Image courtesy of: Africa Fashion Guide

Image courtesy of: Africa Fashion Guide

[This post was originally written for the ‘Sociology of Citizenship’ series posted on the Oxford Department of International Development blog as well as the Oxford/Cambridge Politics in Spires blog]

Diasporas and other transnational communities have become particularly useful case studies for scholars interested in stretching and challenging mainstream conceptions of citizenship. It is now widely accepted that for many people around the world, physical location and formal legal citizenship may not be the most salient forms of social, political or economic affiliation. As the process of globalization continues to expand, more and more people find themselves in one place, while their lives are structured and oriented by connections to one or several other places. Some of these ‘places’ are other nation states, such as an ancestral country of origin. However, many such ‘places’ exist extraterritorially as abstract yet powerful expressions of identity, community, and belonging.

Enter Afropolitanism.

In 2005, Taiye Selasi authored a short piece for The Lip Magazine titled ‘Bye-Bye Babar (or: What is an Afropolitan?)’. In it, the British-born, American-raised, writer of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin, formulated a definition and vivid depiction of an ‘Afropolitan’, one that has become the reference point for many enthusiasts and critics alike:

They (read: we) are Afropolitans. […] There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.

Borrowing from cosmopolitan discourse, Selasi describes a class of people who have deep and meaningful – yet fluid, connections to Africa, while identifying more so as citizens of the world than any particular nation state. Through this compelling portrait, Selasi has become, perhaps unwittingly, a political entrepreneur of sorts. She has helped to establish, albeit flexible, ideological borders around a constellation of ideas, people, and places, which act as a point of reference and engenders a sense of belonging for a large group of people. Many social critics, including Binyavanga WainainaEmma Dabiri, and Brian Bwesigye have taken issue with Selasi and the broader Afropolitan discourse – arguing that it reflects an elitist representation of African diasporas, which depoliticizes social relations and commodifies African cultures. Others, such as blogger Minna Salami (self-branded as ‘MsAfropolitan’), and scholars Achille Mbembe and Chielozona Eze, have engaged with these critiques, yet argue there is still social, political and analytical value in the concept of Afropolitanism. Read the rest of this entry »

[Reposted on UrbanCusp Magazine]

Yesterday, I hugged Dr. Cornel West, I shook Professor Angela Davis’ hand, and spent the evening chatting with Rodnell Collins, the nephew of Malcolm X. What’s more, all of this happened in Oxford, a museum of colonial dreams and bastion of White elitist culture. Yesterday was also the 50th anniversary of the date when Malcolm X addressed the Oxford Union, less than three months before he was assassinated. And yesterday, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict the police officer who held Eric Garner in the choke hold that would claim his life. A lot happened yesterday.


Image courtesy of University of California Press

On December 3rd, 1964 Malcolm X was invited to The Oxford Union, the most prestigious student debating organization in the UK, to argue in the affirmative that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Fifty years later I sat in the same place, across from Angela Davis and with a group of other students, listening to the audio of this historic speech. Seated in my row was an elegant elderly woman of colour who, as it turns out, was involved in organizing the original debate in 1964. As she looked around, I heard her remark to my friend (another woman of colour) that when Malcolm spoke here, there was nothing but a “sea of white faces”. I turned to look at the crowd, and was also encouraged by the spatter of colour across the room. But as we listened to Malcolm’s speech, his words quickly reminded me of how incremental this change was in the grand scheme of things and given the current state of affairs.

I don’t encourage any act of murder nor do I glorify in anyone’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses it’s press to magnify the fact that there are lives of white hostages at stake, they don’t say “hostages,” every paper says “white hostages.” They give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death, than they do the death of a human being, despite the colour of his skin. I feel forced to make that point clear, that I’m not for any indiscriminate killing, nor does the death of so many people go by me without creating some kind of emotion. But I think that white people are making the mistake, and if they read their own newspapers they will have to agree that they, in clear cut language, make a distinction between the type of dying according to the colour of the skin.

Image: Alpha Abebe (2014)

Image: Alpha Abebe (2014)

Before the days of hashtags, and half a century before Michael Brown and Eric Garner would be murdered by police, Malcolm X was saying ‘black lives matter!’ This historical continuity was brought into greater focus when Professor Christie Davies came up to speak after the recording finished playing. Dr. Davies was President of the Cambridge Union in 1964, and argued against the proposition just before Malcolm spoke. As the only remaining survivor from the original debate, he was invited to speak about whether his position had changed in the last fifty years. He proudly proclaimed that it had not. While there are certainly a number of valid points that could be raised against the notion of ‘extremist’ action, Dr. Davies used the platform to share his extremely problematic views about Islam, civil rights movements, and Malcolm himself. There was a rumbling of dissent across the room, and behind me a student booed and shouted “sit down!” And then, though she will probably forget it, I will always remember the moment I briefly met eyes with Angela Davis and shared a look and shake of the head that seemed to me to say “can you believe this nonsense?!” Thankfully, she got up to speak next next.

I feel a bit like Malcolm X did when he responded to the previous speaker. […] I have to admit that I had to contain myself when I heard some of the things you were saying. Because actually your global universal characterization of Islam…It is not homogeneous. [Christie Davies interjected: “I never said it was”] Well you did, in a very inappropriate way. And I also took issue with your assumption that a sense of connectedness among peoples of colour has somehow to be biological, that it can’t be political. And I actually do remember that era of Third World unity. And I also remember that Northern Ireland was included. […] What Yuri Kochiyama did was to demonstrate that what we call the Black radical tradition of which Malcolm X is a part, belongs to everyone. And that the struggle for Black freedom, whether it be in the U.S. or whether it be in Africa, can be an inspiration to people everywhere who believe in justice and freedom. 

Later, I greeted Angela Davis and thanked her for “taking him on”. I also spoke with Rodnell Collins that evening and asked him what he thought of Dr. Davies’ remarks. He said he was glad that Dr. Davies spoke as he did so that young students like myself could remember that prejudice and White privilege did not just “roll over and die”, it is very much beating and alive today. A few hours later Dr. Cornel West spoke at The Oxford Union debate, arguing in the affirmative on the same proposition that Malcolm X did fifty years to the date. His words were moving, precise, uplifting, and heart wrenching all at once.

Image: Alpha Abebe (2014)

Image: Alpha Abebe (2014)

I’ve always aspired to be an extremist when it comes to freedom and liberty. An extremist when it comes to love. […] To be human is to be an extremist for love. To be human is to be a subversive for sweetness. To be human is to be a radical for gentleness. James Baldwin writes a magnificent essay in Esquire magazine in April of 1972, brother Malcolm X was the most gentlest of people he ever met. But it’s hard to keep track of his gentleness. Because when you love folk, especially those folk Franz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’ you hate the fact that they are being treated unjustly. You loathe the fact that they are being treated unfairly and that is why I have a hatred for the drones that are being dropped over my brothers and sisters in Somalia. I have a hatred for how my Dalit brothers and sisters are being treated in India. I have a hatred for how peasants are treated in Mexico. I will never forget the tears of my precious sister Leslie McSpadden when I was sitting there with hands praying over the space where brother Michael Brown’s body laid for four-and-a-half hours with blood flowing on that street. […] The tradition of Malcolm X is a human one but it was rooted in a response to 400 years of terrorism, trauma, and stigma. Therefore, when we reflect on this proposition, keep in mind that it is not just some academic sentence. But it is rooted in blood and sweat and tears like Emmett Till’s momma when she stood and looked at her baby, and looked at the world and said, ‘I refuse to hate, I will pursue justice for the rest of my life’. That’s the kind of liberty I want to defend. That’s why I’m here today.

When I got back to my room yesterday, I opened my computer to discover that the grand jury refused to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner. I imagine Angela Davis and Cornel West learned of this news around the same time that night. I wondered about what could possibly be running through their minds. Did they draw from a well of endless righteous indignation and gear up for a political response? Did they throw up their hands in exhaustion? Did they sit in their hotel rooms and weep? Maybe they did all of the above. And maybe, their minds reeled, as mine did, at the tragic irony of it all. A lot happened yesterday.


Originally posted on FocusOnTheHorn:

bob-geldofImage courtesy of Reuters

It’s been 30 years since this ridiculous excuse for a song was released. What have we learned in that time? Apparently nothing. Sometimes, if I’m in a particularly forgiving mood, I can come to a place where I understand the social and political context that would make someone in 1984 believe that releasing this song could be anything more than criminal noise pollution. But it’s really hard to forgive when you’re never allowed to forget! Every year I am thrown into an existential fit when I find myself in a car or shopping centre and this song begins to play. As the nausea sets in, I look around and wonder…is anyone else listening to this? Can you hear what they are saying? Is the DJ a robot? Is this real life?!

There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and…

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Refugee Boy – A Review

March 26, 2014

Originally posted on FocusOnTheHorn:

Refugee Boy By Alpha Abebe

As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.

Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move…

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Dawoud Bey, Stuart Hall, 1998

Dawoud Bey, Stuart Hall, 1998

Stuart Hall was my mentor. He just never knew it, because I never had the privilege of meeting him. However, I don’t think its hyperbole to suggest that I am on my particular career path because I encountered his ideas. I remember my first time reading one of Hall’s essays – a wide-eyed undergraduate student frantically highlighting what must have been every other sentence. Hall had a way of plucking all of my strings at once. He was witty, honest, edgy, and compassionate. He was brilliant. Now, my opinion on the matter means very little, countless people far more accomplished and relevant than I have made this same observation. But today, after hearing of Stuart Hall’s passing, I feel compelled to join others in paying tribute to one of the greatest thinkers of our time.

I have tried on several occasions to ‘serendipitously’ be in the same room as Hall. When I was a Master’s student in Toronto, I sent a fruitless email to a professor who knew him, asking if he would introduce me to Hall over email. After moving to the UK for school, I got in the habit of Google-ing his name every few months to see if there was some seminar or event that he was attending where I might casually swing by. I’m not sure what I would have said had I been successful in meeting him. Probably just, ‘thank you’. Hall’s contributions and accomplishments were many (see his obituary here). He essentially founded and incubated the field of Cultural Studies, brilliantly deconstructed British conservative ideology, and pushed the boundaries of contemporary conceptualization of Blackness. I think Professor Jeremy Gilbert put it best in his recent tribute: “Hall seemed to talk literally the least shit of anyone I had ever come across in any medium.”

On a personal level, Hall convinced me that I had ideas worth sharing to the academic community. He taught me that my musings on culture and identity were more than ‘fluff’. He demonstrated how to draw serious social and political conclusions from the experiences of people others couldn’t be bothered to think about, let alone theorize. Read the rest of this entry »


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