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"The only Africans I met in Luton seemed like shipwrecked men against an older, obscured notion of Africa as a beacon of light."

In the poem ‘Heritage’, the Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen, posed the question: ‘What is Africa to me?’ The answer had to be dredged from his suspicion of ‘any nebulous atavistic yearnings towards an African inheritance,’ because Africa was ‘a book one thumbs/ listlessly, till slumber comes’.

That soporific conjuring resonated with me as a child of Jamaican migrants to the UK. Growing up in 1960s Luton, I had little concept of being part of the African Diaspora. I never heard Marcus Garvey’s rallying cry: ‘Africa for the Africans, those at home and those abroad.’

What was there to cheer about? Africa was the site of a continuing tragedy – starving children with distended bellies one thought about fleetingly when the collection plate came round at Sunday mass. I’d eavesdrop on West Indian adults as they argued, not for the romance of ‘back-to-Africa’, but rather for how the devilish white man had done us a favour by taking us out of there.

Throughout the 1970s, the only Africans I met in Luton didn’t gladden the heart, either. In their late twenties, these permanent adult students, who hung around Luton Technical College, seemed like shipwrecked men.

That governing idea of Africa as a continuing litany of loss emerged in the news and was reinforced by Alex Haley’s popular TV series Roots – which prompted school friends to apologise to me, because up till then they’d not been made aware of their country’s responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade. I was bemused by my friends’ responses and paralysed by a kind of excruciating self-consciousness of blackness that I’d never felt before.

The landmark 1980s television documentaries by Kenyan scholar, Ali Mazrui, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, offered a richer idea of Africa and its history, peppered with ennobling if contentious ideas about Africans’ ‘extraordinary capacity to forgive.’ That ‘virtue’, if true, would of course have been exploited by the imperial powers in carving up Africa in the nineteenth century, and was often articulated in Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings as a peculiarly African ubuntu.

My understanding of Africa has been deepened through reading Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Chinua Achebe. But perhaps the African American writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston’s non-fiction book Barracoon – the story of Kossola, one of the last living persons abducted and enslaved from Africa to the USA – has been most impactful, as told through a series of interviews with the elderly man himself.

Hurston wrote of her shock at Kossola’s tale, and at the depth of African complicity in the slave trade that did away with ‘the folklore I had been brought up on – that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away’.

Kossola told Hurston that he’d always dreamed of a return to Africa, and that speaking with her might set straight the record back home in Africa on his disappearance: ‘I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe de go in the Afficky soil someday and callee my name and somebody say, “yeah I now Kossola’”. He was unaware, sadly, that his tribe had likely been wiped out in the raid that led to his abduction.

It was with my own excitement of ‘return’, and some trepidation, that twenty years ago I travelled to Africa for the first time, for a festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed. I’d chosen well: Burkina Faso, characterised by the motto: ‘the land of incorruptible people.’ And so it appeared on arrival; the honesty of everyone I encountered was palpable, as was the collective shame when an individual departed from that narrative.

What was Africa to me? No doubt my view, based on a selective perception of the continent’s goodness and ancient purity, was romanticised. I still had some way to go. But for decades, as for many of my peers in the diaspora, I’d been exposed to subtle, continual, negative British propaganda about Africa. For me, Burkina Faso was the locus of a competing narrative. Finally, the heart of darkness and despair was trumped by the reassertion of an older, obscured notion of Africa as a beacon of light, of open honesty – that might even have roused Countee Cullen from his bookish stupor and alienation.

Colin Grant

Colin Grant is an author of five books. They include: Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey; and a group biography of the Wailers, I&I, The Natural Mystics. His memoir, Bageye at the Wheel, was shortlisted for the Pen/Ackerley Prize, 2013. Grant’s history of epilepsy, A Smell of Burning, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2016.
As a producer for the BBC, Grant wrote and directed several radio drama documentaries including A Fountain of Tears: The Murder of Federico Garcia Lorca; and A History of the N Word.
Grant is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Director of WritersMosaic, an innovative online platform for new writing. He also writes for a number of newspapers and journals including the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, TLS, London Review of Books, Granta and the New York Review of Books.
Grant’s Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year 2019. His latest memoir, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be is published by Jonathan Cape in 2022.

© Colin Grant