Productive rites of "passing": Keorapetse Kgositsile and the Black Arts Movement: how did it come about that all of a sudden Africans became Negroes?
--Keorapetse Kgositsile, "With Bloodstains to Testify: An Interview With Keorapetse Kgositsile" (26)
The 1960s and early 70s Black Arts Movement is the pivotal period, in the African-American literary tradition, when "Africa" explodes as a prime metaphor. In Black Arts poetry, "Africa" often signifies the psychological space in which African-Americans can decolonize their minds. Likewise, in the larger 1960S and 70s cultural enactments of the Black Power Movement, African names and clothing became the means through which many African-Americans attempted to forge a connection with the pre-middle passage "home". As "Africa" became a sign of the "motherland" in the Black Arts imagination, there was often a venting of motherless angst in the very celebration of the return to the motherland; the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" haunts many of the writers who fetishize Africa. The central question for many of the Black Arts poets, as they tried to gain new "Black is Beautiful" body images, becomes, "who is your mother?" In a mirror often called "Africa", they found a unified body image that seemed to heal the traumatized legacy of kinship haunting the post-slavery landscape: enslaved Africans relegated to the status of the mother when white men raped black women. (i)
As A.B. Spellman recalls the Black Arts Movement in "Big Bushy Afros" (1998), he muses, "Some called it a new mimesis because it made a mirror that affirmed us. But I thought it was an anti-mimetic art, for it was art beyond the probable [...] Not to say it was all figures and forms. Abstraction didn't cost consciousness." (ii) The desire for black mirrors--for mimesis--within the 1960s and 70s Black Arts Movement, coexisted with a desire for "art beyond the probable", the art that would shatter any mirror aiming to "fix" blackness. At the end of this manifesto, Spellman confesses, "I do regret the culture cops who tried to legislate a single vision" (53). The policing of blackness during this movement, somehow, did not cancel out images of blackness as sheer fluidity, that which Spellman describes as a, "Negritudinous surreal dream of universal Africa" (53). The Black Arts mirror stage was overdetermined by ideas tied to a surreal space named Africa. The tension between this surreal quality and the mimetic (the claim for representation) is fully evoked when Amiri Baraka insists in In Our Terribleness (1970) that, "each of these images is, (not represents, but is)" (114). The move away from representation to an imagined transparent, unmediated relation to blackness, signaled by the presence of the full-page mirror at the beginning of In Our Terribleness, is a move to self-representation. The complexity fully emerges when this self-representation is situated as a non-representation--an essence ("not represents, but is"). Black Arts writers often named this new self-image "Africa."
Two anecdotes crystallize this essay's exploration of the tensions between the categories "African," "African-American," and "black". In 1977, as my mother prepared my sisters and I for a transition from an overwhelmingly black Chicago elementary school to an overwhelmingly white school, she counseled us, if asked by other (white) students to explain "what we are," to simply say "I'm African." My mother, deeply influenced by the Black Power movement, presented the signifier "African" as the veritable armor that might just protect the "souls of black folk." During the Black Power movement, the signifier "black African" was rarely used; the words "black" and "African" often became synonymous. The second anecdote is a much more recent experience. At a dinner party, an African-American woman married to a Nigerian man explains her frustration with people's assumptions, based on the dark skin shared by she and her husband, that there is no multicultural dimension of the family. As she emphasizes the real cultural differences they have navigated, she insists, "I'm black; he's African." As the strict differentiation is made ("I'm black; he's African"), "black" becomes a racial designation, whereas the word "African" signals a cultural identity that the speaker felt African-Americans lacked.
The deep immersion of Keorapetse Kgositsile, the current South African Poet Laureate, in the 1960s and 70s Black Arts Movement reveals, as do these anecdotes, what is really at stake when the slippage between signifiers such as "negro", "black", "African", and "African-American" becomes a type of passing. The specificity of this passing is tied not to the conventional understanding of passing as the phenotypically ambiguous body that moves from one way of being read to another. Rather, it partakes in the performances of racial and cultural identities that hinge upon constructs of an original or true self.
During the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, as people made "Africa" the very signifier of roots and a lost home, they often adopted African clothing and hairstyles and assumed African (generally Swahili) names. How does this performance of an African sensibility become a type of passing for "African"? How does this type of passing force us to complicate the normative focus on passing for white as we consider this collective rite of passage that aimed for the veritable decolonization of minds?
Insisting on a new identity through the dramatization of the tension between a "before and after", these people viewed their own performances in terms of the creation of a new lifestyle, allowing a rebirth that would ideally make the "black" person no longer recognizable as a "negro". Black Arts writers often represented their "negro" identity as the false badge/the involuntary passing that occurred through the violence of post-slavery trauma and anti-black racism. To pass for African then, was an assumption of that which was posited as the real identity--the original self.
In 1962, Keorapetse Kgositsile, a black South African living in exile after being active in the cultural work of the African National Congress, landed in the midst of the New York City Black Arts Movement. (iii) By 1968, he had become one of the central poets of the Black Arts Movement. Entitling one of his poetry volumes My Name is Afrika, he claimed the name of the entire continent itself, at the same time as other (African-American) Black Arts poets sought bold names that would cancel out their "slave names" from among the fragments of their knowledge of African languages. As LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee became Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal remained Larry Neal, Rolland Snellings became Askia Toure, and Paulette Williams (the self-proclaimed "daughter" of the Black Arts movement--"even though they didn't know they were going to have a girl!") became Ntozake Shange, Kgositsile seems to shout, with perhaps both excitement and some bewilderment, over these appropriations: "I was born in the ground you claim." (iv) He emphasized that he represents the materiality of Africa sometimes effaced in African-American fantasies of the motherland. His poem "Heritage" makes the famous Harlem Renaissance lyric, "What is Africa to Me?", sung by Countee Cullen, into an even more layered inquiry, asking: what is Africa to the black South African who, upon exile, walks into the heart of an African-American love affair with a metaphor and a long-lost heritage they call "Africa"?
As many Black Arts poets addressed Africa, they thought about the anti-black formulations of Africa as the archetypal sign of the primitive and the savage. Often reclaiming a "black primitive", they celebrated the "sun people" throughout an African Diaspora, a Diaspora in which Africa is now the sun itself that dark skin has absorbed. The "Sunpeople", in Amiri Baraka's In Our Terribleness, are set apart from the "icebox land" and the "iceman, the abominable snowman", (v) As he urges his ideal (black) reader to seize freedom, he pleads, "Oh my dazed and imprisoned brothers / Sunpeople out of whose insides all warmth and light are created / Be your selves" (125). In order to "be [them]selves," Baraka insists that the ideal (black) reader discover the primal connection between blackness and the sun. In one of the so-called sun litanies, Baraka chants, "THE SUN IS BRIGHT HOT AND FREE / THE SUN BURNS US BLACK AND GORGEOUS FOREVER / THE SUN IS OURSELVES THE SUN IS OUR SELVES THE SUN IS OUR SOULFUL BLACK SELVES" (94). The insistence on "being themselves" signals an understanding of Baraka's that resonates with Kgositsile's assertion, in a 1978 interview with Charles Rowell, that "Africans" have been passing as "Negroes." Kgositsile tells Rowell, "Not to rename them but to condemn them in the renaming ... [M]illions of Africans were brought here and no known species of people have been invented by whatever power--how did it come about that all of a sudden Africans became Negroes?" (vi)
Another central Black Arts poet, Haki Madhubuti, makes the exposure of this passing the very purpose of the visually oriented poem "The New Integrationist" (1967):
i seek integration of negroes with black people. (vii)
The visual effect of the poem dramatizes the attempt to make the words "black people" signal the depth that counters any desire by "negroes" to gain access to whiteness. This reintegration emerges, in Madhubuti's poem "The Primitive" (1968), as the reclamation of African civilization and the uncovering of white savagery. Madhubuti writes, "taken from the / shores of Mother Africa / the savages they thought / we were / they being the real savages." (viii) When Michelle Cliff, in her post-Black Arts movement novel Free Enterprise (1993), describes the hair that is "going back to Africa" when it is not straightened as the embodiment of "Africa", we see that the "natural black beauty" reified during the Black Arts Movement clearly refers to a prelapsarian state of blackness, (ix) In the poem "Black People: This is Our Destiny" (1966), Baraka celebrates the "black primitive" when he insists on a "rhythm a playing re-understood now by one of the 1st race/the primitives the first men who evolve again to civilize the world." (x) In this poem, Baraka reclaims the very word "primitive", countering its use in anti-black racism to describe the supposed backwardness of black people. Baraka's spoken word poetry is included in "Phrenology" (2002), a hip-hop compilation by The Roots, with the lyrics: "You savages are primitive. I'm the true primitive." (xi) These performances of the "black primitive" revel in an original state of blackness. (xii)
According to the Black Arts ethos, Africa is this originary space, as well as a birthmark: a corporeal enactment of "home." Black Arts poets attempted to inscribe new names such as "Africa" and "Black" onto bodies marked as "Negro." The very title of the poetry volume My Name is Afrika (1971) dramatizes Kgositsile's relation to the Black Arts assumption of a new name figured as the real and original name of "negroes." (xiii) Exiled from South Africa and eventually relocated to New York City, Kgositsile steps into a cultural movement that stages the assumption of African names as the assumption of a revolutionary consciousness.
The poem "For Afroamerica" in My Name is Afrika compares African and African-American historical trauma. The speaker proclaims, "when your days were made / of walls cold / and whiter / than natural death / when deranged vipers / sliced through your genitals / my body was one / huge bleeding ball." (xiv) The image of "one huge bleeding ball" entirely cancels out Black Arts tendencies to imagine Africa as the prelapsarian, precolonial place of wholeness offering solace to traumatized African-Americans. The "bleeding ball" conveys a wholeness that has been created by violence; the bodily pain makes the violated subjects unable to differentiate between any parts of the body. As the poem progresses, the "one huge bleeding ball" explodes into emphatic references to 'T'; as Kgositsile asserts the African point of view, this 'T' emerges against a foil of African-American-ness. Whereas Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain (1985), explains that "[s]ome forms of pain therapy explicitly invite the patient to conceptualize a weapon or object inside the body and then mentally push it out," (xv) the peculiar object that is "mentally push[ed] ... out" of the "huge bleeding ball" of this poem, is the word 'T'. The phrases "I see", "I can see", and (again) "I can see" form a sequence that shapes the final lines of the poem. As Kgositsile thinks, in this poem, about the relation between "Afroamerica" and "Africa", he makes the "body in pain" the non-romantic framework for the black Diaspora.
This imaging accentuates the questions about self and other embedded in more contemporary formulations of the black Diaspora. When Edouard Glissant, for example, presents the Diaspora as the rhizome (as the web of roots and not the totalitarian root) and differentiates between root identity and the theory of Relation, he, like Kgositsile in "For Afroamerica", situates questions of the black Diaspora as a questioning of how the Self merges with Others without risking the disappearance of Selfy. (xvi) In "For Afroamerica" the recognition of two bodies in pain becomes Kgositsile's means of representing the bleeding body as the limit and the means of black diasporic connection. This poem gains a metanarrative perspective when it is read as an explanation of the slippage between those poems included in My Name is Afrika that present Kgositsile as a Black Arts poet who is not set apart from the African-American Black Arts poets and those that add a specifically South African perspective. Through this metanarrative, Kgositsile seems to indicate that the most effective resistance to racial trauma for both the African-American and the black South African, is an attempt to fully imagine the pain of the other even as one claims the pain one knows most intimately in one's own body. The "one huge bleeding ball" emerges as an apt description of the veritable global condition of black diasporic oppression.
As Kgositsile became a key member of the New York Black Arts Movement, he often wrote poems that, unlike "For Afroamerica", could easily pass as African-American Black Arts poems. He demonstrates in these poems, that there is no necessary, fundamental difference between the point of view of black South Africans and of African-Americans. In "Point of Departure: Fire Dance Fire Song", another poem in My Name is Afrika, Kgositsile connects the depth of memory and the depth of grief: "There are memories between us / Deeper than grief" (81). In this poem, the space "between" is the shared space: the space of connection, not of separation. The diasporic connections are figured as that which is created in the gap. The gap is not distance; it is the depth of connection. As Kgositsile, like many Black Arts male poets, addresses an idealized, voiceless "sister", he counsels, "Sister, there are places between us / Deeper than the ocean, no distances" (81). In this poem, memory becomes "elegant" when it becomes "deep" enough to connect the trauma that has shaped the lives of black-ened people situated in different parts of the Diaspora.
This idea surfaces fully when the epigraph, in moving from, "a wise old man told me in Alabama," to, "another wise old man had told me the same thing near Pietersburg in South Africa" (80), leads to the invocation of "the elegance of memory / Deeper than the grave" (81). The reference to the "grave" matters when we begin to understand the larger questions about passing for African-American (that which occurs so effortlessly when Kgositsile becomes a pivotal part of the New York Black Arts movement) and passing for African (that which other (African-American) Black Arts poets attempt). The naturalness of this passing is tied to the common racial oppressions in the crises of African-Americans of the 1960s and in South Africa's state of apartheid; the "deep grave" is the non-romantic diasporic connection through which these poets pass. In the poem "When Brown is Black" Kgositsile captures the sheer realism of this diasporic shared oppression when he locates the trauma "from Sharpeville to Watts / and all points white of the memory" (77).
When African-American Black Arts poets pass for African, they reject the "negro" identity and reclaim that which they view as a liberated black or African identity. As the words "black" and "African" become synonymous in the Black Arts ethos, poets such as Haki Madhubuti, explicitly address the possibility that African-Americans have been passing as "negro". In "Gwendolyn Brooks" (1969), Madhubuti describes the acclaim that Brooks received in the predominantly "whites only" publishing edifice. The speaker in this poem inveighs against the nature of Brooks' reception by white literati. Madhubuti states sardonically, "[A] whi-te critic said: / 'she's a credit to the negro race'" (Directionscore, 89). During the 1960s, Brooks gains a large black readership. In "Gwendolyn Brooks", Madhubuti directly connects Brooks' evolution from a "negro poet" to a "black poet" to the black aesthetic that emerged in the 1960s. The second stanza, in which Madhubuti presents the explosive nature of this black aesthetic, begins with the words, "into the sixties / a word was born.... BLACK / & with black came poets / & from the poet's ball points came: / black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblack was / black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack" (89). The speaker in the poem understands blackness as that which is not "negro". The word "black" that "was born" in the 1960s signified a political and cultural awakening of the "negro". As opposed to the label "fine negro poet" given to Brooks by white literary critics, Madhubuti attributes the intensity of "ultra-black [ness]" to Brooks (89).
The final line in this poem is "[B]ro, they been calling that sister by the wrong name" (90). In the introduction to Brooks' autobiography Report from Part One (1972), Madhubuti poses the question, "Why does she call herself African?" (27). His ultimate answer becomes, "Almost for the same reason that Europeans call themselves Europeans, that Chinese call themselves Chinese, that Russians call themselves Russians, that Americans call themselves Americans" (28). (xvii) The African-ness of Brooks, is for Madhubuti, the real name that she discovers in the Black Arts mirror.
The conversion narrative surrounding Gwendolyn Brooks fully unveils the Black Arts' dramatization of the concrete event or moment of interpellation. In Report from Part One, Gwendolyn Brooks recounts, "The real turning point came in 1967, when I went to the Second Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University" (167). The idea of the 1967 conversion, at the height of the Black Arts Movement, creates a dramatic "before and after" that should be questioned in recognizing that the boundaries between the pre-1967 poems and the later ones are often blurred. The literal nature of the conversion emerges when we recognize the direct references to hypnotism during the Black Arts Movement. In Brooks' prose poem "Requiem Before Revival" (1980), she explicitly discusses the hypnotic effects of hegemonic whiteness ("we have allowed ourselves to be hypnotized by its shine") and the need for black people to "imitate the efficacy of Iteration." (xviii)
The full discussion of "Iteration" reveals Brooks' interest in imagining a type of counter-interpellation--a type of interpellation that would be a decolonization of the mind. Brooks writes:
Swarms of Blacks have not understood the mechanics of the proceeding, and they trot along to the rear of Pied Piper whites, their strange gazes fixed on, and worshiping, each switch of the white rear, their mesmerized mentalities fervently and firmly convinced that there is nothing better than quaking in that tail's wake. [...] They have not seen some Announcements register just because they are iterated and iterated and iterated--the oppressed consciousness finally sinking back accepting the burden of relentless assault (7).
In a poem entitled "To Keorapetse Kgositsile" in Gwendolyn Brooks' introduction to Kgositsile's My Name is Afrika, she writes, "MY NAME IS AFRIKA"! /--Well, every fella's a Foreign Country. / This Foreign Country speaks to You" (13). This connection of foreign countries and individuality sheds light on how the anti-black conditioning, described as relentless iterations, becomes a colonization of the mind. When African-American Black Arts poets claim that they are a foreign country (Africa), Brooks' idea that everyone is a foreign country gains another dimension; "Africa", in the African-American imagination, is that liberating mental space where Black Arts poets travel to escape the relentless anti-black iterations that Brooks describes.
In his poem "For Eusi, Ayi Kwei and Gwen Brooks", in My Name is Afrika, Kgositsile describes the coming together of his own travel and that of the African-American Black Arts poets as the, "mov[ing] from origin to roots" (73). These words capture the reconfiguring of the diasporic connections that emerges in Kgositsile's relation to the Black Arts movement. "Origin" and "roots" are no longer the same; "roots" are created as African-American Black Arts poets mentally travel to Africa and as Kgositsile (as a South African Black Arts poet) accompanies the African-American Black Arts poets on these journeys, even as he continues to discover how his own roots in New York relate to his roots in South Africa. The travel leads to the discovery of roots of transnational racial trauma, but also the roots that are more than the shared historical trauma. When Kgositsile describes the movement "[to] roots, stronger than the grief/Which groans under the weighted / Centuries of systematic rape and ruin" in his poem "For Eusi, Ayi Kwei and Gwen Brooks" (73), he suggests that in discovering the roots that connect Brooks and the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, he finds an armor that helps him resist the diasporic "grief" of racial oppression.
"Flirtation," a poem of the same volume, explicitly connects this imaging of Africa as a liberating mental space with the intention of decolonizing the mind at the heart of the Black Arts ethos. As he thinks about the seductive nature of colonizers' ideology, Kgositsile depicts the competing visual signs of "Africa" and "Afrika" in a manner very similar to the sign making in Madhubuti's poem "Awareness" (1966):
BLACK PEOPLE THINK PEOPLE BLACK PEOPLE THINK PEOPLE THINK BLACK PEOPLE THINK-- THINK BLACK. (xix)
Every letter in this poem is capitalized and the words are graphically displayed as if the poem were a sign held up in a protest demonstration or even hanging on the wall of a doctor's office. Because the conditioning process of anti-black racism has been so thorough and naturalized, Black Arts practitioners decided that this form of collective therapy and hypnotism is necessary.
Kgositsile describes a very similar deconditioning process in "Flirtation" which ends with the following words: "AFRIKA! the memory / that lingers across the hovering / womb of my desire at dawn. / AFRICA, the stench of absence / AFRIKA, the fragrance of rebirth" (50). He depicts the flickering, new sign "Afrika" with which the speaker must continue to try to overshadow the lingering, entrenched sign "Africa".
African-Americans' use of the term "African" is historicized in Sterling Stuckey's Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987). One of the most important historical shifts, according to Stuckey's analysis, occurs when free black people in the North, following the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816, gain a new relation to the name "African". Previously, this had been the name that Northern blacks commonly called themselves before deciding that the term "African" should be avoided in response to its use by those advocating the American Colonization Society's "Back to Africa" mission. Stuckey argues, "With the establishment of the Colonization Society, growing numbers of blacks avoided use of the term African, opting for safer appellation, colored, because to continue to refer to oneself as African might encourage colonizationists to believe one wanted to be shipped back to Africa." (xx) The use of the signifier "Africa" had become a risky proposition for African-Americans in the early nineteenth century.
Stuckey explains the significance of the Black Power Movement in this larger trajectory of naming: "The 1960s marked the first significant effort on the part of the blacks in America to give themselves African names" (395). In contrast to the earlier shift away from naming themselves "African" in order to avoid falling into the traps of anti-black racist colonization missions, Black Arts poets and the larger Black Power movement advocated the renaming of "negroes" as "African," as a way of effecting a decolonization of the mind.
At the same time as Kgositsile's poetry fully passes as Black Arts poetry (even as African-American Black Arts poets hoped to pass from "negro" to "African"), images of the black phallus abound. The anthology Black Fire (1968) includes poems, written by Kgositsile and many other Black Arts poets, that revolve around the reclamation of the black phallus. The poet Welton Smith rages against the "nigga", an unenlightened black person, who has, "made [his] women / to grow huge dicks." (xxi) The many references to "black queens" in Black Fire can be viewed as black male nationalists' insistent objectification of black women as well as their strident attempts to counter the lie that beauty and femininity are the natural properties of white womanhood. In "Special Section for the Niggas on the Lower Eastside or: Invert the Divisor and Multiply," a Black Fire poem, Welton Smith attacks the "sell-out" who desires white women: "you don't just want a white woman / you want to be a white woman / you are concubines of a beast/you want to be lois lane, audrey hepburn, ma perkins, lana turner (288)."
Kgositsile's poem "The Awakening" is the most explicit rendering (within many similar representations by the other anthologized poets) of the reclamation of the black phallus. He screams, "Retrieving Black balls cowering in glib Uncle Tomism / Forcing me to grow up ten feet tall and Black / My crotch too high / For the pedestal of Greco-Roman Anglo-Saxon / adolescent Fascist myth" (226). It is the South African Black Arts poet, and not the African-American Black Arts poets, who develops the most heightened depiction of a type of Black Power that will rage against the historical trauma that has castrated black men. Just as the poem "For Afroamerica" insists that South African racial wounds are even deeper than that of African-Americans, the poem "The Awakening" provides a metanarrative frame for all of the other images in Black Fire, of the reclaimed black phallus.
In Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992), Kaja Silverman describes the relation between historical trauma and the black phallus in the following manner:
My second theoretical category, "historical trauma," may seem something of an oxymoron, since it uses an adjective connotative of the public sphere to qualify a norm conventionally associated with the psychic or physiological shock suffered by an individual person [...] I mean any historical event, whether socially engineered or of natural occurrence, which brings a large group of male subjects into such an intimate relation with lack that they are at least for the moment unable to sustain an imaginary relation with the phallus, and so withdraw their belief from the dominant fiction. (xxii)
Kgositsile's images of black male castration are responses to the historical trauma of apartheid, as well as the disempowerment of African-Americans that he witnesses when he arrives in the United States. These images of castration resonate with the images of emasculated African-American men in public policy discourse of the 1960s, as seen for example in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action" (produced while he was Assistant Secretary of Labor during Lyndon Johnson's administration). (xxiii) Here, Moynihan represents African-American men as impotent in arguing for the existence of a pathological matriarchy of unwed black mothers.
The images of impotent black maleness in this report and its relevance to South African and African-American dialogues in the 1960s and 70s gain heightened significance when seen in the context of a 1975 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the proceedings of this exchange, the member of the Congressional Black Caucus asks Kissinger a pointed question about Moynihan's role as U.N. ambassador in shaping the relation between South Africa and the United States. (xxiv) The Caucus is most concerned, in this deliberation, with African-American involvement in United States' relations with South Africa and other African countries. Congressman Charles Rangel, representing the Black Caucus, tells Kissinger, "We need to make progress in bringing more Blacks into foreign affairs. Many of us have opportunities to visit many countries and develop personal relations with various leaders. We do not wish to attempt to make foreign policy. But as Black Americans, like Jewish and Greek Americans, we want to have a participating role in foreign affairs." (xxv) Ten years after Moynihan's 1965 study of African-American family crises created such a stir and partially due to his pathologizing of unwed black mothers therein, his role as U.N. ambassador is located at the core of Black American congressmen's concerns regarding black involvement in u.s. public policy towards Africa. Moynihan's role in informing constructions of African-Americans in public policy and the media, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus' concerns about v.s. foreign policy with South Africa, reveal, as does Kgositsile's deep involvement in the Black Arts movement, that the study of African-American and South African connections demands continued scrutiny.
The year of the Congressional Black Caucus meeting with Kissinger, is also the year that Kgositsile returns to Africa, relocating this time to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, after living many years in New York. Uncovering the role of Kgositsile in the Black Arts Movement reveals the tenuous boundaries between African and African-American literary traditions. Once he is living in Tanzania, Kgositsile begins to publish poetry volumes that combine his Black Arts poetry and a new poetry reflecting the end of his exile and his re-assumption of an identity framed specifically as South African.
Kgositsile does not return to South Africa until 1990. The volume If I Could Sing: Selected Poems (2002) is a compilation of many of the Black Arts poems merged seamlessly with more recent poems that focus on his original "home country". In 2006, Kgositsile was named the poet laureate of South Africa. In the inauguration ceremony, Z. Pallo Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture, described Kgositsile's Black Arts Movement years as the "niche" he discovered in exile, the "niche" that redeemed the exile. Jordan states:
Kgositsile found a niche among a throng of African-American literary and cultural figures who were wrestling with the strategic and aesthetic dilemmas thrown up by the struggles raging all around us in the Americas and the third world. Among them were figures such as the poet and critic, LeRoi Jones, who later took the name Amiri Baraka; the cultural activist, Norman Kelley; the writer, Lawrence Neal; the jazz aficionado and historian, A.B. Spellman and many others. It was in that literary milieu that the poet who had been struggling to come out first showed his head. (xxvi)
The word "niche" evokes both the writing style that Kgositsile develops while in exile, as well as the other meaning of the word as a recess or a hollow. Kgositsile found a "hole" in New York City that was determined to become "whole." The very notion of the layering of holes illuminates the type of racial and cultural identities that Kgositsile navigates as his exile from South African apartheid interfaces with crises that shape the U.S. Black Power and Black Arts Movements.
For Kgositsile, the passage from South Africa to the Black Arts fury is not dislocating or frustrating but quite productive. His transnational movement leads him to the creation of poems that interrogate different ways of framing the connections and differences between black Africans and African-Americans. As he looks through his transnational lens (the lens of exile and newfound solidarity with African-Americans), his vantage point between Africa and the United States leads to a full-fledged participation in Black Arts nationalism even as he sometimes gains critical distance, in his poetry, from African-Americans. This comparison of Kgositsile and other Black Arts poets reveals that when Africa became a metaphor without brakes in the Black Arts imagination, blackness and Africanness are mobilized as unifying concepts that allow a productive passing between different types of racial oppression in order to create the diasporic jazz that finally connects Kgositsile's poetry and the African-American Black Arts poets.
The risks, as well as the subversive power of this merging of the signifiers "Black" and "African" can be appreciated by considering the images of Africa in the material culture that shapes contemporary Afrocentrism in the United States. Consider a wooden comb engraved with a map of Africa without any words (Fig. 1) and a 1960s leather necklace with a red, black, and green map of Africa with the word "Free" painted over the colors (Fig. 2). (xxvii) If "Africa" remains the prime repository of African-American dreams of pure, unadulterated blackness, these material objects, sold by Harlem vendors on 125th Street, are examples of what it now means, in our post-Black Arts landscape, to shape a black aesthetic around the sign of Africa.
The comb would necessitate that the African-American literally hold Africa in her hand as she literally shapes her body (her hair) around this sign of the motherland. The 1960s necklace with the map of Africa, inscribed with the word "Free", is both a call to stop neo-colonialism in Africa and--when African-Americans wear this necklace--a reminder of the Black Arts and Black Power attempt to decolonize the minds of African-Americans.
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The material culture of contemporary Afrocentrism also includes "Black" and "African" soap that explicitly links the blackening of the very name "African" to African-American attempts to cleanse and purge themselves of the violence and ugliness of transnational anti-black ideologies. African Formula Inc., based in Queens, New York, sells an "African Formula Beauty Soap" that is named "Queen" and packaged in a box that has the pan-African colors (red, black, green, and yellow). This company's soap includes the bleaching cream agent hydroquinone. Underneath the word: "Queen," on the cover of the package, there are the words "With hydroquinone / Lightens / Brightens / Softens / Smoothes." Another company, Nubian Heritage, also based in New York (specifically, in Brooklyn, Queens, and Harlem), spectacularizes the visual difference of their "African Black Soap" soap by enclosing the soap in a box that is as black as the bar of soap. Unlike African Formula, Inc., this company announces on the cover of the box of soap that it is "100% Black Owned & Proud of It!" This company's soap does not include the bleaching cream ingredient hydroquinone.
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These objects illustrate the reification of "blackness" and "Africa" and the commodification of the pan-African colors and other visual images of "Africa." They also underscore the continued circulation of the sign of Africa at the same time as black-ened subjects throughout the Diaspora often continue to "blacken" Africa. As Africa is made into a sign of both racial pride and cultural heritage, there is the potential for a dangerous "blackening" and reduction of the complexity of the very meaning of race throughout this huge continent. There is also, however, the possible post-colonial resistance tied to this reclamation of "Africa for black Africans", that which Kgositsile brings to the surface when he explains in his 1978 interview with Rowell, that the Dutch seized the very sign of Africa when they named themselves Afrikaners. Kgositsile states,
It gets to be complicated when you think about a term like Afrikaaner, which they call themselves. It means African; it is Dutch for African. Although they resent and despise Africans, and oppress and exploit them, the Whites decided to call themselves Afrikaaners. Yet they never refer to Africans as Africans. They are either Natives, Bantus, or Kaffirs (26).
Kgositsile and African-American Black Arts poets were indeed fighting back when they insisted that Africans have been forced to pass as "negroes". They ultimately demonstrate that all racial identities may very well be naturalized acts of passing--a type of passing that, in the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, has been, "iterated and iterated and iterated," until it seems to be the original and true self (Primer 7).
Kgositsiles crucial Involvement in the Black Arts Movement complicates the packaging of the core identity of the 1960s and 70s Black Arts Movement as African-American. Rethinking his deep immersion in the Black Arts Movement, the larger significance of his presence in Black Fire, and his Black Arts and post-Black Arts publications by Third World Press reveals that the story of black diasporic relations during the Black Arts Movement is only beginning to unfold.
The Nigerian poet Ifeanyi Menkiti, whose work is included in Kgositsile's 1973 anthology The Word is Here, is another African writer who passed alongside African-Americans who were themselves also passing through a black diasporic mirror stage, one that gains new meaning when connected to Kgositsile's opening words in the "North Africa" section of The Word is Here: "Here we begin again / We are everywhere more / Shattered than any independence / Guidebook would have guts to say [italics mine]." (xxviii) Kgositsile's Black Arts diasporic literary mirror stage was that post-shattering impulse to create something different from the guidebooks.
I thank Quincy Troupe, Clare Davies, James Smethurst, Barnor Hesse, Darlene Clark Hines, and Tracy Vaughn for invaluable feedback on this essay. The 2007 "Debating Diaspora" lecture series sponsored by the Department of African-American Studies at Northwestern University was an ideal forum for the presentation of this essay.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri and Fundi (Billy) Abernathy. In Our Terribleness. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.
--. Primer for Blacks. Chicago: The Black Position Press, 1980.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Cliff, Michelle. Free Enterprise. New York: Plume, 1993.
Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. 1990. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Jones, LeRoi and Larry Neal, eds. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1968.
--. Black Art. Newark, N.J.: Jihad Productions, 1966.
Kgositsile, Keorapetse. My Name is Afrika. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
--, ed. The Word is Here: Poetry from Modern Africa. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
Madhubuti, Haki. Directionscore: Selected and New Poems. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971.
--. GroundWork: New and Selected Poems. Chicago: Third World Press, 1996.
Read, Alan, ed. The Fact of Blackness, Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation. Seattle and London: Bay Press, Institute of Contemporary Arts and Institute of International Visual Arts, 1996.
Rowell, Charles. "'With Bloodstains to Testify': An Interview with Keorapetse Kgositsile." Callaloo 2 (February 1978): 23-42.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking Of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Spellman, A.B. "Big Bushy Afros." International Review of African-American Art 15.1 (1998).
(i) Jacques Lacan emphasizes that the infant becomes master of his/her body image during the mirror stage; the body no longer seems disjointed. This psychoanalytic theory illuminates the Black Arts mirror stage and the role of "Africa" as the mother in this African-American mirror stage.
(ii) A.B. Spellman, "Big Bushy Afros," International Review of African-American Art 15.1 (1998) 53.
(iii) He studies briefly at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the University of New Hampshire, and the New School for Social Research, before he begins the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Columbia University.
(iv) Ntozake Shange means "she who comes with her own things" and "she who walks like a lion" in Xhosa, the Zulu language. In, Shange is cited as saying," I am a daughter of the black arts movement (even though they didn't know they were going to have a girl!)." This commentary is cited in Alan Read, ed. The Fact of Blackness, Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation (Seattle: Bay Press, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Institute of International Visual Arts, 1996).
(v) Imamu Amiri Baraka and Fundi (Billy) Abernathy, In Our Terribleness (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970) 9, 43, 125.
(vi) Charles Rowell, '"With Bloodstains to Testify': An Interview with Keorapetse Kgositsile," Callaloo 2 (Feb. 1978) 26.
(vii) Haki Madhubuti, Directionscore: Selected and New Poems (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971) 51.
(viii) Haki Madhubuti, GroundWork: New and Selected Poems (Chicago: Third World Press, 1996) 26.
(ix) Michelle Cliff, Free Enterprise (New York: Plume, 1993) 23.
(x) LeRoi Jones, Black Art (Newark, N.J.: Jihad Productions, 1966) 2.
(xi) The Roots, Phrenology, MCA Records, Santa Monica, CA, 2002.
(xii) Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. Ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1997) 306.
(xiii) The full trajectory of his work is: Spirits Unchained (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969), For Melba (Chicago: Third World Press, 1970), The Word Is Here: Poetry from Modern Africa (New York: Anchor, 1973), My Name is Afrika (New York: Doubleday, 1971), The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (Chicago: Third World Press, 1975), Places and Bloodstains (Oakland, CA: Achebe Publications, 1976), When The Clouds Clear (Johannesburg: COSAW, 1990), To The Bitter End (Chicago: Third World Press, 1995), If I Could Sing (Cape Town: Kwela Press, 2002), and This Way I Salute You (Cape Town: Kwela Press, 2004).
(xiv) Keorapetse Kgositsile, My Name is Afrika (New York: Doubleday, 1971) 55.
(xv) Elaine Starry, The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking Of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) 17.
(xvi) In Poetics of Relation, as Glissant thinks about the problems of "root-based" identity, he argues that the person living "Relation" needs the rhizome identity, as theorized by Deleuze and Guattari: the root that becomes an "enmeshed root system" rather than a "totalitarian root" (11). Glissant proposes "rooted errantry" as a model of the black Diaspora that does not become a black family tree. Within this "rooted errantry" there is no quick and easy celebration of the Diaspora as rupture and the sheer pleasure of travel Glissant begins with the trauma of the Middle Passage. In this opening, he draws a horizontal fibril with two sets of roots, embracing a model of the black Diaspora in which the homeland and a teleology of origin/return are less important than lateral connections across the Diaspora. [Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997 )]
(xvii) Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972) 28.
(xviii) Gwendolyn Brooks, Primer for Blacks (Chicago: The Black Position Press, 1980) 6-7.
(xix) Haki R. Madhubuti, GroundWork: New and Selected Poems of Don L. Lee/ Haki R. Madhubuti (Chicago: Third World Press, 1996) 17.
(xx) Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 202.
(xxi) LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, eds. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1968) 286.
(xxii) Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992) 55.
(xxiii) Daniel Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington DC: GPO, 1965.
(xxiv) In 1975 Daniel R Moynihan is appointed Ambassador to the U.N. After eight months, he resigns from this position. In the 705, as a neoconservative senator, he works for President Nixon. His politics move to the left in the 1980s, when he begins to support much more liberal policies.
(xxv) United States. Department of State. Memorandum of Conversation: Secretary Kissinger's Meeting with Members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Washington D.C.: GPO, April 19, 1975: 1.
(xxvi) This inauguration speech has been published at http://www.dac.gov.za/speeches/minister/Speech8Deco6.html
(xxvii) I purchased these objects in 2004 from outdoors vendors on Harlem's 125th Street.
(xxviii) Keorapetse Kgositsile, ed. The Word is Here: Poetry from Modern Africa (New York: Doubleday, 1973) 1.
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|Author:||Crawford, Margo Natalie|
|Publication:||Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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