About being mixed race, and what Khaminwa told Senghor

John Khaminwa

Dr John Khaminwa at the Court of Appeal, Nairobi on June 2, 2021 during the appeal of Building Bridges' Initiative (BBI).

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Senghor and Khaminwa’s poem returned to my mind because of the disturbing and persistent din about race, and racism, these days.
  • Senghor is remembered for, among other things, his hardheaded admission that we post-colonial Africans were “cultural hybrids” (métis culturels, in French).

John Khaminwa addressed a poem to Leopold Sedar Senghor. That was a long time ago, and Senghor, the first Senegal President and famous poet of Negritude, is now an ancestor, and John Khaminwa is a Senior Counsel in Kenya. But Khaminwa’s poem to Senghor is alive and well, in Jonathan Kariara and Helen Kitonga’s Introduction to East African Poetry, to quote just one familiar source.

Khaminwa tells Senghor to distinguish clearly between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal”. My own reading is that it is important to know the difference between things as they really are and as they might appear to be. Kariara and Kitonga clarify that in their comments on Khaminwa’s poem.

Anyway, the practice of poets reflecting, in verse, on one another’s poetry, or on their own, is what literary theorists call “metapoetry”. Did I tell you that my friend Governor Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o’s poem, “Daughter of the Low Land”, is a poetic engagement of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino? Such literary conversations are the delight of “dialogists”, like my friend, Prof Kimani wa Njogu.

Senghor, however, and Khaminwa’s poem returned to my mind because of the disturbing and persistent din about race, and racism, these days. Senghor is remembered for, among other things, his hardheaded admission that we post-colonial Africans were “cultural hybrids” (métis culturels, in French).This was in spite of his famous advocacy of “black pride”, the essence of negritude.

But Senghor was not unique in facing up to the complexity of our identities and the need to negotiate them intelligently through our relationships if we are to make a positive mark on the world. Our own Mugo Githeru had an ingenuous chat about it in his book, Child of Two Worlds. Even more elaborately and masterfully, Ali Mazrui, in The Africans: a Triple Heritage (both book and TV series), peels back the many layers that go into our making and that of our Diaspora.

Cancer of racism

Even Mazrui, however, was faulted for his “simplified” limitation of our identity to just the three strands of Afro-indigenous, Judeo-Christian and Arab-Islamic influences. We are probably more complex than that. Ask me, for example, how I, Austin Bukenya, live my life today. I would say that I live as a Latinised Christian, a Mganda villager (peasant), an East African naturalised Mswahili and a Franco-Anglicised academic, with a dash of American dreams.

Anyway, what got me agitated and irritated into these thoughts is the persistent concentration, among some people, on race or more specifically skin colour, as the main defining mark of a person’s identity. Language, education, profession, intellectual and other ability, faith or even geographical origins, all these are obvious and sensible identity markers. Moreover, they are more specific and reliable characteristics than skin colour, which is often even more difficult to define than we suppose.

You may remember our recent chat about it in the wake of the furore over Meghan Markle, Duchess of Suffolk, whose “colour” most of us had never thought about, until she married into the British Royal Family. I think that using race or skin colour to define a person, usually to their disadvantage, is a sign of very low intelligence, abysmal ignorance and toxic opportunism, or a combination of all these.

Yet the cancer of racism continues to rage unabated, to the detriment of so-called “people of colour” everywhere, and the whole of decent humanity. The rabid and literally obscene racial abuse of the three English footballers, who missed their penalty kicks in the Euro 2020 finals, still rankles. Surely, even if skin colour mattered, it had nothing to do with the lads’ hard luck with their kicks.

Or maybe it had. The shabby, unhealthy general racist atmosphere in which such people live and work, in those primitive and barbaric racist societies (despite their boasts of being civilised and “advanced”) keeps taking a toll on their personalities and self-perception. They are thus always teetering on the verge of a “nervous condition”, to use the phrase that novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga borrowed from Frantz Fanon.

Black Lives Matter

Accumulated racist pressure can lead to suicidal tendencies, as we heard from Meghan Markle’s confessions to Oprah Winfrey, or to distorted (non)performance, as in the case of footballers Rashford, Sancho and Saka at the Euro finals. Earlier, I had told you of Japanese tennis star, Naomi Osaka, who had decided to withdraw from two major international tournaments owing to pressure from organisers and the press.

Naomi Osaka, you see, gets her Japanese roots from her mother. But her father is Haitian and she has lived most of her life in the United States. You would think that with a background like that, Osaka would be a model citizen of the world, and she is. But alas, there are people there who hate “Asians” (as she is) and Blacks (as she also is), and even kill them. They do not spare or respect even celebrities like Naomi Osaka. 

You would have thought that with the arrival on the international scene of high achievers like Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Louis Hamilton or Naomi Osaka, racial bigotry, prejudice and discrimination were done and gone. Recent developments, however, show that the morass of racism is, sadly, still vast and deep. Little wonder that Osaka is a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

What the retarded and ignorant racists should understand is that wherever members of our homo sapiens species meet, they can and will mate and successfully breed, enriching their genetic stock. Nothing will stop that, neither hatred and violence, nor “immorality acts” (laws), like the ones they had in apartheid South Africa, banning intercommunity intimacy. One optimist predicted that “the future of humankind is brown” (and obviously a lot of other shades in between). That sounds like a description of my immediate and, especially, extended family.

Incidentally, I read somewhere that most of the South African supremacists, who crafted the apartheid system, actually had Black African ancestors in their lineages.

Have a blessed Idd ul adha, next Tuesday.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]