If you post a question like “Who is African?” on Twitter, your timeline will immediately become bombarded both with hot takes about what constitutes the African identity on one hand and a big earful of insults from individuals who don’t think that the question should exist at all.
Yet, no matter where on the spectrum we belong, this question is one that we must grapple with — especially when we talk about a continent with the size and colonial heritage of Africa.
Why then is defining what being an African is so controversial?
Enter Tope Folarin into the conversation.
The Nigerian-American writer was born to Nigerian immigrant parents and has lived in the United States for most of his life. In 2013, he won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story Miracle and instead of being celebrated, his win was marred with a controversy about his identity.
Critics of the prize were of the opinion that he shouldn’t have entered for a prize that was supposed to celebrate the best of African writing when there were more deserving writers who were based primarily on the continent. Yet, to make this claim is to deny Folarin the chance of partaking in what is rightfully his to claim.
Frantz Fanon, in his famous book Wretched of the Earth, explained that “the intellectual who is Arab and French, or Nigerian and English, when he comes up against the need to take on two nationalities, chooses, if he wants to remain true to himself, the negation of one of these determinations.”
Based on Fanon’s opinion, it is within Folarin’s rights to claim any identity that he feels comfortable in. What those critics have failed to realize is that a person who is Nigerian-American or Cameroonian-French can never be one of one: no matter how hard he works, he can never be American or French enough within those spaces. What he can be enough of, however, is that which made him: a connection he has most especially by the virtue of been born of African parents.
These debates on who is African and who isn’t sit at the core of what led to the creation of the term “Afropolitanism.” Although there is still a bit of a controversy regarding who came up with the term, between Ghanaian American novelist Taiye Selasi and Cameroonian philosopher Achilles Mbembe, both of their works are primarily centered on giving an alternative overview to the burning questions about African identity. An Afropolitan according to Selasi is an individual who is not defined by his/her geographical location or circumstance. They are people with the privilege of being local in whatever space they claim. Critics of Selasi’s Afropolitanism always point to how the concept at its core only favors the privileged class and disregards anyone else.
Enter Tope Folarin back into the conversation.
In 2019, Folarin published his debut novel A Particular Kind of Black Man by Simon & Schuster. This novel focuses on the different ways that the protagonist’s identity was formed and fractured. The novel not only drives our imagination towards understanding the African identity, particularly the way it works in the diaspora. It also offers an executive seat into the ways the identity of someone with the privilege of duality is formed and then fractured.
The novel details how the self-perception of the protagonist, Tunde Akinola, is defined by his father’s definition of what it means to be a successful black person in the United States. Akinola’s relationship with his two mothers also comes into focus, particularly the presence or lack thereof of his biological mother. She then becomes a place he longs for but can’t go. When his father eventually marries another woman, Akinola will attempt to find affection in her. His reason for this attempt is at once to quench his guilt for the choice he made at the family court to live with his father instead of his biological mother, and his sense of responsibility for his father’s happiness. But he would never be able to achieve either.
His new mother would never commit to him, the same way the United States would never commit to him as his country entirely. There would be moments when he would feel at ease and loved, and there would be moments he would feel as if he was a complete stranger to her. Both mothers represent home: one, a home he continuously longs for and the other, a home that will never love him the way he desires to be loved. This duality is the crux of the novel and the definitive evidence of his fractured identity.
In examining the many ways identities are formed and fractured in Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man, it becomes clear that the current notions of identity need to be reexamined and then broadened to accommodate the changes caused by globalization. The Afropolitan, whoever he/she is, cannot exist without proximity to Africa, hence our notion of the African needs to stretch beyond the geographical boundaries of the continent and our class differences.
Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Folarin, Tope. A Particular Kind of Black Man. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2019.
Selasi, Tiaye. “Bye-Bye Barbar,” Callaloo, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 528-530. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cal.2013.0163.
— Tolu Daniel (MA ’22)