There is an interesting page in The Autobiography of Malcolm X when he recounts how as a young man he used to conk his hair. Conking involved the use of a hair straightener gel called congolone that allowed the hair to be styled in different ways. The intention, according to Malcolm X, was meant to ‘look like a white’s man hair.’ At one point, he wonders if the ‘…Negro has completely lost his sense of identity…’
I believe some writers from Africa are suffering from what faced the Negroes in the 20th century.
We are busy engaging in self-victimization by refusing to identify ourselves as African writers. It pains us. It makes us look small. We believe it estranges us from the ‘rest.’ And the rest here are the White people. Those who have looked down upon us and continue to because of the color of our skin.
There is a way African writers tell their stories and that differs from how Caribbean or Asian writers will tell their stories. It’s not straitjacketed to poverty or guards and ponds as some say. Obviously, narratives are consequences of our experiences – meaning we have lived them, seen others live them, or heard or even watched them.
But how do we correctly identify ourselves on the global map when we completely refuse to acknowledge our origins? Are our places of birth that inconsequential that they should not feature completely in distinguishing us from other writers in other continents? It is common knowledge that Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou are African-American writers. They were proud to be identified as thus because through their artistic works, they wholly represented the African-American story – their hopes, fears, triumphs, aspirations and failures. Latin American writers are aplenty: Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul (author of Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas among others), and Velma Pollard of Homestretch (recently a secondary set book in our schools).
The list is endless. But it’s really merely a matter of geography.
On being called an African writer, I think at times some writers overreact with regards to its connotations. I believe to be identified as African writer means narrating our own stories. And these include explaining the aspirations and experiences.
However, the issue of self-victimization emerges when even new writers believe to write about poverty, diseases, bad governance and tribalism are not ‘fancy’ enough topics to deal with in the digital age. I tend to think that’s where the idea of inferiority complex comes in. It makes them ‘African.’ And it feels horrible, you know.
Therefore, a sense of segregation creeps in despite their role as (African) writers, to honestly and truthfully represent what they have heard, seen, listened to and observed around them. That does not mean I am advocating for a certain benchmark for what qualifies as African writing. Whoever wants to write about space, aliens, nuclear energy, and three-some sexual experiences albeit with absolute honesty and precision; it is upon them.
It’s their business and creativity.
After all, as George Orwell noted in his essay Why I Write, there are various motives why people engage in writing. There are those only interested in displaying their bloated egos, others are fixated with aesthetics, and another group for political reasons.
Those full of bloated egos are the majority. They are the oversensitive types who will split your skull if you call them African writers. They simply overreact to that label of African writer as if it’s a badge of shame. To them it amounts to self-degradation. Now, they want us to return to Negritude. This lot wants us to read them poems by Senghor and Aime Cesaire. In fact, this lot will not object if we show them Malcolm X’s video of Who Taught You Hate the Color of Your Skin.
The moment we refuse to accept ourselves as African (writers); we are actually feeding into the white man’s stereotype of us being an inferior race. A race that must affirm that Black is Beautiful to gain global acceptance. Or still, deny and assume it doesn’t matter. Our denial is a testament that African cultures, traditions, and heritage are largely invalid, and, therefore, play no significant role in determining what we write.
I am content being called an African writer because I am an African first then a global citizen second. However, that does not amount to gate keeping on what African writers should write about. I am okay with a writer who wants to pull an Asimov or King or Steele or Nora Roberts. Let everyone tell their story. Literary critics will help readers sift through them.
I write what I like, as Steve Biko said. Period. I am not afraid to write about poverty, diseases, and ignorance because bad governance and negative ethnicity have remained a stumbling block to eradicating them. I am proud to be an African writer not necessarily to appeal and get nomination from foreign award committees, but to remain true to my African roots.
As an African writer, I can write about anything that tickles by creative impulses without any inhibitions whatsoever. If that makes me a pariah in the digital age, so be it.
© Amol Awuor
Amol Awuor is an English and Literature student at Kenyatta University. He is an African writer interested in creative writing, literary criticism, journalism, and history. His commentaries have appeared in the Saturday Nation and The Star.
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Also read a related article with a counter argument: Letter to a White Ex-girlfriend by Charles William Tambudzai Dambudzo Marechera.