I was fifteen, maybe sixteen, when I started to wear blackface. By which I do not mean the novelty-act costume of American vaudeville. I am black, after all. I have been my whole life. That did not change. What did change was my consciousness of it. Up until that point, my identity had been a loose, tangential thing. But I had begun to read about Aryan supremacy and slavery and colonialism and Eurocentric beauty standards; against all these damning threats to my sense of pride in my skin, I began desperately to cling to my blackness for dear life, for my existential sanity. In a world where neocolonialism forces African people to lust after whiteness as the default form of being, the only radical act, it seemed to me, was to paint layers upon layers of black on your skin so that you could never be whitewashed.
My blackness became theatre, a performance of racial patriotism. Through the 1960s works of Gikuyu writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o I came across this strange, electrifying thing called decolonization. And, boy, did it intrigue me! All my poems were little, roaring manifestos for the emancipation of the black body. I made it clear all over social media that I was black and woke. I filled my wardrobe with cotton brocade and ankara wax prints, eschewing the regular suit and tie. Yet, it felt inauthentic, like a costume, as if I were an impostor appropriating a blackness that did not belong to me.
There is a consensus among African intellectuals that the decolonization theory is an obsolete remnant of twentieth-century scholarship, to be viewed as one of the respected instruments of history that brought us here but is no longer relevant to our evolution. But this notion is terribly mistaken.
It is beyond question that, worldwide, social value still remains tied to proximity to whiteness. A Southern British accent will facilitate access to the beau monde in Lagos; an enlightened Ghanaian kid is defined by how much American pop culture she knows; black immigrants change their names to sound whiter when applying for jobs in Europe: a Kenyan pupil is judged by his fluency in the colonizer’s language.
From Chinua Achebe’s literary activism to the Rastafari movement to Toussaint Louverture’s slave rebellion against Napoleon Bonaparte, the theory of decolonization has morphed into myriad serviceable forms. It is not beholden to academic discourse. It is a living thing that takes on new hosts across times and cultures. Today it exists in the resurgent interest in Audre Lorde’s decolonial feminism, in the writings on the blue wall of Twitter and in the music of the Grammy-winning Tuareg band, Tinariwen, singing in their native tongue of Tamasheq—all dreaming of a world where they get to heal.
But this legacy is a complicated one—magnificent, granted, but it also favours a male-dominated hierarchy. The history books center black men as the driving force behind the movement, effectively minimizing the labour of women like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Mabel Dove-Danquah, condescendingly referred to as “helpers” who assisted the men in their lives to achieve greatness in the movement for liberation. In reality, these women, like many others, risked jail time and even death to stand for the rights of black people in the struggle against Eurasian hegemony.
My first book was a collection of poems dedicated to Fela Kuti, one of Africa’s foremost anti-colonial activists. I would spend hours talking on the phone with Op, my friend who lived over in America. My fascination was infectious. She soon got into Fela, too. Thinking about him. Writing about him. Talking about him. But at some point, she checked out. She would share her reading list with me, and I would see only books by black feminist women. I could tell she had trouble relating to the alpha-male-centred brand of Fela’s black activism.
The civil rights activist Ella Josephine Baker, who worked as Martin Luther King’s executive secretary, became disillusioned by endemic gender discrimination in the movement and in the African-American church. She was frustrated with King’s reluctance to consider that a woman’s ideas could be better than his own. From the 1930s Negritude theory—the contributions of the Nardal sisters often ignored—to the Black Power movements of the 1960s, black men shoved their women aside when it came to headship. This phenomenon has earned certain black men the derogatory term, hotep. Hoteps are politically-aware black men whose consciousness runs mainly on conspiracy theories about, among others, powerful women and gender-nonconforming folk being threats to the sanctity of the black race. The primacy of straight black men on the social ladder is for them in perfect accordance with their illusion of an ideal, monolithic blackness.
Growing up in Nigeria, I would go to newsstands, listening as grown men argued politics for hours. I would hear things like, “the Black man is so corrupt. We need the white man to return and save us.” I remember wondering silently why, if the black man had failed us so much, we could not just try the black woman. It is the ultimate betrayal, is it not, for black women to fight racism alongside black men, leave the battlefield and go home only to suffer another form of inequality from the same black men they had called allies? Some countries would rather be submerged underwater than consider the idea of a woman leader, even after the epidemic of poor leadership that came on the heels of independence, during which corrupt and incompetent leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe claimed of Western imperialism, “[We] must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy.”
Yet history still pretends freedom was won by the miraculous grace of the Messianic black man.
Around 2015, I started to think of myself less as a racial being. I lived in Nigeria, a majority-black country where I did not have to transact daily on the currency of my skin. It was a relief to feel the weight lifted off, at least for a while.
Many were uncomfortable when Beyoncé, the once-innocuous pop star, released “Formation,” a music video that celebrated the black body taking up space in a world that left little room for it. “Why couldn’t she just sing about love of self or love of country? Why race?” It was unfathomable that a black woman like Beyoncé would do something so subversive, when her fame, talent and mainstream beauty had earned her entreé into the highest reaches of white power, including the White House.
The conversations surrounding “Formation” and the rise of Donald Trump awakened me from my slumber. The black world watched as this man preached a new version of “Go-Back-to-Africa” delivered in ineloquent, mildly-clever dog-whistle rhetoric seemingly pulled directly from Mein Kampf. The supposed racial progress white people had claimed they’d been making was about to be undone by the election of the red-hat-wearing demagogue. I would repeatedly text Op to know if she was all right. I feared for her safety with the news of neo-Nazis roaming the streets of America, emboldened by the confidence that one of them was now the most powerful man in the world.
Still, you would be mistaken to assume Trump does not have his apologists in the African community. My colleague, Ade, a comrade in the defence of decolonial politics, once told me that Obama was the anti-Christ whose devilish legacy Trump had come to undo. He claimed that Obama had allowed the gays and feminists to take control of God’s Own Country and set a terrible example for the rest of the world. Trump, to him, was the “hard man” with an iron fist who would put the gays and uppity women in their place. This comment did not surprise me. “Take out the racism,” one of my beloveds once said, “and black men will be the biggest fans of Trump.” Ade’s comment captures a cultural framework that favours a specific kind of gender determinism. Cis-heteronormative masculinity still holds sway in Africa, and all who threaten its hold—women and queer people especially—are hounded into silence.
It is because of guys like Ade that writings humanizing queerness have overshadowed black liberation politics in the contemporary African literary scene; because of guys like Ade we are witnessing the rise of black feminism, both in the West and in Africa. These shifts are a reaction to the black patriarchy that still dominates communities the world over. How do you convince someone to join you on the battlefield, if you’ve shown that you will turn on them once the war is won? Countless black South African women risked their lives in the fight against Apartheid. Today, they face one of the world’s highest rates of sexual violence at the hands of their men. “To be a black woman is to be marginalized within the margin,” as the poet Imani Cezanne said. We need to do better. Black men need to do better. Straight black men need to do better.
A few people are putting in the work of radically reimagining the celebration of blackness. But even the remarkable global cultural behemoth Black Panther reinforces patriarchy, and the misguided notion that black monarchy is still an ideal after which to lust—a disturbing idea particularly prevalent in American black discourse. The film features an unhealthy reverence for imaginary black kings and black billionaire wealth-hoarders. But black monarchy still exists in Africa, in thousands of communities, and it is far from the utopic beauty on display in Black Panther. Wealth concentration in the hands of a few black people has done us no good. Even in precolonial times, rich black monarchs sold their own people into slavery. No imaginary black society will do unless it respects the equal humanity of all kinds of people.
There is an entire universe of blackness out there, existing in myriad cultures, geographies, sexes and gender expressions. It may seem unfair to expect so much from a popcorn movie primarily created in the service of Hollywood capitalism. But Black Panther positioned itself as political cinema, explicitly intended to change the conversation around blackness on a global scale. Cultural materials leading the charge on black discourse can be better and more radical, and more inclusive of all forms of blackness. We must endlessly critique this evolving civilization. And ask for more, and more.