Saturday, 8 June 2013
My Inspiration: A Tribute to (my favourites) Black Writers
People (mostly whites, as a matter of fact) often ask me why I am so passionate about all things African, inter- as well as extracontinental, including Black Diasporas around the world. No, not djembé, pata-pata or injera and tajine or voodoo statuettes and rasta hair, nor any western-made tale of desolate lands and ungovernable people, but yes, literature and languages and the arts and any genuine beautiful creation grounded in history and politics and social formations rather than in the vestiges of an ideology of white superiority reducing all things supposedly African (alas, including people as “things”) to tokens of exoticism and commodities for a new ethno-chic trend. And why – the same people ask – am I constantly ranting about racism where they see none?
My answer to the first question: it is about role models, and, hey, my role models happen to be Black. If I can boast of any quality at all, it is because throughout my life I could draw inspiration from exemplary men and women who have made history – Black history and the history of humanity.
My answer to the second question: because racism (still) pervades all facets of our life, and if we are not able to see it, it is because we have not yet become aware of it, and, hey, if we believe we are not imbued with prejudice ourselves, we are more of a problem than the declared racist round the corner.
As a white southern European, I grew up in a quietly racist context. In fact, in my community (a rather non-cosmopolitan urban neighbourhood), there were hardly any Black people around when I was a kid, but that does not mean anything. Racism comfortably sat (and still does, though maybe less comfortably) in our language, our stories, our ideals, our mental structures – in short, our imaginary. Most of us, of course, did not even know. Our conscience was clean. We could take pity, over buoyant dinner conversations, of the starving children in Biafra, without any suspicion of racism having anything to do with it (Who could locate this place on a map, by the way? And only later I would learn that the civil war in Biafra had ended before I was even born, but by the time I was ten, the region’s name was a signifier for utmost disgrace). We could watch Roots on TV and release our compassion without ever being touched by the thought that compassion of that kind is far from being a feeling to be proud of (Why, otherwise, was Kunta Kinte an insult among us kids?).
Then, it happened. Black people started coming over. And our racism became more visible, the expression of it almost inevitable. And yet, strikingly, our conscience did not stop feeling clean. If anybody was to blame, it was certainly not we. Racism was never openly mentioned. There were talks of irreconcilable differences. There were talks of social inequalities. There were talks of failed integration. Anybody who was not white was made ethnic. Anything that was not western was made ethnic. Not too bad, after all, for food or clothes or music or anything which can find advantages in a consumerist society, but when it comes to people and their languages and their cultural backgrounds, then, sorry, but there is an urgent ethical problem there, because making someone ethnic means depriving them of the dignity of a legitimate history. And so we find ourselves back to square one, with Hegel declaring that “Africa has no history”. Yes, Hegel, one of the founding fathers of racism, who not so long ago was echoed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy affirming that “the African has not yet fully entered history” (Dakar, 2007). Back to square one, with racism fundamentally engrained in our worldview. What? That is the what. Shall we move forward?
In spite of all odds, some of us did somehow move forward. In my case, that mainly happened through reading. Books which came to me almost by chance, books which were not visible in bookshops but hidden in second-hand market stalls, books which opened a window on the big world and a far-reaching worldview. I would like to say I read Achebe and Emecheta and Ngugi wa Thiong’o before I read Conrad, but it wouldn’t be true. And yet, I can say confidently that Achebe and Emecheta and wa Thiong’o had a much stronger impact on me than Conrad. And I did read Jamaica Kincaid and Richard Wright and Flora Nwapa and Amadu Hampaté Bâ and Zora Neal Hurston before I read Hemingway, Calvino or Simone de Beauvoir. And I read Césaire and Fanon before Freud and Jameson, which – I must say – made Freud and Jameson all the more interesting. So what? It is of course not my intention to denigrate or downplay white authors, not to mention the many authors from other non-western regions of the world I eagerly read and admire. However, it was mainly Black authors from the African continent and the Diasporas who opened that window for me. It was through their stories that I envisaged a path to follow. It was their example that helped me actively shape my personality rather than accepting what was given. Before them, my world was narrow, provincial and oppressive.
I come from Naples, a semi-failed city in a nation-state whose international popularity rests on remnants of past glories, and grew up in a social and familial context marked by pessimism and passivity as much as by corruption and subterfuge. Things are what they are, gloomy, and there is not much you can do about it, so just play into the system, low profile, and get your way. My prescribed way, as a middle class educated young woman, was to get myself a decent job, a decent husband and a decent level of wealth and status (which would include a holiday house, a cleaning lady, a couple of children, and possibly a dog). Never get involved in politics, never question your elders, never look farther than your nose. That was the philosophy I grew down with. Growing up, that is, came later. It came with them.
Reading about people’s lives in contexts far more burdensome than mine gradually made me aware of both my privileges (as white, middle class, and European) and my limitations (as mentally colonised by my own people). I sensed a tension, a contradiction, in my spontaneous identification with stories and contexts that were in fact so divergent from my own. What exactly was going on then? Soon, it all became clear to me: I had let myself get enslaved in a free world, whereas the books I was reading presented people who fought to preserve their freedom even under the worst oppressive conditions. They did not succumb to their circumstances. They made brave choices, went against the grain, no matter the price to pay.
Please don’t misunderstand. Not all Black authors write of suffering and oppression; not all of their protagonists come from underprivileged contexts; not all their stories are tales of striving and resilience. Yet (and the reason is to be found in the history of the past three centuries), most of their works – all of their works I would dare say – are “committed” in a way that can turn even a purely erotic or science fiction story into a political statement. This comes, it came to me, in many forms, many voices, many views. I suppose I absorbed the ones I most needed.
These are some of the values my sources of inspiration brought home to me: honesty, courage, self-determination, the obstinacy to remain truthful to oneself, the commitment to fight for justice and equality, and, perhaps most important of all, a sharp sense of humour and a celebratory attitude without which life would not be bearable. For all this and more, I owe tribute.