A conversation with Alice Walker

In what she called a conversation (which was actually the 11th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture), Professor Alice Walker spoke about her experiences of and in Africa. It wasn’t in that usual “Africa is a beautiful country” kind of way, but it exemplified what I think is a view of Africans, black Africans, held (mostly) by some black Americans:

Africans are a warm, beautiful, lovely and generous people.

They are the kind of black Americans who may kiss the ground on their first visit to the continent (I’ve actually seen this) and proclaim to be home. They probably have been wearing dashikis all their lives and may have been at some point (or currently are) called by some other very “African” sounding name that was not theirs at birth. And into this group of black Americans I count Professor Alice Walker.

Her conversation was entitled rather chattily, “Been coming to see you since I was five years old – an American poet’s connection to the South African soul”. And while warm, lovely and generous can be flattering adjectives, I found Professor Walker’s application lazy, not flattering. She travelled to Uganda and met the warm, lovely, generous African. In Kenya, the same African was there too. This African also followed the professor to South Africa. I am tempted to suggest that this warm, lovely and generous African existed nowhere else except in Professor Walker’s mind. She came home, she came to the motherland carrying caricature of an African and she dressed every black person she met in it, perhaps without ever having experienced each individual genuinely.

I went to Africa . I went to the Motherland to find my roots right? Seven hundred million black people. Not one of those motherfuckers knew me.” ~ Hank Willis Thomas

The professor spent part of her conversation discussing Palestine and how wrong Israel is for its supposed view of all Palestinians as terrorists. She likened it to apartheid South Africa, and how European colonialists viewed Africans as savages and in so doing justified the atrocities they perpetrated on the continent. She said all of this perhaps without realising that her view of an African, while more flattering than that held by European colonialists, is also a caricature and problematic. Like the colonialists, she and black Americans like her use these caricatures to get what they want out of Africa.

Yes, Africa is undoubtedly important to the descendants of those who were forcibly removed from here, and it is no more mine (as someone who was born and lived here most of my life) than it is, say, Professor Walker’s. I am not questioning her right to say what an African is or is not. And this isn’t an attack on her character, but rather a reassertion of my own individual identity. I am an African. Sometimes I am lovely, sometimes I am not. Sometimes I am a brute and other times, a  doll. And unless you lay down your preconceived ideas about me, our interaction will leave us both poorer.

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9 thoughts on “A conversation with Alice Walker

  1. Mvelase says:

    Must admit I’ve never read Alice Walker’s books or poetry, but I always suspected she was this kind of African-American and I was kind of expecting that her lecture would be like this, particularly when I saw the title.

  2. kim's scrapbook says:

    Love this post. NO one ever takes on this kind of bs about Africa. Well done.
    I am tired of Africa being seen as some homogenous mass of people

  3. Vusamazulu says:

    No one can EVER understand the psychological damage of a displaced person. When your identity has been stripped away for Centuries and all you ever see and read are western identities shoved down your throat as the norm. Allow previously disadvantaged Africans to go back and rediscover themselves, allow them to go through the motions anger etc. allow them to make mistakes, they have been invisible for too low, let’s atleast allow them the space without always seeing it from the point of view of a person who has never been marginalized… Allow African Americans to connect with Africa in a way that feels good and makes sense to them. Unless we have walked in their shoes, we can never know the pain, baggage and whatever else they carry with them, their roots are in Africa where once upon a time, the average Agrican was warm, beautiful and generous….

    • Simon says:

      The average African is still warm, beautiful and generous. And sometimes irritable, and grumpy and sad. And sometimes he or she wants to kick someone’s face in and sometimes he or she doesn’t. That’s the point.

  4. sherryblair says:

    I hear what is being said here. I get it. I wonder if I might say publically for the first time ever that I too have felt connected to Africa, through Tarzan movies when I was a child, and when I saw “Out of Africa” as an adult. Six years ago,before it was the thing to do, I had my DNA tested by the Genographic Project and saw the line of my family’s migration out of Africa.

    We all came out of Africa! It belongs to all of us. And yes, we are all individuals, equally worthy and one day we will all be free.

  5. Greg says:

    There seems to be enormous oversight of just how complex African-American identity really is in light of the tangle of tribes, cultures, and incidental or convenience-based borders from European colonial powers that ultimately define it.
    Is anyone addressing this systematically – like, not Alex Haley-style?

    • albatross says:

      THANKS! Also what about the caricatures that Black Africans have of African-Americans as being ignorant and inarticulate. The author fails to address that caricature.

  6. LE says:

    The writer seems disappointed because Alice Walker caricaturized Africans. Who among us doesn’t do this? Africans caricaturize themselves, and yes, at times it is problematic. Caricaturizing and maybe even romanticizing people can also be the building block for deeper understanding, hybridization and sharing between people. I note the way that Black American hip hop has been caricaturized and then hybridized in South Africa and other places on the continent, as well as around the world.

    I have also been around long enough to recall the disapproving comments about Black Americans and their “dread lock” hair styles. Some Black Americans embraced locks as a way of connecting to their African roots. One South African friend scoffed at the notion that wearing locks connected black Americans to the motherland. Now, so many South Africans have embraced this style that one could think that the trend started in South Africa.

    Reasserting ones identity is one response to the ills of caricaturizing Africans but accepting that there are multiple constructs about Africans and that the process goes in multiple directions is yet another response.

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