Africa's Place in the World: Ruminations on a historic dialogue

My husband just returned home from an evening out with a group of West African friends and to my surprise, he was livid after a heated debate about Africa, its history, its people and its place in the world. Apparently the conversation, which had been cool, calm and collected, had taken a turn for the worse after his friend had, with complete confidence, stated that at a conference when asked what Africa had contributed to the world (a question I already find offensive, because it is never asked of other continents), this friend of my husband's had, with the same confidence, stood up as an African and proclaimed to his fellow conference attendees that the continent had not contributed a thing. 

The conversation that followed was full of dismissive remarks about the continent and its peoples' histories, including slavery and systemic oppression under colonial rule. That was all in the past and it is over now. It's time to move on and stop complaining and making excuses. Why can't black people ever stop complaining, this group asked. My husband said he had yelled to the point of losing his voice; for those who do not know him, he is a relatively quiet and calm guy. My husband's friend, to be fair, is a really nice, well-educated person who is a natural-born entrepreneur and has lived in the US for over a decade, without ever once returning home. 

My husband made two major points in this heated argument, yelling over the many voices of the group who debated just as passionately against him:

1. Making the statement that Africa has not contributed and, even worse, has nothing to contribute is the surest evidence you have of Africa's systemic oppression. You who believe this are the system's worst victims and your rejection of history is a rejection of your own heritage. You have to understand, acknowledge this oppression in its varied forms to be able to move forward in any sustainable, healthy way. 

2. The world as we know it has only been made possible due to Africa's many contributions, the majority of which were taken unwillingly and some of which have been freely shared. Europe's industrialization and America's economic force were built on exploited African ingenuity, labor and natural resources. But that is not all Africa has to offer - it offers a diverse set of cultures, with different values and definitions and priorities. It offers us alternative modes of living, relating to each other and relating to our built and natural environments. To deny this is to blindly accept one occidental way of life that has been spoon fed to you and deny yourself and everyone else the possibilities of countless alternatives. 

While upon his return home, my husband was still unsure of whether his points had been enough or  even heard, we continued to discuss the conversation, one I have personally heard before and know is but a continuation of a historic dialogue. There has always been some level of conflict and resentment between African Americans and other black immigrants to the US, who, upon arrival have often openly questioned why blacks in America haven't seized the opportunities of the American Dream and done more with themselves. Tinges of this historic resentment surfaced in the conversation described to me. Why can't they be more entrepreneurial? 

In our post-debate conversation, my husband and I took his argument a step further. Last week I wrote about the universal and fundamental importance of empathy. Well, it is my contention that to truly aspire to be filthy rich in this society, to make this your singular ambition and your source of happiness as so many people have,  you have to be willing to give up a certain level of empathy for others. Climbing to the top, after all, means possible slowing down, putting down, if not crushing, those beneath you. So once this trade-off has been accepted, people anticipating the imagined rewards of the capitalist system, start shedding their empathy right away. With that empathy goes indignation at mass injustice, along with acknowledged historical oppression and recognized continued systemic inequities. To become a winner, one must accept that capitalism creates winners and losers and, against all odds, maintain the winner's mentality, free from all of the baggage and inconvenience of reality. 

Sadly, I fear this is what many entrepreneurial African immigrants, like my husband's friend, do. What is most disturbing though, is that they are right to do so in order to accomplish their stated goal, because our society rewards this behavior. This reminds me of a favorite quote from the interesting historical figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said that "it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." I couldn't have stated it better myself.

One thing that my very wise husband says often in these types of conversations is that we, as humans, like latching onto one part of something that we deem to be true and then accept the whole thing, though perhaps not wholly examined, as truth. This is true with science, technology, capitalism and so forth. Something about it works, so, regardless of its faults and its known inequities and known unknowns, we launch ourselves into it and forget that this seemingly inevitable and hegemonic system hinged, at one point, on a single choice. 

Another telling quote from Krishnamurti, "You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life." Amen.


Simone said...

Wonderful post. Its amazing what one person can easily accept and another ferociously reject in a visceral reaction. In other words, it is fascinating what some of us choose to turn off within ourselves. It is great of you to use this blog to bring it up, it helps us readers become more self aware and understand what it is we too possibly negated within us in order to adjust to this 'sick world'.

Courtney said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment! You should look up the author of that quote about the 'sick society' - Jiddu K. He is a fascinating character that you would find interesting!