Landing : Athabascau University

"An Unnamed Place in Africa"

I've been thinking about small changes to what I say -- or more accurately to how I think -- about places and things that I conceive of as new or different. There are two changes I want to make to words and phrases that I use almost habitually, but more because they're convenient than because they reflect what I actually mean. 

The first is "Africa." The whole country, right? I consume a lot of media that refers vaguely to Africa and Africans. And I think we're all familiar with the critique that Africa is quite large and diverse: it has fifty-odd countries at various stages of decolonization that are full of people with diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, political affiliations, religious beliefs, skin colours, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, class. To say "Africa this" or "Africans that" is usually a sign that whoever is speaking hasn't bothered to learn anything specific about anyone or anywhere in Africa. (With some exceptions: "North American governments don't care how many Africans die of AIDS," for example, sounds ok to me, while "Africans are at higher risk for HIV transmission" sounds like bullshit -- not because there is no HIV in Africa, but because there are other factors, including class, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and specific location, that help to determine which unnamed people in Africa are being placed at increased risk for HIV transmission, and there are also forces, like racism, colonialism, homophobia and poverty, creating the risk.)

See what I did there? That's what I'm doing about this problem I've been having. I consume a lot of media that speaks broadly about Africa and Africans, and I don't always have a good reason to repeat the above critique -- some authors are long dead, obviously not going to change their works, and the people I'm talking to already know that "Africa" is vague as shit, and I just need to tell someone about a book I read that was set in "Africa," or rather "an unnamed place in Africa." 

I think that phrase acknowledges the specificity of geography as well as the author's unmet responsibility of doing the same, without wasting a ton of words or adding a lengthy parenthetic rant to a sentence like "I read a book about a family of queers who colonize an unnamed place in Africa." It also acknowledges my responsibilty to notice and critique the messages I receive that reinforce racism, and that actually make it more convenient for me to say and do and think racist things than to think and talk about, and act in, the world in ways that make it more liveable. But do I have it right? Am I on the right track? I am curious to know how others have approached this in the past or might approach it in the future. 

The other word I've decided to use a lot less is "discover." As in "I discovered a book of queer poetry with a piece about zombie HIV sex in it." I didn't discover anything. That's a lot of credit to give myself for something someone else created that like a zillion people read before I even learned that it existed. And "learned" is usually what I mean when I say "discovered."

That's pretty scary to me -- is this my unspoken attitude toward learning? I'd rather not admit to doing it? Or I don't think it's enough of an accomplishment? And it's kind of Christopher-Colombus-y to go around pretending that everything I didn't know about is not only brand new but also I am the first person to find out about it. It's a way of thinking that requires me to deny that anyone who may have known about it first is really a person. I've decided to pay attention when I feel like saying I "discovered" something and see if what I actually mean is that I learned about it. 

I think (I hope!), more often than not, what I mean is that I'm learning. 


  • sarah beth October 12, 2012 - 7:05pm

    My frend AJ suggested via gchat that there are times when saying "Africa" might not be too vague: she brought up examples of Africans living in the diaspora who refer to Africa as a whole because they are working on forming African identities in places that have related to Africa -- as Imperial and enslaving countries -- as a whole; or when people want to maintain some of their privacy and sanity and don't want to have to give a history, politics, and geography lesson to everyone they meet who, when they name a specific place, will say "wait, where??"


    So I painted with too broad a stroke when I said it's always a problem when I hear "Africans this..." and "Africa that...". I really meant a more specific situation, like when I read a book set in "Africa," or see a commercial for world vision about "African children" -- I don't know if there is a word for it, but I mean these situations when I'm supposed to substitute an imagining or association with Africa from my mind instead of thinking of the realities of people and places. 

  • Mark A. McCutcheon October 13, 2012 - 2:57pm

    Ironically, whether you refer to "Africa" the continent or many (though not all) specific African states, you are referring either way to territorial and power structures that are vestiges of colonial domination and administration. 

    AJ makes a good point, then, about the appropriation of Africa as a strategic formation of regional identity taken from colonial histories and put instead to the services of decolonizing, intercultural, international, and other unifying initiatives. Kodwo Eshun's article "Further considerations of Afro-Futurism" (CR 3.2 [2003]) - which is assigned for my Black Atlantic course, #ltst637 - hypothesizes a future archaeological team that belongs to the USAF: "the United States of Africa."

  • Julie Black October 18, 2012 - 4:39pm

    Hi Sarah Beth

    Mark McCutcheon suggested I might enjoy reading your blog post and he's quite right. I did.

    I'm in the LTST637 course he mentioned in his comment, above. In fact, i AM the LTST637 course since I'm the only student this time round. I'm enjoying the material a great deal. And do rather wish I had some student peers to chat with about it all.

    So your blog post was certainly relevant to the course material.

    One of the things that gets me about the issue of treating Africa like a country is that despite knowing better, I find myself doing it too. I'll meet someone and then later think, "Now, were they from Tanzania? Or was it Uganda? Or Togo? Or..." And that's so maddening because the details of what they told me just slip around in my brain until all I can remember is Africa. 

    I think part of the issue is that I have such little real connection with Africa. I have travelled a little on the continent and wouldn't now confuse Namibia with Mozambique, for example. But it shouldn't take visiting somewhere to cement its uniqueness in one's (colonial, colonized, colonizing) mind. 

    I try not to get too annoyed with myself. But it is a frightfully stubborn habit of mind.


  • sarah beth October 25, 2012 - 12:48am

    Hi Julie! I mistakenly thought LTST637 was individualized study, and I tried to sign up for it to begin in October, of course unsuccessfully. It sounds like I would have enjoyed it. I took ENGL633 (Postcolonial Drama) instead, and I am enjoying that one a lot. It feels like I am getting away with something, just sitting down and reading a play all evening. 

    I hear you about "frightfully stubborn" habits of mind -- I like to think supporting individual efforts to break down racist, transphobic, etc. habits can be a part of a community's ethic of caring for each other. But that only helps when we have access to a caring community to begin with. 

    Mark's point, that even when we do pay attention to specificity of detail, we are often using place names and political borders created by colonial forces to help them divide up territory, is a good one. I don't think it's a no-win scenario, but it does seem to call for a bit of extra care: maybe by just asking people what they prefer (I already do this with gender, e.g. by asking "what pronouns should I use to talk about you?"). I'm not sure if that is always practical, and it feels a bit awkward as I think it over, but maybe that is just the pressure to be politely colour-blind talking. 

  • Julie Black October 26, 2012 - 7:23am

    Yes, I don't think it's a no-win scenario either. It's just a no-purity scenario. Every category and name was devised by someone, at some historical moment, and carries layers of meaning.  And we each negotiate all that, as we figure out who we are.

    I agree that it feels best when the naming is done by the person or people themselves. I think of being at the Calgary Banff Word Fest this year, where I heard the writer Ivan E Coyote read from her work. And I appreciated how she played with all kinds of gendered markers, from her name to her quite male look & clothes to her preferred pronoun (she). I listened to the audience afterwards, as we gathered our coats and walked to the exit, and people were definitely challenged by that. By what they perceived as dissonance.

    So it's about being allowed to embrace dissonance, the complex way we build our own identities across all kinds of possibilities.

    But it's not just about individual choice either. We want to share names & categories, to be part of a community too, if not completely defined by it. That's another element of negotiation.

    It's interesting stuff, isn't it?

    Thanks for talking.