On September 22, 2019, I had the joy of launching Ancestries: A short story collection at the Afrocentrism 2019 Conference. At the event which was a hosted conversation, there was an opportunity for questions submitted live from the audience. Here is a retrospective of the top 10 questions submitted by the audience with the responses I gave then, with some additions.
- Why did you write ancestries?
Ancestries builds on Identities: A short story collection, to imagine and portray ways in which a variety of global African characters—multicultural and multiracial—negotiate their sense of self and belonging. They do so within a world where their sense of ancestral rootedness and belonging must cross racial, cultural, continental and generational divides. This collection of stories came from the realization that identities and belonging are two sides of the same coin; intertwined into our human need to be and live fully as an individual AND in community. Who we are and how we identify, will dictate the communities and spaces where we can find belonging. Each one of us must form/transform our sense of identity and belonging in order to bring our best to the world. We do this, through our own stories and narratives about who we are and how we fit, or do not, into society. We shape our worlds by our stories and we are shaped by our ancestral stories, whether we are aware of that or not.
- Can you describe your writing journey? How did you start?
I didn’t start out intending to be a fiction writer. I have written and published a lot of academic writing but then became increasingly drawn to the idea of writing for an everyday audience, not just an academic one. Once that thought took hold, I had this flood from memory lane of all the ways creative writing was actually a huge part of my early schooling. I frequently delivered the ‘best essay’ in a class and won a number of writing prizes including one for the Martin Luther King day writing competition hosted by the American Embassy in Sierra Leone at the end of high school. I realized that it was in post-secondary and higher education that I dropped creative writing, Yet even so, I am still contacted today by doctoral students who are routinely given one of my papers that is circulating at my graduate school as a model for writing. All that convinced me that I was good enough—and ready—to try my hand at the genre of creative writing I love the most—short stories. I intend to keep growing in this space as another medium to address the social systems change issues I write about academically and face regularly.
- You talk about the importance of knowing our identity & becoming comfortable in it. Does this evolve or have you arrived in knowing? Journey or destination?
Identity is absolutely a journey! My identity has morphed and changed at various milestones in my life. In the context of both the Identities and Ancestries short story collections, my identity journey has everything to do with my writing. I have grown in my understanding of myself as a black, African woman in the world through my global experiences and especially in settling into Vancouver, Canada as my second home. I have grown and stretched in my understanding of my own feminist ideologies and nuances when I became a wife and mother. What is true for me is that I have always been comfortable in my skin and the journey is really about the constant (re)construction of self and growth that happens simply by living and being open to learning. These are all themes that I write about.
- What is the African excellence that stood out to you, or your favorite moment, in this conference?
My absolute favourite moment of African excellence at Afrocentrism 2019 is the student and young adult leaders who made it happen and who we have seen leading from the podium throughout the conference! It is amazing to see what they accomplished by turning vision into a reality that has and will absolutely change the context of how future students and administrators at Simon Fraser University and University of British Columbia engage African students and issues. These students set out to decolonize academia and they have done so by curating and centering the Afrocentrism conference as a platform to affirm black scholarship, knowledge and experiences. I am excited and inspired. As a leadership scholar who works to inspire leadership action (not just talk!) in exactly these ways, for everyday African leaders (see we will lead Africa) and others, I couldn’t be prouder of these young people.
- Your work and speech is very balanced. So how have you managed to turn anger or frustration at continued injustices and imbalances into a hunger for excellence.
I’ve always had an I’ll show you! attitude, even as a child, and long before I was conscious of social issues. So I think my drive for excellence preceded my awareness of social injustices and imbalances. I believe that came from my family and being rooted in a context where those around me were awesome and excellent and supported and expected that of me and my personality/desire to excel also helped. I don’t take any of that for granted. So by the time I became aware of what comes with the package of being a black, African woman living in the West, I already had a personal confidence that couldn’t be shaken. I know that I have earned my seat at the table. It is still hurtful when that is questioned or unacknowledged but overall, I focus on what matters and what brings me joy and I let my passions and purpose drive me more than anger. There’s a place for anger, but for me, after the venting, it always has to be turned into productive energy that focuses people on the possibilities…
- How did you find yourself (and your voice) while living in communities that are mainly white?
The notion of ‘finding oneself’ is interesting and I think problematic. It is the reason I believe so many in the West are on this endless quest for the holy grail of self that is all-consuming and eventually distracting from contributing to the world, just as we are. I haven’t found myself. I know myself. It is knowing myself that has given me voice, both here in predominant white communities and as a child living in a predominantly African society. Knowing oneself and what you stand for is a fundamental and necessary part of our human development and is precisely why I wrote both Identities and Ancestries. The complexities of identity and belonging must be engaged from a clear personal core and centre. This is far from easy given both cultural norms and the social stratification of our current world. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it at the conference close, we, Africans in the world, must secure the base of our being from an Afrocentric knowing not a Eurocentric one, and then engage the world. I believe that only when we each have a clear and aligned personal core of who we are, can our voices be authentic. And often, it is enough to just be, know and do. I am more than enough, just as I am. Perfectly imperfect and in progress of becoming more every day.
- In your journey as a writer, have you had to overcome language barriers whether it’s with your mother tongue or other languages? How can we overcome it?
Ha! My biggest language barrier has actually been English and the realization of how whitewashed my thinking is because English was my first, and remains my dominant language. A perfect example is that when I sent my final manuscript to my editor, I was stunned that her first mark-up, on sentence 2 on page 1, was my use of the expression, “white knuckled.” Her notation read: “black people cannot be white knuckled. Please revise.” What you will read in that story now, because my protagonist is bi-racial, is: “I sit, tan knuckles taut around the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions.” I might have argued with you previously that the level of my colonized mentally wasn’t so extremely unconscious. However, the realization of my language use made me more open to listening deeper to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s entreaty about the impact of separating ourselves from our African languages and contexts. I think I would have been dismissive of his insistence on the impact of language otherwise. It has reinforced my resolve to express things best expressed in Krio in my stories centred in Sierra Leone in my writings and I am so glad I did that in both Identities and Ancestries.
- If we have to humanize before decolonization, why should we, in your opinion, focus on our story and not the story of everyone? Thank you
I end Ancestries with a story titled We Humans, Love, because I believe, in the end, that we must all focus on lifting up our collective humanity instead of amplifying differences so far that there can be no unity. However, every.single.one. of us, MUST experience being validated as a human in the world before that can happen. In the leadership/coaching world, we call this being seen, heard and understand. The unfortunate current reality is that those on the margins do not experience this sense of belonging in the mainstream dominant cultures. Therefore, socially classified minority groups must find this validation by ‘caucusing’ and sharing our own stories not only to validate each other but to influence change and take space for belonging in the world. Telling our stories is indeed part of humanizing social groups that have been dehumanized and decolonizing the world so that all peoples can engage as equals. We must tell our own stories to bring balance for equality. We already know what it looks like when our stories are told for us – In the often quoted Chinua Achebe saying: “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
- How do we work with the tension that setting future generations up for success requires aligning/assimilating to whiteness in the short term?
Hmmm…I would rather we set up future generations for success by helping them have personal pride in who they are, so that they can engage the world from that center, NOW. I believe we are prolonging the imbalance and enabling the power and privilege of whiteness by continuing to teach each generation that success requires assimilation. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o said in his closing remarks we have developed the habit of seeing the world and each other through European eyes and seeing those who among us that are more westernized as better than others. He said: “The Afrocentric idea must be driven by democratic logic; accepting that for Asian, people, Asia is the center, and for European people’s Europe is their center, that no one center is the universal center, but all these centers can connect on the basis of equal give and take.” I agree!
- How can we as allies explore and promote African history, literature and scholarship without appropriating or exploiting, or occupying your spaces? Thanks!
This is a HUGE question. If you are well-meaning and intentionally choosing to be an ally, I offer the following thoughts from my experiences so far:
- To explore and promote…without appropriating or exploiting, or occupying your spaces, requires first your immersion, second your listening and third your silence. This is essentially a period of learning. I have no suggestions for how long this process might take, because it literally depends.
- To act without appropriating or exploiting when it is time requires that you ask, ask and ask again what is appropriate and even helpful…and that you are willing to be humble, accept and apologize for your mistakes (you will make them as we all do in cross-cultural contexts!) and try again.
- To explore and promote… without appropriating or exploiting, please do NOT start claiming expert status or that you have fully experienced the ‘struggles’ of the socially-classified minority group you are allying with based on your experiences. No matter how many African countries you have visited or the ‘other’ experiences you encounter, they cannot be equated with those who have a lifetime and generational experiences of systemic limitations in addition to other human injustices. This is not to discount your experiences or pain points, but an encouragement not to minimize the experiences of those you are allying with. Intersectionality and context matters. You will get uncomfortable as you hear those in the socially-classified minority group share their pain and anger and it will likely hurt you. As an ally, I encourage you to hold the pain and understand that it is part of the healing and restoration journey and the price of building trust as an ally. None of us wants to hear how we (un)consciously collude in hurting others, but if you defend against it or try to appropriate it, you will be repeating the very patterns you are trying to ally against and cause more harm than good.
- To explore and promote… without appropriating or exploiting or occupying your spaces, realize that you don’t have to be at the center, because part of the dehumanizing pattern has been that too much is done about Africans without Africans (and other indigenous peoples). I believe the principle of Nothing about me, Without me from healthcare needs to translate here because too often, this form of helping hurts, even when well-intentioned (see one of my favorite books about this – When Helping Hurts). So, how can you do so from the back or the sidelines? How can you insist on using your privilege to make sure Africans are at the center of promoting African issues? This will require that you give up and share your privilege—what price are you willing to pay?