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Dominique Haensell, "Making Black History: Diasporic Fiction in the Moment of Afropolitanism" (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), 245 pp.:


Dominique Haensell, Making Black History: Diasporic Fiction in the Moment of Afropolitanism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), 245 pp.

In Making Black History: Diasporic Fiction in the Moment of Afropolitanism, Dominique Haensell brings Afropolitanism, a theory which has been the subject of some controversy in recent years, into focus. Thus far, Afropolitanism has often been used to describe complex identities and affiliations of Black people who understand themselves as part of the African diaspora but who, unlike their (grand)parents, did not undergo an experience of migration. In contrast to other scholars, Haensell understands Afropolitanism less as a concept, aesthetic, or identity than as “a historical and cultural moment” (2). Along these lines, Haensell examines three influential bestseller novels by Black authors that emerged from this moment and which have each been labeled “Afropolitan literature.” These works are Teju Cole’s Open City (2012), Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi. Now, although one might think that these novels have already received extensive critical attention, Haensell’s innovative approach not only generates new and multi-layered perspectives on the three authors and their novels, but also on the African diaspora itself.

Making Black History is organized into five chapters: an introductory chapter outlining Haensell’s theoretical framework; three chapters of analysis (each focusing on one of the three novels); and a concluding chapter. The overall structure of Haensell’s book is well thought out. It offers readers insights into the diverse historical, temporal, aesthetic, and political reference points for the moment of Afropolitanism, and the chapter headings in the table of contents already provide a clear overview of the aspects that are central to Making Black History: Blackness, Africa, race, temporality, space, historiography, diaspora, and dominant narratives and epistemes.

Haensell provides a range of fresh insights by reading novels by Cole, Adichie, and Gyasi as part of a larger, historically specific context of Afropolitanism. For Haensell, Afropolitanism is a moment and at the same time “a lens or tool that […] allows me to reflect on history and temporality in a manner that traces the various entry points, origins, futures, and trajectories but also limits of Blackness in the contemporary diasporic imaginary” (7). Thus, in Making Black History, Haensell fundamentally broadens our understanding of Afropolitanism, rather than narrowing it. Haensell’s aim is not to minimize critiques of Afropolitanism but rather to reveal a polyphony of Afropolitanism that encompasses various social and historical conditions through which literary texts can be analyzed.

In the introductory chapter, Haensell outlines the historical constellations within which Afropolitanism became popular. One of these is the so-called post-race period, as all the novels Haensell discusses were published after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, which fundamentally impacted the novels’ reception. Indeed, according to Haensell, “many of these novels were received as proof or sign of a post-racial age and described with the still young terminology of a post-racial aesthetic” (25). Further, Haensell observes “initial interpretations of Afropolitan writers and fictions as being beyond race or about divesting Africanity from Blackness” and argues that Afropolitanism “challenges received notions of Blackness in the US” (10). In this way, Afropolitanism becomes a moment that, far from ignoring Blackness, produces new narratives and a plurality of conceptions of Blackness.

In Making Black History, Haensell reveals that Blackness plays an important role in the novels under discussion and examines the reciprocal spatial, temporal, and aesthetic relationships of Afrodiasporic and African authors with the United States and Africa. In doing so, she unfolds how all three novels challenge the established U.S. narrative of Blackness, which is closely tied to the Middle Passage: “Afropolitan narratives that insist on their own routes to becoming Black automatically counter the hegemony of the Middle Passage Epistemology and provincialize it as merely one of multiple modes, metaphors, and histories of Blackness” (35). This important thesis of a pluralization of Blackness offers points of departure for further research on the African diaspora and its arts.

Haensell traces the pluralization of Blackness by focusing on the interplay of temporality, space, Blackness, and Africa in her analysis of the three novels. As Haensell notes, “the novels […] probe if and how history bears upon the present and whose pasts may actively constitute the contemporary diasporic imaginary” (48). Interestingly, in Open City as well as in Americanah and Homegoing, the (re)writing of Black history is significant. Haensell suggests the notion of “race in/as history” (53) here. This “attempts to convey how race can be curiously situated in the past and firmly envelope the ‘now’ through which that past is imagined” (53). Past, present, and future are interwoven, and Blackness is de-essentialized and pluralized in the novels. Other narratives and histories emerge, and Africa returns to center stage: “By actively (re-)inscribing Africa into the diasporic imaginary, they [the authors] alter and make Black history” (56). According to Haensell, the authors also write Black history because “Cole, Adichie, and Gyasi investigate the historicity of Blackness and the ways in which it implicates them, rather than treating Blackness as a specific condition that automatically includes or excludes them or an ontological fact that is inherited or rejected” (39).

A significant strength of Haensell’s work is that it expands rather than narrows established discourses. This is true both for the idea of Afropolitanism and for the analysis of the novels. Making Black History reveals the multiplicity of intradiasporic connections, conversations, and references that cannot be limited in space or time. Rather, these connections are movable, dynamic, and changeable—even when contextualized within their specific historical constellations. Such interconnections can also be seen in the impressive way Haensell references other art forms such as music and film, through which she underscores “how the contemporary diasporic imaginary goes beyond issues of identification and othering but is instead marked by various degrees of projection, rejection, citation, sampling, and collaboration” (3). These diverse references should be emphasized in future research and could contribute to broadening research on the African diaspora.

Haensell’s Making Black History offers multiple avenues for further research. For example, it can be used to direct the focus even more towards Europe. For, even in debates about Blackness in Europe, the discussion is too often overdetermined by the U.S.-American context, and the narrative of the Middle Passage continues to overshadow other routes of Black history. I therefore ask myself the following question: Can Afropolitanism, which has never really disappeared despite persistent critiques, also be thought of alongside other Black diasporic watersheds, such as the Afropean moment, which emerged in the 1990s and was popularized in the 2000s? Black authors in Europe, such as Léonora Miano, emancipate themselves from the Middle Passage narrative and form new narratives through the concept of being Afropean. For some years now, Black European authors have also been reaching wider audiences, and their novels—for instance Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other—bring to light the multi-layered African diaspora in Europe. In such ways, contemporary Black authors around the globe make and write Black history.

Jeannette Oholi (Dartmouth College)

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