University of East London
It is better to recount what happened than to have perished.
From 1990 to 1992, I spent a pregnant postmodern moment in Bristol, England, which was both the point of convergence as well as the site for many collaborative exchanges and dialogic debates on the existential and dialectical nature of bi-racialized and gendered métis(se) belongings in the English-African Diaspora. Together the twenty five women and men and I crafted narratives of place and (mis)placement for future, present and past generations of métis(se) children, adults and their families. Collaborators found their way to Bristol either for work, education, or for personal reasons. Their current geopolitical subject positions can only be articulated in light of the City of Bristol's previous involvement with the slave trade. This unspoken association mirrors the uneasy relationship other English-African Diaspora constituents have with the former Empire : "They see their place in the metropolis as the inevitable consequence of an earlier act of trespass and transgression"(Oguibe 1994:xx).
I collected the original narratives via open-ended tape-recorded interviews. Participation in this project consisted of respondents providing me with a series of tape-recorded testimonies about their childhoods, gender politics, racial and ethnic identity, class background, nationalism, family, sexuality, creativity, parenting, and racism among a variety of topics. I acquired separate notebooks for each storyteller and I used them to record my responses to each of their storytelling sessions as well as to keep track of all of the questions generated from each listening.
By the time the edited testimonies appeared as text, I had listened to them in full four times. The first time was immediately after each session. While their voices were still singing in my head, I formulated questions that were in direct response to their testimonies. These questions would serve as a guide, not as the basis, for the next storytelling session. I repeated this approach until the participants had finished testifying, at which point we had sucessfully reached the core or the marrow--what was/is significant to each one of them in their everyday lives. I refer to this interview technique as the artichoke method. The ethnographer has to peel off several layers of skin before the heart of the matter is revealed. Upon finishing the sessions, I listened to every single testimony again for insights and patterns. The third listening entailed labor-intensive transcription, which was at times encumbered by regionally specific accents. The final listening was for clarification and verification of specific segments of testimonies.
From the first to the fourth listening, I maintain that so much was lost in committing oral performance to tape, and then translating the tapes to text: the cadence and rhythm of their regionally specific accents, the visual beauty carved out in detail on their African-European faces, and the cultural métissage which manifests itself in both their living spaces and sociocultural worlds. However, it was at the final stage, that I realized that I had far too much rich and evocative material to work with and that I would have to wittle my original focus down to one or more key themes. When I began the process of writing, I confirmed for myself what I had suspected earlier--there was no way that I could adequately do justice to all twentyfive life stories. Including them all in the final account would have been a lengthy process and one that would ultimately have resulted in my truncating their experiences. I tried working with fifteen, then nine and then finally six.
The task of selecting the final six was not an easy one. All twenty five were eloquent and engaging storytellers. In order to produce a coherent final product which did not fragment nor trivialize the lived experiences of the individuals I had worked with, I needed to narrow the focus. The pivotal issue which reappeared in all of my exchanges with participants was the ways in which, over time and across disparate spaces, individuals devised strategies to reconcile the psychic split between their genealogical holistic transnational sense of themselves and bi-racialized fragmented socially mediated ideas of self. I was particularly interested in the centrality of their White mothers in the retelling of their life stories.
In order to highlight the problematic bi-racialized relationship between White mothers and designated Black daughters in particular, I decided to focus on the narratives of six women- two sets of sisters and two women who had grown up in care with what I refer to as mother surrogates. Speaking with two sets of biological sisters enabled me to illustrate the similar and different pathways to womanhood forged by two métisse daughters growing up with the same White mother. Akousa and Sarah were raised in Liverpool in the midst of the then burgeoning Black Power movement by a working class White Irish mother and without their Black Bajan (from Barbados) father. Yemi and Bisi were brought up in Nigeria during the turbulent postcolonial 1960's and neocolonial 1970's by middle class parents--in particular, a Northumberland White English mother and a Yoruba Black Nigerian father. Ruby,Nigerian and English and Similola,Tanzanian and German, spent their formative years in care in middle class, all White English or Welsh children's homes outside London and Cardiff, respectively. They were each socialized by mother surrogates prior to the explosive debates about welfare policy as it pertains to transracial fosterage, placement, and adoption.
As a Nigerian-Irish/English-Guyanese anthropologist, my own autoethnographic narrative which unfolds in Nigeria, Lancashire, England and Los Angeles, California, is also interwoven with their stories to create a Bakhtinian "dialogic" patchwork: "Each story is re-created in the interaction between teller and listener. It is their relationship which causes a particular tale to come to life"(Gersie and King 1990:32). Ethnographic fieldwork then becomes a series of conversations wherein according to Bakhtin, "language lies on the borderline between oneself and the other....the word in language is half someone else's"(1953/1981:293). In so doing, I purposely challenge conventional ethnography and tackle phenomenological and epistemological concerns associated with prior conceptualizations of Diaspora(s), race, nation , gender, generation, identity,and most notably family. Consequently, as insider and outsider, I blur the boundaries between subjective experience and objective social scientific inquiry.
In Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman's(1978) seminal work on self formation and presentation as performance , he uses the analogy of the theatre to describe the ways in which individuals manage their identities in social milieux. Accordingly, there is "front stage" behaviour and "back stage" behaviour. In the equally important treatise Black Skin, White Masks, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon(1967) exposes the psychic blurring of self and other as Black ("Negro") identities are distorted by the lenses of the White imperialist gaze. Beyond the Mask by feminist theorist Amina Mama(1995) explores the historical and pyschosocial processes of gendered and racialized subjectivities. In Shadow and Act , Ralph Ellison describes the ways in which African American entertainers "in order to enact a symbolic role basic to the underlying drama of American society assume a ritual mask" (1953:47). Cultural historian Becky Hall reenacts a similar feminist psychodrama :
I incorporate all of these voices and argue that as social actresses the six women I spoke with perform different dialectical dramas within the private domain among their immediate and extended multidimensional families and in the realm of the public amid the essentializing and homogenizing gazes of society writ large:
|Re-Invoking the Griotte Tradition as a Feminist Textual Strategy|
Extending Barkley Brown's metaphor, the process of writing an ethnography is akin to quilt-making. I have all of these seemingly disparate bits and pieces in the form of participants' testimonies, my own cumulative scratchings, as well as different theoretical strands and I wish to stitch all of them all together to form a coherent pattern. Hence, the primary objective of this essay is to provide the rationale for my re-appropriation of the West African oral tradition of the griot(te). Griotte as it appears in the feminine form is a West African, Senegalese -that is Wolof- term which describes a traditional storyteller. However, though they may not be specifically named griots, most African cultures have a specific term to describe someone who functions as tribal poet, storyteller, historian or genealogist and whose role is to recount culturally specific and provocative parables of daily life: "The griot was not only educated to be a professional performer, but through his philosophical and psychological skills he developed an insight into humanity" (Chester and Jegede 1987:17). Moreover, these definitions will have different operationalized meanings in different cultural contexts and more importantly at different historical moments. For example, in traditional Senegalese society these individuals, usually men, were part of a caste, were generally attached to royal families and learned the craft of story-telling or "praise singing" on an apprenticeship basis:
However, with the impact of social change the griot's traditional role has changed. Membership in this group no longer necessitates specific training handed down from one generation to the next. There are now what one could only call faux griots. That is one can now call oneself a griot without having received specialized training from an elder griot. Upon hearing of a ceremony or public celebration taking place which will honor the members of an elite family, an enterprising individual could simply approach the head of the family and for a certain amount of money offer to sing the praises of the family in much the same manner as a court jester or entertainer. Furthermore, scholars of African popular culture--most notably music--have also broadened the usage of griot to describe the performance styles of artists such as the Senegalese Baaba Maal, Malian Salif Keita, or Alpha Blondie from Cote d'Ivoire. With the exception of a community of women musicians in Mali, women performers are generally not recognized in this genre. In light of this gendered oversight, my research seeks to redress women's invisibility by placing women in the role of griotte.
I re-invoke the concept of the griotte as a feminist textual strategy which both destabilizes the conventional authority of the ethnographer and forces a tension between orality and literacy or rather the spoken and the written word. I argue that the ways in which the women I worked with tell their stories are as newfangled griottes. Their memories preserve and reinterpret senses of past cultures and provide scathing sociopolitical commentaries and cultural critiques of contemporary English-African Diasporic life and its manifest bi-racialized problematics:". It is the griotte's[sic], retelling the story of those who have come before and reinvigorating the essential wisdoms for the life of the human community and its future" (Farrar 1995 :23). By virtue of contradictory bi-racialized classification in Britain, métisse women's narratives of self and identity both reflect the gender, generational, racial, and ethnic tensions within English society and are located outside it in an imagined but not imaginary space. This narrative duality works in a similar fashion in Smadar Lavie's ethnography, The Poetics of Military Occupation: Mzeina Allegories of Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule:
They simultaneously construct dual narratives which embody individual and collective historical consciousness. They tell their own lived stories. At the same time their memories reconstruct a collective interwoven multicultural past. In his essay, "The Choices of Identity," Denis-Consant Martin talks about identity as narrative:
Through the narrativization of both their identities and the lived paradoxes of bi-racialization, these new millennial story-tellers weave provocative tales of transgression and performances of the psyche:"Power is the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter" (Heilbrun 1989:18).
As a "literary experiment" (Fine and Martin 1995) their stories narrate the differents ways in which cultural memories shape contradictory meanings of race, self and identity for six women who by virtue of birth transgress boundaries and challenge essentialized constructions of self, identity, place and belonging:
In particular, their testimonies address the different ways in which as métisse women they confront problematic tensions between and among cultural constructions of "race,"nation, gender and ethnicity:
These reconciliations of the psychic split between subjectivity and objectivity by their very actions expose what is at the heart of interpretive social science. Through the staged textual interaction between me the ethnographer and the six métisse griottes, the reader is a witness to the gradual death of the authoritative ethnographic voice and the rebirth of the collaborative dialogic exchange:
As their stories reveal, most of their identities work concerns the management and negotiation of multiple affiliations in social and cultural contexts which frequently demand that they choose an essentialized Black identity. Despite the fact that by virtue of lineage, they can and do situate themselves within at least two specific and yet overlapping historical narratives:
In the age of experimental ethnographies, as anthropologists we must all rethink our designated role as those best suited to claim and assert the authorial voice:
Collectively, they weave a tapestry of daily life within the English-African Diaspora and beyond which until now has been misrepresented by many and understood by few:
The griot(te) [sic] tradition travelled into the diaspora, the word recording the experience, the song reviving the spirit....History was in the journey and memory was retained in the proverbs of storytelling (Jegede 1994:21).
|Acknowledgements: Boundless gratitude to the twentyfive women and men who gave generously of their time and retrieved joyful and painful memories so that this organic project could take intellectual flight.|
Scattered Belongings: Cultural Paradoxes of "Race," Nation and Gender
by Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe
 This essay is an edited, abbreviated and updated version of Chapter Three, 'Setting the Stage/Invoking the Griot(te) Traditions as Textual Strategies,' in my forthcoming book (December,1998) Scattered Belongings: Cultural Paradoxes of 'Race',Nation and Gender, London: Routledge.
 An Igbo proverb as told to me by Ike Achebe, son of the masterful Igbo novelist Chinua Achebe.
 The term métis(se) is a "French-African", in particular Senegalese, re-appropriation of the continental French métis(se). In translated continental French, métis(se) is synonymous with the derogatory English 'half-caste' and 'half-breed'.
See Henri-Cousin, Pierre(1994)Diamond French Dictionary, London: Collins., p.160. However, redeploying this term demonstrates the portability and mutability of language as well as its potential reinterpretation across national borders. My linguistic informants, Comparative Literature Professor Samba Diop and cultural critic and ethnomusicologist Henri-Pierre Koubaka are Senegalese and Senegalese/Congolese respectively--that is Black continental African. What they suggest is that alternative translations of métis(se) both include and can extend beyond bi-racialized, that is Black/White discourses, to encompass Diasporic convergences across ethnicities, cultures, religions and nationalities.
In an English context, I offer métis(se) in part as a specific shorthand stand-in response to what I believe are the inadequacies of previous terms. In other publications (Ifekwunigwe 1997; Ifekwunigwe 1998), I have discussed the shortcomings of the extant terms such as 'mixed race', 'mixed parentage', 'bi-racial', 'dual heritage', etc.. However, the primary reason for installing métis(se) as a lexical intervention is to momentarily free me from the tangle of terminology so that I may address more pressing and in fact derivative concerns such as racism and bi-racialization. Perhaps from this we may imagine a future entirely free of the reinscribing badges of bi-racialized differences.
In short, for purposes of analyses, in the English-African Diaspora,métisse (feminine) and métis (masculine) refer to individuals who according to popular folk concepts of 'race' and by known birth parentage embody two or more world views or in genealogical terms, descent groups. These individuals may have physical characteristics which reflect some sort of intermediate status vis à vis their birth parents. More than likely at some stage, they will have to reconcile multiple cultural influences.
 As I have defined it, the English-African Diaspora conventionally comprises African postcolonial constituents from the Caribbean, North and Latin America, and continental Africa who find themselves in England for labor, schooling, political asylum, and frequently by birth. However, scripted from a notion of 'home' as at once territorialized ('English') and de-territorialized (African Diasporic), métis(se) narratives of 'race' and place demand a reconfiguration of the conventional (English)-African Diaspora. More pointedly, they map the specificities of the local, yet they also problematize the parameters and boundaries delimiting the local and the global.
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Dr Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe lectures in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of East London. Her current academic projects are twofold a) researching transformations of 'Coloured' identities in post-apartheid South Africa and b) mapping global social, cultural and historical genealogies of 'race mixing' and examining their differential local articulations vis à vis status , colour and power. She is also a self-taught visual artist (photographic collage and installation) and a poet. At the moment, she is working on an audiovisual montage which chronicles her impressions of a recent visit to South Africa.
Previous publications include: "Diaspora's Daughters/Africa's Orphans?: On Authenticity , Lineage , and 'Mixed Race' Identity" in H. Mirza (ed.) Black British Feminism London: Routledge, 1997, pp.127-153 and "Multiple Occupancies: Locating Home Base" New Formations 33 (1998), pp.90-108.