Saturday, April 7, 2007


In his 1925 poem, "Heritage," Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen asks,
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
And it's a question not only for Cullen (who was 22 when he wrote the poem) and for other African-Americans, but for me. I've been doing a lot of my research lately on African-American writers. I've never been to Africa; the closest I've ever been is Spain. One of my students this semester is an Ethiopian immigrant, and she expressed exasperation with some of the sentiments expressed in the poem, which seemed to her naive. (I think Cullen would agree.)

What is Africa to me? Despite all that I think I know, Africa is still the Dark Continent. Africa is where you go to get malaria, diarrhea, and the worst canker sores you've ever had. It's where you have terrifying encounters with water buffaloes. It's where 500,000 people were murdered with machetes. It's the place of the Sphinx, the pyramids, and wildebeests. Africa is my former flatmate Brenda, a white Zimbabwean whose cultural attitudes, while not overtly racist, seemed to me hopelessly colonial. Africa is where the Clinton administration inadvertently bombed an aspirin factory. Africa is Kilimanjaro, Ouagadougou, Timbuktu, and Zanzibar. The rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the zebra. Africa is "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." It is a legacy of colonialism and slavery. It is the very definition of continuing on. I would like very much to see Africa; I would like to learn to be less afraid of it. I wonder if it's possible to see Africa as a tourist -- to take photographs, to buy trinkets, to walk African streets -- without feeling as if I have stolen.

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