On June 5th 2015, Teju Cole gave the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the African Literature Association Conference held in Bayreuth.

The transcript of the lecture, titled “Do African Digital Natives Wear Glass Skirts?,” is now available online. It was recently published in JALA, the official journal of the African Literature Association.

In the lecture, Cole reopens the age-old question of “African authenticity” but within the context of digital culture and technology. There is that old discourse where questions about what it means to be African invariably evokes grass skirts and mud huts. In that discourse, to be African was to be an “African Native”—defined as opposed to or before technology. 

Today, what it means to be termed a “native” has changed not just for Africans but for the world.  For example, a “digital native” is someone who is born into a world where language is transacted and life is filtered through screens. Playing on these multiple meanings of “the native,” Cole asks us to rethink Africanness not as something that is opposed to and, thus, always trying to catch up with technology but as something that emerges from within digital technology. Africanness, Cole argues, conjures a complex array of ideas, identities, modes of being, localities, and ways of imagining the future that are deeply rooted in digital technology. 

To drive his point home, Cole takes us on a tour of a number African cities. There are the usual suspects: Johannesburg, Lagos, and Nairobi. But the last two cities are Brooklyn and Twitter. You’re probably thinking, well, that’s a bit of a stretch. And you’re probably right, but wait till you read Cole’s argument for re- imagining these spaces through the framework of a globalized African digital culture. Pay close attention to the very last paragraph where Cole quotes Binyavanga Wainaina: “We are Africans, we have an imagination, we have to use that imagination.”

It’s a provocative and brilliant piece.

Here is an excerpt. Enjoy!

The fourth city is Brooklyn, which is one of the most important cities of Africa. I live there, believe me, it is. I want to think about Brooklyn with respect to the ways it organizes itself as an African space. One of the most important recent ways it does so is the kind of online presence that it has. Certain blogs created in Brooklyn have become a gathering space for an international and diasporic Africa, a space for understanding culture. One of my favorite blogs in the world is Africa is a Country. Every now and again the Africa is a Country — people on their Twitter account — will totally troll the people who write to them, people who tweet at them to say “But Africa is not a country.” And Africa is a Country will re-tweet it, just to put it out there, like “Yeah, we know.”

I love Africa is A Country, because it is basically the inside of my head. It is Kendrick Lamar, it’s white saviours, it’s Dave Chappelle and Lumumba, it is about how to be young, privileged and black in a world of white hegemony. It is different articles dealing with that experience of being complicated, being in the world, being the ungrateful and the unapologetic person you are, when gratitude and apology are demanded as payment for being black and alive. It is a kind of digital home for so many of us who are homeless because part of the feeling of being at home is to feel as if your modes of expression and the kinds of languages that you speak culturally are being heard and shared. So, Africa is a Country is a good one.

And OkayAfrica is another very good one, which focuses much more on music, but what I love about OkayAfrica is that its notion of African music is not hidebound at all. I do love Afropop Worldwide, and I love African roots music very much. That is where I started. I grew up in Africa, I am an Ijebu guy, I am a Yoruba guy, I am a Nigerian, but when I got to the States, I started to understand myself as African through music, through understanding that Ali Farka Touré meant something to me, Hugh Masekela meant something to me, and Youssou N’Dour meant something to me and Miriam Makeba, too. And it was through their very music that I actually became African in the broader sense. And then I met other Africans, and now being an African might be as strong a part of my identity as those other things that I mentioned. But I think it is also very important to constantly upgrade that and to be on the leading edge of it, so that you’re not merely anthropological about your experience of your own life. It is about understanding that what the kids in Lagos are listening to is not important only to you. It is just as exquisitely and importantly African as Toumani Diabaté playing the kora. Wizkid and Davido are just as essential to what is going on as are the kinds of music that are presently coming out of Angola and South Africa, kizomba and house.

And so, this is a space that I also go to very much and it is also the kind of space I am trying to promote, because if people outside of Africa can feel very comfortable with including the entire world in their cultural purview, it is not just that we should feel comfortable doing it, but we are already doing it and we want that to be understood as well.

The fifth city is one I have already mentioned earlier: it is Twitter. It has become such an important space for having these conversations that are not happening anywhere else. I always bristle, I always push back at this idea that there is this kind of absolute separation between the people who march on the streets and the people who talk about it on Twitter. I march on the streets and I also used to talk about it on Twitter. But I also know that many of the people who march on the streets, people who have brought about the kinds of changes, the people who have made despots and fake democrats look foolish and those who have made them uncomfortable, are organized on Twitter, too.

Why have so many of the biggest street demonstrations we have seen in history happened in the last decade? Probably the biggest demonstration that ever happened in Nigeria was the fuel subsidy protest a couple of years ago. This is almost unimaginable without the kind of organizing that happens on Twitter, because it makes networks possible and it facilitates that responsive, very quick organizational turning-on-a-dime. On Sunday night you organize something, and on Monday morning people have gathered on the streets, because they have all seen the call online.

One of the most vivid, challenging, bracing, discomforting and ultimately encouraging uses of Twitter that I have seen lately has to do with Somali studies and you all know about this, the phenomenon of Cadaan Studies. Cadaan is Somali for “white.” Some people started a journal in Somaliland and the entire board of it did not contain a single Somali. A journal of Somali Studies; I think there were a couple of Ethiopians on it, but otherwise, everyone else was white. You know, Africans do like to complain about things, so some Somali sister went on Facebook and wrote about it and complained about it and a discussion began.

And one of the white scholars in this board, a German scholar of Somali studies, showed up on this Facebook page and started to say the sorts of things that, if you have friends, they will tell you not to say online. But the gist of what he was saying was “If you lazy Somalis would get off your ass and study anthropology, we would not have to do your scholarships for you;” it was that kind of tone-deaf and condescending thing.

So, there was this very spirited, very intelligent pushback against it, most of which unfolded on Twitter with the hashtag #CadaanStudies. It was a way to collectively think through the kinds of ways in which we valourize a narrow concept of knowledge-making, one that is represented by the kinds of scholarship that would be in a journal of Somali Studies. Yet even the ways in which people who are doing that kind of work, but do not have access to Western institutions, are completely sidelined and marginalized is notable. This was a big fight and it was a good one, and it took place in the elusive and ephemeral city of Twitter.

I think the white saviours will all be more hesitant these days about the kind of blithe and easy exclusion of presuming to speak for others.

Those are my five cities. I wanted to talk about all these things in terms of emphasis: all these things are true, just as other things are true, but we definitely need to think about what a productive truth looks like. What are the truths that we need? Binyavanga Wainaina (personal communication) frequently speaks in this vein. “I might not have a solution,” he says, “but we are Africans, we have an imagination, we have to use that imagination.” We have imagination. I like it. It’s a good place to begin.

Read full article HERE.



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