There is a push in African discourse to be true to ones roots. Authenticity often calls for disrobing of the colonial identity, including dropping European names and customs. For an intellectual, this provides a certain conflict. We are inducted into a learning that is not historically African and whose movements hold values lauded as ‘universal’ but having no African elements. To be fair, Africa’s absence is often because Africa was unknown to the movement founders and not because they set out to intentionally ignore the continent’s contributions. In any case, an African joining a foreign intellectual movement and subscribing to its values faces the authenticity challenge – can an African, remaining true, claim to inherit intellectually or be part of a movement from other parts of the world?

To unravel the question of Africanness, one has to separate the idea of authenticity from that of originalism. I use originalism to refer to the move to take as African that which existed before contact with the colonial system. Originalism can be used as one of the tests for authenticity if we take it that the only things that are authentically African are those that existed in the pre-colonial setting. It is readily accepted that a practice is African if it existed in the continent before the colonial era, however, the idea that something is authentic only if it existed pre-colonially needs clear proof. Originalism is challenged by Fanon’s declaration that a people’s culture is not ot be found in a past which they no longer exist in. It is important to keep track of history and traditions but nether history nor tradition amounts to culture, at least not the living variety.

The search for a living African culture leads us to contemporaryness as a measure for authenticity. If something happens today on the African continent and is part of the lives of Africans, that is sufficient basis for it to be African. By this, the street preacher, shopkeeper and school teacher now enter African culture. We also account for urban life and all the innovations that came with it since the innovations are different from those seen elsewhere in the world and can be termed as “African”.

The contemporary approach is a very slack standard. It labels all that is happening today in the continent as African and assures similar classification to what will happen tomorrow even without knowing it. There is no grounding in a “true” African standard against which we can measure practices to declare them authentic or not. In particular, we are not allowed to label anything as neo-colonial or urge people to drop certain practices. Given that there are certain relics of colonialism that are destructive to current and future African societies, there needs to be a way of getting rid of them. The ability to declare things non-Authentic also allows the intellectual to weed out the pseudo-African traits that are often paraded as true Africa.


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