New American pan-Africanism

This paragraph by Boima sums up much of what’s exciting right now in cross-Atlantic cultural collisions. Click ALL the links and then go see the original post on Africa is a Country for Boima’s remix of Old Money’s Mothership:

This new American pan-Africanism might not always be explicit. It is summed up by the appearance of a South Bronx-raised Moroccan-born gangster rapper, a pair of Seattle-bred Somali-pirate-trap rappers, of a couple of Azonto-ing Jamaican Dancehall superstars, and an Afrobeats-ing Trinidadian Soca monarch. It’s the pan-Africanism of Yasiin Bey and Young Guru in Capetown, of Rick Ross in Nigeria, of Beyonce and Chimamanda’s feminism, of Kanye West and D-Banj’s Oliver Twist, and of Solange’s everything. It is that essay on Afropolitanism, and all the ones refuting it. It is returnees, and ‘just comes’, and heritage tourists, and DNA tests. It’s mediated through capitalism, and immigration, and the Internet, and young people, and style and fashion. Many actors in this new pan-Africanism may not claim their place in it, however by not acknowledging it, it is left open to become a vessel for anyone else to insert a political pan-Africanism inside. 

"A place that’s been captured by the Dutch, the French and the English is no stranger to holding people captive, Newfoundland and Labrador."

The visuals are bad enough but that last line is just menacing. I’ve heard about places refusing to acknowledge their genocidal pasts, but Newfoundland and Labrador seems to be straight up celebrating it.

In the Nigerian film industry, says Larkin, “piracy creates an aesthetic, a set of formal qualities that generate a particular sensorial experience of media marked by poor transmission, interference and noise.”
Screen shot of a PDF glitch of a scanned photocopy of an image from a hardcopy of Brian Larkin’s book, Signal and Noise, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria.

In the Nigerian film industry, says Larkin, “piracy creates an aesthetic, a set of formal qualities that generate a particular sensorial experience of media marked by poor transmission, interference and noise.”

Screen shot of a PDF glitch of a scanned photocopy of an image from a hardcopy of Brian Larkin’s book, Signal and Noise, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria.

Thoughts on white privilege in Liberia

On Friday, in response to my post Power. Networks. over at the New Context, Liberian writer Stephanie Horton asked some good questions on Twitter:

@aaronleaf Say the dreaded words: #WhitePrivilege: “defining feature of living in #Liberia" The Liberian psyche is..? http://t.co/bIyAm5C2Ee

— Stephanie Horton (@ducorwriter) March 14, 2014

In response, I removed the words “defining feature” in my post. This was valid because what I am actually writing about is just my life in Liberia. A privileged expat life. 

I responded on Twitter

She responded:

I said I’d give it some thought. Here goes:

The kind of privilege a young Western expat is handed when he or she arrives in Liberia is all encompassing. It permeates every social situation, every movement through the city by taxi or private car. Every interaction with the Liberian state and the private sector.

For many, it’s intoxicating. 

For some, like myself, whose identity back home exists somewhere on the margins of whiteness, whose racial privileges feels, at times provisional (but still very real of course), the rigid hierarchy of expat privilege in Liberia can be destabilizing. 

I’ve discussed this with NGO friends and colleagues over the years. For some, especially people of color, who started-off doing social justice work back home, the expat life becomes intolerable and they have to leave. I remember the words of a Canadian colleague a long time ago. “Back home I was working class and Filipino but here I’m a rich white man.”

Other expats simply embrace the privilege. Some are openly racist and contemptuous. Many simply don’t have the words to describe it. 

About five years ago or so, the internet was awash in blogs along the lines of “Larry in Liberia” or “Allison in Africa.” It was a good way to see how a wide range of expat-types saw themselves from evangelical christians, quantitative research interns and the social enterprise set, to 19-year-old senior economics advisors. 

What I got from this, and other interactions, is that people use very different vocabularies when it comes to describing what they’re doing: from “mission trips” to “technical consulting” to “post-traumatic dance therapist.”

Whatever they call it, the “mission” often acts as a kind of lead weight on a moral equivalency scale. Like, "the hierarchies I’m perpetuating are just not as important as the valuable development work I’m doing." If they even have the wherewithal to think about that. Many don’t. Five years ago I was in this group.

Of course, most of what I know is the NGO sector, both secular and Christian. Mostly young people. But there’s also the Lebanese and South Asian merchant class. There’s also the “repats,” Liberians, and American-born Liberians who’ve recently returned to work in government or open a business. My non-profit friends who have lived there the longest socialize with these groups over the transient intern-class. 

Then there’s the extractive industry types. Besides a handful of small-time gold and diamond miners—In January I met a self-professed “hipster diamond miner”—I’ve almost never interacted with these people, but I know they’re there: Oil//Timber/Palm Oil types eating the 20 dollar brunch at the Royal Hotel. 

Regarding the question “why don’t we hear more about white privilege in expat life?” I don’t really have an answer except to say I think most people can’t really describe it. One of the key traits of privilege, I think, may be its invisibility to the people that have it. 

monroviatransformed

monroviatransformed:

Around the old True Whig Party headquarters, a spooky burnt-out high-rise downtown I stopped to snap an image of the modernist bass reliefs on the side, a kind of seventies propaganda for the then fading settler party. 

The building is the site of a dispute between heirs of the old ruling True Whig Party who claim the building is theirs and the Liberian state, which claims it as a public good. Most people I’ve talked to believe that since the building was paid for by membership levies during a time of one-party rule, the building is de facto public owned. It’s a testament to the current Liberian order’s True Whig roots that this dispute is left to fester at all. 

As I was photographing the building, two teenage boys, perhaps fifteen, asked me to take their picture. They had been using a camera phone to capture each other standing across the street in front of the central bank building across the street, a Chinese looking glass and steel renovation that they told me was a “fine building.”

Sekou, the taller of the two boys was returning to Guinea after a month in Monrovia visiting relatives and so they were spending the golden hour taking snapshots and selfies with each other. They wanted me in their photos too. We spent some time trying different poses, looking directly at the camera from a distance, close-ups staring into the distance.

There’s something about male friendship in West Africa that can be really sweet in a way that American masculinity can’t handle. It’s not uncommon for two young men to walk down the street holding hands as close friends. I left the pair at a bench on Broad street giggling as they scrolled through the photos on their phone.