Afropolitanism as identity: Taiye Selasi

This essay is the first in a four-part series on Afropolitanism and literature. The term Afropolitanism is a combination of Africa and cosmopolitanism. People of African origin, who live here today and there tomorrow, coined this term to describe their mobile lifestyle and the resulting creativity and political attitudes. In their striving towards radical openness, Afropolitans produce diverse, creative visions in which people of African origin belong everywhere equally – including in Europe.

For many people, when they think about Afropolitanism, they think of the writer Taiye Selasi. She is often cited as the first to introduce the term to the world. Selasi’s short essay “Bye-bye Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)” went viral when it was published in 2005. Many people could identify with Selasi’s remarks: She describes herself as a member of a very specific generation of people of African origin, who enjoy a mobile lifestyle. She discusses the current African Diaspora and the obstacles it faces in everyday life.

Selasi is an educated Black woman who was born in England, and grew up in the USA as part of a Nigerian-Ghanaian family. She studied at Yale and Oxford, and has spent several years living in different places around the world. Because of her own mobility and her parents’ histories of migration, many established categories or attempts to classify who she is do not suit her. Selasi explains vehemently that she is not from Ghana, but has family and emotional ties to Accra. Nor does she see herself as a US-American, though she feels at home in Brookline and New York. In recent years, she has lived in Rome, Berlin and Lisbon. Nowhere is she completely at home. Selasi makes it clear that people like her are constantly caught in the middle. That’s why they have to deal with questions of nationality, race and culture. Selasi presents these three dimensions as the pivots on which belonging turns. The personal pursuit of questions about nationality, race and culture ultimately leads to an Afropolitical attitude.

Selasi‘s first novel Ghana Must Go was published in 2013. The novel offers insights into the human experiences, which, according to Selasi, form part of an Afropolitan identity. Ghana Must Go thus adds nuance to the Afropolitan ideas of the essay “Bye-bye Babar”.

The novel tells the story of the Sai family, which consists of the Ghanaian father Kweku, the Nigerian-Scottish mother Folasadé and the four US-born children Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie. All of the characters move between different worlds and are incredibly talented and ambitious. Private schools, Ivy League universities, music and drawing lessons shape the lives of the children. However, while Selasi’s characters are high-flyers, they are not content. They lack a sense of rootedness, of complete belonging and a deeper knowledge of their parents and their stories of migration. The life of the Sai family is determined by mobility and travel, by proving themselves in new places – and therefore in new worlds or milieus. They are always accompanied by the challenging question of who they actually are.

The family begins to fall apart when Kweku loses his job as a surgeon due to false accusations from influential white patients. After this racist humiliation, he no longer dares to look his family in the eye, leading him to disappear to Ghana. Fola is left to raise the children on her own, a circumstance with which they do not cope particularly well. They drift apart and only meet again when Kweku dies unexpectedly. This tragic event leads to an unexpected family reunion in Ghana. Encouraged by the meeting, they all face their own difficulties and find a certain strength within themselves.

In Ghana Must Go, Selasi focuses on the individual struggles that her characters have with themselves. Some scenes are set in the USA, others in Nigeria or Ghana, but nothing about the novel can be understood as typically “African”. The different locations serve rather to show that the Sais have to travel great distances to find themselves. Although it is challenging not to completely belong to a certain culture or place, this is the reality that seems ultimately to be developing into an African political privilege. What emerges is both the loss of a coherent family history, and an opening-up of a variety of perspectives on lifestyle and global affairs. Afropolitans can thus make informed, politically relevant decisions and work for a better future. 

As they grow up, the characters gain clarity about their identity and an Afropolitan self-image emerges: mobile lifestyles lead to a hybrid culture that is in a state of constant change. Personal experiences in different places form complex, adaptable, questioning personalities. Identities cannot be fixed in inflexible categories like US-American, African, Black or Yoruba. Identities develop through personal experience.

What is specifically African about this cosmopolitanism is the desire to counter stereotypical images of being African. The focus on individual experiences forestalls a lapse into cliché. This is precisely the political element of Afropolitanism: while Afropolitans can make themselves at home in many specific places around the world, they are aware that their African origins always have a meaning – albeit a malleable one. Africa is foregrounded and freed from generalisations. However, this self-confident Afropolitan stance will not save Afropolitans from having to grapple with experiences of discrimination.

Since “Bye-bye Babar”, Selasi’s work and her charismatic public writer persona have been met with immense approval and an equal measure of criticism. Many identify with her ideas and enthusiastically join in creating stories and images of Africa that are not primarily shaped by prejudicial frameworks of crisis and need. Critical voices, however, find that Selasi’s ideas focus too much on a privileged group of people of African origin who voluntarily travel around the world. In this way, Selasi makes other African life-worlds invisible. The criticism is quite justified. But Selasi’s focus on middle-class Afropolitans doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be completely different Afropolitan stories. Yet, less privileged positions become almost invisible in the Afropolitan discourse and receive far less public attention.

Insights into other Afropolitan perspectives will be offered by a monthly essay on this topic from June to August 2020.