By Jazlyn Andrews
We ended our jam-packed day on postcolonial theory and resistance through storytelling at the KENAKO Afrika Festival at Alexanderplatz. Upon arrival, I had a feeling of sensory overload trying to take in all the sights, savory smells, and sounds. “Shosholoza,” a song popularized in South Africa that I remember from my high school choir’s attempts at educating us on “the Other,” rang clearly in the background. In front of me were rows of booths filled with colorful tapestries and clothing alongside wooden bowls, artwork, and jewelry. The linen clothing hung on White mannequins as White consumers stared, attempting to imagine how they would look wearing a dashiki.
The first thing that struck me was the demographic of those attending the festival: apparently White Germans. I was confused and conflicted, since I hoped (naïvely) that this would be a space for the Afro-German population to celebrate in an area of their own without a fetishizing White gaze. Noticing the White vendors selling ethnic adornments or their own arts and crafts quickly brought me back down from the clouds, as I realized who the true beneficiaries of this festival were. While there were educational opportunities there—we briefly saw a panel on the integration of Africans into Germany—it was clear that they weren’t as popular. From what I could tell by peeking into the tent, it seemed the audience for the panel was more diverse than that of the consumers outside. Even though I saw posters with quotes from African scholars and activists hanging on some of the tents, no one was gathered around reading them or even taking a second glance. This made me question, what is it that makes certain aspects of African culture so desirable to predominantly White audiences?
I continued making my way through the festival, stopping to explore and talk with booth owners, when I noticed a man singing onstage. He stood center stage dancing and singing in dark dreadlocks and a red dashiki, while four men with blonde dreadlocks played their guitars and drummed behind him. Seeing this Black man performing as the four smiling White men surrounded him epitomized the festival for me: Black artwork and culture placed on display for predominantly White audiences’ entertainment. As Sandrine Micossé-Aikins and Sharon Dodua Otoo write in the “Introduction” to The Little Book of Big Visions, “Dominant White cultural producers typically consider their own art to be universal (and the art of marginalized groups to be less relevant for the mainstream population)—they are usually completely unaware of their own Whiteness and of the constraints this will have on their perspectives, their creative work, as well as on their potential audience” (10). This inflated sense of ability reared its head at the festival, as race seemed to be a non-issue for White vendors and performers selling trips to Africa, “exotic” clothing, and beaded bracelets. The meaning of the traditions and items on display flew out the window, as African culture became something they could put on for a day while they sat to get cornrows put in their hair. They could even buy a drink named “African Feeling,” if they really wanted to get in the spirit. Seeing the White shop owners profit off of African cultures reinforced the ways in which Black art is flattened to something meaningless, something that can easily be replicated by “universal” Whiteness.
After spending a considerable amount of time today discussing the horrors of Germany’s colonial past, I was reminded to pay close attention to the colonial legacies lurking in the festival. As Sharon Dodua Otoo writes in “Reclaiming Innocence. Unmasking Representations of Whiteness in German Theatre,” “The justification of the atrocities that racism, White supremacy, the Maafa and colonialism are required the extensive dehumanization of people of African descent. It required people who considered themselves to be White to regard people constructed to be Black as less than them, as unable to feel pain, as mere beings to be exploited, or perhaps patronized, but in no way to be empathized with or regarded as equals” (63). While on the festival website, the patrons of the festival claim it is “an excellent platform of cultural dialogue between Africans and Germans,” from where I was standing, there didn’t seem to be much dialogue at all. Only when I got to the other side of the festival did I see tents dedicated to workshops and organizations such as the Afrika Center, which offers German language courses and various workshops, including one on how to interview for jobs. These spaces looked barren in comparison to the rows of food and other goods and services. African culture, history, and people, then, became a commodity for exploitative consumers.
Even though I wished the festival would be different, I can’t say I am really surprised that I saw an “Asia Food” restaurant selling chicken nuggets next to cocktail bar selling “exotic” drinks. Ultimately, the festival reminded me of the importance of having spaces of self-definition. As Jasmin Eding, co-founder of ADEFRA writes in “…And I Let Myself Go Wherever I Want To,” “Self-determination, self-development and assertiveness are critical for us in facing and surviving racism and sexism in our daily lives in a predominantly White, Christian, patriarchal society” (131). It is critical that such spaces of exploration, self-definition, and resistance exist outside the White heteropatriarchal supremacist gaze; otherwise, our voices will continue to be silenced and repackaged for White consumers.
Jazlyn Andrews hails from Grinnell, IA, so she is a pro at navigating corn mazes, driving tractors, and tipping cows. When she isn’t out in the fields, she enjoys majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and minoring in Race & Ethnic Studies at Colorado College. On the weekends, she likes to binge watch House of Cards, obsess over her corgi, Biscuit, and be goofy with friends. When she’s less lazy, she likes to go for runs, have solo dance parties to “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae, and listen to music outside in the sun. Her future plans include finishing up her final two years at school, then hopefully either moving back out to Seattle, WA to pursue a writing career or attending graduate school to extend her studies.