Black bodies continue to be bound and unbound by histories not yet resolved, by present day realities that have not escaped the past, and by things that are far less tangible and much more felt, argues LSE’s Imara Ajani Rolston.
Binyavanga Wainana wrote the following in satirical piece “How to Write about Africa”:
“Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions evocative and particular.“ (Wainana 2005)
How to Write about Africa highlights the ways in which many writers have enfolded a racial and cultural problematic in a well-meaning romanticism that professes a particular sort of appreciation and love for “Africa.” It is, by Binyavanga’s account, an unsteady, and dangerous love that is still tethered to colonial histories. Wainana’s work hints at the way the ‘neo–colonial gaze’ remains un-reconciled with its past and power, continues to write Africa in a way that rinses away its complexity and multi dimensionality. Wainana sees something suspect in this new and presumably more nuanced reproduction of the continent. It is not the writings of Conrad that professed to know the Heart of Darkness that Wainana refers to. It is potentially my work, the work of well-meaning ‘Africanist’ academics, the Oxfam’s, the CARE commercials, newscasts, and the hundreds and thousands of NGO appeals that he implicates. His critique centers on works that may unwittingly construct the continent as the deserving needy; treating it’s complexity as though it were a flat canvas upon which the well-meaning project fantasies and hopes.
What does this critique mean for narrative researchers conducting research in cities, towns, and homes in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa? The problem of the colonial gaze inhabits the work of narrative inquiry as much as it does more mainstream writing and academic inquiry. As Molly Andrews writes: “We as narrative researchers often see our jobs as assisting others to articulate their narrative identities. We listen to the stories they tell, and from this try to make sense of them and the worlds they inhabit. We privilege our own ability to know the meaning of someone else’s life, and rarely question the harmful effects that our work may inadvertently cause” (Andrews 2007).
Both Andrews’s focus on the co-constructed nature of narratives and Wainana’s conversation with the colonial gaze raise critical questions for all researchers—even those that explore the diversity of narratives, locate their historical origins, and contextualize them in neighbourhoods, spaces, and places across the continent. But, what questions do these critiques raise for those for whom the answer is literally and figuratively not black and white; for Black writers and researchers like myself that endeavour to explore narratives, black body to black body.
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There is a vacuum. It arguably sits between the overflow of post-colonial thought and literature that marked a great deal of the 1950’s, 60’s and upward, and the increasingly “post-racial” and “post – post colonial” malaise that seems set on laying itself, like thick tarp, over what Paul Gilroy terms the “Black Atlantic,” a sea of transnational cultural construction that spans and connects the African and African Diaspora experience (Gilroy 1993).
The post-colonial thought that marked the 60’s and 70’s offered license to self-identified Black writers and thinkers. Martinique-born Frantz Fanon wrote of Algeria and colonial consciousness, while Walter Rodney wrote about the “Underdevelopment of Africa” from his native Guyana (Rodney 1972; fanon 1961). In the play La Tragedie du roi Martiniquen Aime Cesaire’s character Christophe pleaded “Africa, help me go home. Carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all these garments. Strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes”. Colonial histories unintentionally constructed a shared space within which the exploration and co-construction of radical collective anti- colonial narratives was possible. It was into this space that Fanon, Cesaire, and Rodney spoke. The discourse that emerged from this period was a conversation that was at its essence insular. It was a conversation between Africans in the Diaspora, Africans on the continent, and in some instances a conversation with a radically imagined version of the continent itself. It was a conversation with the colonized and conversation with the colonizer; for the colonized their words were a call to consciousness and for the colonizers a call to conscience. But it was a conversation that was also narrowly masculine, perceivably straight, and unquestioningly able-bodied. While radical the confines of Fanon, Rodney, and Cesaire’s lived experiences shaped a discourse that did little to question the role gender, sexuality, and ableism play in the emancipatory process.
I and many other new self-identified Pan-Africanist researchers works wander the expanse of this legacy and tradition, resisting the post-everything malaise while also attempting to produce work and research that honours the Pan-African traditions that came before us by pressing out the narrowness of its confines and reasserting its relevance. This is particularly pressing for those of us that present as straight able-bodied men–those of us that stand to benefit from embodying the implicitly biased baggage the Fanons and the Cesare’s did not have an opportunity to unpack. A part of that pressing out is acknowledging that writing black body to black body is fraught work made more complex by the period within which we write and the lessons that in particular African feminist, Black Feminist, and Black and African Queer thinking taught and continue to teach us.
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In writing about the experiences of Black South African, Xhosa, speaking women in the Eastern Cape of South Africa engaged in sometimes-politicized forms of AIDS prevention work I chose to locate my work in “the vacuum” to not only challenge the presence of the neo-colonial gaze in the Sub-Saharan Africa focused AIDS literature but to also challenge and resist the reproduction of the neo-colonial gaze in my own work.
There was a moment in an interview with a local AIDS activist and facilitator, Coolz, that in recounting her childhood she talked about visiting her mother in the white suburbs of Johannesburg. Amongst many other aspects of her history, her mother was a domestic worker spending most of the year caring for the homes and children of the family that employed her. In the interview I immediately thought of my own mother whom at 19 was offered a way to Canada through a domestic worker scheme along with 1000’s of other women from the Caribbean. Like many young women my mother spent her early years caring for the homes and children of families in Westmount, a wealthy suburb of Montreal . It was a moment in which the space between Coolz and myself was bridged by a shared history in which the subjugation of Black women’s bodies to the service needs of dominant society split and fragmented families. The subjugation of Black bodies whether it be to the mill of pre-industrial production and agriculture or to the needs of middle class families in the suburbs of Johannesburg, Montreal, or Manhattan is a reality that runs like a blood red thread throughout the African continental and African Diaspora experience. When Coolz spoke of her mother her words pulled on that thread.
There have been many moments in working with the women’s narratives where I felt the tension between my role as a narrative researcher/ “empirical story teller” and my identity as a Pan-Africanist dedicated to decolonization. This later portion of my identity–the part of me that is Black, Caribbean, and politically African–calls me to redefine the role of ‘objectivity’ in my research in order to cultivate a decolonizing approach to this work. I have a choice to allow my Black body, its history, and presence in this work to be in part tamed by holding to what is institutionally and pedagogically considered acceptable positioning and practice of researcher conducting empirical work. If I choose this approach I stand to work with the stories of Coolz and others in ways that are empirically sound but do little to upset the way we as Black narrative thinkers and story workers define our role in the lives of those that share their stories. Conversely I can also take moments like the ones that Coolz and I shared and dedicate them to flat and one-dimensional decolonizing politics that present the blackness of our bodies as the essential element in an attempt to build a bridge that serves a narrow politic. In the process I stand to stumble and blunder over my own implicit blind spots reproducing dimensions of the neo-colonial gaze and impulse in insidious ways. Our mothers’ experiences were shaped by a colonial pathology that controlled and policed Black bodies for exploitive use. The Black body was purposed for work and servitude. Surely there was rupture, resilience, and resistance and complex relationships of love and reciprocity that may have emerged from these periods but the tide that sent women into homes as carers was a history of violence. To circumscribe the stories of Coolz and others to the confines of my own politics, or any politics for that matter, and place their voices in the service of my empirical needs is in part a repeat of this violence. While this may seem like a litany of concerns, they are all thoughts that I think and many others may as well. In order to cope and to transgress these stumblings, I have had to work to define what it means to decolonize my work and my relationships with women that shared their stories through an iterative process in which I throw open all parts of my process–personal, political, and empirical–to my own scrutiny and the scrutiny of others. Like all researchers this is challenging and at times impossible work.
The story that Coolz tells was familiar to my history and myself. This happens often. Black bodies continue to be bound and unbound by histories not yet resolved, by present day realities that have not escaped the past, and by things that are far less tangible and much more felt. Nonetheless there are inevitable divides that must be crossed with care. Crossing these divides has meant that I bring awareness to the moments when I attempt to press the narratives of this diverse and multilayered experiences of women into concepts that privilege the political and economic over need for a gendered analysis that implicates my own maleness and masculinity in the process. This challenges academics engaged in narrative to research to both reassert the necessity for the decolonizing praxis while also exploring new and a more nuanced basis for critically exploring the lived experience of peoples in various African contexts. This space is open and what echoes back from it are more questions than questions. There are no cleans answers here. The work of the researcher writing Black body to Black body is to commit to the questions and questioning of oneself.
This article was first published on Subversive Storytelling.
Imara Ajani Rolston is a final year Doctoral student based in the Department of Social Psychology & the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His doctoral research is a critical exploration of the Nelson Mandela Foundations use of the Community Dialogues as both an HIV/AIDS prevention and social cohesion methodology in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Imara comes from a community organizing, conflict resolution and restorative justice background. He is an emerging film maker that documents the stories of migration, identity, and race in the African Diaspora.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.