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The Race to be Mobile: A Classy Affair

Something (choose your something) that does not quite fit into a category can rupture or subvert that category's effectiveness.
Kevin Carollo

Issue #31, March 1997

Last summer and fall, French television covered the expulsion of the "sans-papiers" (the "without papers," or as American journalists call them, "undocumenteds") from Paris. No white people were included in these features; everyone understood this media affair as solely and specifically a black African thing. The white immigrant workers in France constitute a separate issue, apparently, though I would assume that they only have 'carte blanche' in terms of skin color. I was in Senegal during the time French telejournalists displayed protests and hunger strikes, interviewed the dispossessed, and spoke to administrators who called for a more organized, lawful approach to immigration. Because Senegalese TV is basically French TV (although they do have one regularly transmitting local channel), I felt myself to be in a unique situation of conducting an impromptu ethnographic survey, one which would assess how Senegalese people watched the rather colonial assertion of power against African migrant workers.

Guess what? They didn't like it. People did not need to know a specific person to identify with the plight of the sans-papiers in Paris. I had the sensation that spiking race in the punch of TV makes for a sort of mythic brilliance. In Senegal, I rarely had the feeling that people spoke in collective terms that extended beyond local boundaries of culture, geography, and perhaps nation. In general, international identities seemed to form around religion before race.

The transmissions from France, however, allowed the French to assert their Frenchness, and also unified Africans as (once again) the oppressed. But it's a classy affair. Race in Africa these days, I surmised, seems more driven by economic mobility. Unity arises when a "raced" group cannot freely go where others have gone before. The display of expulsion on TV provided the means whereby having no papers meant having no humanity. In other words, Africans with access to television experienced a clear case of collective othering, despite the fact that this happened far away on another continent.

One could read this story of a French clampdown as an example of both Pan-African unity and postcolonial subversion. "Africans unite to decry the injustices perpetrated on their brothers and sisters abroad," one might say. "In so doing, they fracture the colonial powers of representation which hope to defuse a racial issue by couching it in legal, bureaucratic terms." But we must recognize the reasons why many Africans remain on European and American soil, and why this expulsion becomes an issue when immigration looks at the urban poor. Under global capitalism, laborers have a strong incentive to be mobile.

In order to clarify my argument, please indulge me a brief summary. Postcolonial theory seems to concern itself more and more with ruptures, hybridity, and sites of ambivalence. Generally, this type of critique tries to assert that something (choose your something) that does not quite fit into a category can rupture or subvert that category's effectiveness. Pan-Africanism, on the other hand, strives to link up dispersed groups of people across differences of geography, history, nationality, and language. Postcolonial theory's main problem is its tendency to find subversion everywhere. Since all categories are crude approximations of the diversity within, something within is going to rub the category the wrong way. Pan-Africanism's main problem is its tendency to find commonality everywhere. Although people have thoroughly critiqued essentialist notions of identity, and though classicists and others have begun to acknowledge their disciplines' debt to Africans, and though we benevolently understand that "our" American standard of living is higher than "theirs," Africa remains something people usually refer to in terms of race. Class inequalities within Africa are often assumed to be either unilateral ("that Other level of subsistence"), or unimportant when discussing what really keeps blacks together. When we discuss Africa, race is perceived as something people may either assume without effort, or rely on as a substantial indicator of commonality.

We cannot hastily write off race's appeal. Rather than wondering how we might "move beyond" race as the center of identity (a postcolonial problematic), we are better equipped to question people's notions of race as an inherited given, as something to claim without effort. It may frustrate some black Americans to consider the differences between their lives and their people on the other side of the Atlantic. Some African-Americans might assume that how they differ from Africans doesn't really make a difference. It remains easy for people to deny that "there is no going home" if they don't often encounter Africans in their daily lives. A good history lesson on contemporary Africa helps to complicate these assumptions of commonality without denying the need to belong. It should not be hard to encourage people to gain a deeper understanding of sociopolitical situations within Africa. In this sense, going on an adventure beats going home.

On the other side of the Atlantic, one often encounters people who desire to adventure to "first worlds unknown." However, the current of race does not direct this Wanderlust. Economic angst does. Because "everyone is rich" in America, some youth in Africa find it difficult to critique the image of the U. S. as the pinnacle of cool. In this sense, the linguistic subversion of literary texts written by Africans in colonizer languages, or the critical acceptance of Africa's hybridity, has very little to say to customs officials and the dirth of job opportunities in parts of postcolonial Africa. America looks particularly appealing to those coming of age across the Atlantic. With this in mind, we in America may well wonder how our conceptions of Pan-Africanism sound to Africans.

Slacking in Senegal

Spending even a little time in Africa helps to complicate any hasty assertions of postcolonial subversion, as a month in Dakar recently convinced me. I had many conversations with young Senegalese men, all of whom dreamed constantly of leaving their families and homeland to get rich in America (young women in Dakar, for the most part, appeared less interested in leaving). A father with a decent job told me that if "they" brought development to Senegal, hardly anyone would have these desires to leave. This seemed true enough, although for the moment the desire for work remained inseparable from the emotional investment in America as ultra-cool. (Sadly, grunge ideology hasn't led to an increasingly universal rejection of money as an indicator of cool.) It was hard for me to hear that full-scale acceptance of "Western" industrial practices was the solution to familial separation and cultural fragmentation. But who could blame the youth of Dakar? If you have to go "where the money is" in order to feel like an active part of humanity, then the Senegalese will maintain a more coherent sense of community if money comes to where the community already is. Understand the conflicting senses of exile in this "should I stay or should I go" predicament: either a) you are exiled from family and friends in search of prosperity in the first world, or b) you stay at home feeling exiled from the imagined benefits a place in the hip world economy would grant you.

In general, the young Senegalese guys I talked to about their American dreams were not all that interested in the savage inequalities America perpetrates at home between peoples. I believe that most of them quietly disagreed with me when I tried to criticize my native country's hypocrisy, because many of them had brothers who had "made it" in Europe or the U. S. In addition, my low graduate student income would have left them unconvinced, as the fact of my visit to Africa proved my affluence. (I'm not really rich! Yeah, right.) Whoever has the power to visit a foreign country is comparatively well-off. Even if I wasn't white, there would have been no denying my relative wealth and privilege. Of course, you don't have to leave the States to find people who literally and figuratively don't have the power to go anywhere. But literally and figuratively "going somewhere" in Senegal constitutes an altogether different experience than in America

I could not ignore how the desire for mobility fuels the desire for wealth, nor how the desire for wealth fuels the desire to move. I often felt that while I gave people hope that they might "visit me" in the U. S. (in order to find work), I also confirmed their lack of mobility. This is not to suggest that others refrain from visiting Africa; many people loved the fact that I was there and interested in learning about them. But I have to accept the unsettling reasons why Senegalese youth were interested in me. We should keep in mind the lag time of emotional and economic rupture from the center of capitalist activity. Despite American corporations' multinational expansion in search of cheap labor, America is still imagined to be the center of production. The inclusion of Africa (via Pan-Africanism or postcoloniality) in our discussions of capitalist exploitation remains either inaccurate or hasty. Race politics (and their subversion) exist in Africa, but like mobility, they manifest themselves differently from country to country, and from group to group.

When we discuss Pan-Africanism, we are usually speaking about transatlantic Pan-Africanism. This focus arises specifically from the history of the transatlantic slave trade, and has been furthered by nineteenth and twentieth-century black critics like E. W. Blyden, Alexander Crummell, W. E. B. du Bois, and Marcus Garvey. Scholars such as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (at the University of Illinois) are eager to complicate both "American" postcolonial theory and "American" Pan-African discourse. He suggests that we should recognize other ways of thinking about Pan-African communities. These include continental (African) Pan-Africanism, sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism, diasporic communities in the Americas, and global Pan-Africanism.

These types are important varieties on a theme, created to bring economic, cultural, and historical specificity into the picture. Unfortunately, this ability to classify and specify seems frustratingly unimportant at times. It is certainly unimportant to an acquaintance of mine in Senegal, who woke me up this morning to accept his collect call. He was wondering if I had succeeded in taking the necessary steps for him to come to America. I hadn't, but I had been trying. The rare human voice of immigration tells me to order the forms by calling a certain number. The recorded voice at this number says they are too busy, and that I should call back.

Kevin Carollo is Union City Blue, Porcupine, Garden Pond, Guided by Kosiboski, Rats, Stickleback, It Was a Beautiful Day in the Kingdom, Crack Pipe, Coat, Andy Warhol, Citadel and can be reached at (nice comments only).

Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Carollo. All rights reserved.