The African Australian Question Part II: Trying to form an identity on an anxious and isolated island

By Leon Kalumba

This is the second part in a two-part series on Australian identity and the African Australian Question. To read the first part click here.

It is not widely known that Africans have been in Australia since the first fleet in 1788, arriving as slaves on board. In fact, with little acclaim, the first Australian bushranger was John ‘Black’ Caesar, a Madagascan man. Yet, he remains unknown, seldom even mentioned. Is it not confusing? Especially given that Australians, as I have previously mentioned, champion the underdog, the bushranger being an archetype of that. Although opinions may be divided on the character of Ned Kelly, he nonetheless remains a notable Australian figure. For some reason, Caesar has been left out of popular historical narratives, even though he pioneered the rebellious profession. The ‘African problem’ so vehemently pursued by the likes of Peter Dutton is not new, and their rhetoric is drowned in hogwash and hucksterism. 

The 1970s and 80s saw a wave of economic migrants from the newly independent Ghana. Following this, a steady migration continued, of an economic nature. From 1997 to 2007, an influx of more than 20,000 Sudanese migrants arrived for humanitarian reasons. In recent years the mainstream media has pilloried African youth. The image associated with a ‘thug’ is one that has become the caricature of a South Sudanese youth male. The point of distinction between Sudanese migrants and other African nationals are their physical attributes. Sudanese are generally much larger in stature and darker in complexion. These physical characteristics pose serious concerns to the Anglo-Australian psyche and make them a perceived threat. 

Growing up in Australia, I observed minimal interaction amongst African migrants and other cultural groups. Even now in supposedly multicultural Melbourne suburbs such as Carlton and Collingwood, it is rare to see diverse cultural groups as you would be more likely to notice in the UK. Even amongst the African diaspora in Australia, there exists fragmentation within groups and a lingering suspicion of the other. The integration of assumed values from one’s country of origin, with that of their adopted home, has proven to be a hirsute transition. That is because differences between national groups range far and wide. 

Delineations can be made across kinships, religions, classes, politics and tribes. These demarcations indicate the myth of a united African front. Just as class lines are blatantly clear across Australia, they are much the same amongst migrant communities. The African one is no exception. So here we have a continent lumped together into one homogeneous group by a media that is so unaware and unapologetically ignorant of its nuances. 

It appears that the new Black or rather ‘POC’ intelligentsia is also choosing to ignore the differences within the African community. They are more occupied with formulating an ostensibly united voice, one that represents their ambition and experiences, denying views that may be held by the community at large. Through their platform, they are able to form a vanguard of the African consensus. The limitation is that their agenda does not translate to all members of the diverse community. Many do not have the liberty to express their own voice due to a nagging responsibility to speak of their supposed community, one that is growing incrementally and includes all marginalised people. 

Speaking at large it is undeniable that African migrants in Australia have fewer hurdles to face than Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islander people. I feel as if the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’, to use Gramsci’s term, has Balkanised migrant groups in Australia, each now wary of the other. Not only are migrant groups wary of those who come in the following migration wave as the Southern Europeans were of the Vietnamese or the latter of the Afghans and so on, they also shift blame or criticise other groups that arrived in the same block. The English suspicious of the Irish. The Irish had separate mass times to the Italians despite belonging to the same Catholic parish. The Egyptian Coptic community openly oppose their Egyptian Muslim compatriots. This goes to illustrate that even amongst institutions, ‘races’ and nationalities,  there exist points of difference clearly demarcated. An individual may subscribe to several of these categories. They might value some of their identities over others. They may be an Australian first and a Muslim second or vice versa. Either way, it calls for a re-assessment of what it means to be associated with a group identity. 

How much influence should a group impose on an individual? Should it determine how they talk? What they should talk about? Should it direct their thinking on issues of morality? I believe we are living in a time where individuals feel it necessary to list all their identities as if it were on a shopping list. At times, this can feel forceful.

Second-generation migrant groups look elsewhere for cultural inspiration. For young African Australians, Black American culture has been a big influence. I must note that naturally not all aspects of African American culture have been adopted, it has particularly been the ghettoised version. One which is deemed cool and acceptable by many young Australians, especially due to its prevalence and influence in global pop culture. Youths from the ‘areas’ speak in creolised English. They conflate a black British cadence, African American vernacular, Australian drawl with a lingering African accent. Despite their connection to their mother countries, they are distinct from newly-arrived Africans of the same generation. Their interests are rendered more Western, be as it may, conscious or unconscious.

However, more recently a Harlem Renaissance-esque movement seems to be occurring amongst young Africans. There are apolitical YouTubers that now detail and explore the idea of being African Australian. These channels are loaded with stereotypes about other nationalities. In addition, African university clubs are now diffused with both: African Australians and international students as they try to carve an enclave for educated Africans, where they can share supposed cultural tropes. It is synonymous with the BacktoAfrica movement currently underway in Britain, where it is reported that many Africans are drawn to the countries that their parents emigrated from. The reasons range; the move has been said by some to be motivated by financial incentives and others yearn for a  sense of connection, one that is absent in Notting Hill but thriving in Lagos and Accra. These tendencies have been more apparent in the last five years. It can be witnessed by the public embracing of  African culture through clothing, cuisine and a revival in the popularity of African musicians like Wizkid and Burna Boy. Nonetheless, just as Anglo Australia bitterly struggles with its search for itself in the Asia Pacific region so too will its many hyphenated cultural groups. 

With the omnipresence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has again become more difficult to look at the Black ‘race’ from a molecular perspective. The motivations pursued by the movement lack prescriptive qualities and are infused by descriptions that are geared towards maintaining an identity that is palatable for the neoliberal centripetal force. The movement does not recognise difference within the global Black population or class rather it begs emptily for a symbolic equality. An equality that is centred around having more People of Colour in corporate boardrooms and cultural reforms such as removing television shows that are considered to be in opposition to contemporary norms and standards. Rather than carving out a new identity that is sensitive to nuances, one focused on universality is promoted. Frantz Fanon took issue with this kind of thinking, contending that his “black skin is not a repository for specific values.” Within this statement, there is an interesting lesson for contemporary observers of the BLM movement. Participants, allies, observers and enemies of the movement can suppose that there exists a homogenising Black thought. Acceptance of this homogeneity exists outside of marginalised groups, however, and particularly to the African Australian it can operate as a panacea towards difference and limits the scope of how one interprets the views and nuances belonging to a particular ‘identity group’.

This, as I suggested at the beginning, was but an exploration, trying to locate the presence of African Australian identity within a nation-state still wrangling to articulate its very own. As posited through my exploration, it is difficult to determine identity in a dogmatic fashion. You may deduce the point that identities, which are often disseminated as rigid, are instead likely to be fluid. It appears that working within strata is limited and perhaps the nature of cultural groups is being challenged by an increasingly diverse world. This diversity offers the individual many alternatives to the formerly homogeneous patina typical of their cultural, political, religious or even sexual orientation group. It is refreshing, and perhaps this magnitude of choices will alleviate group anxieties, promote the deterritorialisation of the individual and the moulding of organic communities. Moving towards a less dogmatic underpinning of this ubiquitous notion of ‘belonging’.