Manthia Diawara. We Won't Budge: An African Exile in the World.
The unabashed racial profiling and repeated public humiliations doled out by French police officers forced Manthia Diawara's hand. He decided, "It was time to write a modern-day slave narrative set in Paris." Diawara's statement may strike the reader as odd, given that European nations claimed to have abolished slavery over a century ago and that the protagonist of the slave narrative is Diawara. But when reading his memoir, We Won't Budge: An African Exile in the World, the reader will clearly realize that this internationally renowned scholar, editor, author, and university professor is a man stymied by space, time, and neo/colonizing lies. Born in Mali and seduced by the myths of France and America, the slavery that Diawara suffers is neoslavery, and although it does not come with the whips, brands, and forced migration of old, it is just as insidious a system. Following the path of such august forerunners as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, and such tender contemporaries as Francis Bok and Mende Nazer, Diawara uses pen, ink, and publication as liberating, healing, truth-telling tools.
In We Won't Budge Diawara deftly weaves past, present, and malaria-induced hallucination to create a cyclic literary work that is both timeless and timely. In the book's preface, Diawara invokes Amadou Diallo, the young, innocent African immigrant who was gunned down by New York City police officers in 1999 because of his ethnicity. The author reminds us that Diallo's resplendent body was riddled with bullets because he, like the millions who came through forced migrations from 1526 to 1850 and the millions who came both before and after of their own volition, was an African in America. Diawara's book, published in 2003, also foreshadows the 2005 uprisings in Paris, France, that began in the tenement high-rises of Clichy-sous-Bois and spread as African and Arab youths set the "city of light" ablaze with rage generated by centuries of racist disenfranchisement. Rather than "liberty, equality, and fraternity," Diawara reveals France to be a stronghold of xenophobia, racism, and repression. He informs his audience that "[t]he African ghettoes are a sober reminder of how France is becoming like America--a society divided between black and white, rich and poor, and European and others." But when he muses, "I don't know why I care about Paris. Sometimes I feel that Paris does not care about me," it becomes clear that the Diawara we are reading is not the renowned author and professor but the open-hearted, shining-eyed child who after being fed a steady diet of great fatherland lies has no choice but to throw them up.
With its melding of tortured musings from inner child and political analyses from accomplished adult, this memoir is filled physical and metaphysical paradoxes, humiliations, and conundrums. But more than a soulful lament to Paris, We Won't Budge is a jazz fusion ode to America. And some of the book's most powerful moments come from Diawara's interactions and exchanges with the controllers of soul the purveyors of funk, African Americans. Diawara recalls how he and his friends would cloak themselves in African American identity when expedient, "We had thought then that we were so clever for passing for black Americans and for remaining undetected by the immigration officials." However, temporary acquisition of an African American identity comes with more hidden costs than privileges: Diawara's Shaft-inspired buffoonish friend Macky almost gets himself killed hurling such epithets as "punk-ass, jive turkey, faggot" in a dozens game with an African American man.
A melange of hilarity, tragedy, fragile bonds, and political awakenings, Diawara's encounters with African Americans prove life-changing. The chapter titled "Portrait of the Writer by Himself" finds Diawara floundering in Paris. He meets the eclectic genius Ted Joans who, tired of seeing Africans stagnate and suffer in France, encourages Diawara to travel to America. Joans gives the young scholar the names, numbers, and addresses of vanguard members of the Black Arts Movement, such as Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Cade Bambara. Chapter 11, "Me and Mrs. Jones," finds Diawara in a complex relationship with Bea Jones, a lover with a Pan-African consciousness. She probes Diawara's political impetus and intentions--or lack thereof--and encourages him to return to Mali to educate and uplift his community. African American Sandra Isidore conscientized Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and the result was creative-political-critical genius married to Funkadelic beats. Diawara also found power, challenge, and passion in the displaced African warrior-queens of America. He says, "I remember my time with Bea as the most mature and political moment I had lived through since leaving Bamako."
Bea Jones and other guides reignite the doused spark of Pan-Africanism in the dislocated African. But Diawara is unable to balance traditional African with modem western values, and this dilemma plagues him. The author begins chapter one, "Back to Bamako," with complaints about the "extended-family system" and expectations that he assist relatives and friends financially, academically, or otherwise. He ends up introducing his audience to his homeland, for which he has "undying love," through the airport where he awaits a plane bound for Paris. Unable to negotiate the crossroads before which he meta/physically stands, Diawara concedes defeat: "I have become inadequate, a bastard of Africa and America, one who has been lost to modernity." Rather than cultural hybridity giving him a stronger foundation and greater versatility, it appears that the more western Diawara becomes, the less relevance he has. A relative called "the potentate" reveals the cost of Diawara's western modernity and success. When asked to greet his "brother" Manthia, the potentate signifies, "I don't know that Manthia. Who is he? I do not have such a brother. People say that he had studied for the highest diplomas in America. Some even say that he teaches white people there. But what has he done in the village? What has he done in Bamako? ... What is the use of Manthia's education?" His words cut to the bone, but the even deeper cut lies in the eyes of the potentate: he refuses to look at Diawara.
With its swirling and merging identities and crises and its commingling of literary genres, We Won't Budge is written in a style that mirrors the author's mind; consequently, the book could be considered the ultimate dilemma text. It contains riddles within enigmas wrapped in insightful vagaries. However, a letter that Diawara writes and the response he gets reveals that his identity, his identity crisis, and his Pan-African consciousness all spring from the same source. Throughout his cyclic sojourn, Diawara uses human relationships as mirrors to magnify and clarify his concept of self. Another African American woman, Dr. Swann, provides him with resplendent images of power, history, and truth. In a letter to his uncle and surrogate father, Mody, Diawara reveals what he has learned about his ancestors and himself in Dr. Swann's history class:
Dear father, I am discovering many things in the books about us. I learned that we had our own empire before the Moslems' jihad in the 19th century. The books say the Diawara kingdom extended all the way to Kaarta with the Bambara and Manden with the Mandingo. I learned all about our ancestor, Dama Guile Diawara, who descended from Assouan and founded the empire.... I heard that his sword is in a museum in France. The books blame the Jihad warriors and the European colonizers for destroying the Diawara civilization.... I want to study for my doctorate and restore our history and civilization. I want the whole world to know that we had our own kings and queens before the Moslem and French arrived in our country. My father, what can you tell me about our past?
Mody's reply shatters the brilliant reflection of Diawara's newly found ancestor-self: "There is nothing to be proud of because your ancestors were idolaters and fought against the spread of Islam. Forget about them; your true identity is in Islam; your true community is among the Moslems of the world; your true kingdom is the Kingdom of Allah whose only prophet is Mahomet, peace be with him. Son, do not let yourself be tempted by the devil in America." With Diawara's letter and Mody's response, the author is left at the end where we meet him at the memoir's beginning, sifting through the shifting sands of self-ignorance and awareness and thumbing innumerable glass shards of self-hate and love hoping to find grains and fragments enough to fashion a usable existence.
In addition to being indebted to historical and modern literary abolitionists, with his neoslave narrative, Diawara joins the circle of truth-telling, witness-bearing contemporary African authors. We Won't Budge places Diawara in the company of such giants as Cheikh Hamidou Kane, who wrote the existentialist masterpiece Ambiguous Adventure (1961); J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, who distilled ice and fire into the ink of America, Their America (1964); and Ayi Kwei Armah, whose Why Are We So Blest? (1972) should be required reading for all men of African ancestry. Although We Won't Budge does not seethe with the fierce magnificence of the aforementioned, Diawara's memoir is replete with sensitivity, compassion, and honesty. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about We Won't Budge is that Diawara reveals his vulnerability and trusts his audience with his truth, his tenderness, and his text. And in true Pan-African form and methodology, by writing his memoir, literary-djeli Manthia Diawara tells the harrowing truths that millions of deceived Africans have been too traumatized and chagrined to share. In answer to the potentate's queries, what Manthia does for Malians and all members of the Pan-African world is to give them the invaluable gift of truth.
Teresa N. Washington
Grambling State University
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|Author:||Washington, Teresa N.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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