This is the transcript of a keynote speech given by Noah Sow at the opening ceremony of the African Literature Conference on “African Futures and Beyond: Visions in Transition”. It has been edited for print release in the print publication: Arndt, Susan, Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, and Abioseh Porter eds. Future Africa and Beyond. Visions in Transition. Special Issue of Journal of the African Literature Association (peer-reviewed). London/New York: Routledge, 2017.
Freelance Artist, Writer, Speaker
Diaspora sounds like “a thing, far away from an actual thing.” Yet it is present everywhere and in the future of all things. Diaspora means to have arrived, against all lack of embeddedness, at a mutual, sometimes virtual, place. We have arrived in both belonging and un-belonging. We are family, dancing together over the phone, into our futures.
Our European Diasporas are satellite and pseudo-autonomous. In our own unique ways, we are connected to our neighbour continent. We are born, shaped, and surrounded by African influences. Yet, I do not have the authority to define Africa, its past, its present, or its future. I live in one of Germany’s futures, in full approval of the hopeful concept of an inclusionary Diaspora, where we shell out trust and confidence in mutual understanding, learning, and teaching, for a commonly shared future, in our futures yet to come.
Only by educating each other do we know about the history of the Black presence in Europe. Our historicity and historiography have always been threatened and sabotaged. To become complete, European historiography is dependent on African memory and framing. Narrating Europe from its future will include perspectives beyond a self-referential European canon and beyond reactivity. It will happen on our account. Juggling multiple consciousness like spheres of code, we do not have to hide any longer. There is a future for everyone, and anyone has their own futures. I see one of our futures in today’s work.
Eurocentric narratives did their best to keep us from asking ourselves: What is my own interest? What are my own concerns? What is my own agenda? Still we are compelled to regard all aspects of philosophy, society, even aesthetics from distorted viewing angles. Story after story, text after text has ignored the possibility of us being recipients. It is in the attitude. It is in the language. It is in the authors’ phantasies spattered over the pages. It is in the characters and the storytelling. It is harmful and hurtful. And 99% of everything published in Europe is still like that: exclusionary perspectives, stories, which are not for us. The erasure of our past became history. Our exclusion became colonized literature. But they do not own my future; neither my European future nor the future of People of African descent. My future has a different set of aesthetics. I see my future, black and dark. Because I’ll have forgotten that these words used to stand for something other than splendour, talent, beauty, and excellence.
I stay for all those who are staying here with me. I happen to belong, as we are the future. And own it, we will. We are as diverse as any people imaginable. Fighting until our words are no longer perceived as “the voice of the….” We preach and we publish, in choirs, chorus and canons, song, and literature. We mergesong and literature. We are not “influencing” literature – we created literature, we are literature.
The Afroeuropean branch of African Diasporic literature had to make a deliberate effort in learning how to allow our own perspectives. We need to look at ourselves and look out for each other. Many of us are nurturing the fragile sprout of a collective agenda beyond personal ambitions which starts off by asking: how do we view and treat each other, as Black people in Europe, with due respect of Africa and her Diasporas? This, in fact, is a work in progress, and in effect, is our future.
Reflecting upon my first book publicationi I involuntarily gave myself a painful teaching moment, realizing: it was popular because it explained1. It addressed people who still needed a written reminder on the subject of basic human decency. And in the process I had neglected my very own sisters. They did not need to learn about humanity nor oppression. Years later I asked myself: will I, in my very own future, ever be able to write something, which at its core does not render a service to those who still need explanation to notice oppression? Will my imagination unchain itself, again and besides contribute to healing the pasts‘ wounds, shape the future by addressing: us?
Now I am not advocating for blanking out structural racism in our works. I, however, want to advocate for a deliberate focus. A focus beyond the pursuit of recognition, understanding, or empathy by those who are indifferent. The colonized default can deplete and reduce us by pretending that if only we try harder, appeal the right way, the past will be repaired. Meanwhile, our presence continues to be assessed by hostile forms of measurement.
My perspective veered when I realized that I exist beyond struggle, that I am as much of the past as of the future. When I am not bending to be understood, when I am not campaigning for empathy, only then do I have space in my mind and body to think broadly and largely about – us. Only then do I have capacity to connect, and to arrive. I can sense the future and its narrative: all the stories that are told by us and address us. There is much power in addressing each other. It is a self-sustained source of empowerment; not a mere linkage to some established centre, but rather a centre of its own.
Intersectionality is Black. Centralizing intersectional perspectives: the future of literature.
By reading stories that are entirely from and for perspectives in the know – I exist.
Through them I want to learn and listen and grow. And enter the future, re-educating education.
This is a collective invitation to dare and challenge this taboo. I am very thankful for people who write their lives and fiction and everything they want to write about – with us and the futures of our Diasporas in mind. Because it is not a given. Addressing each other can be a radical thing to do. It sure is for Black people in Germany.
For us, talking future is a radical thing to do.
But not only in Germany; African and Afroeuropean, old and young and freedom fighter and veteran and science fiction filmmaker and griote – now we all communicate directly, if we choose to. We are using futuristic technologies to our advantage. Already we are using virtualities to form the tangible. It isn’t always easy to simply move on from how things used to be done. Even if the new opportunities are good opportunities. Even if the new aspirations are good aspirations. How much hope is in a dream? The future is made of dreams.
Independently published prose and poetry from our Diasporas is read in Brazil and Senegal. Some of our poets never actually bothered contacting a publisher. Radically, they did not seek approval from a traditional publishing house. They put their work out there. They are their publishing houses. Black futures, I believe, can be inspired by such moves and decision-making.
We are at a crucial moment for literature. For the first time, the tools to research and verify and publish our stories, herstories, histories are entirely in our own hands – if we so wish. Today we choose how we deal with cultural gatekeeping. Whether we deal with it at all. We aren’t dependent on the old school-type gatekeepers any more. We can self-publish digitally, reach anyone who is interested, and use networks to get the word out, autonomously and on a global scale. Present–Future Village Building. A new challenge then arises: How do we deal with the new-school type gatekeepers? The first question, thus, needs to be:
The very concept of a global African Diaspora as I understand it is intended to look for alliances, to build solidarity, to create and nurture common ground for futures to be shared evenly. In this virtual understanding of African Diaspora where some associate because they choose to while others don’t associate; some associate sometimes for complicated reasons and some apply for association and we wish we could cast a vote to turn them down, in this understanding of Diaspora as a deliberate frame of reference, it is vital to address our own power dynamics.
Just like us right now right here, we are so many people of so many identities, continents, philosophies, genders, abilities, positions, origins, and religions. And we also have a power structure I want us to look at in an honest way. Some of us belong to the “canon” Black Diaspora while some of us still struggle to be heard. Some of us have easier access to resources and amenities. From within our Diasporas, we can voluntarily or involuntarily set normative frames and framings: Whose topics are being spoken about, written about? By whom? Whose work is published? Let us not confuse Voice-of-Choice-Press™ with the real thing. The real thing is vast and cannot be branded.
Structural advantages and disadvantages exist regardless of whether one asked for them. Many of them run along axes of class, gender, and geographic latitude. Within the Diasporas, the case is a bit more complicated. Our respective surroundings impart only some of their features to us, while they pose different challenges to us. Black people in Germany for example live in a privileged country, which has yet to acknowledge our mere existence. Never has a politician in Germany been heard to publicly pronounce the words “Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland” – “Black people in Germany”, let alone “Black Germans.” Our literature needs to survive and resist the existential threat we are exposed to by our very circumstances and surrounding. This is true for both our bodies and our intellectual work. We still need to fight to tell the world our stories on our own terms.
Recently we got “noticed” by the arts and humanities. Ever since, we have been wrestling with an international academia and a scholarly crowd who are unwilling to discern between the concepts of “noticing [us],” “researching [us],” “discovering [us],” and “acknowledging [us].” We fight intellectual, presentational, and representational exploitation. These are not abstract issues. Very recently, the German University of Bremen applied for a seven-figure funding to implement a department for “Black Studies” – without a single Black faculty member. No future in there. Last year, an American editor with a British publisher sought to “inform the audience” – whatever audience they had in mind –– “about Black German writings,” doing so by translating and re-publishing works of contemporary Black German authors, without having asked those authors’ permissions. Fancy projects that hijack Black projects and disregard Black people’s moral rights. Our achievements subject to worldwide free shipping.
Being published, being studied, being well-received does not hold any intrinsic value when one’s intellectual agency is seized. Whether one considers an endeavour proactive or brazen – is often enough only a matter of access and perspective. Consent is non-negotiable. Authorship is non-negotiable. Experience is neither negotiable nor transferable. Explaining the other, from a privileged position, is a dubious idea. We all know that a brother from the United States can spend two weeks in Gambia and then publish something titled “West African Politics” and he will be on TV, talking and talking, thus covering up a multitude of much more informed Gambian viewpoints.
The same with myself in and from Germany: as I look a certain way and speak German a certain way, my perspective, because it is amplified, can cover up the perspectives of People of African Descent who are much more knowledgeable, for example, on the subject of migration. If I took this opportunity to speak, without highlighting the asymmetry between knowledge and volume in the discourse, I would cause political and representational damage. Because naturally, decisions from a position of more structural privilege can cover up and distort the perspectives of those who have the actual authority on the subject, but lack the structural power to let their voices be heard. Sometimes, perspectives and angles included can give us hints about positions excluded. But often enough, such hints are lacking. Simply because those with opportunities to publish may themselves not be familiar enough with the excluded perspectives of their cultural subjects. And people and cultures suddenly become subjects. Again. The very concept of a Global African Diaspora can only be functional and worthy, futuristic and fruitful when we accept as a fact that exploitation, appropriation, or hegemonic attitude is not miraculously transcended by simply being part of a Diaspora.
Our future is in danger if we simply replace the characters and otherwise keep the traditional exclusionary storyline, dramaturgy, and methods. Not writing the script entirely anew, from scratch, would result in dividing this body of ours. Because, as I said before, African and African Diasporic historicity has always been, and is still being, threatened. Therefore, let us not perpetuate the very traditions that disrupted our choir in the first place. We are so much more than placeholders. The damage would be bigger than a lost occasion to single-handedly amplify a voice of choice. I know most of us intend to make use of the few privileges we have in order to empower our communities. But to the statement “I’m only doing it to give these people a voice”, my only answer is: “[…], please. People have a voice. Nobody gets to give somebody a voice.” Or a future for that matter.
Community building as a Black writer: To campaign for everybody speaking and writing their own stories, themselves.
In order to avoid gatekeeping reloaded, I think I should not go ahead and publish a compilation of East African poets just like that. I think I should seek out East African poets and ask them what resources and recompensation they would like, to compile such a book themselves. If they approve at all. Maybe they have a good reason not to re-publish certain poems in such and such form or frame. We can form diasporic bonds through our publications. But not by default. Culturalist entitlement is happening. Geopolitical privilege is a reality. Appropriation is present. And all of these within our own ranks. Our work is as vulnerable as it is strong. Black narration and re-narration will be consensual and first hand, or they will be invalid. We are writing and editing the future together, and it should not be corrupted this time around. Diasporic emancipation is to also realize when it’s time for myself, to take a step back.
To know about not knowing: future entailed.
The key ‘triple A’ requisites for diasporic endeavours I’d like to suggest and share in some eagerness to rewrite Future(s), are:
In the cognitive dissonance which erupts around me when I claim my Germanness and simultaneously protect my Africanness and shield it from a certain gaze, I enter my own terrain. Germany may continue to make any effort to silence my futures, African futures, African Diasporic futures, but to no avail. We survived the absence of pre-fabricated future and already we are creating a new one that is so much better. This is one of the ways in which we People of the Diasporas acknowledge each other. We do it through code. We share “places” inaccessible to most of the people physically around us. Those are the places I hope my future stories will inhabit.
And while wounds slowly heal and leave behind a scar tissue that lets us recognize each other and reminds us to be considerate and to show some mutual respect, while our herstories and histories are slowly healing like that, we keep writing our own side of all the stories into memory and its futures. We unmake futures, to revive the forgotten ones, the silenced ones, to nurture the possible ones, the actual futures. Our past and our artful ways and our experiences are so complex and multifaceted that we will always be rich. It is because of African Diasporic philosophies, arts, and literatures that I as an Afro-Deutsche person am able to step outside, cross the street, sit down under that virtual archetypical tree and continue to learn. Without African development aid I could do none of the above.
Dear African activists and writers: I want to wholeheartedly thank you for putting your work and your words out there. You’ve made our future arrive for quite some time now. It’s here.
Sow, Noah. Deutschland Schwarz Weiß. Munich: C. Bertelsmann, Random House, 2008. Print.↩