Portable Cultures, Global Identities: Panel Discussion
PORTABLE CULTURES, GLOBAL IDENTITIES
KELEFA SANNEH: I’m an editor of Transition magazine—which is, I suppose, both global and portable. Transition is a diasporic project, founded by an ethnic Indian in Uganda in 1961, exiled to Ghana in the 1970s, and then brought back to life by Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 1991, in America.
A few years ago, a Burundian journalist wrote in the magazine about coming to America to discover what the blacks thought about Africa. In the story he explained how his own interest arose: “In Africa there is—and it is hard to admit this—a reverence for whiteness. Africans have been brainwashed into believing that anything white is better, anything American is better. Even their black people are better. In the slums of Africa, young people worship successful American ‘niggers:’ actors, athletes, rappers…. As a boy, I, too, adored American blacks. When Muhammad Ali came to Zaire to fight George Foreman in 1975, I was nine years old. Zairians my age appropriated the hero Ali, claiming he was the descendent of slaves taken from Zaire. I wanted Ali to be a descendent of slaves taken from Burundi, but my Zairian friends reminded me that Burundi never gave up slaves. I knew my friends were right: in school I had learned about my ancestors’ bravery, about how they fought the slave trade successfully. But I hated this history. I wanted Ali to be Burundian. I felt it was unfair that Ali’s ancestors were from Zaire.”
This journalist arrived in America full of reverence for African-American culture; he grabbed a tape recorder, went to inner-city neighborhoods on the East Coast, and said, “Hi, I’m from Africa. What do you think of Africa?” And many of the African-American people he met said things like, “All I know is that it’s a place where people eat from the ground.” One person said, “Get out of here, you African Nappy Head.” He’d originally planned to put his story on Burundian radio, to foster bonds of continuity between Burundians and African Americans, but decided that broadcasting it would create too much ill will.
Another example goes in the opposite direction. A young writer named Faith Adiele, who grew up in America but whose father is Nigerian, went back to Lagos, as a homecoming, or, perhaps, a vacation. And this is the Nigeria she finds in downtown Lagos: “I’m convinced that everyone who sees me stares, laughs, cries out. Soon a procession of small children attaches itself to me, marching down the winding road, giggling and shouting, brown arms swinging, stopping when I stop. Is it my tan skin? My short hair? My American clothes? My diamond-shaped glasses? My look of terror? At the end of the cul-de-sac I see the highway that runs from the airport to downtown Lagos. People throng the road, impossibly spotless in their white robes and embroidered caps, running alongside rickety buses and taxis already packed to bursting…. ‘Oyinbo!’ the children following me shout. ‘White!’
“So this is coming home. One group joyfully gathering me into their arms, crying, Daughter, you are welcome! Ndo, we’ve been waiting for you! Another shouting, ‘Oyinbo!’ at me—twenty-six years a nigger.”
COCO FUSCO: Coming home—whatever that means—can be pretty complicated. My friends and I spend a lot of time talking about feeling disassociated from our “homelands,” whether they be New York, or Havana, or Mexico, or here or there. But , and some real borders, and some real issues, and some real modes of subjugation that happen to some people, and not to others. For some, it’s easier to travel. For some it’s impossible. The journalist from Burundi could easily have found African Americans who know a lot about Africa, and who are very interested. And he also could have found white people who would have said the same things as the African Americans he met. I don’t think it’s a black problem that he’s uncovering—Americans in general can be quite xenophobic.
We all have a bit of otherness in our lives right now; this happens to be a moment when it’s very easy to consume multiple cultures—if you have money. Here in New York we can buy things from everywhere. And we can buy people from everywhere. And we can even buy interpersonal experiences from everywhere for short periods of time. I wrote a performance about sex tourism in Cuba a few years ago—about tourists who want to buy sex and romance. But that’s very different as a model of intercultural interaction from being subjected to forces that are beyond your control as an individual—being turned into an object of consumption, for example, or having the trajectories in your life determined by what a particular institution thinks you are, whether that institution comes in the form of a government, or a school, or a border patrol agent, or a customs official, or a theater.
With all this euphoric talk about the global community, we tend to forget that only five percent of the world travels for leisure; most poor people in the world experience tourism only because they provide a service for tourists—and that kind of intercultural interaction doesn’t allow a lot of freedom.
MARTIN ROBERTS: I’d like to follow up on Coco’s point about what might be called the topography of consumption, and agree with her that we shouldn’t be too euphoric about defining cultural identities in an age of globalization. One of the dominant metaphors that we use these days is hybridization, cultural hybridity—what Salman Rushdie likes to call “our mongrel selves.” But rather than seeing everything in a kind of happy ethnographic surrealist way, we need to take into account the power relations, both political and economic, that structure these hybrid global identities we’re talking about.
From an instrumental point of view, it’s interesting to consider the role of communications technologies and transportation in the process of constructing cultural identities. Arguably, it’s possible to be Filipino in the U.S. in a way that’s much more intense than was possible earlier in the century, simply because you can easily phone home or hop on a plane—if you can afford to pay the fare. For some people, technologies can lift cultural identities out of a particular geographical location.
Another way to look at this question is to think about how we draw on a repertoire of global cultural forms that touch down in a particular local context, get adapted in different ways, but collectively can be seen, and in fact have been seen by a lot of cultural critics, as symptomatic of the homogenization of culture. These are not necessarily cultural forms associated specifically with America, or with Americans. Certainly a form like the soap opera is part of the global media culture which takes in things like telenovelas. And the same is true of beauty pageants—Thailand has been hosting them since the 1930s, as a nation-building exercise. So we are talking about global cultural forms.
But if everything comes from somewhere else, what can we say is our own? Those of you who have seen the play Jessica Hagedorn adapted from her novel Dogeaters are familiar with the geepney coffee shop. The geepney is a transcultural adaptation of American Army jeeps, which were left over from the American occupation after the Second World War. There is a range of similar adaptations in other parts of the world. People take something which is from outside and appropriate it, customize it, adapt it to their own local context. Filipinos might well say the geepney is a classic symbol of Filipino identity. And yet what more hybridized symbol could you wish for? There’s a nice line in The Perfumed Nightmare: “An old geepney never dies. It finds its way into a hundred new geepneys.” So you have the idea of something that’s claimed by another culture, recycled, then recycled again. I think this serves as an apt cultural metaphor for the way identities are continually recycled as well.
SANNEH: The geepney is an interesting corrective to the narrative of homogenization. I mean, people arrive with their technologies—or for that matter, their Bibles—but they can’t always control what happens to these artifacts afterwards. What at first might appear to be globalization often turns out to be a specific adaptation in a specific place, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic one at that.
ANTHONY APPIAH: And of course people are moving about the planet in increasing numbers. And all of them drag traces of one place to other places. Airplanes may be less important to migrants who travel out of economic or political necessity rather than for pleasure—they save up their money and they may occasionally return home, but they don’t fly back and forth. They do use the telephone, though; telephones are now a mass commodity. And they send faxes and communicate through the Internet. There is some sort of deterritorialization going on. But in the end, of course, everyone is an alien somewhere on the planet.