Thursday, April 27, 2006

Some Biographical Notes, Part 3

At the risk of eroding my own eroded anonymity here, I am Cape Verdean and would like to elaborate on a central theme of Cape Verdeaness that I find interesting. Identity, identities, are the stuff of locality and situational geography. And I don’t just mean land—though much of what we consider as identity (including race) proposes to come from a place. If not from a place, it certainly comes from a definitional, distinct location, or position vis a vis other positions. We like to have that be fixed. We like to have that be a box that you can check off or opt out of—note that even to opt out of something you have to presume the something exists. Cape Verdeans are a creole people, a mixed people. In Portuguese it’s not bad form to use the world mulato or mulata, it actually means something less racially offensive, something closer to “of mixed race” (although the benevolence of all things having to do with lusophone colonialism I find to be an invention of theirs). So we’re a not here nor there kind of people from Africa. In that intermediate state, many of us actually deny that we are African. Many Cape Verdeans (heretofore and forever referred to as CVs) cling to a notion of a specific identity of miscegenation where rather than claim Africa or Europe, they claim the mix-up-edness. It wouldn’t be bad if often that wasn’t just code to be racist and what I call Aspirational Europeans. Or sellouts. Or assholes.

We were “discovered” in 1460 and settled fully, well sort of fully in the 1490’s. We’re a small country that is a big deal. When the Portuguese were discovering us and the rest of that coast, there wasn’t much else going on in terms of the Discoveries, as we know them. We happened before a lot of big discoveries, including the Americas, right? Ours was the first European Cathedral outside the continent. We were one of the first outposts for commerce and traffic in the triangle between the three worlds of Europe, America and Africa. Columbus on his second voyage hung out there, refueled, got some ass probably. Francis Drake used to come and rob us all the time. Big things happened in Cape Verde, a small place. We have the ego that suggests that history—a big ego, a very profound uniqueness complex, we think that we are the best people on the planet and our home is the best place. We are cosmopolitans at best, we are foreign ass kissers at worse. We make art about the sea, longing, being away from home and being a home for all who visit us. We have a very old soul that’s stifled inside the nation-building parameters of a so-called African “new nation”--we were colonized up to 1975. Portugal was like an old lady holding on to her raggedy purse of colonies while getting jumped by the thugs—the other European nations that were carving out the world. When they split up Africa in Berlin, the big boys let Portugal hold on to us and Guine-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and S.Tome & Principe, another set of islands. I think that was like a consolation prize for having starting the whole shit and then falling off so miserably. I think Portuguese people never got over being such loser discoverers, which is why they treat their ex-colonized peoples so poorly and are such racists… No offense Portuguese peoples! So Portugal really held on as long as it could because if it let go, it would fall behind. And it did. We made them let go in 1975, with the help of their anti-fascist civil movement, which celebrates a big anniversary t his week, the April 25th (look it up).

The process by which we became a nation was the wider process of African liberation movements from the 1900’s through the 1950s and 60’s and 70’s for us. Our Kwame Nkrumah was Amilcar Cabral. A big deal in African Studies in the States but not such a big deal in Cape Verde anymore, sadly. (See above comments about sellouts and assholes). When I was growing up I felt the Cape Verdean penchant for pretending not to be black or actually African was very irritating to me. It still is because again, it often times doesn’t relate to a real conception of distinctiveness (that we do have) but rather is a code for being knee-jerk anti-African and self-loathing. But when you age everything gets better and more complicated, right?

So what about a people who is not a race, cannot be a race, will not a race? And to make it more sweetly irresistible, what about a nation that is not beholden, in its own mind, to a continent? Any continent? But rather to the sea—to the symbolic and transhistorical and fluid meaning-world of the Atlantic sea? I think that we are not postmodern, we are the antimodern, we are the negation of the BS promises of modernity—you know, all the stuff that rested on categories and direction, parameters and ideas of progress (linear progress), including the concept of "nation". But in being that we may embody modernity's true spirit. We are a suspension of a series of concepts, for better or worse. I mean, let’s face it, the continental lusophone African countries think we are sellouts to this day. As of 1990 we have behaved, at least in terms of government policy as total sellouts. But even before then, in the colonial days, CVs were treated as “creoles” and “mulatoes” and they were seen as intermediates, one step up from “black”, 10 steps down from “white”. They were often mid-level administrators in the colonies.

Amilcar Cabral insofar as he led many other brilliant young CVs in the liberation struggle proposed to redeem us and give us our proper African grounding. And it held for a while, then we sold him out again. I’m being very simplistic about some aspects to focus on what to me is really complex. The cultural aspects are most complex. They actually confound a purely historical and political analysis. For instance, I think our DNA is so about “mixing” and our DNA is so committed to destabilizing categories that in one tiny country the size of Rhode Island, we have about nine inhabited islands and about that many dialects of our creole. Well regionalized versions of the creole. To the point where some island folk say they can’t really understand what the other island folks are saying. Currently as we try to give Cape Verdean language parity with the official language of Portuguese (this is a very cool recent development, by the way), there is regional strife about “which” creole will become the one that we teach in schools and speak in the media and use in Parliament. The beef is whether it will be my creole, from my island (the old capital, in a way) and creole from Santiago (the real post independence capital). To illustrate, to say kid I say “menine” to say kid they say “mininu”. To say “what up?” I say “manera?” and they say “E modi?”. My creole has a shhhh sound for the S, theirs has a hissing S. My creole swallows syllables all the time, theirs enunciates, especially the last syllable. Theirs sounds more “African” we tend to say and more sexy and has a better cadence. Our sounds more portuguezed in a way. And I would love to know linguistics to really know but the percentage of the population in the southern islands, including Santiago, that appears more “African” is higher. That island is also the largest and unlike mine, has a remote “interior” space that developed in a sense without so much interference. There the African aspects of the culture have survived and thrived and it is apparent.

It used to be the case that my island—a port island where American whalers and British coal traders and French merchants and everybody and they mama used to stop by, felt to me to be lacking in that africanity, to be diluted. I think many CVs still see it that way, that the other islands are more rootsy than mine. My young militant anti-colonial self really didn’t take kindly to that. If CV in general suffered from this identity crisis and denial in my eyes, my island was a most extreme case of it. It occurred to me a while back as I got older that the very concepts of dilution and purity of course are bogus: we’re not coffee, we’re people. Human beings are fully integrated actualities, they are projects, they are not endless trajectories away or towards some original model of self. You know what used to really piss me off? White people don’t have to worry about this shit. But not anymore because I realized that to have a narrow sense of self based on this rigid idea of a race is just as bad as having this sense of racial transcendence that white people have: both states are delusions.

I come now to really be proud of what Cape Verde truly means. An outpost identity, a transitory moment in many travels by many people. Everything that we are destabilizes the processes that seek to define us—in that sense we are not special, as much as illustrative of what everyone is: everyone is boundless, sea-bound, traveled and travelogued, immigrant and emigrated, of unsure origins and even less sure destination. And if everybody is, then there is nothing mystical or exotic about it. Just like there is nothing foreign about an immigrant flying a Mexican flag in a protest in LA. So what? Why not? We have inherited a planet, not a fake set of boundaries. There is absolutely NO information that we have been able to dig out that shows us existing as humans before motion and dislocation. None. As far back as we trace ourselves, we find ourselves unstable, here and there, a proto-Cape Verdean state of being. In contact with each other, in a crossing over moment. Always.

I still hate the assholes and the sellouts. I still hate my government turning its back on Africa and South America and other poor people’s of the world to embrace Bush and his Millennium Challenge Accounts money. I still hate NATO “discovering” us this summer because I know they will seek basing rights. I still hate CVs who hate black people, who think t they’re some kind of funny white person. Who cringe at the idea that they are Africans. But that’s a political position, it’s not anything beyond a political position. It’s not a definition, or an answer, or a set of parameters for what it means to be Cape Verdean. The attempt at that kind of definition is clearly futile, it’s not even sexy, and it’s lazy. So lazy.