African Orientalism

Though I was born in the US, my parents made sure I was proud of where we were from.

We crossed the North Atlantic Ocean once in a Blue Moon to visit Néné, the matriarch of our family, and my hundreds of aunts and cousins in Conakry, Guinea. The first time we visited, I remember the surprise of my expectations for Guinea conflicting with my preconceived notions about the place immediately upon exiting the airport.

The stark contrast of what my expectation of west Africa was compared to the reality of the country made me question when are how my misconceptions had first formed. My image of my country had been supplemented by stories from my father, images around our house, and most influentially Guinean and French media portrayals.

How Africa has been defined has always been a product of its interactions with foreigners. Even as Pan-Africans, we who have close roots to the continent still identify more with our individual clans like, Susu, Malinké, or Bantu, than with the identity of “African”, as this is how Africans themselves differentiated each other far before European cartography dividend the continent into arbitrary countries based on colonial rule at the Berlin Conference. Even the etymology of the word “Africa” can be traced to the Amazigh and Greco-Roman languages.

All this is to say that it is important not to forget the way the European/Western gaze still determines how those who’ve never perceive Africa.

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