Editorial

Making oneself indiscernible

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« African identity does not exist as a substance.
It constitutes itself, in varied forms, through a series of practices ».
Achille Mbembe,
A propos des écritures africaines de soi,
Bulletin du Codesria 1, 2000, Dakar.

African identity? Now there’s a tricky subject! As soon as you try to define it, it slips right through your fingers. It is a minefield: the impasses are so great that it may well seem better not to broach it at all in the first place. It is a polemical question too, crystallising all preconceptions and close-minded communalism. But it is an essential question too: when people are prepared to challenge it, the concept becomes a motor, opening avenues for the future.
But let’s go a little way back in time. When the Enlightenment philosophers defined a common human nature on which the concept of universal rights was founded, the question arose of whether or not to include the Africans – in short, whether or not they were human beings, alter egos, fellowmen. Differences were highlighted and theorised as perfectly natural inequalities. How, otherwise, could the slave trade, then colonisation and apartheid have been justified? After being an animal to exploit at will, progress for the native meant being civilised to attain the common statute, to assimilate. The native had, therefore, to renounce all difference. It is hardly surprising that African thinkers devoted themselves to self-affirmation: Fanon, Césaire, and Senghor all proclaimed the humanity of the African. Liberation was about being able to determine the self: it was about replacing « civilisation » with « progress » and affirming the cultural singularity of the African whilst at the same time positing him/her as a victim. Emancipation was thus seen as a rupture, or to coin Achille Mbembe’s phrase, « the mad dream of a world without others ».
Radical identity-based discourses are founded on race, geography, and tradition, deliberately confusing the terms to define an exclusive authenticity (you have to be Black or live in Africa to be African, etc.). However much Mudimbe demonstrates that African identity is the product of an invention to which the Other has greatly contributed, and however much other authors clearly define it as constantly evolving rather than fixed, a dominant mode of thought remains that carefully avoids any self-criticism and glorifies difference. And yet it is by going beyond this singularity that people can mark their belonging to the world, not in order to blend in with the masses, but to bring what they are to it, making it richer: seeing oneself as being like others allows people to establish the relationship with them that enables an integration that does not rhyme with assimilation. This, of course, is valuable for the whole planet.
Mbembe calls for an endogenous gaze that is not the only claim of affiliation, genealogy, or heritage, that is not a rehabilitation of belonging, of difference, of territory, of tradition. But which is what then? This dossier offers a few leads: what if the answer were not as precise as all that? And what if African identity today were quite simply about thwarting projections by deliberately making oneself indiscernible? Not in order to cut oneself off or to go into denial, but, on the contrary, to affirm oneself as an asset to the world.

///Article N° : 5500

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