I WAS NOT thought of yet. A wound in my mother had not formed yet. A wound in her mother had not been born yet. We were both not here, my mother and I, where we are now on both edges of love and contempt. I was eight, with a tongue quick enough to catch the secrets from slipping but also quick enough to spill them. She was twenty-six years old with a face growing tired of mothering and playing wife. But she was taught to always do her homework, as was I. Our democracy was four years old but walked like it was thirty. I had not known of it yet; I was covered in dust and eating up the streets for lunch when Lauryn Hill released her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was sixteen and the album was eight when we met.
The foreigner introduced a completely different concept – the concept of land as a marketable commodity. According to this system, a person could claim a piece of land as his own private property whether he intended to use it or not. I could take a few square miles of land, call them ‘mine’, and then go off to the moon. All I had to do to gain a living from ‘my’ land was to charge a rent to the people who wanted to use it. If this piece of land was in an urban area, I had no need to develop it at all; I could leave it to the fools who were prepared to develop all the other pieces of land surrounding ‘my’ piece, and in doing so automatically to raise the market value of mine. Then I could come down from the moon and demand that these fools pay me through their noses for the high value of ‘my’ land – a value which they themselves had created for me while I was enjoying myself on the moon! Such a system is not only foreign to us, it is completely wrong. Landlords, in a society which recognizes individual ownership of land, can be, and usually are, in the same class as the loiterers I was talking about: the class of parasites.
“Context: The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”
– Oxford English Dictionary
In the early twenties, Professor Ivor A. Richards, in search of a new way to teach the assessment and appreciation of poetry, came up with an idea that seems commonplace now, but at the time was interesting enough to challenge existing conventions. What he did, an experiment he detailed in his book Practical Criticisms (1929), was to distribute to his students, poems written by a wide range of people from ancient masters to modern practitioners, from Shakespeare to a random poet in the reigning literary magazine, without the names of the authors printed on the pages of the poems.
Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.
– Chinua Achebe
Those who control the narrative literally control the literary world. Chinua Achebe reminds us of the African proverb: Until the lions get their own historian, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Traditional African narrative as exists in books is controlled by the gatekeepers of Western publishing houses. But then, the world is changing. For once, thanks to the Internet and social media, writers and thinkers of colour have a chance at the steering wheel. Technology has democratized the reading and writing culture, and the world is in that space where the traditional literary world steeped in the analogue 20th century analogue way of doing things is reluctantly coming to terms with the power of the new order. Still, change is slow and the ways of the old persist even as folks look up from their smartphones, puzzled by the stubborn ways of the old dying order.
How would you, 10 years after you wrote the essay, respond to its main ideas and to such criticism? How would you evaluate your essay – both in terms of the positive and negative reception and in respect to how you may feel that your ideas about Afropolitanism have changed or matured since then? Do you feel that the need to complicate Africa is different today than it was in 2005?
In 2005, I wrote an essay describing a particular experience. No less and no more. No less in that I believed then and believe now that much of the power of writing—fiction or non—resides in the transformative power of description. To hear one’s experience described in words can fundamentally change the way one sees oneself: where one once felt entirely alone she now feels utterly human. As F Scott Fitzgerald has it: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” In a very basic sense “Bye-Bye, Babar” said to a great many people (myself foremost), “You are not isolated.” To those for whom the description rings true the essay says, “You belong.”
It says no less than this—and no more.
Of course I loved her—isn’t that how all these stories are supposed to begin?
She was from Amsterdam, a black Dominican mother, a white Dutch father, a luminous gale of a girl. I called her my chabine because that’s what she looked like, only her lips and her hair keeping her from passing completely, from pulling a Jean Toomer. And the ass she had—my fucking God—it was supersonic—which is to say she couldn’t walk past a group of straight men without pulling out the shingles or shattering the panes of their conversation.