Firstly, I hope this finds you well and in good spirits, and thank you for writing your piece “Blackness is a white European invention that makes sense in America but is lazily applied in Europe”. Firstly, thank you for writing. Reflecting on your piece, I thought: God invented blackness. The concept of blackness is not the invention of white Europeans; what was manufactured in Europe was the concept of blackness as a malignancy to justify the economic trade in human beings. White supremacy is to me in psychological terms a form of malignant narcissism which has affected the whole world to all our detriment – in the particular case of Africa and its black people – both psychologically black as well as phenotypically black – we are in the process of cultivating a positive sense of narcissism, or self-appreciation – in deed have been in that process since there was an awareness that white supremacy required both a survival strategy and a social and political response. It is the root of all social movements linked towards the emancipation of blackness and Africans. The idea of blackness as a malignancy is and was of course, a lie. The Yoruba have a saying or an idiom which is “Otito lo’gba leke iro” – The truth always conquers the lie, or to use the words of MLK – the arc of the universe is long, but it tends towards justice”
It would be good to know what scene you are referencing in “Half of a Yellow Sun”, though it is true that Adichie has asserted that blackness is an identity she first took (more) cognisance of when she started living in the United States of America, with its particular relationship to blackness, there is always a small intellectual sleight of hand when continental Africans assert this; the idea of the tribe itself as the essence of identity has of course, its own dangers, you can look at the history of Ghana, and the formation of the Ashanti to see that even so solid an identity as a tribe can be thrown off, re-shaped, and transformed into something new as was done by Otumfo Anokye. That the idea of blackness has robbed Africans and Caribbeans of their true heritage I’m not sure I agree – it has been a necessary tool for self-preservation, validation and social organisation in incredibly oppressive environments, and in Britain was all through most of the Post-World war II a term encompassing African, Asian and Caribbean populations.
That said that a black identity might be restrictive is commonplace enough – it is one that I have to say I also once entertained; I think it is often born of frustration from possessing a deeper cultural identity than other, more powerful populations wish to see or engage with, despite our full participation in society. The antidote is, for me, to see that Africans have their or our own relationship to our skin colours that have little to do with the malignant racialisation that emerged from European industrialisation and bad enlightenment science; more or less from birth of African, and specifically, Yoruba delineations of colour, mostly appreciative – sometimes derogatory. The tease ‘oyingbo pepper’ was certainly one applied to me, and lest the idea of ‘oyingbo’ with its association with European whiteness be raised – more widely, and culturally anchored is the expression ‘Omo Pupa’ – famously sang about by Sunny Ade – the skin tone remarked upon for its relative rarity – rather than any proximity to whiteness similar to the African American praise term – Redbone – and less similar to the racially loaded ‘High yella/High Yellow’. It is the deliberate investment of blackness with the negative that is unarguably the worst thing to happen to black people and Africa – as the pre-eminent land of the blacks ‘Bilad-as-Sudan’ – the home of the Nubia kingdoms, which were one of the earliest encounters of the west with Blackness through the crusades; white America was born partly of Europe, but regardless of if you are in Europe, America or China, the racial hierarchy entrenched by colonialism is so culturally ingrained, that to demolish it, blackness itself has to have the same globalism; to the sense that African-Americans have lost a connection to Africa is manifestly incorrect; unacknowledged, often unknown – but not tenuous – the cultural tropes of Africa are palpable – for blackness is connected to the essence of Africaness which is rooted in the linguistic, geographic heritage and music, as well as spiritual existence of blackness; the negro spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is nothing but a call to be recalled to Africa; it is something spiritually fulfilled in Toni Morrison’s book Song of Solomon when Milkman flies home – as does the insurance salesman at the beginning of the novel; previously African-Americans re-established their connection with Africa through death or spirit – especially for enslaved Africans dying on the ships rather than be permanently enslaved; similarly, the free Africans of New York kept the legacy of their association with Africa through names – see the first Abyssinian Baptist church – and it should be noted that Abyssinia was the part of Africa free from colonialism until very late in the European imperial project. The Baptist association with water might be linked to many spiritual African traditions; in the past perhaps, these connections could only be forged metaphorically, but now, there is little to stop the connection being a social reality – a social reality more than a few African Americans have acted upon – from Maya Angelou, Stokely Carmicheal to many unknown names in recent times. It is true that our more recent waves of immigration mean that we are more linked to the modern-states in Africa, but ‘Black British’ is a concrete reality, whether in the positive sense of pride in the achievements of Naomi Campbell, the Casely-Hayfords, Dizzee Rascall, Stormzy or Skepta – or, Zadie Smith and Helen Oyeyemi – or in the negative sense, the threat to our mental, physical and social wellbeing that is often part of being a minority in a modern state. It’s true that this Black British identity has found its most unifying force in music, but we do African American music a dis-service if the umbilical link to African musical forms are not acknowledged. R ‘n’ B and Hip Hop are all African musical forms – hip hop borrows from the tradition of the Griot as well as the singers of who turn insult and criticism into an art form – I have no doubt there are other musical traditions that embody the same; Afrobeats in facts borrows deeply from both Afro-American and Caribbean musical traditions – both negatively and positively – not least in (1) the creeping homophobia (2) the celebration of bling, which marries closely to the Yoruba word and concept ‘Oge’ – literally to show off. The musical influences between Africa and its diaspora has never stopped – since the first ships sailed away with the bodies of enslaved people. The concept of cool – so lauded in African American culture finds its expression in the Yoruba word ‘Tutu’ – signifying an intellectual and reasoned approach to everything – and paradoxically manifests itself in the ‘wildest’ expression of dancing – the spontaneity seen by viewers is of course the result of cool and quick observation, repetition and innovation – which is of course what breakdancing is all about. I have not engaged with it fully, but the term Afropean by Johnny Pitts seems to me a very productive term that encompasses the identity of many of us Africans in Europe.] I don’t think it is lazy to say Black people – it is simply sociologically factual – and as far as in groups go, I’m quite happy this is mine and I warrant you feel the same, whilst appreciating every colour of the rainbow. Many who know me will know I hate the word tribe – sociologically applied to most African ethno-linguistic groups; that said, I would agree that ethno-linguistic groupings are the most productive form of identity for Africans and black-Africans in particular – and African-Americans are undoubtedly a part of that; it is true that we cannot go home again, and it is more so true for African-Americans – but all human beings are alienated in any case from what you might call ‘true home’. To the point that we are often written off as ‘just a black person’ instead of our full, cultural complexity – I think it’s just best to treat that lie like the lie it is – we are never just a black person – we are never that, our blackness is always invested with something – the challenge for this and coming generations is to invest blackness with unequivocal positivity so that it never has to answer to a comparison with whiteness (which is to say politically invested supremacy attached to whiteness with often silent but aggressive pride, rather than whiteness on its own as a quality; – in fact as there is a conception of blackness in relation to its self (shorn of the need for defensive pride) – so there is a conception of white beauty (shorn of the impulse towards often silent but aggressive pride) (there is an equal challenge of stripping whiteness of its power so that its beauty can be celebrated). An African writer of note once said ‘where one thing stands, another stands also – the true concept of blackness stands on its own – and in relation to those who bear it, not necessarily those – who see it – to most of those who do both, Black is necessarily always beautiful.