By no means am I a ‘natural’ citizen here in the US. I have the trappings of belonging- state-issued IDs, passport- but am I an “American?” I am first and foremost an American when I cross national borders. Arguably, I am more clearly American outside of the US, and to an extent, my blackness is only as global as my Americanness. It’s probably apparent to you, dear reader, that I am casting about trying to find the right words. What I’m trying to convey is that I feel that the ‘belonging’ I enjoy is so tenuously spatial and temporal. In a sense, I traverse time and space as a descendant of trafficked and enslaved Africans when I set foot on the continent. Time didn’t stop when my ancestors were shackled and chained to their compatriots in bondage on some Atlantic shore. Time most certainly did not stop when millions of emaciated, malnourished and abused African bodies were cast overboard.
So why did my fellow travelers expect to find a place without time when they set foot in Equatorial Guinea? Akátá. You could see that word poised at the edge of the lips of the Equatoguinean laborers who cleaned up after us. Akátá. Outsider. Wayward Ones. In Equatorial Guinea, the remnants of the slave trade were completely submerged in the constructed present. The absurdity of Black Americans asking Equatoguineans, “where are the slave fortresses?” was so palpable to me. I almost laughed, actually. Those who sought slave fortresses found oil derricks. It was a sort of continuity, really. After all, they were both characterized by exploitation and extraction of wealth from a generalized ‘Africa’ that results in the consolidation of wealth and resources in the hands of a privileged few. Black gold has a dual meaning in this context.
Instead, we were led to a colonial prison. It appeared that the Spanish (or perhaps the African labor they exploited) simply carved into the side of a cliff and installed iron bars. The rock was slick and mossy, a habitat unfit for human hospitality, but fit for the confinement of one deemed ‘subhuman.’ After all, Africans were introduced into European conceptions of humanity through the basis of the recognition of their ‘subhumanity.’
There was a great forgetting. Those enslaved and trafficked Africans were ‘outsiders’ in their natal and adopted communities. They didn’t belong ‘here’ nor did they belong ‘over there.’ Their natal alienation followed them, and was birthed in their descendants. These same descendants brought that natal alienation with them when they flew in with their cameras, phones, gold jewelry, fancy clothes and strange speech. Akátá. The proverbial cat who left the pin. These natally alienated travelers arrive with their tethers of memory, entangling themselves in the present time and space that is here and now.
West-Central Africa was not ‘home’ to me. My soul was not at rest as my feet crushed the soil upon which my predecessors walked. If I wasn’t Afrocentric before I got to Africa, I was less so afterward. Instead, I found alienated me in the heart of creation, the Motherland. There is no utopia. There is no Afrotopia. Instead, there is unfulfilled promise, postcolonial melancholy, extractive political economies, and muddled governance. Former postcolonial leaders have settled into their tenure as Heads of State, with their meticulously maintained regalia and imagery. Never mind the overfull belly beneath that Italian suit.
As I breathed the hot, humid air, I was reminded of Southwest Mississippi on a July day. Except it was August in Equatorial Guinea. The labyrinthine marketplace and its visible hands grabbed at me, offering trinkets, Dutch wax-print fabrics from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and printed Kente from China for a few thousand Central African Francs. I soon tired of the marketplace. I tired of seeking shelter in the makeshift shop to escape the sporadic downpour. Averting my eyes, I found myself unable to speak when asked to buy a 4-quart stainless steel pot by an Equatoguinean or Congolese shopkeeper. I already had 2 bolts of fabric in my bag. I had no room for a pot, nor would I be able to take it back home to Chicago with me.
The moment of levity that I recall most is when I realized that the jewelry I saw in the maze-like open air market in Malabo was the same jewelry I saw in shops on Long Street in Cape Town. They all had the same “made in China” inscription. I laughed to myself as I paid 250 Central African Francs for a beaded bracelet. Red, green, black. I’m almost certain that Garvey didn’t anticipate this. Or maybe he did.
Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother