- We Need New Diasporas
"For the first time, more blacks are coming to the United States from Africa than during the slave trade." So begins Sam Roberts, chronicling recent African migrations to the US, but suggestively framing the phenomenon by invoking the history of slavery ("More Africans"). Implying a possible redemption of the earlier coerced movement, it is as if the voluntary migration of Africans fulfills a providential destiny, with African subjects now inhabiting, and in doing so rejuvenating, the familiar story of coming to the US. Noting that one in three blacks in New York City is now foreign-born, Roberts suggests that this movement "is already redefining what it means to be African-American." In his follow-up essay from 2014, Roberts puts the figure of legal black African immigrants at one million between 2000 and 2010 ("Influx"). He then wonders what this will mean culturally as these new immigrants identify as African or African American, and how these changing demographics will shape questions of affirmative action, reparations for slavery, and intraracial conflicts based on ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences.
That Roberts situates the issue of new African immigrants within and against the frame of Atlantic slavery is not surprising, given that most models of diaspora have tended to prioritize a similar setting. From Paul Gilroy's focus on the memory of slavery for the descendants of a black Atlantic to frequent efforts to use Countee Cullen's plangent query, "what is Africa to me?," as the pivot for thinking diaspora in relation to racial heritage or memory, to journeys organized around roots and return narratives, diaspora [End Page 640] has largely been understood in terms of the African American experience. But Taiye Selasi tells a very different story of the migration and circulation of Africans in the world, in which the history of Atlantic slavery finds no mention: "Starting in the 60's, the young, gifted and broke left Africa in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad. … Some three decades later this scattered tribe of pharmacists, physicists, physicians (and the odd polygamist) has set up camp around the globe." As she continues, "somewhere between the 1988 release of Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous" ("Bye-Bye Barbar" 529). Refusing to choose any one place as home or to see itinerancy as tragic or alienating—the figure Selasi terms the "Afropolitan"—insists on multiple ways of being African. Selasi accordingly emphasizes complexity and situatedness: "To 'be' Nigerian is to belong to a passionate nation; to 'be' Yoruba, to be heir to a spiritual depth; to 'be' American, to ascribe to a cultural breadth; to 'be' British, to pass customs quickly" (530).
Selasi, along with such writers as Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu, and Binyavanga Wainaina, belongs to a generation that heralds an African literary renaissance while insisting that new migrations demand new conceptualizations of diaspora. Most of the prominent theories of diaspora over the past two decades have been galvanized by the aspirations and contradictions of the journeys of a W. E. B. Du Bois or a Richard Wright.1 The new visibility of African writers is a welcome antidote to such tendencies. Yet to open up the script of diaspora itself, we still need more multifaceted histories and models of what such visibility entails or enables. For Selasi, her blackness must be marked as different from a more visible and normative African American one: "Until I got to high school, my world consisted of white people and Nigerian people. I simply didn't think in terms of white and black. In fact, it wasn't even white people and Nigerian people. It was Nigerian and other" ("From That Stranded" 158–59). Moreover, both her parents were disaffiliated from an African American identity: "My mother doesn't call herself black. My father has spent his entire life as a sort of conscientious objector to American culture" (159).
In moving away from the concerns of previous generations—anticolonial resistance, the clash of tradition and modernity, alienation and exile—the...