Dear Black People: That Ntsiki Mazwai’s Afro-centric essentialism makes you uncomfortable is a good thing

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

A few months after the fracas about Ntsiki Mazwai’s controversial article, ‘Dear Black People’, has died down, Panashe responds to a tweet by Nomboniso Gasa where she stated that she would like to have one of Mazwai’s peers respond to her open letter because she feels uncomfortable about the essentialism in her argument. In her response, Panashe argues that the discomfort around Afro-centric essentialism is important exactly because it asks to think radically about our lives and argues that it can in fact be a positive tool for Africans to begin to use as they begin to explore ‘African ways of being’ outside of hegemonic whiteness.

In my final year of high school the earth underneath my feet moved and revealed a new world as I, for the first time, read books by African authors. They included I Write What I Like, Things Fall Apart, Coconut, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Half of a Yellow Sun.

Throughout the year, I furiously highlighted sentences and paragraphs in these books. One of the paragraphs that got the green highlighter treatment was this one from I Write What I Like by Steve Biko:

“We are aware that the white man is sitting at our table. We know he has no right there, we want to remove him from our table … decorate it in true African style, settle down and ask him to join us on our terms if he wishes.”

It was as if I could see the two tables side by side – the European and the African one. I was horrified as I began to see how European mine was and the question that stuck in my mind was “what would I have been like had it not been for colonization?”

Other less pie-in-the-sky questions that I had concerned my schooling, such as why it was that matric was the first time that we were reading a book by an African author; why it was that Sepedi was dropped as the only vernacular language offered and why was it that the school plays were “Grease” and not “Sarafina”?

The most painful question related to my person – why was it that I not only articulated myself better in English, but I actually thought and dreamt in it?

Fast-forward some five years and spoken word artist Ntsiki Mazwai has provoked black people into thinking about our apparent disdain for African ways of being. At the beginning of the year she sparked some important debate and of the responses was this one from gender activist and researcher Nomboniso Gasa, who said tweeted this: “@NombonisoGasa: #BeingAfrican. I hope I will soon read a response to @ntsikimazwai‘s letter, from her peers. #EssentialismMakesMeUncomfortable.”

So now that the initial fracas is over, here I am, a peer (by virtue of being close enough to Ntsiki’s age) writing in response to this tweet. To be specific I want to respond to the discomfort that is caused by what is seen as essentialism in Ntsiki’s argument.

Gasa is not the only one who is uncomfortable with this Afro-centric essentialism, the likes of Xhanti Payi and Mitta Xinindlu have hand wringingly written in response to this too.

Essentialism as it relates to identity politics is the idea there exists some objective quality of particular groups of people that is inherent, and unalterable; and that social groupings can and should be categorized according to these qualities of essence such as race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation and class.

As it relates to Ntsiki’s Afrocentricness, essentialism means that there are specific ways of being that make you African and that Africans must come together on this basis. She makes a number of statements in that regard and, admittedly, she does go into dangerous “you’re only African if” territory which can be quite debilitating if it goes unchecked. However, I’m not too concerned about this because I see these as easily accessible rhetoric devices used to illustrate the point.

On the whole, is Ntsiki’s Afro-centric essentialism hugely problematic? I don’t think so. I think it’s quite the opposite. For people who have been on the receiving end of a European essentialism of African identity as an inferior race with an insignificant history and contribution to the world, Afro-centric essentialism can be an empowering perspective and counter-narrative.

At this point in post-apartheid history where we are not yet ‘post-race’ and blackness is implicitly inferior, what Ntsiki’s Afro-centric essentialism is calling us to do is to invert the historical categories of shame into categories of celebration, just as James Brown called us to shout, “I’m black and I’m proud.”

What is quite interesting, however, is the way in which the labels such as ‘essentialist’ are often used as a silencing tool when black people speak about exploring ways of being outside of whiteness, in the same way the term ‘angry’ is used when black people speak out against racial injustice.

In this instance what is being said can be particularly uncomfortable because Ntsiki, albeit in harsh terms, is asking us to have a sense of agency as black people that will allow us to question why we privilege other cultures over our own and to begin to ‘seek out Africanness’ in our everyday lives.

This call is not a license to become the kind of ‘African police’ who, for example, justify patriarchy and tell us that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, when the irony is that those beliefs (along with much more of what we are familiar with as African culture) are a part of a legacy of African patriarchs collusion with Victorian-inspired colonial administrators and missionaries. (If we are to be honest with ourselves, most of us don’t know much about our pre-colonial ways of being. The only African culture that many Africans know is the one that was heavily bastardised by colonial powers.)

Instead, Ntsiki’s call is for us to think about the idea that “you never know where you are going until you know where you’ve been”. It is a license for us to understand that our cultures are not (and have never been) static and within that, it is not inevitable that we would have adopted whiteness as the standard bearer for our aspirations and values.

Ntsiki is essentially asking what Steve Biko did when he wrote that Africans needed to redecorate the table in fine African style. A beautiful and instructive metaphor the table is because it speaks to the much-needed process of rediscovery of our African selves. A process of regaining our self-pride and our confidence by consciously seeking out our histories, our knowledge systems, our idioms and our spiritualities. It is only after that has been done that we can truly begin to engage with the world as equals. Until then, it’s “not yet uhuru” and we only enjoy our physical liberation.

To my mind Ntsiki’s Afro-centric essentialism is uncomfortable exactly because it calls us into what feels like an unknown. In a world where whiteness is accepted as the (superior) default, it is difficult to even begin to think outside of the status quo. It’s a difficult thing to do, but Ntsiki makes a necessary rallying cry when she calls for us to stretch and to re-imagine ourselves in order for us to invert the once shame-filled categories of Africanness into sources of empowerment and inspiration. That Ntsiki makes us uncomfortable is a good thing because we should be.

47 Comments
  1. I totally agree with your response. In my own life I had to reevaluate my blackness. I’ve always considered myself pro-black and a Pan Africanist but recently felt disillusioned with my identity. I realized that not only most of the money I spent goes to white businesses but also there were no outwardly signs of my Africaness. I felt dirty and fake, like I was living a lie, so near the end of last year I made it my business to start doing better. I spend a lot of money on clothes so that is where I started, buying black owned brands that display African culture like Caven Etomi. As I keep growing and expanding with this theme in other areas in my life Iwill know I’m truly Black, because to me to be truly Black is to be African.

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