facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
rss feed

Objects and Clarity

Objectively, Eric Garner was not killed by police because he was black.

Objectively: “On July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, New York, United States, Eric Garner died of a heart attack while police officers were arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes.”

Objectivity is important; one must not advocate.

The New York Post writes, today:

Many teachers had worn the shirts to school Tuesday and Wednesday as a show of support for cops in the wake of the Eric Garner death and union-backed rally by the Rev. Al Sharpton. But they were warned by a United Federation of Teachers official in an email late Wednesday that, “as public employees, one must remain objective at all times. Certain T-shirt messages may appear to be supportive, but individuals (parents, students) may see a different meaning in that message.”


According to schooldigger’s objective data, PS 220 has 46 full-time teachers.

A first grade teacher, 2013: “I’m not a teacher — I’m a warden for future criminals!”


According to schooldigger’s objective data,

“Student population at Ps 220 Edward Mandel is diverse. Racial makeup is: White (40.4%), Hispanic (25.3%), Asian (24%).”

Arithmetic: 40.4% + 25.3% + 24% =89.7%

According to schooldigger’s objective data, there are 58 African-American students at PS 220.

Some Thoughts on Fruitvale Station, and No Angel

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

I’ve been thinking about the movie Fruitvale Station, the way—because it begins with Oscar Grant’s death, and because it only becomes a story at all by reference to that morbid telos—it always threatens to become a story about the “value” of Oscar Grant’s life. The entire movie grows from that narrative stem: when Oscar Grant was killed, what was it that died? What was lost? Was he a good person, to be mourned?

I use the word “value,” however, with a sense of loss and regret, and not because of the squandered “value” of his life. That’s a strange way to think about what a person is, to think about a life being “squandered.” There is a word for what happens to a person when you turn them into something whose value can be enumerated, when you commodify the worth of their life so that it has a price. If a life has a price, it can be bought. More to the point, there is a real violence that comes from imagining that a life must have value to be a thing that can be grieved. When you die, will you be mourned because you brought “value” to your society? Will the extent of the loss of you be summed up in terms of how far your credits outweighed your debits?

Fruitvale Station cannot help but answer the question of the value of Oscar Grant’s life, because these are the terms that are forced upon it, the question it cannot not answer. It’s not a criticism of the movie to observe, then, that it shows us an Oscar Grant whose life is worth something, or that his value to the world around him is an important part of what makes it possible to be sad and outraged at his death. We think this way because these are the words and thoughts that are available to us, and the movie is what it is because of what it is forced to be. But the movie is also rather superb in its ability to start from the standard tropes of pathologized black male life—the job, the child, selling drugs, jail—and to build the story of a person struggling to live within a world that will give him life only grudgingly, that forces him to reckon with these, as the terms on which he will be suffered to live. The Oscar Grant that the movie shows us, then, is no angel, but neither is he a devil: if the movie succeeds, it is because it makes those words irrelevant, because we stop caring about that. If the movie succeeds in making it possible for us to grieve Oscar Grant—a stranger to the vast majority of us, until the moment we heard of his death—it does so by doing something different than measuring his value as a human being and finding it to be a positive rather than a negative number.

“I wanted the audience to get to know this guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”

—Ryan Coogler

The idea that life “means something” in the abstract is a trap: it gives us the language by which we might say a particular life means nothing, or is worth nothing. Murderers become bare life because they have killed, after all, which means it is (perversely) respect for the value of life that allows us to take life without moral penalty. A policeman can kill someone on the street—or on a BART platform—if they can judge that person’s existence to be a negative on the abstract scoreboard of social life: the life of a particular person representing a threat to “life” (as it is socially construed) can be extinguished, and even must be.

For Coogler, here, the main point is not that Grant’s life measured up to some abstract standard of value, that because he was a good kid, he didn’t deserve to die. If he wasn’t a good kid, would he deserve to die? No, the point is that knowing him as a life in motion, knowing and seeing and feeling him as a person—in the intimate ways that watching a movie enables—forces us to get attached to what disappears when he dies, in ways that have nothing necessarily to do with whether his life had an abstract value to society. We mourn people who have become a part of us, people in whose humanity we see reflections of ourselves and our loves, not because they have value or are without flaw, but because they are ours. If you know a person—if you really know them—you will find it difficult not to mourn their death. You will feel their absence, and it will mark a part of you that is now absent, forever.  You will not need to ask whether their life had “value”; instead of counting, you will simply feel.

If Fruitvale Station succeeds, it’s because it transcends the terms of its genre. As a story about a young black male life, it begins with all of the stories that are told about young black men and their value: jobs, children, crime, and family. But it becomes a powerful movie because it doesn’t end there, because, at a certain point, you stop caring about “Oscar Grant” for his efforts to be a good father or whatever. You stop judging him. He becomes a person, a person not reducible to the question of whether his life has value. You feel him. He is a part of you.

The now-notorious “No Angel” article in the NY Times yesterday fails because it does not transcend the terms of its genre. Its editors should have known better; its writer does seem to know better, or at least acknowledges that he could have written it differently, and should have. I suspect that what he admits publicly about an “ill-chosen phrase” also covers over the realization that that phrase grew from a problematic premise, and I hope that next time, he won’t fall into that trap. Such an article could never have succeeded. A two hour movie has the time and space to grow out of its original premise; a brief newspaper article that begins from the St. Peter-like premise of “Angel or Devil?” is not going to, is only going to make it easier to reduce the irreducible complexity of human beings into a yea or nay, into an obscene referendum of whether a person is to live or die. And by what right would you or I ever have to make that decision? What monstrous arrogance would ever make us even attempt to pretend we should try?

(a jet lagged mess)

August 2nd, AUS to NBO
August 17th, NBO to AUS

I was in Kenya until yesterday, and my mind is a jet-lagged jumble; perhaps that’s why I can’t focus on anything, why twitter’s mishmash of #Ferguson and everything else seems a more or less appropriate lack of order for my brain right now, and why focusing on one thing only brings another thing into view. Or maybe it’s a Koroga, the mixture of flavors and recipes and histories that isn’t meant to resolve or define or come into focus. Or maybe I just can’t focus because I’m jet-lagged.

Theodore Roosevelt, uber-white-dad and former NYPD police chief, on the contagion in the heart of darkness:

“Then, from out of the depths of the Congo forest came the dreadful scourge of the sleeping sickness, and smote the doomed peoples.

Just before watching Vince Vaughan’s Delivery Man, on the long plane-ride (and before watching and then quickly stopping-watching 21 Jump Street), I watched Fruitvale Station and there’s a lot there to say about how the latter film imagines black life, and about the narrative structure in which it becomes thinkable in the film: on a train towards death, legitimated by procreation and employment and family. It’s a quietly superb film, devastatingly interested in the mixed temporality of life, where everything is contingent, provisional, uncertain, and temporary, until it isn’t: death is when you stop changing, growing, and feeling what you lack; death is when it is no longer possible to become what you aren’t.

I come back to this, the idea that “deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking”; it is a fear, “a notion,” because we have no reason to think it’s true. But because we do not know for certain that it isn’t, we fear it. It might be true, and because we need certainty—perhaps, we are the “we” that needs certainty—we must create certainty, using force. Exterminate the brutes. Order. Anything that is not order is a threat to order.

I watched The Lego Movie on the plane, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why it’s popping into my head: Lord Business wants to glue everything together, so it can be just right, as it is supposed to be, total order. Naturally, the brief clip of what this looks like is a scene of gentrification and urban “renewal”: bulldozing old houses to build skyscrapers. There aren’t really any black people in the movie—everyone has “yellow” lego-faces, which basically means caucasian—but the “master builders” are led by Morgan Freeman (clearly marked phenotypically), and they articulate themselves in a negative relation to Emmet’s uber-whiteness, as well as being plagued by Cop.

In short: Business uses Cops to bring Order to the City, also drones and surveillance. I also watched Robocop, which is about Militrized-Cop bringing Order to the City so that Business can prosper, using surveillance and drones.

At the end of the Lego movie, Lord Business becomes a lovable white father. At the end of Robocop, the lovable white father shoots the bad cop and saves the day for his children. In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant is trying to be a father. In Delivery Man, Vince Vaughan is a father to hundreds of children without any evidence of mothers, and it turns out—in a way that only white privilege could find moving—the way to become a father is to choose to be a father because the power to be a special was always within you all along.

I went to AFRICA at a moment in which Ebola and Ferguson were the big narratives defining the present for me; I came back from AFRICA at a moment in which they still are. Yesterday, I watched Barack Obama—his grandfather was interned in a Mau Mau camp—describe the contagion that had exploded in a black reverse-suburb of St. Louis, and the efforts to contain and suppress it. He played good cop.

He was born in the United States, not in Kenya.

The British put Jomo Kenyatta in indefinite detention when they thought he was the leader of Mau Mau; he wasn’t, and when they realized it, they let him out to be the first President of Kenya. He played good cop to their bad cop.

Jomo Kenyatta, 1962: “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

tacticsJomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is now the president of Kenya, and “security” is the watchword. This word is spoken in an American accent, I think. Operation Sanitize is the effort that Kenyatta has launched to contain the contagion of Somali terror, which seem mainly to derive from a desire to put Kenyan-Somalis in cages, or to expel them back to Somalia. When his father did the same, it was called the “Shifta War”

IPOA: “a number of these attacks occurred within the locality of Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate, a suburb largely inhabited by Kenyan Somalis and which, security sources apparently believe, also plays host to a large number of illegal immigrants from Somalia. In one such attack on 31st March 2014 for instance, three massive explosions occurred simultaneously within the Estate, killing 6 people and injuring 31 others.

As a result of the growing insecurity, on 5th April 2014, the government launched a second internal security operation dubbed OPERATION SANITIZATION OF EASTLEIGH, which was to be carried out under the aegis of the National Police Service. This Operation was largely designed to be carried out around Eastleigh Estate and other areas perceived to be hideouts for illegal immigrants. According to documents availed to the Authority, the declared purpose of this new Operation was to flush out Al- Shabaab adherents/aliens and, search for weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs)/explosives and other arms so as to detect, disrupt and deter terrorism and other organized criminal activities.”

Some have suggested that this is all really about the threat of Somali capital, about seizing and controlling the city.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA): “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.”

In Nairobi, commercial public space is heavily policed: there are metal detectors, guards who screen your car and bags (with metal detector wands), and one feels very clearly and distinctly the difference between safe, guarded spaces—inside—and the danger of the streets. There are traffic cops with assault rifles everywhere. Cops with guns are banal; surveillance is routine. To pass from the street into the inside, you must be screened.

The United States is widely understood to have “interests” in the Kenyan war against Somalis in Somalia, and in the “terrorist” screening efforts in Kenya.

When African leaders came to Washington a week ago, Obama announced that he was committed to “containing” the Ebola outbreak. Not stopping or curing; the word used was “containing.”

containedIn Kenya, lots of people get killed by the police, and Ebola is not really a reasonable thing to be afraid of. I heard a few very grim stories about the things police can do to people, and do to people; being killed by police, for no reason, is a thing that can happen. Ebola is a thing that can happen to, but it hasn’t yet.

Ferguson is contained in St. Louis, is a container within St. Louis, contains in St. Louis.


REUTERS: “President Barack Obama said on Friday that the United States takes risks from the deadly Ebola virus very seriously and that some participants at an Africa summit taking place in Washington will be screened for exposure.”We are taking the appropriate precautions,” he said. “Folks who are from these countries that have even a marginal risk, or an infinitesimal risk of having been exposed in some fashion, we’re making sure we’re doing screening.”

The 1976 Ebola Outbreak, visualized.
1976 outbreakOf the quasi-Ebola film Outbreak, Roger Ebert wrote:

“It is one of the great scare stories of our time, the notion that deep in the uncharted rain forests, deadly diseases are lurking, and if they ever escape their jungle homes and enter the human bloodstream, there will be a new plague the likes of which we have never seen.”

This is not a bad review; it’s a good review, or at least an accurate one that understands why “our time” is frightened of dark contagions escaping from “the jungle,” why it becomes a matter of bio-political life-and-death that “we” keep “the human bloodstream” pure from lurking dangers in the uncharted heart of darkness:

“Outbreak opens 30 years ago, in Africa, as American doctors descend on a small village that has been wiped out by a deadly new plague. They promise relief but send instead a single airplane that incinerates the village with a firebomb. The implication is that the microbe is too deadly to deal with any other way”

There is no other way than to exterminate the brutes, you see: the threat is in their very blood, and even one drop of it will contaminate us.


Independent Poetry and the Pleasures of Concrete

(A review of Michael Onsando’s poetry chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself, by Kenyan poet and friend of the blog Stephen Derwent Partington, first published in Kenya’s “Saturday Standard” newspaper, reprinted with permission)

When cowardly local publishers abdicate their cultural obligations and fail to print any decent local verse whatsoever, brave poets go abroad or go it alone.  Increasingly, talented new Kenyan poets are finding that they must turn to self-publishing.  Even our younger, funkier presses seem to privilege fiction over poetry; some newspaper and magazine editors seem pathetically confused by the genre, and avoid it altogether.  Many fine Kenyan poets, most of them young, have necessarily self-published.

The most recent entry into our Kenyan pantheon of ‘Talented Poets who give a Damn where Publishers Don’t’, is award-winning social blogger Michael Onsando, with his excellent new chapbook, Something Quite Unlike Myself.  A chapbook is a pamphlet of just a few pages, often self-produced and invariably less expensive than a full-length collection of the standard 60-70 pages.

Onsando’s chapbook is easy to slip into the brown envelope you’re carrying, or the iPad case you’re skipping around with, or the huge Dan Brown novel you’ve spent thousands of shillings on at the expense of more interesting Kenyan writers.  Like the publishers, you people are borderline cultural traitors, hehe.  People, you can redeem yourself a little by buying Something Quite Unlike Myself, a series of easy-to-digest poems which, nevertheless, are packed with meaning.

That’s the joy of good poetry: it condenses meaning into a tiny linguistic espresso.  This makes it tougher and more resilient than fictional prose, more able to withstand all manner of interpretations.  Look, for instance, at Onsando’s untitled four-liner, reproduced alongside this article.  The words alone would do something, even if they were all presented as a single sentence.  But with that punctuation and the different fonts, something else happens; something greater.

Onsando blistered feet

It is an enigmatic little poem, one posing more questions than answers.  This is a consequence of the poem’s conciseness, its brevity.  We ask ourselves: Who is the speaker, and who is the woman in the poem?  Is Onsando the speaker, and what has he been doing to get blistered feet?  Are they blistered now, as she views them, or is the woman asking him, during a meeting after the event, about his feet that were blistered some time ago?  Are they lovers?  (If so, the lines would be recited with love, concern and interest, as if the questioners are sympathetic: ‘Oh, I’m sorry about your feet’; ‘Oh, your hands look beautiful’).  But Onsando leaves the context unsaid, and so it’s possible that the two characters in the poem actively hate each other and the whole verse is instead a two-way diss, the opposite of loving; we could then paraphrase the first couplet as ‘Goodness, your feet look terrible’ and the second as ‘Well, your hands look stupid!’  Or perhaps these are sly, backhanded compliments from two snooty wits to each other.  We don’t simply don’t know.  We have to guess.  We have to participate!  Yes, reading can get your brain off its ass(!?)

Varying fonts is a strategy used by Onsando in many of his poems.  Here, it draws attention to the two qualified nouns (‘blistered feet’ and ‘manicured hands’) and adds a visual dimension that works to blur the division between visual (art) and traditional written literature.  We can loosely call verse that merges the image and the text ‘Concrete Poetry’, and it’s oddly difficult to do this as well as Onsando does.

Concrete poems have a spatial existence as well as linguistic ‘meaning’, and lie somewhere ‘between poetry and painting’, as a critic once proposed.  Certainly, Onsando’s example here, and others in the collection (such as a poem in which the word ‘up’ goes, well, upwards), present what can be called pictorial typography, or images produced by type, similar to what happens in Apollinaire’s famous concrete poem, ‘Il Pleut’ (‘It is Raining’), the text of which streams down the page.

Interesting about the font in Onsando’s poem is how ‘blistered feet’ is in a large, bold, solid-looking font; perhaps these are a labourer’s feet.  ‘Manicured hands’, however, is in a stylishly curling font, perhaps suggesting elegance, class and wealth; manicured hands are not callused, are not the hands of a manual labourer.  The word manicured ‘means’ cared for and classy, and the shape of the font supports this meaning, reinforcing it; image and text work together as what one theorist has perhaps prosaically called an ‘imagetext’.

When reading this poem, then, we might appreciate two worlds colliding: the poor young man and the rich woman.  Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp, perhaps, or an episode of KTN’s Tujuane in which a streetwise young man from a poor background is patronized by a snobbish young woman with class-attitude.  Perhaps the line break, then, represents the class divide? Perhaps this is how Onsando envisaged the poem.  He has certainly said of Something Quite Unlike Myself that it is ‘about a class that is completely oppressing the class below it’.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Onsando has previously participated in collaborative projects that combine images (Kenyan photography) with text (Kenyan poetry) such as the online Koroga Project, which is worth Googling.  It may well be that Onsando is becoming one of our more interesting poets in terms of breaking away from ‘pure text’ and spinning the word into other art forms.

From personal poems of inequalities in love, to poems considering more overt political oppression and violence (there are poems on extra-judicial killings and politician’s rhetoric), Onsando’s innovative verse uses font colour, style, size and fading to produce a huge diversity of meanings from poems that appear deceptively ‘easy’.  This is great crossover poetry, then: generous to the reader new to poetry, and fascinating to the academic reader.

It is the type of poetry collection that leads this commentator to in turn say something very much unlike myself: to hell with the mainstream publishers, if they won’t publish innovative stuff like this, for independents like Onsando are able to do it better than you would have.

(Something Quite Unlike Myself is available at the Yaya Centre’s ‘Bookstop’, and from Amazon)







“Against Literary Passports: the Many Languages of African Literature” (Conference Paper)

The long(er) version of a paper I delivered yesterday at the “From Asmara 2000 to Nairobi 2014: New Horizons and Trends in Africa Languages and Literatures” conference at Kenyatta University in/at the edge of Nairobi. Having delivered it, I am now much clearer on what I should have written instead: I should have shown more, told less, though harder about how and less strenuously about what. It is instructive that especially when broad polemics—such as the “declarations” that are ritualistically issued from such conferences—serve as claims of intellectual priority, in practice, there is also a quiet but real tension between such rhetoric and the almost mechanical process of actually-making-it-happen. Perhaps both are necessary, in some mutually dialectic way. But I was struck, for example, by the ways something like the African Storybook Project is engaged in just getting out of the ways of storytellers, of simply enabling and materializing the presence of the ball you need if you want to play soccer, as they put it. Polemics run dry when everyone already agrees on the “what must be done,” and meta-polemics might be even drier.

In short, I wrote this paper, and doing so has made me think hard about the kind of paper I would like to have written instead. I guess that’s a good process.

The Asmara declaration of 2000 emphasizes the problem of linguistic “incongruity”:

“We identified a profound incongruity in colonial languages speaking for the continent. At the start of a new century and millennium, Africa must firmly reject this incongruity and affirm a new beginning by returning to its languages and heritage.”

I am interested in the choice of the word “incongruity,” here, and in the implication that an incongruity, as such, is a bad thing. Why would it be? More specifically, why is it incongruous for a colonial language to speak for Africa? In one sense, the answer is obvious, and we all know why. Though the Asmara declaration does not define what makes an African language “African,” or clarify the difference between languages which are really African, and languages which are colonial, and therefore external to Africa, this is the distinction: to be colonial is not to be African, and vice versa.

The neatness of this definition is tempting. And most of the time, it works, and we all more or less know, in practice, what the term “African language” means, and why it is a bad thing for “colonial languages” to speak for the continent. Colonial languages are not African, by virtue of being colonial, which is to say: they are alien, imported, and foreign, imposed by conquering invaders by force and, with the end of colonial rule, left without a reason for their continuing and widespread use. If we can agree about that, then we can probably all agree that, as colonial languages, English, Portuguese, and French are not “African languages.”

To that list, some would add Arabic, in the same way that when people say Africa they often mean sub-Saharan Africa, what the colonial rulers called “black Africa.” Arabic would not be considered an African language, then, in the same way that Egypt or Algeria are sometimes not considered African countries. But it’s always easier to act as if the distinction is obvious and apparent than it is to explain why it is, or defend it. One might even go so far as to call Kiswahili a colonial language. The story of Kiswahili in Africa goes back eight centuries at least, yet even in mainland Tanzania, the history of Swahili is also the story of German colonial administration and then British. Certainly it’s an African language; when pan-Africanists suggest a continental language to unite Africa, Swahili is almost always the obvious choice, since it’s the closest thing to a truly pan-African language one could name. And yet, it would be hard to argue that it isn’t also a colonial language, especially when you start talking about places like Uganda or Eastern Congo, where it was colonization that changed Swahili from a trade language to a necessary language of everyday life. As Johannes Fabian and others have shown, Kiswahili was used as a language of domination by the Franco-Belgian colonizers in many parts of Central Africa, as well as by Germans and English in East Africa. At independence, when Uganda considered adopting Swahili as a national language, Milton Obote’s government declared that “Swahili, though spoken widely in East Africa and elsewhere, is not a mother-tongue in Uganda.” The minister of education would declare Swahili to, in fact, “as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati.”

I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you what you no doubt already know. But this, I think, is the problem: when we have this discussion, we so often already know what we already know. We can say “African language” as if we all agree what we’re talking about. We have to, in fact. The more we talk about what we know, the less clear it can be that we actually know it: if you start talking about the nuances and histories and ambiguities of language, it becomes harder and harder to take a clear and unambiguous stand, or achieve consensus. If the drafters of the Asmara Declaration had tried to define what they meant by “African” language—to draw clear borders between mother-tongues and foreign—that specificity would have made consensus more difficult, as a variety of linguistic realities would suddenly find themselves crossed by the border.

To put it differently, then, linguistic realities—the lived texture of language use and the histories that language contains within it—do not allow for the kind of straightforward polemicizing that a document like the Asmara declaration, and declarations of its kind, require. My point is not to criticize it, then, or the people who wrote it; my point is to illuminate the structural constraints that they were operating under, and which make it nearly impossible to come to any kind of workable consensus on what is, or isn’t, an African language. One has no choice but to beg the question. This is why even the famous polemicists who first defined this debate in Anglophone literary critical circles, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, have much more complicated relationships with language than their polemic stances might sometimes indicate. Ngugi’s famous “Decolonizing the Mind” was to be his farewell to the English language, but he has written his last two memoirs in English, first, and always been more widely read in English than in any other language. And Achebe, though a defender of English as a national language of unity for Nigeria, has also written in Igbo, and his dreams for the state of Biafra might have included an adoption of Igbo as a primary literary language, had the fortunes of war not intervened.

These inconsistencies are not criticisms of these writers, however; the problem is that linguistic borders are messy, ambiguous, and impossible to clarify. And to put it more bluntly, it is often not a good idea to clarify the difference between us and them:

To declare that “Swahili is not a mother-tongue in Uganda,” or that it is “as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati,” is to call upon the same system of racial classification that colonial law used to differentiate Africans from Asians. And as Mahmood Mamdani has powerfully demonstrated, this binary division between Africans and Foreigners has continued to structure the ways in which certain postcolonial African states have defined some Africans as less African than others, sometimes with genocidal consequences. Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 and the Rwandan genocide, after all, were both conducted under the official claim that Ugandan Asians and Rwandan Tutsis were foreign invaders, and could thus be targeted for repression. The same linguistically xenophobic dynamic can inform ethnic violence anywhere; in 2007, when speaking the wrong mother-tongue could mark the speaker as the target of political repression and violence. And what does it mean to speak Somali in Kenya, today?

My point, simply put, is that striving for clarity and simplicity in these matters may not be a good thing. In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, borders are fictions whose fantastical claims are revealed the closer you get to them: when the Berlin conference of 1885 created the borders of British East Africa, they created political divisions between Somali speakers, Maa speakers, and Luo speakers that had not previously obtained. They started calling the Swahili speaking people of the coast “Arabs” even though they had been living there for centuries. There are so many similar examples that I won’t belabor the point. What makes Eritreans “African” while the people of Yemen are Arabs is the Red Sea and politics. But the languages most commonly spoken in both countries—the “mother” tongues for both peoples—are more similar to each other than they are different: while Modern Standard Arabic is the most commonly used language in both countries, the many South Semitic languages spoken in the region connect the horn of Africa to the middle East and vice versa. Language is better at showing the falseness of boundaries—and the violence necessary to police them—than at making them seem natural and God-given.

Now, nothing I’ve said so far should be interpreted as any kind of dissent from the desire to encourage and honor the status of African languages in Africa, especially vis-à-vis English and French; it’s my own shame that my Swahili is as bad as it is. My argument is different: to embrace the linguistic diversity of the African continent’s cultures and societies, it’s important to think about the kinds of diversity that the colonial mind could not comprehend, and sought to stamp out. For the British and the French—and for the United States, today—the norm has long been monolinguistic non-diversity: to be British or American is to speak English; to be French, French. In my own state of Texas, to be a “Hispanic,” which is to say, a speaker of Spanish, is to be treated as if you are a member of a foreign ethnic group. “Hispanic” is almost a synonym for Mexican. This is what settler colonialism does: Spanish speakers whose families have lived in Texas for longer than the United States has existed are suddenly marked as foreign.

But is there anything less “African” than speaking only one language? What family tree describes an unbroken line of linguistic continuity going back to the dawn of time? In fact, if we think of language in terms of family trees, what we get is intermixture, going all the way back: Swahili is filled with Arabic ancestors (and so is Spanish), the same way English is filled with German, French, and other European languages. This is just as true almost anywhere in Africa: if you can describe the languages spoken on the African side of the Red Sea as belonging to one branch of the Semitic family of languages, and languages on the southern Arabian peninsula as belonging to the other, the metaphor of trees shows us how what we’re really talking about is a single, broad family, joined by the hyphen in Afro-Asiatic. But just like human families, languages are exogamous, and they grow and evolve by taking in new information as they expand and intermix and karibu strangers to come closer. If English is a good literary language, it’s because it has promiscuously picked up a tremendous amount of genetic material from other languages, and the same is true of Arabic or Swahili, and probably every language ever. We should embrace this diversity. Hybrid vigor is a good thing; inbreeding is not.

If we think about language in this way, it becomes harder and harder to draw clear distinctions between authentically African languages and colonial languages. Which is not to say that it isn’t still important to decolonize the mind, but that it means something different to do so. The problem with colonial languages was never that they were foreign, it was that they were a means of domination and control. But an African language can also be a means of domination and control; it isn’t where a language came from that determines the difference, but how it is used and what it is used to do. After all, when the Asmara declaration demands that “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues,” this is a different claim than “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in African languages.”

I want to close, then, by observing something that my friend Keguro Macharia pointed out to me, as I was preparing this essay. In a eulogy for a friend, Ngugi wa Thiong’o referred to himself as living not in California, but in “Karibonia.”

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors named part of North America after a mythical country in a popular novel of the time; today, it’s one of the fifty states in the United States, as well as two states in Mexico, Baja California and Alta California Sur. Some scholars think the Spanish novelist Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo took the name from the eleventh century French epic, La Chanson de Roland, in which it appears as a line describing two of the places where the speaker expected rebellion:

“And in Africa, and those in Califerne”

When placed right after “Africa,” the speaker might mean “Califernia” as a derivative of Caliph, or “Caliphate,” a reference to an Islamic state ruled by a Caliph.

What language is the word “California”? If it includes Arabic, French, Spanish, and English—and lives right next to Africa—why can’t it also be Kikuyu, as in “Njikaraga Karibonia Amerika”? Why not all of the above?

Not to make too much of this, but it’s a nice reminder of the fact that even Ngugi’s Kikuyu was always a reinvention, never something to return to but always a means of marking the way forward, especially by taking on new words. In that vein, let me stop by suggesting that maybe language itself, is—if you’ll pardon me—a kind of karibunia, a country that welcomes everyone and never checks your papers.