Last month, a symposium at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC), “Africans in America—The New Beat of Afropolitans,” highlighted the large and active African immigrant population in Houston, and underscored the influence of the Afropolitan movement in the city.
Fashion shows by Kachi Designs, dance performances sponsored by the Afropolitan Experience, and wine socials sponsored by Afripro Houston, are putting Houston on the diasporic map. TelAfric executive director, Bunmi Oyisan, said during a launch event for his television network that Houston is “a hub of a black diaspora cluster.”
But if, despite Houston’s large African immigrant population, the city has not been seen as a go-to destination when it comes to having about a large, international conversation on the African diaspora, that perception seems to have changed with the HMAAC symposium.
The Houston event featured appearances by leaders in the movement, including writer Taiye Selasi, who coined the term “afropolitan”; musician and social entrepreneur Derrick Ashong; author Teju Cole; scholar Nemata Blyden; arts maven Meme Omogbai; filmmaker Odera Ozoka, and artist Wangechi Mutu. These new Afropolitans spoke about their real world experiences in Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, and the U.S. Washing over centuries of native minority self-esteem problems and self-doubt, that experience allows them to bring into play a new, confident, worldly psyche, a phenomenon perhaps inevitable in the time of President Barack Obama. The lineup was impressive enough to draw an audience from as far away as Chicago and to coax the Africa Channel to have a presence at the symposium and to agree to broadcast an edited version of it in the near future.
Afropolitanism, on one level, is a cultural wave that seeks to expand Western, largely negative perceptions of the continent that are focused on famine and civil war in a way that draws upon the varied experiences of Africans on the continent and throughout the diaspora. According to Solkem N’Gangbet, the program director of HMACC:
We’re not saying these [perceptions] don’t exist—they certainly do exist. But it is more complicated than that. We want to show how Africa’s cultural heritage is currently also intertwined with modern trends and cosmopolitan influences, and how the result is brought to the world by Africans.
Through lectures, film screenings, and roundtable discussions, the participants addressed the Afropolitan cultural movement and presented a larger picture of what it means to be an African in contemporary America and throughout the diaspora.
During one panel discussion, Taiye Selasi confessed, “I never expected [my] simple essay to have such an impact, but I’m glad it did.” Derrick Ashong noted that, “[t]o be able to bring all of who I am to the world, being African, makes sure we define ourselves to the world as opposed to it defining us.”
In a spirited discussion, Teju Cole and Wangechi Mutu expressed concerns that the movement could be seen as elitist, to which Selasi responded that “[elitism] is a concern, but we have so much to do, and I cannot let that concern stop me from addressing the larger issue of changing how we are seen and how we improve our condition.”
By the end of the second day, Meme Omogbai told the other participants that she was “like a proud mother, listening to these smart young people committed to improving Africa and bringing its gifts to the world.”
HMAAC sees this symposium as the start of a larger dialog about the changes that African immigrants and the Afropolitan movement will impress upon American culture and the world as a whole. “The last black cultural movement to have worldwide impact was hip-hop,” N’Gangbet says. “Afropolitan culture represents the next wave. At least that’s the view from Houston.”