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And Bid Him Sing: Egyptian Race Consciousness in African Diasporic Memory

… And Bid Him Sing : la conscience de race dans la mémoire des diasporas africaines en Égypte
... وتدعوه للغناء: الوعي المصري بالمسائل العرقية في ذاكرة الشتات الافريقي
May T. Kosba
p. 45-60

Résumés

La conscience de race, de suprématie blanche et d’identité noire en Égypte n’a pas été totalement théorisée et analysée. Cet article présente une analyse de texte du roman de David DuBois … And Bid Him Sing, dans lequel l’auteur interroge et rapproche la structuration de question raciale pendant les années 1960 en Égypte et aux États-Unis. De plus, cet article montre comment David DuBois fait de la « conscience noire » égyptienne (ou plutôt son absence), un élément essentiel de l’affrontement politique au sein de la conscience noire en général. Les chercheurs qui ont exploré les collaborations culturelles et politiques entre Noirs et Arabes dans le roman se sont essentiellement concentrés sur la façon dont Le Caire est devenue, dans l’imaginaire noir et à travers la traduction, un espace de la diaspora noire. En tant qu’africaniste égyptienne, j’explore la conscience de race en Égypte et dans l’imaginaire noir, en mettant en avant les thèmes traduisibles et non-traduisibles dans le roman, tout en imaginant l’Égypte à l’aune d’une géographie diasporique africaine. A la lumière de cette enquête, cet article affirme que le roman révèle les liminalités (l’entre-deux) de l’identité raciale des Égyptiens contemporains et leur conscience, coincée entre deux mondes dichotomiques: le monde « Blanc supérieur » (Europe) et le monde « Noir inférieur » (Afrique). En plus d’être un objet de recherche peu étudié dans les études moyen-orientales et sur l’Égypte moderne, ces investigations permettent d’expliquer les notions passées et présentes de race dans la conscience égyptienne.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

1In … And Bid Him Sing, David Graham DuBois (1975) reflects on his experience as a Black American intellectual in self-imposed exile in 1960s Cairo, Egypt. Writing in Oakland, California, DuBois chronicles harmonious and dissonant modalities of Blackness using fiction, history, and autobiography. The multiplicity of the novel’s genres reveals the author’s commitment to showing the complexity of Black and Egyptian struggles with colonialism and white supremacy. Despite its dominant autobiographical premise, the novel has been primarily framed as contemporary historical fiction. Using historical and sociopolitical data, and ethnographic observations, the author accurately constructs modern Egyptian racial and sociopolitical consciousness, and how it pertains to Black struggle. In this article, I show how DuBois’s interrogation of Black and Egyptian race consciousness is articulated through an examining of Egypt’s place in Black imagination, making it an integral part of a conflict in Black American consciousness.

  • 1 The broad definition of diaspora is the physical displacement and dispersal of a certain ethnonati (...)

2Although a deceptively easy read, the novel is ripe with multilayered themes, where space and memory intersect through the author's embodied experiences. It archives an African diasporic memory, unraveled through the author’s imagined “Black sense of place,” which he deploys to subvert Euro-American colonial legacy and white supremacy (Eaves 2017, 81). This novel is a Black diasporic tale of homecoming, beyond fiction, through which DuBois marks an actual return to Africa, via Cairo, and draws the contours of Egyptian and Black American “diasporan consciousness”1 (Butler 2001, 207). His narrative centers the Black American experience within the confines of imperialism in both the center and the periphery, as it is articulated and (re)defined by shifting political currents beyond the Atlantic. It is also a tale of yet another Black displacement and dislocation from Africa, and a forced return into the diaspora. This article translates DuBois’s affinity with Cairo as space-making and territory marking, where Cairo is mapped as a Black geography. Katherine McKittrick defines Black geographies as “subaltern or alternative geographic patterns that work alongside and beyond traditional geographies and site a terrain of struggle” (2006, 7). In many ways, Cairo, almost a character in the novel, represented the ontological and political struggles of both Black Americans and Egyptians in their pursuit of freedom and autonomy.

3Previous scholarship on this novel pinpointed and interrogated Black African/Arab moments of cultural and political collaborations across the African continent and the Atlantic. Scholars identified translation to be the most pertinent idea which ties together the novel’s multilayered themes. Cultural critic Keith Feldman, whose work leads a growing scholarly interest in the novel, traces the successes and failures of Afro-Arab diasporic solidarity through the Palestine question. He argues that the novel identifies different “modes of translation practiced in a North African and Arab context” (Feldman 2011, 153). Those modes of translation are “linguistic, transnational, and multi-generic, moving between English and Arabic, US and Third World grammars of blackness, jazz, poetry, history, fiction, and autobiography” (153). Furthermore, he suggests that conditions of the “US racial landscape…were untranslatable in the context of Egyptian nationalism and Nasser’s version of Pan-Arabism” (162). On the other hand, Sophia Azeb and Maytha Alhassen both interrogate a reading of how Cairo helped “translate blackness in the context of the Nasserist era” (Azeb 2016, 63), and was “transformed” into a “Black Atlantic Islamic metropole” (Alhassen 2015, 220). That said, this article is concerned with the paradox of the “untranslatability” and the “non-transferability” of Black struggle with white supremacy in Egyptian consciousness. Nasser’s three circles were constructed to emphasize Egyptians’ commitment to pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism. If so, where is the “untranslatability” of Black suffering in Egyptian consciousness coming from?

4While translation is possibly a dominant medium of articulation, I argue that translation is enabled by DuBois’s “outsider within” status as a Black sociologist immersed in Egyptian culture. Patricia Hill Collins states that the “outsider within” approach “is one where intellectuals learn to trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” while constantly resisting “‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders” (1986, S29). As such, I maintain that the novel primarily uses representation as a medium to articulate themes of displacement, authenticity, roots and routes, language, class, and race. Since representation is a “meaning-making practice” where language is its primary decoder (Hall 1997, 28), the author’s ability to navigate Egyptian and Black consciousness enables him to show the entanglement of these themes through representation. Robert Merton suggests that the process of becoming immersed into the life of a certain group is a drawn-out process where one has to “understand the fine-grained meanings of behavior, feeling, and values … and decipher the unwritten grammar of conduct and nuances of cultural idiom” (1972, 15). Collins holds that one becomes an insider by “translating a theory or worldview into one’s own language until, one day, the individual converts to thinking and acting according to that worldview” (1986, S26). Bob Jones, the protagonist in the novel, represents David DuBois himself, and demonstrates his socialization in Egyptian society and culture. Bob’s consistent uttering of Arabic words with his Black, White, and Egyptian friends, draping a “floor-length cotton galabiya” over his “naked and scrubbed body,” fixing himself a “glass of Turkish coffee, and stretch[ing] out on a wicker lounge chair on…[his] balcony,” and smoking hashish are some examples of his immersive practices in Egyptian (Cairene) culture (D. DuBois 1975, 75). As for race consciousness, Bob performs what Pierre Bourdieu would describe as a “labor of representation” of both Black and Egyptian cultures (1991, 129). In an absence of an authentic Egyptian voice, this labor is often carried out in juxtaposition to another character’s take on Egyptians’ racial and political consciousness, religion, class, and gender relations. The author’s labor communicates a correction or education, as he is often speaking for, speaking at, and speaking from shifting positionalities and standpoints, enabled by his phenotype which resembles Egyptians for the most part, and his personal and professional backgrounds.

5The novel’s position is ambiguous on the place of the “Arab” on the continent and how it pertains to prevalent anti-Blackness. Arabness, however, remains a contested issue in modern articulations of the interlocking history of colonialism and slavery. That said, it is locating the African in the predominantly “Arab” ontological and epistemological formation of modern Egyptians that is the center of Afrocentric and Black nationalist scholarly debates. The growing synonymity between “Africanness” and “Blackness” often complicates and demarcates “Arabness” and “Africanness” as two dichotomous ethnicities. While the novel abstains from interrogating Egyptians’ “Arabness,” interrogating Egyptians’ “Africanness” was emphatically the object of heated debates. As we shall see, the liminality of Egyptians’ racial consciousness, that is the in-betweenness of their identity in the Black-White binary, will be salient under the Black gaze and a marker of the novel’s “dialectics of American Blackness” (Alhassen 2017, 224).

6In sum, using theoretical, ethnographic, and biographic frameworks drawing on critical race theory, literary theory, and African diaspora studies, this article provides a literary analysis of 1960s Cairo and Cairenes in Black imagination and memory, and the novel’s conceptualizations of race while contrasting and theorizing Black and Egyptian race consciousness. Through a close reading of the novel, this article investigates what Feldman (2011, 152) describes as the “non-transferability” of “politicized notions of pan-Africanism” in Egypt through Black consciousness. This article is keen on providing a discursive analysis of how modern Egyptians’ racial identity and race consciousness is represented in the Black imagination, through a conceptualization of Egypt as an African diasporic geography. Seeking to build a cross disciplinary bridge between African, African Diaspora Studies, Middle Eastern and North African Studies, and Ethnic Studies, this article aspires to contribute to contemporary transnational discourses on race, politics and culture, as well as on Black-Egyptian conflicts and collaborations, often overlooked in the aforementioned fields.

7In the subsequent sections, I will start with an introduction to the novel and the author’s biography, followed by an argument for Egypt as an African diasporic geography. Then, I will show the paradoxical untranslatability of racism in the 1960s Egyptian context through the author’s labor of representation. Finally, I will unravel the complex ways in which the Black lived experience was defined through Egyptians’ race consciousness, and through the memory and imagination of a Black American tale of transnational belonging, centering Cairo.

… And Bid Him Sing: a Synopsis

8With a tribute to Countee Cullen’s 1925 sonnet, which ends with “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!,” DuBois begins his novel. The novel opens with Suliman ibn Rashid’s dread to open his eyes to his “tiny, clustered room,” in a Cairene sha’bi slum, with a window overlooking a shaft which other tenants use as a dumpster (D. DuBois 1975, 9). Suliman is a self-exiled young poet in his early twenties from Philadelphia, who took refuge in Cairo from America’s racism. Despite his formal introduction to Islam through the Nation of Islam (NOI), he appears to have made another conversion, to Sunni Islam, as a student learning Arabic at Al-Azhar University. Even though he seemingly adheres to an “orthodox” understanding of Islam, his lifestyle is unorthodox from both Islamic and Egyptian traditional perspectives. Suliman’s neighborhood “was notorious for its concentration of pimps, prostitutes, hashish dealers, petty hustlers and small-time entertainers” (59). His room is like a pan-African meeting spot, where he regularly gathers with his three Black American friends – Kamal, Ibrahim, and Mohammed – along with Sayyid, a Nubian drummer, and Joseph, a Sudanese dance group organizer, “as they all passed around the gouza (pipe)” (14-15). His room shelters Karima, “a third-rate cabaret dancer of mixed Egyptian and Sudanese origin, who everybody said was a whore” (11). While there is no evidence that they are officially married, they both live as husband and wife. Their bond is more than sexual. It shields Suliman from feelings of loneliness and isolation in a foreign land, and safeguards Karima from poverty and society. Their bond can be construed as a means to cope and avoid the Egyptian society’s gaze.

9Meanwhile, the novel presents Bob Jones, the narrator-protagonist – a clone of David DuBois, the author. Bob’s dominant voice permeates through the novel as he traverses the corners of the city, and shines a light on other characters’ living conditions and consciousness. On his way to East Africa six years prior, Bob decided to stop by Egypt and has remained ever since. He spends his time between historical cafes and bars. His ritualized tea and Turkish coffee drinking, hashish smoking, and Egyptian Arabic vernacular are acts of socialization, coping, brotherhood, and intoxication. Bob’s character is cast in contrast to Suliman’s. While Bob mirrors DuBois, Suliman’s character is a symbol of a Black nationalist ideology detrimental to Black liberation and organizing at home and abroad. Race and Blackness were at the core of that conflict. Malcolm X appears later in the novel to mobilize African leaders towards a joint African and Black struggle with liberation. Following his tragic death, the novel ends with another seismic event – the beginning of the 1967 Six Day war between Israel and Egypt – signaling the end of “a durable Afro-Arab diasporic culture in Cairo” (Feldman 2011, 152). Suliman’s repudiation of his Americanness is not enough to reconcile his beliefs and ontological reality as a Black American. He remains an American subject, bound by imperialist interests, nation-states, borders, transnational surveillance systems operating through asymmetrical power relations forever disrupting a safe return to Africa. The Black subject will either remain in exile, like Bob; be constantly displaced, like Suliman; or possibly end up a dead prophet, like Malcolm X. Those different endings might be seen as determinisms of the Black fate. While the Egyptians’ fate was left unknown, the author signals a fate similar to that of their Black brethren. Bob finds the Egyptians trapped in their own land battling war and poverty. Are Egyptians trapped in racialized political dialectics of their own bodies the same way Black Americans are? The forthcoming analysis will show the novel’s perspectives on that, following an orientation about DuBois’s personal and professional lives, and the ways in which they overlap in reality and fiction.

David Graham DuBois Between Reality and Fiction

Early Life

10David Graham DuBois was the son of writer and activist, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and the stepson of pan-African scholar-activist, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, also known as W.E.B. Du Bois. David DuBois (1925-2005) grew up in Indiana with his maternal grandparents, the Rev. David A. Graham and Etta Bell Graham, and took his stepfather’s surname soon after his parents’ marriage in 1951 (National Visionary Leadership Project, n.d.). Following W.E.B. Du Bois’s death in Ghana in 1963, and his mother’s death of cancer in Beijing in 1977, David DuBois honored his stepfather’s legacy through the founding of the W.E.B. Du Bois Foundation. During his time as a visiting professor of Afro-American Studies and Journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (1983-2001), he played a key role in renaming one of the three university libraries after his stepfather in 1994. During his time as an announcer at Radio Cairo, he advocated, among Egyptian officials, to have his father’s books translated into Arabic, particularly Black Flame Trilogy (Aidi 2018, 418-419).

11His parents’ legacy had a striking influence on his career. While following his mother’s footsteps as he attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he obtained a degree in sociology like his stepfather. David DuBois has been known for his activism and journalism, but his sociological training and how it pertains to the novel is hardly discussed. The personal and intellectual enmeshment of David DuBois’s experience and Bob’s character, help us better navigate the novel’s multilayered and overlapping themes and genres, and the ways in which they pertain to 1960s Cairo. Bob is how David DuBois enters the narrative as a fictional narrator with an already developed consciousness and a steady ethnographic eye. He demonstrates what it means to be Black in Egypt from a geographical, psychological, historical, and politically shifting positionality that hearkens back to a unique moment of pan-African solidarity, while aiming to demarcate positive and negative currents in the Black Power movement which he was a part of.

Loving Egypt: The African Circle

12“I fell in love with Egypt,” David DuBois once declared. He said, “everybody looked like me, and I looked like everybody else. I was accepted as a human being without any reference to the color of my skin. It was an overwhelming experience. I found myself invisible” (Berger 1992). In 1960, David DuBois travelled to Egypt and made it his home. He spent a little over a decade working as a journalist and a lecturer at the American University in Cairo. He also served as “news editor of the Egyptian Gazette, a reporter and features editor for the Middle East News and Features Service Agency, an announcer and program writer for Radio Cairo’s shortwave English language transmissions to North America, and a public relations consultant to the government of Ghana under President Kwame Nkrumah” (UMass Amherst, 2005).

13In Cairo, he overlapped with many Black intellectuals, artists, and activists, including Maya Angelou and his own mother, Shirley Graham Du Bois, who were attracted to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt and “approached Egypt as an African country” (Berger 1992). Soon after her husband’s death, and the deposition of Nkrumah in a military coup, Shirley Graham Du Bois joined her son in their apartment, overlooking the Nile, where she used to meet and mentor a young Radwa Ashour who later graduated with a Ph.D. in Black American literature from the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Ashour 2018, 5, 79).

14David DuBois’s sojourn in Cairo marks a return to Africa, a place that “functions as the constituting basis of collective [Black] diasporan identity” (Butler 2001, 207). Not minding collapsing Africa into Egypt, Shirley Graham Du Bois once wrote “Egypt is Africa” (1970). The Du Bois family’s “Black sense of place” in Egypt was facilitated by Nasser’s vision linking Egypt to Africa as one of the “three circles,” which he laid out in The Philosophy of the Revolution (1959), describing Egypt as simultaneously African, Arab, and Muslim. Nasser’s three circles were like a revolving door connecting three particular identity formations, to affirm Egyptian ties to specific cultural, religious, and geopolitical roots in response to global decolonial organizing. As Egyptian anthropologist Soheir Morsy states, the Egyptian commitment to Africa at the time “extended beyond their home continent to the diaspora” (1996, 182). As such, just as global decolonial and pan-African activists flocked into Egypt from the United States and elsewhere, many Egyptian nationalists traveled to America where they engaged in pan-African and third world activism.

15Egypt’s politics in the 1970s shifted from Nasser’s pan-Arab/pan-African socialism to Anwar al-Sadat’s economic policy of al-infitah (open door). This shift in Egypt’s political and economic identity coincided with a shift in the Black Power movement’s political identity, as in the case of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Upon his return to the United States, David DuBois became the new editor of the BPP’s newspaper replacing Eldridge Cleaver, the paper’s first chief editor, whose time was characterized by “profanity” and a “rhetoric of the gun” (Beckett 2016, 930). David DuBois’s appointment shifted the party’s political and rhetorical position towards non-violence, and changed the party’s political identity from Black nationalism to “international or ‘intercommunal’ struggle against racism and imperialism that cuts across all color lines” (Abron 1993, 353).

16Across both fiction and reality, David DuBois’s narrative omits Egypt’s paradoxical relationship with Sudan and Nubia, where Egypt has always been a “colonized colonizer” (Troutt Powell 2003, 25). Although pan-Africanism and anti-colonial struggle define Nasser’s legacy, it was marred with authoritarianism. Nasser left a “haunting” legacy, which failed to deliver on its promises on the one hand, and a “damaging project filled with social violence that continues to haunt contemporary Egyptian politics,” on the other (Salem 2019, 262). Nasser’s authoritarianism silenced any opposition, including Nubians, rendering the Nubian question a national security issue. The novel’s silence – almost a neglect – of both the Sudanese and Nubian issues and characters, as the author deconstructs 1960s Cairo through the Black gaze, complicates our understanding of Nasser’s pan-Africanism.

Egypt, an African Diasporic Geography?

17Although the global decolonial movement of the 1950s and 1960s may have revived Egypt’s place in Black and non-Black imagination, Egypt’s identity has always been in the eyes of the beholder. As we focus only on Egypt in Black imagination as portrayed in the novel, first, we need to establish that “black lives are necessarily geographic,” (McKittrick 2006, xiii). This is because “Black thought has long been concerned with questions of space, place, and power” (Hawthorne 2019). The author’s coming to 1960s Cairo was an interrogation of that concern. It was an act of space-making to the extent that Egypt was articulated, for a short while, as a Black geography. Centering the lives of fictionalized Black characters, plus Malcolm X and Nasser, the novel primarily documents and archives a moment of fruitful cultural and political collaboration between Egyptians and Black Americans. It also exhibits a conflict in Black consciousness. The place of Egypt in Black imagination was an integral part of that conflict. It is articulated by the fact that the novel takes place in Egypt, and Egyptians’ racial and political consciousness are at times the point of many debates. Although David DuBois’s African return carves Cairo out as a geography outside the Black Atlantic, it functions as a throwback to ancient Egypt and Egypt’s Biblical location in Black consciousness without delving into a deeper discourse on Egypt’s Africanness as a contested identity. In “The ‘Three Circles’ Construction,” Alhassen did not only introduce Nasser’s three circles as “a transnational phenomenon” on par with Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, Michael West’s Black Pacific, and Agustin Lao-Montes’s Afro-Hispanic diaspora, she also introduced Cairo as a “Black Atlantic Islam metropole” (2015, 3). While it is possible that Cairo is marked as a “Black Atlantic Islam metropole” and a Black geography in the novel, I argue that, additionally, Egypt is an African diasporic geography.

18Africa, in postcolonial scholarship, has been theorized as “a material and imagined place, a historical geography, the constellation of the places and peoples embedded in its conceptual bosom” (Zeleza 2005, 6). Diaspora, on the other hand, as a term, originated in Jewish and Greek historical and cultural contexts. The term is most commonly used to refer to Jewish dispersion in the West. In the 1950s and 1960s the term has become increasingly used by Black Americans as a political term with biblical roots. For example, Psalms 68:31 says, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” and was often cited “as a way of describing the black (world) condition and the source of liberation” (Patterson and Kelley 2000, 14). The metaphoric use of Ethiopia refers to a “black worldwide movement against injustice, racism, and colonialism” (14). Without a doubt, the Atlantic model, as a Black-centric model, has deeply influenced how we think and write about Africa today. Scholars in African diaspora studies “emphasized dispersal and African cultural survivals in the New World” as a result of the transatlantic slave trade (14). This is problematic, for “it is premised on a conception of ‘Africa’ as ‘sub-Saharan Africa” (Zeleza 2005, 6). This position is emphasized by the fact that, despite the differences, the slave trade across the Atlantic (by Europeans) and the Mediterranean (particularly in North Africa, under Arab Islamic and Ottoman rule), singled out Black Africans as the sole target for brutal enslavement. These interlocking legacies of slavery created a dialectical relationship between Arabs and Africans, and thus between Egyptians and Black Africa.

19Despite vacillating between subalternity and hegemony, and being an imagined place in Black diasporic consciousness, Egypt – to borrow, without colonizing, Agha’s term pertaining to Nubian land – in some sense has become a “disembodied territory” from Africa (2019, 8). The disembodiment, however, was not only an outcome of slavery or diasporic scholarship, but it is also a colonial one. To illustrate, in Orientalism, Edward Said identifies the Orient’s proximity to Europe as not only “adjacent to Europe” (1979, 1-2). The Orient, that is Egypt, “is an integral part of European material civilization and culture” (1-2). Said reveals Napoleon’s fantasy and “imaginative geography” which inspired Ferdinand de Lesseps, a pseudo-engineer diplomat, to make Napoleon’s fantasy real, by digging the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, “melt[ing] away the Orient’s geographical identity by (almost literally) dragging the Orient into the West” (92). Europe’s rape of Africa extended to disembody Egypt’s geography. Egypt was liminalized, as Europeans made it an artificial extension of Europe, a material passage to Arab and African frontiers. Consequently, Egypt, not only Cairo, became a colonized/Europeanized geography, disembedded from its Africanness. These historical interlocking legacies inform modern Egyptian consciousness and locate Egyptians as a people in-between two binary Black and White worlds. Thus, it behooves us to locate Egypt both in imagination and reality. Although the novel’s narrative revives Egypt’s significance in Black imagination, mediated by Cairo’s politics, it does so through complicating Egyptians’ race consciousness in contrast with Black race consciousness. Additionally, tracing and interrogating understudied Black and Egyptian examples of pan-African intellectualism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like Dusé Mohamed Ali, the Du Bois family, Radwa Ashour, among others, is important, for it may shine a light on Egypt’s centuries-old African diasporic nature.

Egyptian Race Consciousness in Black and Egyptian Thought

20In this section, I analyze how the novel unravels and theorizes Egyptians’ race consciousness and orientation, as imagined in Black thought, mainly through Suliman’s and Bob’s eyes. Egyptians’ race consciousness is not defined through a particular Egyptian character’s voice or standpoint. It is defined mainly when Bob’s experience and worldview counterposes Suliman’s in a manner that creates a Black dialectic on race and political organizing. These two concluding sections will show Egyptian race consciousness in theory and action conceptualized through the author’s labor of representation.

Egyptian “Blackness” Between Roots and Routes

21Suliman takes Egypt as his alleged “ancestral homeland” (D. DuBois 1975, 34). His journey from America to Egypt signifies a homecoming to a Black geography as signified and imagined in Afrocentric thought. Hence, Egypt fulfills his Black identity formation, for it “signifies for Suliman the essence of black history or at least a major source of it” (Azeb 2016, 69-70). Egypt’s place in Black imagination is not only biblical or pan-Africanist. It is defined through Afrocentric claims of ancient Egypt as a response to the early nineteenth century’s emerging fields of Egyptology and anthropology. Although those disciplines were used to justify the enslavement of Black Africans in America, while claiming false ownership of ancient Egypt, the novel abstains from defining ancient Egyptians’ racial orientation. Suliman’s voice sensitizes the reader to grapple with the issue, hinting at a tinge of an Egyptian repudiation of Blackness. He views Egyptians as a self-loathing people at odds with their skin color. Who are the Egyptians? Are they Black or White? Who has a say on the Egyptians’ phenotype? Caught between the Black/White color divide, Egypt and Egyptians have long been objects of Manichean discourses on Egypt’s identity and phenotype. In Suliman’s imagination, Egypt was “always already black,” and Egyptians are “outside of blackness,” just as much as Egypt was always already White, while Egyptians are outside of Whiteness in Eurocentric thought (69). Between these binary worlds, Egypt and modern Egyptians are culturally, ethnically, racially, and geographically located between Western racial constructs of a “civilized” Whiteness and an “inferior” Blackness, on the one hand, and Black counterresponses to White erasure and decimation of Black intellectualism and humanity, on the other, making Egyptians a liminal people (Kosba 2019, 107). In this context, the liminality of Egyptians is exposed by both the White gaze and the Black gaze. Egyptians are trapped in a dualistic self-consciousness that creates a false kinship with Whiteness. The novel calls us to ponder whether Egyptians, by means of their Africanness, ought to identify as Black and they do not because they refuse to be Black, or because they are unaware of their Blackness – that is, their Africanness? If Egyptians identify as Black by means of their Africanness, not their phenotype, would they be considered Black in a Black diasporan sense? Bob narrates the following conversation with Suliman. In that moment, Egyptian Blackness or lack thereof is defined, revealing a conflict in Black race consciousness:

[Bob] “What sort of things interest you” I asked.
[Suliman] “Anything about us, man!” he replied, in a tone suggesting I should have known this without asking. “Anything about us black folks.”
[Bob] “Does that include books about Egypt?” I was deliberately prodding.
[Suliman] “Man, Egypt ain’t black; don’t you know that yet, after all the time you been here?”
[Bob] “It’s in Africa and a whole lot of its people are black.” I ventured.
[Suliman] “Try an’ tell them that. They think they’re white, man. Some of ‘em black as me talking about they ain’t African.”
[Bob] “Because an Egyptian says he’s not African don’t mean he think he’s white.”
[Suliman] “What does he think he is, then?”
[Bob] “Egyptian, just like he says. A lot of folks on this continent still only think of themselves as, say Fanti or Ibo or Ewe, or Zulu or Kikuyu. They don’t even think of themselves as Ghanaian or Nigerian or Congolese or Kenyan. So how can they think of themselves as African? That’s a long time coming for them, brother. At least Egyptians know they’re Egyptians. They didn’t create the lie that Egypt’s not Africa. The white man did.” (D. DuBois 1975, 47-48)

22Two things are being interrogated here: Egyptians’ racial identification and race consciousness.

23This dialogue shows the labor exerted to maintain a comprehensible diasporic discourse on Egyptian identity and Egypt’s place in the Black diaspora. Suliman’s frustration with Egyptians leaves Bob with the task of reconciling and performing a labor of representing and translating Egyptians. Through a display of Suliman’s Black essentialist views of Egypt and Bob’s counterresponses, the novel reveals that those arguments are a well-trodden path for Bob/David. Bob’s gaze precedes Suliman’s, as the reader encounters the author, through Bob, at a moment where he had moved beyond essentialism through careful analysis and observation of Egyptians’ paradoxical identity. Interestingly, unlike Suliman, for Bob, Egyptians are not outside of Blackness. Regardless of conflating Africanness and Blackness, Egyptians’ Africanness makes them “Black,” one way or another. The key difference between Suliman’s and Bob’s standpoints is Bob’s ability to see beyond Egyptians’ collective self-identification and race consciousness. According to Bob, Egyptians’ Blackness is not defined by their phenotype or language, it is in their rootedness in their geography. Many Egyptians today may not be able to trace their ancestry all the way through ancient Egyptian history, but might be able to trace it a few hundred years back. The cutoff between antiquity, and medieval and modern history, does not disqualify Egyptians from their Africanness because they were not physically diasporized. Although this historical disruption goes unaddressed in the novel, it may suggest that the author thinks that Egyptians’ self-identification is not the problem, it is the transatlantic slave trade which displaced and dispersed Black Africans into the diaspora. Black Americans are not as rooted in their Africanness the way the Fanti, Ibo, Ewe, Zulu, Kikuyu, and even Egyptians are. Modern subjectivities like the Egyptian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Congolese, Kenyan, and Black are colonial constructs. Although Africa itself is a colonial construct, the point here is that Africans are rooted in Africa, culturally and geographically, leaving Black Africans in the diaspora, particularly Black Americans with a dialectical relationship with their Africanness. It is no longer a question of tracing one’s roots, it is seeking new routes that may or may not lead back to Africa in a nonessentialist way.

24In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy writes, “marked by its European origins, modern black political culture has always been more interested in the relationship of identity to roots and rootedness than in seeing identity as a process of movements and mediation that is more appropriately approached via the homonym routes” (1993, 19). Roots is a position on diasporic identity that is backward looking, ethnonationalist, and essentialist in nature, which seeks to live the future in the past. Gilroy’s conceptualization of the term shows the Eurocentricity of Black diasporic pursuit of identity through roots and rootedness which always requires an actual return with internalized Eurocentric notions of Whiteness and Blackness. Whereas routes is a position on cultural identity as “a matter of becoming as well as being,” unfixed, with no trajectory or end point. It is a non-essentialist understanding of African cultural identity as a “unity within difference” that is defined by the “colonial experience” (Hall 1990, 225). Although both Bob and Suliman sought a return to Africa through Cairo, it is their position on cultural identity that lies at the heart of the conflict. How important is this display of Black American politics on Blackness, and the roots and routes schools of thought? It was a crucial display as the author reflected on the BPP’s shifting politics at the time and the ideology Suliman symbolizes, since the novel was originally serialized in the BPP’s newspaper when David DuBois became the new chief editor, and before Ramparts Press published it in 1975. As Beckett states, Suliman’s character was “much more than a mere specter of Eldridge Cleaver” (2016, 933), who was known for representing a “wing of the party more interested in guerilla warfare than in rebuilding society or doing the hard work of grassroots organizing” (Kelley 2002, 95-96). Suliman’s “rootedness in a Southern iconography and in dreams of violent struggle,” makes him a representative of an abhorred ideology (Beckett 2016, 933). Beckett’s suggestion illuminates Suliman’s Afrocentrism and misidentification of Egyptians as an integral part of a damaging ideology for Black liberation.

Egyptians’ race consciousness and the untranslatable

25Written from memory to celebrate a brief thriving moment in Black American pan-Africanism and expose Black American political consciousness on Blackness, the novel did not only chart Cairo as a Black geography, but also drew the contours of Egyptian race consciousness both in theory and practice. While the previous section details a Black American discourse on Egyptian identity, the following passages show a Black/Egyptian encounter mediated by poetry and jazz.

26In the novel’s climactic jazz event, David DuBois stages a joint jazz performance between Black and Egyptian musicians, including a poetry recitation from Suliman, at the Cairo Jazz Club, to a mixed Egyptian and international audience. This event promises a new life for Suliman’s literary career and the pan-African struggle, through translation. What is concerning, however, is the labor exerted and the durability of that experience. Abdel Moneim is an Egyptian communist activist, known for translating Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun for the radio. He is important for connecting Suliman with the Egyptian public due to his connections with publishers, and acts as a translator for Suliman’s work (D. DuBois 1975, 89). At the event, Suliman recites a collection of his poems in English, and Salah Jaheen, an Egyptian literary giant, recites them in Arabic, based on Abdel Moneim’s translation. Jaheen’s role symbolizes solidarity, but we’re yet to learn if it is real or metaphoric. However, not all of Suliman’s recited poems are translated; the only poems rendered in Arabic to the audience are a poem “about a large, popular district in the center of Cairo called Abdin,” another one “in praise of the ancient and highly venerated Al Azhar Mosque,” and one on the Nile River (99-101). At that point, Abdel Moneim tells Bob that “this is the last one Jaheen will do,” declaring the end of translation (101). As Suliman moves on, now reciting poems about Black “despoliation,” “suffering,” “despair,” “self-destruction caused by racism,” and the “white slaver and the rape of Africa, of the agony and human death of the Middle Passage, of the agony and spiritual death of slavery,” the Egyptian audience’s comprehension of Black struggle is suspended given the death of translation at a crucial symbolic moment of Black American and Egyptian diasporic solidarity (101-102). As if for emphasis, the end of translation is also marked by a racist joke about Suliman’s performance that Abdel Moneim tells to Bob, saying, “He’s acting a lot more civilized than I expected,” eliciting Bob’s admonishment, “for us [African Americans] racism is no laughing matter!” (101). This scene problematizes translation, what gets translated and what is left out. It is unclear why certain poems were translated and others were left out. While the novel sets Suliman up to finally “gain the ability to translate blackness and realize Egypt’s place in the diaspora” (Azeb 2016, 79), “the Arabic language fails him” (Feldman 2015, 94). Between Abdel Moneim’s racist humor and the suspension of translation lies a paradoxical disinterest and indifference to racism and Black struggle. Who is to blame here, the audience, the translator, or the intellectual? Is the author implicitly gesturing to Egyptian intellectuals’ superficiality and indifference in dealing with racism? Or is he pointing at the issue of language as detrimental to transnational solidarity work? Or was the disruption meant to stage a confrontation between Suliman and the “group of whites” in the audience – representatives from the U.S. Embassy – as if “no one was in this packed hall but Suliman and his oppressors” (D. DuBois 1975, 103).

Conclusion

27Centering the lives of Black American exiles in Cairo, … And Bid Him Sing primarily documents and archives Black/Egyptian encounters, reports successes and failures of cultural and political collaboration, and draws the contours of Black and Egyptian consciousness on race. It also locates Egypt in Black imagination as an integral part of a conflict in Black consciousness. The enmeshment of fiction and reality crystalizes in Bob’s fluency in Egyptian culture, and its nuances and subtleties. Although David DuBois is keen on making Sudanese, Nubian, and Egyptian characters visible, he fails to give them all meaningful voices. There are no Egyptian voices with the same rigor and aptitude of any of the novel’s protagonists. The novel is full of Egyptians but lacks Egyptian voices who can speak for themselves. The Egyptians’ social reality and racial and political consciousness are constructed, solely, through Bob/David’s vision and voice which comes from his knowledge. As I have shown in the article, David DuBois’s professional training qualified him to represent Egyptians, in the absence of an authentic Egyptian representation, risking a reproduction of positivist ethnographies commonplace in sociology and anthropology.

28In the novel, jazz and poetry achieve a certain degree of translation, but fail to fully engage Egyptian consciousness, particularly on questions of racism, despite taking place during the pinnacle of pan-Africanism, under Nasser. More than fifty years later, the Egyptian indifference to the Black struggle remains potent and problematic, and the novel reminds us, as carriers of cultural memory, of our responsibility to educate and correct.

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Notes

1 The broad definition of diaspora is the physical displacement and dispersal of a certain ethnonational community. Kim Butler wrote in her important essay, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse,” that a “diasporan identity” and “consciousness,” as it pertains to Black Africans, is forged when the “group identity coalesced around ‘blackness’ and shared ancestral histories of enslavement and New World oppression” (2001, 207). Being a Black pan-African activist already makes David DuBois, his activism, and literary expression diasporic.

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May T. Kosba, « … And Bid Him Sing: Egyptian Race Consciousness in African Diasporic Memory »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 45-60.

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May T. Kosba, « … And Bid Him Sing: Egyptian Race Consciousness in African Diasporic Memory »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/14744 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.14744

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May T. Kosba

May Kosba is a doctoral student in the Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She holds an MA in Islamic Studies. Centering Egypt as an imagined African geographical space in the Black and non-Black African novel, her project engages the African continent in ways that expand beyond the Atlantic, and investigates the role of religion and Arab nationalism in Black and non-Black African subject formation using the novel as a site of cultural and historical memory, and a vehicle for knowledge production.

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