On the future of the African diaspora

Often not realised in the ‘west’, Brazil has a strong connection with Africa. (I wrote about one aspect of that two months ago.) So, for a broad conference on africanfutures, organised by the Goethe Institut, to also be hosted by the Goethe Institut in Sao Paulo should not come as a surprise.

However, as part of this broad collection of events, the video conference which I attended and was set in three locations simultaneously, New York, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo, lacked depth, subtlety and insight.
The video conference’s subject matter was the future of the African diaspora, with, as a side, African futurism, the central theme of the main festival, as perhaps a guideline.

A feature of the remit of the festival as a whole, the video conference failed to define both ‘Africa’ and ‘African diaspora’. As a result, all attendants conveniently forgot about Africa above the Sahara, that is, non-black Africa, while only referring to the African diaspora as the diaspora in the Americas, in the context of the Europe-dominated slave trade.
I’m very fine with discussing the future and futurism of the sub-Saharan African diaspora as a consequence of the European slave trade, but as a conference or festival organizer, have the decency to not pretend that all of Africa is black and that all African diaspora can only be found in the Americas.

Perhaps because of this lack of framing, too much of the video conference was about how ‘Africans’ still suffered from the yoke of colonialism. “’Futurism’ is a western concept.”, “‘Africa’ is a western concept’”, etc. And, this need to hammer on the colonial past, the Brazilian moderator of the panel in Sao Paulo needed to make a point of demonstrating against the use of English as the language of communication, at the video conference. Not only is English a colonial language, it was forced on the Brazilian participants, who would prefer to speak Portuguese. (Even though Portuguese, too, is a colonial language while the reason for English as the language of communication at the conference is a consequence of English being the world’s lingua franca, like it or not.)

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More importantly, in relation to one of the main themes of the conference, the emphasis on the loss of black identity and the rediscovery of what it means to be black, ‘becoming black’ as it was put by one of the Brazilian speakers, reinforces segregation based on skin color. A segregation that’s both superficial and artificial. Yes, it’s very important that the consequences of colonisers’ pasts, in the Americas and at home, are not ignored. Yes, it’s important that history, both the better and worse parts, are taught and preserved.
But, to claim a heritage that was not actualised for hundreds of years and to frame that as an essential right to be appropriated, works towards active segregation in the present, while really being a cultural appropriation that is artificial. It would be like, say, Mongolian immigrants to the Middle East claiming their Siberian heritage, or Greek immigrants in Persia never letting go of their heritage. In the end, after hundreds of years, assimilation is the only way forward.
Additionally, I’m somewhat reminded of goth teenagers telling their parents that it’s ‘not a phase’.

To their credit, the speakers in Johannesburg not once mentioned ‘black’ culture or race, while the moderator in New York pointed out that “as soon as the discussion crossed from South Africa to Brazil, ‘African’ was replaced by ‘black’”. However, the Kenyan guest in New York happily continued along the same lines, eventually claiming everything to be African, because “the future started in Africa” and “the past started in Africa”.

Ah well.

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It’s good to see an extensive festival spanning three continents on the future of Africa (which, the guest in New York rightfully pointed out, is *not* a country), even though it’s ironic that this is hosted by a German cultural institution. Yet, there’s still a lot of room for improving both the framing of the discussion as well as the depth of the arguments.