search
There is a tendency for Diawara to overstate his case and thus to the knowledgeable reader he frequently misses the mark. For example, he says of Sartre's introduction to the anthology Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poesie Negre et Malgache de Langue Francaise (Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French, 1948) edited by Leopold Sedar Senghor that "it is the most famous essay on the Negritude movement (p.3). Not only is this inaccurate, it peels from the African intellectuals who defined the movement their own core place in the history of an idea that they originated. Aimé Césaire, Leon Damas, Jacques Rabemananjara, and Leopold Senghor each contributed to the Negritude Movement and Senghor's essay on Negritude and humanism is clearly the most famous on the subject.
In a similar vein Diawara turns the tables he turned on Senghor and Negritude on Afrocentricity by stating that Senghor's speech at the 1956 Paris Conference "is one of the founding texts of Afrocentric philosophy and art criticism." (p.62) This speech is not only twenty three years before the birth of the Afrocentric movement with the publication of my book, Afrocentricity, but Diawara's statement suggest that he is unaware of the Afrocentric critique of Negritude. Senghor would have never conceded to call himself an Afrocentrist, but what he called himself a proponent of Negritude. Senghor remained firmly a Eurocentrists in most of his practical life.
I see the "separation anxiety" Diawara speaks of manifesting itself in his approach to African culture, while he claims that Americans wanting to identify as westerners are exhibiting separation anxiety, his approach to his own origins and evolution suggest his inability to cope with his own place. One can gain a country but culture is far more lasting and no one can divest self of culture, either you accept your own or you claim another.
It is unfortunate that Diawara has continued to use the Afrocentrists as a whipping boy, without referent or reference, in trying to defend a certain cultural position. One must ask why would he write that "Afrocentrists define their Negritude by resorting to the binary Euromodernisms, which freeze black and white, good and evil, sedentary and nomadic, sun people and ice people into an eternal antagonism" (p.10), without any authority for such statement except to pander to reactionary postures on African agency. Clearly Afrocentricity argues that African people, concepts, ideas, must be viewed from a subject rather than an object position. The aim is agency, not division. But you would only know this if you consult such authors as Maulana Karenga, Ama Mazama, Abu Abarry, and Kariamu Welsh Asante.
There are a number of words that hint at Diawara's path to Africa. For example “ethnophilosophy”, and “tribes”. It is not from a sense of antagonism that the Afrocentrists say that to use "ethnophilosophy " for Africa and "philosophy" for Europe is to impose Europe over Africa. Or to use "tribes" when speaking of Mandinka, Yoruba and Akan while using "ethnic groups" when speaking of Serbians, Croatians and Albanians is to buy into a European construction that parades as essential.
Diawara admits what Laye would never admit, that he suffers from "identity fatigue." (p.13) This condition exists because he has a unique situation in the Sartrean sense. He has followed a nomadic path not really able to connect with Africa since his childhood. He is like Richard Wright missing from Mississippi, exiled on The Left Bank. And so Diawara was vulnerable when he traveled to Africa though he tried everything not to show his vulnerability in Africa. He spoke Mandinka so that the taxi driver would not take advantage of him. (p.17) He spoke Susu so that others would not take him for a stranger and yet he felt like a stranger. The disconnect was not produced by Africans; it remained as it had been but it was a discontinuity induced by deliberate divestiture.
Africa and Modernity
In the 1990's Africa was already in the modern world as defined by westerners. In fact, Africa may have been the first explicit area of modernity's expression in the individualism of white missionaries, the quite outrageous indiscipline and unattached actions of the merchant-hunters and the white renegade criminals of the African interior, acting as if they were God's agents on the earth. They were without kin, community, constraints, and often without principles. They were thoroughly modern. When Karl Peters of the German occupation of East Africa took his revolver and shot dead the members of the royal courts of villages to demonstrate the power of European technology he was most definitely acting out of the modern mold. No moral restrictions or spiritual taboos or communal restraints could have stopped his senseless assault on the people of the German East African Colony. When Karl Peters was accused of something by the German authorities, it was not his individualism in regards to the lives of African people but the fact that he had taken an African woman to bed. In every sense this was a modern act. Thus, I am puzzled by Diawara's idea of modernity, the idea that Africa had to "catch up with the modern world" (p.11). In one area it was pre-eminently a modern venue, that is, in terms of white behavior in Africa, but in the moral area, Africa had nothing to learn from Europe.
I am writing this paragraph as I have made my way through the rain forest back to Accra. Last night at the Golden Tulip Hotel I had an extensive talk with the eminent Akan scholar, Kofi Asare Opoku, about individualism. He reminded me that Akan traditions like those of most African people are based on observation, long years of natural observation. He says that Africans had to have been the first to try individualism at the very dawn of human existence and quickly abandoned it. Maternal and paternal affections did not just happen but evolved over the years. Africa's philosophers have emphasized communalism, collectivity, and cooperation not because they are unfamiliar with individualism but because in thousands of years they have seen the value of the collective idea. Indeed, the collective idea is, in Africa's eyes, the more progressive one. Two proverbs make this point.
Hama, hama kyere ketebo - one string joined to another can bind the leopard.
Atwe abien boro evi - two small antelopes beat a big one.
Diawara's modernity or rather his desire for Africa to seek modernity is actually a search for Westernization. He writes "The independence movements brought it (Africa) back into history, and devised various structural strategies for catching up with the industrialized countries." (p.57) Africa was never out of history and the self consciousness of African people was never at stake for them; Diawara is describing a western problem. It is like Mongo Park being cited for "discovering" the Niger River.
Is this modernity as expressed by the west that Diawara seeks for Africa? It is technological warfare, personal alienation, sexism, apartheid, racist murders, street gangs and individuals fending for themselves against the aggressive powers of state institutions and petty criminals. The state in this modern world breaks down community to create individual problems. Group identity is degraded and community is called backwards. Democracy is labeled the modern system of government and all other systems are condemned. While democracy is more convenient, efficient, and precise than consensus it is not a better system of representation. It might even be worst where the majority dominate the minority.
Afrocentricity and Afro-Pessimism
In many ways Williams Sassine says the most provocative and real things in the book and it is to Diawara's credit as a writer that he is so fair to an author who is at odds with his own position. Sassine is quoted as saying "Afro-Pessimism is a style which resists the tendency to use pessimism and blackness as a way of putting down black people. It's like the Afro-hairdos or Afrocentricity, you know."
What one detects in the questioning of this philosophy by Diawara is une révélation complexée. He asks Sassine "don't you think your kind of literature is a false resistance to modernization?" To which Sassine responded, "clichés!" In the end Diawara comments "the Afrocentrists proceed by investing in the past as the only site for identity formation and for the continent's renaissance into a scientific, political and economic empire." (p.55) There are many problems with Diawara's perception of Africa, Afrocentricity and identity formation. The central issue of the Afrocentrists like the Afro-Pessimists of Sassine's type, has never been "identity formation" for the sake of some mythical empire, it has rather been about an investment in African agency. This is a self-selected category like European or Asian or Arab. It does not have to be created, fabricated, it exists. Those who are African in this sense, seek their agency based appropriately on the best wisdom from the past. Furthermore, all renaissances are based on the past as inspirations, motivations and stimulants for contemporary creativity. To the degree that Africa lacks a functional past it will never be anything but a dark imitation of the French, the English, the German cultures. Indeed what regime have we been experiencing for five hundred years if not a Neo-Greek rebirth begun in the 15th century and re-invigorated in the 19th by the Neo-Graco-Roman energies.
This brings me to another issue that is not only found in Diawara's type of “put down” but has been seen in the writings of the English-African scholar Kwame Appiah's works. Diawara seeks to warn us of the Afrocentrist's motivation to posit a "black anterior superiority" as a way to deflate the fear of inferiority (p.55). There is no truth in this position as far as I have read Afroncentric works. It is historical and scientific fact that modern humans originated in Africa. No superiority is either suggested or possible by the statement of this fact.
What goes for modernity as Diawara sees it? Individualism,
universal education, and women's emancipation. (p.96) Africa is firmly in the grip of an approach to society that claims essentially that to be human one must be human in the midst of community. As the !Kung say, "you cannot dance alone." To say this does not mean that there is nothing personal in terms of history, latitudes, and possessions. Individualism and personalism are two separate ideas, one is the human, detached and fluid; the other the human attached and centered.
Not even in the West is there education for all children. Diawara assumes that schooling will bring modernity. Schooling is not education and in Africa where there has been non-traditional schooling, institutions brought by the Christians or the Muslims, we have seen imitation and duplication not innovation and tradition. The Akan people who created Kente cloth never attended the Rhode Island School of Art or the London School of Design.
Women's emancipation, as Samora Machel said, can never be an act of charity it is a fundamental necessity of any mature society. But to assume or to assert that Africa is behind other cultures in regard to this issue is false. Women in some European countries just received the right to vote, for example, within the past 30 years. No African nation has been born where women lacked the vote and even in the past the rights of African women were protected by tradition more than in Western societies. What is the source of this cry for women's liberation in Africa? It is mainly the issue of polygamy, and sexual inequalities. These are not small matters nevertheless it is only recently that European women have shared equal rights with men while in Africa women roles in society have protected them from abuse. The numerous taboos and rules against bad treatment of women are often forgotten in any analysis of women issues in Africa, a continent that remains the one with the most women rulers in history.
Richard Wright and Africa
Diawara's reading of Richard Wright’s appearance at the 1996 conference at Paris, like his interactions with Sidime Laye and Williams Sassine are cast in the same light as his own reading of his exile. Wright clearly did not understand nor appreciate the complexities of African history and could not have addressed the issues raised by Nkrumah with a simple American vision of modernity. The idea of Africa was too involved in the history of colonizations and abuse to be adequately assessed by an African American who still saw himself as an American Negro. Those who regard themselves as Africans are Africans. Nkrumah said "we regard West Indians as our brothers." Identity is only complicated in an oppressive, racist, heterogeneous industrialized nation. That is why I cannot believe and Diawara does not give proof that "Wright was even more disappointed with Nkrumah... than with colonial force for surrendering the weapon of individual freedom to religious and political power." (p.71) If Wright was so disappointed it was because he did not understand the intricate and revolutionary ideas inherent in the African traditions themselves.
The assault by African American and Continental African writers on Africa is relentless, persistent - and as long as Continental Africans refuse to examine the content of their cultures rather than fall into a blind Westernization, Africa will not be able to find itself, leave alone be visible for others. The mistake in this book is that Diawara searches for Africa with the same lenses as the Europeans. The Africa he finds will not be the one the masses of Africans understand. This is the situation of a decentered people; and Wright's predicament is no better than what he found in Africa. He is as John Henrik Clarke once lamented of an African scholar, "betrayed by his education."
Laced with contradictions the book is a tour de France of unnecessary compromise. What is the meaning of a passage that has Richard Wright wishing that "Africa could be the new place of hope, given that Europe and America had betrayed the traditional hopes of westerners" when Diawara has just spent considerable space speaking of how Wright wanted Africa to adopt European ideals. What is definite is that Africa could never be the place of hope running after sectarian wars, racism, destruction, sexism and the pollution of the earth's atmosphere and waters. Africa must not reject modernization but it must find its path out of its own tradition even if that means a cultural re-assessment of the principles of the ancient cultures. In fact, the modern history of Africa has been a mad rush to emulate Europe in wars, ethnic cleansing and official injustices. Africa has not been itself.
I wish Diawara had explored how both Wright and Baldwin in so many ways were beguiled by the French notion of culture and saw their differences with Continental Africans through their own experiences of western oppression. Had he done this it would have been exceedingly clear that there was no "resurgence of Africanism" among African Americans (p.73). There has never been a period devoid of the African energy. During the time of the giants Wright and Baldwin the African energy was as strong as it had ever been in America's African community. This is to be expected; these were African people.
Why would Diawara titillate his western readers by repeating Wright's unfortunate comment on "fifty women, young and old, nude to the waist, their elongated breasts flopping loosely and grotesquely in the sun"? (p.74) Wright is obviously unable to process what he saw except through his western lenses. Modernity had destroyed his ability to grasp the dancing forms of the human body, to appreciate true freedom. Yet he may have approved of pale bodies in all sizes and ages, flopping about in the nude on the banks of a Wisconsin River or some other nudist camp at the beach!
Innovation and Tradition
Innovation must always derive from tradition to lead to stability. If you do not rely upon your own traditions you will find others with which to establish your innovations. Yet there is nothing easier or more consistent than the elasticity within one's own culture. Diawara is critical of Africans who "renounce modernity to engage in still-celebrated medieval performances" while not being able to see how western forms, not celebrated such as medieval caps and gowns in university commencement exercises reflect the westerners continuation of tradition. We do not say that these westerners renounce modernity because they do not. Neither does the African who is attached to traditions renounce modernity.
Diawara spends considerable time with the traditional Mande story of Sundiata. He rightly discusses Djibril Tamsir Niane's philosophical and literary contributions to Africa and the world. But in his analysis of Sundiata as written by Niane he criticizes the worship of the hero but this valorization in Africa never reaches the point of Europe's valorization of Alexander, Napoleon, and Joan of Arc. Indeed, the religions of Jesus and Muhammad are the ultimate expressions of hero worship. Out of Niane's Sundiata, new plays, movies, values, ideas have emerged to suggest that it will always be a loved tradition bringing forth innovation. Because he does not accept the value of tradition Diawara cannot truly appreciate African American culture.
African American culture is a degradation in Diawara's conceptualization. He sees the elements of deviance as the central tenets of African American culture. For example, "Detroit Red sinks to the bottom, and the narrator with him as if black culture has died with them." (p.123). From this passage he goes into a discussion of Billie Holiday's drug addiction. African American culture is not pathological. In fact, the true repositories of modernity have been black institutions in terms of transparency. Whether our institutions have followed the cultural need or been forced to do so by governing board it is a fact that our business is in the streets.
This is why I cannot understand Diawara's misunderstanding of Malcolm X, as when he recalls that Malcolm X "identifies with lawbreakers." (p.130) The implication is that the petty criminals are cultural interpreters. No one would permit someone to say that the French petty criminals are cultural ambassadors. Manthia Diawara can only allow this of Africa because he does not appreciate the traditional cultures of African Americans, derived from creative resistance. The spirituals, blues, jazz and gospel traditions pre-date hip-hop. The linkage is real and you cannot fully understand the war music of the young generation without understanding the resistance in the spirituals. Tradition generates innovation. Take Diawara's statement in the Homeboy Cosmopolitan .. that "The same transformative energy at play in Sidime Laye's work is found in hip-hop, a transnational cultural form that started with young African Americans. (p237) But is the "Duga" a transnational form or a Mande form that is now played by other people? In reality, hip -hop is an African American cultural form that has become transnational.
My critical locating of Diawara as a leading exponent of une révélation complexée is based on his approach to Africa. In a cogent passage he writes that the cementing of a relationship between modern technology and European man guarantees that "any participation in the technological revolution must necessarily import European culture" (p.148). This is a strong statement but one that is inaccurate. The problem with his insight at this level is that he has distorted the idea of technology to mean only western technology. Culture is not just things, objects, materials; culture can exist if nothing material is produced. Technology, also, is not European. I sense that this is a search undertaken by Diawara while looking over his shoulder.
To say In Search of Africa is complicated is a way of saying it has a confusing structure. More importantly there is no guiding philosophy and in that regard the book is considerably post-modern. The writer engages Africa in a provocative manner. Immediately it becomes clear that he does not distinguish Africanity from Afrocentricity and this leads to a major problem. Diawara demonstrates a truism that being born in Africa gives no special advantage from which to discuss the continent and convinces me that as far as Africa is concerned it is possible to see and not see at the same time. The aim of Africa should not be to catch up to Europe but to be Africa.