To review a book about Africa while knowing very little of Africa is at once a gift and a curse. My response, both in writing and in thought, is by default, limited in breadth and in depth; I happen to be suspended at a distance better suited for lobbing the broader, flimsier generalizations typical of outsiders. And yet, paradoxically, my writing and thought on the matter are still valid precisely because I am an outsider. There’s a reason why this book’s author prefers (and at once laments) to describe Africa as an “invisible continent”; there’s a reason why Africa has always been “invisible” to me.
As the great Christopher Hitchens once prudently suggested in a debate before an institution of higher learning, shedding the “appalling burden” of cluelessness “is something we all have to take on.”
Written by the much celebrated African writer Wole Soyinka, Of Africa is a collection of superbly crafted inquiries into the cultural and political identity of Africa and its dark-skinned victims of unending imposition. In eight memorable and ever-quotable essays about every meta-aspect of the titular continent (its horde of cultures and histories, its ongoing racial and ethnic conflicts, its political strife across every nation, its various spiritualities, African diaspora and dejection, etc.), the 1986 Nobel Laureate reveals Africa as it truly is: a land of black victims at the mercy of a world of too many nations that have sought, at one point in their histories or another, to deprive it of its dignity.
Of Africa is a thoroughly thoughtful examination of Africa in its longtime and continuing plight of insufferable post-colonialism, especially in relation to its former colonizers who, as Soyinka convincingly argues early on, would sooner forget their oppressive legacies entirely than meaningfully own up to them even partly.
Put another way, instead of asking why so many nations of Africa are the way they are, the indifferent minds throughout the rest of the world would rather concede with “it is what it is.”
That’s probably one of the most commonly stated idioms. Moreover, since the phrase is often spoken when one feels an excuse is merited, it consequently becomes one of the most abused. While it certainly is healthy to be able to “move on,” constantly surrendering to the tune of “it is what it is” risks a permanent sort of lazy defeatism in the face of every “it” with dubious origins—and that particularly matters when something actually could be done about “it.” Everything exists the way it exists (that is, it is what it is) out of causal circumstances, however obscure those may be. Countries are no different.
“Nations are not merely multicolored patches in the atlas; they answer to some internal logic and historic coherence.” So o says Soyinka, quite wisely, in premising the rest of his passionate treatise on the identity of his beloved land.
The world’s preoccupation with forgetting what has been done to Africa (that is to say why so many African peoples and governments are so unhinged) lends not only to my own ignorance of and admitted lack of interest in Africa and all of its social, political, and economic struggles, but to Africa being “invisible” to everyone else as well—particularly those who live blissfully under the flag of one of “the world’s traditional hegemonists,” as Soyinka calls them. Soyinka explicitly expands on the concept of social invisibility as introduced in Ralph Ellison’s 1953 National Book Award-winning novel Invisible Man, through which its author intended to “[reveal] the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American” (not to mention perpetually dismissed … due to being both black and American).
Very early on, Soyinka reminds his readers that, “[the] world of historians and cultural sociology has displayed a remarkable level of disinterestedness in [the] obscured realities of the African past and present.” When you look at Africa through his lens, it’s easy to see where this disinterest comes from—and likewise difficult to dispute.
Moreover, he makes it difficult to read dispassionately. If you’re reasonably empathetic you can’t read Of Africa and disengage yourself entirely from it at the same time. In other words, you can’t read it without escaping even just a little guilt.
When you read or hear—the latter being the most likely the case these days—about an atrocity in the Congo, in the Ivory Coast, in Rwanda, in Somalia, in Uganda, in Sudan, in Sierra Leone, it may sadden you to an extent, but it’s nonetheless usually impersonal, and despite how stridently it’s related, it doesn’t stick.
Similarly, when reading history, I’ve found that the boredom I feel here and there is usually attributed to a shallow perception of the material; I see it as dull because I’m under the impression that whatever past event I’m reading about is irrelevant, or detached from my present—and by extension detached from me. Reading about the “Scramble for Africa” in a spiritless, college-level global history textbook or Wikipedia article promises to leave you little more than a spiritless shell, if that’s what you were to begin with.
But, with Soyinka’s help, when you read about the Berlin Conference of 1884, in which “Africa, a continent of so many cultures, pre-colonial trade patterns, and development traditions, was shared piecemeal among the western powers, with no consideration for their histories, languages, and economic link,” you’re more able to understand how the people of Africa weren’t themselves responsible for their dooming artificial boundaries—for planting “this seed of guaranteed future conflicts on the continent.”
With a clearer understanding of its historical context and thus a great deal of its identity more fully in mind, Africa can no longer be invisible to you (and hopefully those aforementioned atrocities no longer sound as impersonal as they once did).
Nor can you so easily be naïve about racial issues as those who insist on living in the mythic, denial-stricken fantasyland known as “post-racial America,” where people selectively read “I Have a Dream” and use it as an excuse to suddenly become “colorblind.” What was it Dr. King said?—that he dreamed of an America in which his children would be “judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin”? As one professor argues, “this line—and the sentiment it encapsulated—has become a favorite weapon of conservatives in their fight against racial preferences and for equality under the law.”
And good for them, I say, for what better, cleverer, and more convenient way is there for apathetic, privileged non-blacks to cleanly absolve themselves of the trouble of dealing honestly—i.e., realistically—with what W.E.B. Du Bois once prophetically labeled “the problem of the twentieth century” (just three years into that century)? How befitting is it that those too uncomfortable with confronting racial prejudice and the enduring legacy of slavery opportunistically (and incriminatingly) seek to make invisible that which will always be visible?
It’s an idealistic hustle upon which Soyinka couldn’t help but make a few remarks of his own. This was especially with respect to South Africa’s African National Congress, which, “anxious to distance itself completely from that antihumanistic creed”—Apartheid—en route to a “classless, colorblind society,” apparently “attempted to wish race away.” (Interestingly enough, upon realizing that race can’t truly be wished away, many resort to literally washing it away.) And the result, he argues, is an “amoral muteness toward zones of race-defined conflict,” a forever-limited ability to empathize over racial boundaries—the true roots of which remain, I’ll use it once more,invisible.
To use a verb legendary New York rappers Nas and Jay-Z often used in the beginning of their careers, the people of Africa have maintained despite the fact that no one—either by nature or tragically by choice—can “see” them. Many are delightfully oblivious through no fault of their own while many more seem privy to the idea of forgetting their way to that same delightful oblivion.
I look forward to people reading Of Africa because of how its author is so intent on tainting that path—and so good at nudging you off of it.
Originally published on PolicyMic (01/08/13).
Edited by Elena Sheppard.