Abstract

This essay coins the term liquid Africa to describe the continent as protean and fluid, a convergence point of diverse ideas and influences, shaped by the tidal wash of local, regional, and international cultural influences. The notion of a liquid Africa opposes long‐standing representations of the continent in the Western imaginary as a homogenous landmass sunk in a perpetual past, suspended outside progress, and the antithesis of modernity. Through study of Samuel Bazawule's short film Diasporadical Trilogía (2017) and a number of other recent films primarily by creative practitioners of African origin, liquidity is addressed here as a curatorial category, denoting a shared versatility of practice, and in aesthetic, geographic, and temporal terms. Aesthetic strategies such as the use of water as a thematic device and of music to weave a tapestry of auditory affinities across place and time act as means of conjuring narratives of collective memory, of multiple pasts always within reach of the present, across the African diaspora. Finally, the essay considers how Diasporadical Trilogía in particular embraces fantasy as a liberatory form, a means of resistance to notions of Enlightenment progress, and a route toward an epistemic decentering based on Africa's vast cosmology of myths and beliefs.

Diasporadical Trilogía (2017), a short film by Samuel Bazawule, is the story of a woman who has lived three different lives on three different continents in different time periods. We meet its protagonist across three chapters: first as a young woman in Accra, Ghana, in 1957; then as a little girl in Brooklyn, 1997; and finally, grown more mature, in Salvador Bahia, Brazil, in 2017. The film is dreamlike in tone, and what opens in independence-era Ghana develops into an expansive search for shared ties of identity, memory, and spirituality across the African diaspora. With its pancontinental locations and time-crossed storyline, Diasporadical Trilogía proposes a cosmopolitan African sensibility as a shared cultural identity for Black people across the Atlantic world. As Bazawule puts it, his project was born out of the “radical notion that no matter how fragmented the African diaspora is, the influence of rhythm and spirituality remains largely the same.”1

The director's choice of Salvador Bahia as the setting for the third chapter of the film, for instance, is telling. Salvador was founded in 1549 and is still known today as “Black Rome” due to the fact that its African-descended population is one of the oldest and largest in Latin America. Even as African-Bahians themselves remain a marginalized racial group within the state, their cultural practices, such as capoeira, samba, and Candomblé, have become foundational components of Bahian regional identity.

To talk of a sensibility founded in “rhythm and spirituality” risks conjuring an essentialized African identity, its characteristics set in place by biology and history. But I'd suggest the film is making exactly the opposite point. It is true that Africa is the governing presence at the heart of Diasporadical Trilogía. But the version of the continent offered by the film is mutable, not fixed in form. It is, to coin a term, a liquid Africa. An Africa that is protean and syncretic. An Africa whose influence flows across borders and time periods, taking shape in new environments while continuing to carry the memory of past existences.

I suggest the idea of a liquid, formless Africa here in distinction to the continent's frequent representation as a homogenous landmass.2 I also propose the concept as a way to resist popular accounts of Africa as a site of giddy economic advancement, as advanced by the flawed narrative of “Africa rising”3 or by the conceit of Afropolitanism, which, as Stephanie Bosch Santana rightly observes, has “come to stand for empty style and culture commodification.”4

What I have in mind with the term is something closer to Achille Mbembe's description of Africa as a “geo-aesthetic category.”5 For Mbembe, the continent is best envisaged as the meeting point of flows of commercial, cultural, and migratory exchange, both forced and voluntary, that stretch back hundreds of years and continue to unfold into the future. Africa “is by definition a body in motion, a de-territorialized body constituted in the crucible of various forms of migrancy . . . born out of overlapping genealogies, at the intersections of multiple encounters with multiple elsewheres.”6

This evocation of Africa and “Africanness” as an innately cosmopolitan condition, shaped by the tidal wash of local, regional, and international cultural influences, is echoed in Emmanuel Iduma's A Stranger's Pose (2018), a drifting, contemplative travelogue across the continent, whose pages—equal parts memoir, poetry, and photo essay—together form “an atlas of a borderless world.”7 And it also underscores Felwine Sarr's notion of “Afrotopia,” which envisages Africans as the inheritors of compound, hybrid identities: “We are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.”8

Africa as a convergence point of diverse ideas and influences is not, in itself, a new concept. Chika Okeke-Agulu and Okwui Enwezor, among others, have written of how the interplay of pan-Africanism, nationalist independence movements, and a grappling by individual artists with “the complex drama of their postcolonial subjectivities”9 ignited the continent's “short century”10 of creative flourishing in art, literature, and music from the 1940s to the 1990s.

In this essay, I explore how Africa today has acquired renewed cultural resonance, as evidenced by a number of recent films shot on the continent and made mainly by creative practitioners of African origin. I look primarily at Diasporadical Trilogía and Atlantics (2019), the Cannes Grand Prix–winning feature by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop. Additionally, I look at La Maison Noir (2018), a “visual album” by Southern Africa–based musician Petite Noir, a.k.a. Yannick Ilunga; and the British short films Allumah (2020), by Curtis Essel, and Practice (2017), by fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and photographer Harley Weir. With these works in mind, I mobilize the concept of a liquid Africa in two separate but complementary ways: as a curatorial and an aesthetic category.

Practice

First, in curatorial terms, liquid Africa is useful as a means of denoting a shared versatility of practice among the filmmakers whose work I'm exploring. For example, prior to filmmaking, Bazawule was better known as a musician—the hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador. The three chapters of Diasporadical Trilogía were originally released separately as videos to accompany tracks from his fourth studio album, Diasporadical (2016). Following Diasporadical Trilogía, he made his debut feature, The Burial of Kojo (2018), which became the first Ghanaian film available on Netflix after being acquired by ARRAY, the distribution company of Ava DuVernay.

In his journey from music to moving image, and from Ghana to his current base in New York, Bazawule has followed a similarly peripatetic path to the other filmmakers with whom I am concerned. Like him, their practice is fluid. They move effortlessly between genres and mediums, from music video and short film to cinema screens, art galleries, and streaming platforms. Based in Europe and Africa and traveling freely in pursuit of creative goals, they use their work to speak to the notion of a liquid Africa as the generative source of an artistic sensibility across the diaspora.11

The connection between liquidity as a way of working and a way of seeing is typified by the way Bazawule developed his project simultaneously as album and film, with the two works both testifying to the notion of the diasporic as a zone of borderless encounter.

The driving horns and guitar that accompany the Salvador Bahia–set chapter of Diasporadical Trilogía are garlanded by a call-and-response refrain, “Ago—Ame,” a traditional greeting in Ghana that translates from the Twi language as “Listen—We are listening.” The chant is an articulation of kinship across the Atlantic world. Throughout the film, Bazawule weaves a tapestry of auditory affinities. The Brooklyn chapter is set to West African djembe drums and Malinke guitar. Bazawule raps over the music, punctuating his verse with snatches of Ghanaian slang and intoning the line—“Let the rhythm hit ‘em”—in a cadence that borrows explicitly from Rakim's delivery on the Eric B and Rakim track of the same name (see video 1). Like the time-swept woman at the center of the film, we are, sonically, always in more than one place at once. In the Ghana chapter, a love story unfolds on screen to music typical of that postwar period—the vigorous horns and guitars of a highlife band (see video 2). At the same time, we hear stabs of vinyl scratching that belong to contemporary hip-hop. Specifically, we hear a “chirp scratch,” an intricate technique created by the Philadelphia DJ Jazzy Jeff that demands a high degree of skill from a turntablist. We are being invited perhaps to find a parallel between the virtuosic talents of musicians in two different eras on two different continents. The romantic scene in 1950s Africa is intertwined yet more firmly with the present day by the use of a sampled line—“You and I, ’till the day we die”—that speaks of tenderhearted devotion and that originates from the hip-hop ballad “Break Ups 2 Make Ups” (1999) by Method Man featuring D'Angelo. Throughout the film, music animates depictions of diaspora. Scenes are cut to the beat. In Accra and New York and Salvador, they're dancing in the street. The effect is utopian. But an undercurrent of sorrow is never far away. The joyous legacy of a shared culture of music across the Atlantic world has come at a terrible historical cost for people of African origin. This knowledge haunts the film. It unites the individual stories in each chapter in a larger, longer narrative of collective memory and shared suffering. Of multiple pasts always within reach of the present. (See video 3.)

Video 1

Dancing in Brooklyn. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 10.17–10.45.

Video 1

Dancing in Brooklyn. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 10.17–10.45.

Video 2

Juju Girl. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 2.52–3.09.

Video 2

Juju Girl. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 2.52–3.09.

Video 3

In Salvador Bahia. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 1.00–1.29.

Video 3

In Salvador Bahia. Blitz Bazawule, Diasporadical Trilogía (2016), 1.00–1.29.

Aesthetics

Turning to consider liquid Africa as aesthetic category, I want to explore how the continent functions as “an ethic and an imaginary” in Diasporadical Trilogía and other films I have listed.12 I will do so by examining how these works help reframe persistent, troubling depictions of Africa, as expressed through notions of geography, temporality, and modernity.

Liquidity informs the visual approach of the films in a range of ways. At times the films function tidally, returning to the screen memories and references from the work of earlier African directors. Bazawule cites the influence of figures like Senegal's Ousmane Sembene and Ghana's Kwaw Ansah. And in an early scene in Atlantics, a herd of cattle crosses the frame from right to left, the image tying the movie to the artistic and familial history of Senegalese cinema: a similar moment occurs in the opening sequence of Touki Bouki (1973), which was directed by Diop's uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety.

Often in the films, linear structure gives way to languid sensoria: scenes speed up, slow down, or run in reverse; characters are filmed upside down or suspended in water; skies turn vivid pink; lightning slashes the nighttime horizon. Color is deployed to symbolic purpose, as in the opening scene of La Maison Noir, which features a line of figures trekking across an arid, rocky landscape dressed in blood-red robes. Across the film's four parts, their clothes change color, signifying their journey through the four sections of the Congolese cosmogram, from birth in red, through life, death, and finally, rebirth in robes of shimmering white (fig. 2).

In a scene in Allumah, three young women sit talking around a small table in a dark room, their faces illuminated by a single candle. Essel's lighting emphasizes the angularity of the women's cheekbones and the “reflectance and specularity” of their skin.13 Conjuring such a radiant image of black beauty obliges him to grapple both with the legacy of racial bias built into color photography and with the long history of “white scopophila” that casts blackness as the antithesis of beauty.14 As Thomas Jefferson argued, the “eternal monotony” of black skin made a poor subject for aesthetic scrutiny.15 Essel counters such a canard with tableaux that reference the imagery of Chris Ofili and Malick Sidibe, among others—African-originated artists renowned for their masterly, sensual depictions of the black form.

When, in Wales Bonner's Practice, we see a young male ballet dancer filmed under an array of lighting conditions, his image flickering in and out of darkness, captured in monochrome and color, in negative and positive exposure, the mind turns to photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya's deconstructions of traditional portraiture by way of collage, layering, fragmentation, and mirror imagery. (See video 4.) And to how, through the personal perspective of black queerness that Sepuya brings to portraiture, he offers a way to look at and love the frequently imperiled terrain of the black male body (fig. 3).

Video 4

Ballet dancer. Grace Wales Bonner and Harley Weir, Practice (2017), 8.48–9.05.

Video 4

Ballet dancer. Grace Wales Bonner and Harley Weir, Practice (2017), 8.48–9.05.

Liquidity is further evoked in the films through the repeated use of water as a thematic device. It is a repeated motif as a source of creative regeneration in Practice. And in La Maison Noir (see video 5), water effects spiritual uplift—literally so, as figures rise from a lake at the end of the film and hover, suspended in the air. And from its title onward, the sea is the gravitational force that shapes lives and events in the Dakar-set Atlantics. In its first few minutes, we find the film's two lovers, Ada and Souleiman, on the beach, their backs to the camera: “You're just watching the ocean,” Ada chides Souleiman. “You're not even looking at me.” Nor can we seem to turn away. Guided by Diop, our gaze returns time and again to the water, lying dark beneath a low red sun or, shot at night, a crescent moon glowing over silver waves (figs. 4–6).

Video 5

Figures suspended in the air. Petite Noir, La Maison Noir (2018), 16.27–17.14.

Video 5

Figures suspended in the air. Petite Noir, La Maison Noir (2018), 16.27–17.14.

Yet the ocean remains an unknowable presence, sometimes benign, sometimes raging and monstrous. During Senegal's “pirogue migrations,” or “boat migrations” of 2005–6, some thirty-eight thousand young West African men attempted the fraught crossing by small boat to the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands. This event, with its manifold tragedies, forms the backdrop to Atlantics. Diop's working title for the film was Fire Next Time. The words belong to a pre–Civil War spiritual that invokes an Old Testament deity both tender and righteously severe: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, but fire next time.”16 In Atlantics the sea is no less complex or forbidding than this fierce being. As the camera lingers again over its surface, we contemplate the water as repository of countless stories of desire and departure, loss and mourning.

Geography

The proposition of Africa as the antithesis of modernity is a longstanding trope in Western discourse. As Olu Oguibe observes, “History is constructed as a validating privilege which it is the West's to grant,” with the result that Africa and its people are consigned “into inconsequence.”17 This is a falsehood that Black writers and scholars have perpetuated along with their white counterparts.

“What is Africa to me?” Countee Cullen famously asked, conjuring a land of “strong bronzed men,” “regal black women,” and “quaint, outlandish heathen gods.”18 The back-to-Africa narratives of writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Alex Haley tell a similar story to Cullen's. Books like Haley's Roots (1976) and Wright's Black Power (1954) draw a “temporal continuum” from the Middle Passage to modernity, with Africa frozen in time, untouched by progress.19 When Haley journeys to the Gambian village of his forebears, he discovers a place apparently so untroubled by civilization that it remains “very much as it was two hundred years ago.”20

The trope of African underdevelopment continues to the present day. For instance, Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), a movie that purports to present an image of African overdevelopment, still replays the same clichés. Although the fictional nation of Wakanda is a country of flying cars and advanced science, its citizens carry spears and wear animal skins like high-tech noble savages.

Even a signal work like Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic (1993) has “a surprising blind spot” in its treatment of Africa.21 As Charles Piot observes, the focus in Gilroy's landmark book on black modernity is largely on the Caribbean, the United States, and Britain as zones of diasporic exchange. Where Africa is mentioned, it tends to be with regard to countries of African American or European settlement like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Southern Africa. The consequence of that omission is to leave “unchallenged the notion that Africa is somehow different—that it remains a point of origin and purity, uncontaminated by those histories of the modern that have lent black Atlantic cultures their distinctive character.”22

Two works of counter–travel writing offer an alternative to this temporal continuum.23 In The Atlantic Sound (2000) and Lose Your Mother (2008), Caryl Phillips and Saidiya Hartman, respectively, stage a “return” to Africa by visiting Ghana for the first time. But their journeys are fraught with misunderstanding and contradiction.24 The Africa they discover is shape-shifting and liquid. It is a “body in motion.”25 In both books, a visit to the Door of No Return—Ghana's exit way to the Middle Passage during the slave trade—does not provide hoped-for catharsis but only further disquiet. Yet this surely is the point of their travels. A state of unsettledness is preferable to the too-neat denouement of Roots. Better to continue grappling with the complexities of identity than to be satiated by dubious claims of authenticity.26 Ultimately, as Suzanne Schepers suggests, it is only possible for Phillips to find a “resolution for [his] alienation by accepting a migrant, fluid identity.”27

Temporality

In Atlantics and Diasporadical Trilogía we find a way to finally break free of the “linear progress narrative” that consigns Africa to perpetual primitivism.28 For both films, liquidity is a key symbolic and structural device that serves to reframe notions of progress, modernity, and cultural identity.

Atlantics opens on a group of laborers in Dakar who have been denied their wages after months of work on a building site. Broke, they set out for Europe by boat only to disappear at sea, presumably drowned. Yet in the latter half of the film they return to Dakar as spirits that inhabit the physical bodies of their female partners by night. Their nocturnal presence inverts the “inequalities of temporality” that governed labor relations on the building site.29

Now it is the men who exert power over their exploitative boss—speaking to him through the bodies of their partners, they demand their missing wages. Their supernatural resurrection is proof that there is nothing natural or inevitable about capital's desire to assert dominance over labor. Indeed, as specters, the men are perhaps freer than they ever were in life. When set within what Riccio and degli Uberti call the “culture of mobility” in Senegalese society, their attempted journey to Europe can be read as a willed act of liberation, a casting off of their subaltern status in pursuit of fulfilment through “social realization,” “a desire for knowledge,” and the attainment of “a future self away from home.”30 Water, which plays a totemic role throughout Atlantics, functions here as the border to new states of being and possibility. The men's return from the sea marks the film's transition from a drama told in the tradition of European realism to a hauntological fable replete with ominous occurrences: mysterious fires and gesturings to the mythic and mystic, chiefly through the figure of the djinn, an Islamic spirit that is able to take the form of humans or animals.

There is a similar interplay between the mimetic and the fantastic in Diasporadical Trilogía. And likewise in this film, water beckons the way to the supernatural. The ocean is where spirit figures emerge. It is the site of communion with the ancestral past. The means by which folklore and ancestral beliefs are shared across continents and centuries.

Bazawule calls his films magic realism. But if we understand that term to mean a genre that operates along polarities such as “history versus magic, the pre-colonial past versus the post-industrial present and life versus death,” then that is surely an inaccurate description.31 With its repetitions and reverses, its nonchronological structure, and its visitations from otherworldly figures like the water deity Mami Wata, Diasporadical Trilogía envisages an unceasing ebb and flow between the modern and the mythic, the everyday and the extraordinary. There is no dichotomy here between Western progress and African stasis. Cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs are understood as hybrid forms. Shaped by history and migration, they are “dynamic and mutated and transformed . . . both prior to and also after, colonialism.”32 This state of flux and exchange is depicted with none of the ironic detachment typical to magic realism.33 The distinction is an important one. It speaks to a conviction that African beliefs and cultural practices deserve to be recognized on their own terms as valuable sources of knowledge, insight, and creative inspiration.

This is a sentiment further emphasized when Bazawule, rapping, pays homage to a panoply of African and Abrahamic deities in one verse, from such Yoruba gods as Eshu and Ogon to Allah and Jah. This while, on screen, the woman at the center of the film is visited and protected by a pair of otherworldly twins, known as ibeji in Yoruba belief.

Better, then, to categorize Diasporadical Trilogía, along with Atlantics, under the heading of speculative fiction. To use Marek Oziewicz's description, these are works that are nonmimetic in form and that affirm “the existence of ethnic traditions of science and spirituality” as a means to first “interrogate normative notions about reality” and second, subvert “the Western dichotomy between the real and unreal, natural and supernatural, scientific and unscientific.”34

It is by embracing fantasy as a liberatory form that Diasporadical Trilogía mounts a decisive challenge to ideas of African underdevelopment. The film opens with a conventional depiction of progress: 1957, the year Ghana becomes the first sub-Saharan country in Africa to gain independence. On the radio, Nkrumah hails the birth of a new republic to the cheers of a crowd. The mood is euphoric. But as the film expands its gaze across the Atlantic world, we are also confronted with the ways that Black people are denied advancement and agency. In New York, a man becomes entangled in the criminal justice system. In Brazil, the machinery of gentrification and redevelopment threatens to strip a woman of her home and her dignity.

Watching the film's characters as they struggle in the New World, we reflect on how Enlightenment values of progress and modernity feel like a bitter myth for people of African descent, built as they are on “centuries of the moral and ethical corruption of chattel slavery and the equally corrupt logic that attended its constant justification.”35 We wonder, how can we live if we are denied humanity as Black people? What does the idea of modernity mean when we are treated with such barbarity? What does progress mean for people of African origin?

In Afrotopia, Sarr calls for African nations to engage in an “epistemic decentering,” a rethinking of the notion of progress that rejects the narrow measures of economic development prescribed by the West.36 Africa and its people can take their own path to the future by fashioning the continent's cultural heritage, its vast cosmology of myths and ancient traditions, into new ways of seeing and being.

Diasporadical Trilogía feels like a film made with that exhortation in mind. If Western modernity is just another form of myth, the film proposes the inverse as a route forward for Africa: myth made real. Instead of the West's “stifling vision of reality—with its correlates of ‘truth,’ ’facts,’ ‘power’ and others,” why not a future that takes inspiration from ancient traditions?37

At particular intervals, the exuberant polyrhythms of the film's soundtrack suddenly give way to sparser, more somber passages: a cappella vocals, a lonely horn, the ambient noise of the street, or the music itself thrown into reverse like a needle dragged backward in a grove. On screen, there is uncertainty. A woman vanishes into the waves. A girl lies sprawled and possibly dead on a New York street. Two men run in panic through the narrow streets of a favela.

Such moments do not signal the film's rupture. Rather, they imply yet further resistance to the conventions of linear narrative and, in a larger sense, to notions of Enlightenment progress. We might think of them, then, as moments of “refusal.”38 Or better yet, as invocations of renewal. Footage runs in reverse. The sound of the harp and the horn spin backward. The girl, once collapsed on the street, now dances down a white corridor with a masked spirit. Is she promenading to death? To afterlife? To rebirth? Before the film's next chapter begins the screen goes black. All that's present is the sound of water beating, incessant, against the shore.

Notes

2

As addressed by, among others, Hassan, “African Modernism.” 

3

A detailed takedown of the concept is offered by McKenzie, “Africa Rising Narrative.” 

11

A similar breadth of approach is demonstrated by a number of African contemporary visual artists such as Dawit L. Petros, Kiluanji Kia Henda, and Mohau Modisakeng, whose practices oscillate between photography, film and video, installation, and live performance.

24

Phillips, Atlantic Sound; Hartman, Lose Your Mother. For a further narrative of thwarted return to Ghana and the African continent, see Eshun, Black Gold.

30

Riccio and degli Uberti, “Senegalese Migrants,” 221. Their journey can perhaps be said to form part of the “new African migratory flows” (Hassan, “African Modernism,” 461).

34

Oziewicz, “Speculative Fiction,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, online ed., 2011, oxfordre.com/literature/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-78.

37

Oziewicz, “Speculative Fiction.”

38

“Refusal: a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation i.e. a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible; the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise” (Campt, “Black Visuality,” 83).

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