Exorcising the heteronormative ghost from Afropolitan futures

An African city, Afropolitan, HOLAAfrica

By  Anima Adjepong

Recently, I was re-watching Nicole Amartefio’s creative show, An African City. The show follows the lives of five fabulous women friends, returnees to Africa, currently living in Accra, Ghana. The friends are from different African countries – Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana. They have moved “back home” from North American and European cities and have found each other in Accra. The show tells of their acclimatization to life in a cosmopolitan African city, including the search for property, careers, economic success, and most importantly, men. Every time I have watched An African City, the ghost that haunts its edges overwhelms me. This same ghost, a concession to heteronormative African futures, haunts many “Afropolitan narratives.” But it has yet to be named explicitly. Instead, attention has been primarily directed to the exclusionary class politics that Afropolitan, whether as an identity, genre, or social movement, has raised.

It is possible that the furor around the Afropolitan has died down, and she is now accepted as part of our African present and future. She ushers in a future that, as Achille Mbembe says, refuses, on principle, any kind of victim identity. Instead the Afropolitan insists on her ties to modernity (implicitly constructed as the West) and some tangible place on the African continent. Today, it seems we are generally more comfortable with the complexity that Afropolitan allows for middle-class Africans. Social networking groups and entertainment organizations name themselves Afropolitan, claiming this identity for themselves and their cultural politics. Through such naming, they assert the utility of Afropolitan in describing their experiences and also complicate its more fantastic elements as represented in literature and television.

Afropolitan and the politics of creating identity

The work that Afropolitan does for the identity politics of middle class Africans constitutes what I have been calling Afropolitan Projects, a concept based on my research with an immigrant community in the United States. Afropolitan projects are the collective efforts of Africans (not just immigrants) to assert an identity that affirms their active contributions to black diaspora cultures, and insists on Africa as a site of modernity. For example, in An African City, the show’s title engages in a kind of Afropolitan project. The indefinite article, “an” used to characterize a city in Africa. Africa, a continent that might forgive you if (when) you think it is a country. The title is blasé, yet self-conscious. An African City. We could be anywhere on this vast continent. Unless the viewer does not believe that there are, in fact, cities in Africa, then the title attempts to manifest this reality. Throughout Season 1, the show constantly compares this African city to New York and Paris, places that are self-assured in their claim to city. That comparison is done by insisting that in this African city, real-estate prices are as high as in New York and cars are more expensive than in London or Paris. This Afropolitan Project locates an African city in the same geography as an European or North American city, and in so doing says, “Africans are cosmopolitan too.”

When “Afropolitan writers” have written queer characters, those characters challenge the celebratory nature of Afropolitan because their queer sexuality cannot be imagined beyond victimization.

While much commentary has addressed the luxurious lifestyle that Afropolitan asserts for itself, the heteronormative politics of this identity/genre/movement remains untouched. In this regard, the inability of shows like An African City to imagine queer Afropolitans is revelatory. Even in this fantastical world of Africans with global middle-class wealth, a degree almost always from an Ivy or Oxbridge, a high-paying job (or a Daddy to supplement their low-paying job), and a passport to own the world just like the rest of them, women’s sexuality is strictly dickly. Other Afropolitan narratives reveal this tendency as well. Obinze in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah may be “an economic homosexual” but he, like the other characters desire heteronormativity as anchoring their African identities.

Creating the queer: the struggle of writing ‘the other’

When “Afropolitan writers” have written queer characters, those characters challenge the celebratory nature of Afropolitan because their queer sexuality cannot be imagined beyond victimization. However, the beauty of Afropolitan projects is that they are an ongoing and collective. As more people identify with Afropolitan, some of its ghosts are exposed and exorcism is possible. The ghost of heteronormativity that haunts mainstream Afropolitan projects is being expelled through the work of queer Africans. These Africans are creating narratives that reflect their realities in ways that emphasize self-determination and refuse to be cowed by the imposition of heteronormativity on their lives. For example, HOLAAfrica is an online space where queer African women can share stories, resources, and aspirations to produce knowledge about themselves. Similarly, Eric Gyamfi’s photo-essay “Just like us” presents the quotidian lives of queer Ghanaians in his community to suggest that they are not so different after all. In taking control of their own narratives through material cultures and in community with one another, queer Africans enact an Afropolitan project that exposes heteronormativity and demands a more inclusive accounting of African identities.

Anima Adjepong teaches sociology and writes about identity, culture, and black diaspora. They are currently working on a book about how the Afropolitan animates contemporary African cultural politics. They tweet from @animaadjepong

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