What is African Identity?

What is African Identity

What is African identity? Or, more specifically, what is “African-ness”? As an African, I have known “African-ness” to be Blackness and primitiveness. But do these categories connote African identity? Are there other aspects to African identity? This essay explores African identity in the world of three plays: Strangers Don’t Drink Coffee (1970) by Mahmud Diyad, Death and the King’s Horseman (1976) by Wole Soyinka and Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Looking at how African identity is derived from (1) a person’s home, (2) through the repetition of cultural traditions and (3) through language, this paper suggests that these key issues all operate under the idea of colonization and apartheid respectively. Colonization and the apartheid function as umbrella topics. Hence, while each play is used to analyze one of the first three key issues, all shall come together at the end to explore the effects of colonization on African identity. This illuminates the idea that perhaps, African identity as dramatized in the three plays, is at its stark and exemplary state when it is seen against another kind of imposed identity. These four areas are not mutually exclusive. Each works to reinforce the other and therefore, stimulate an individual’s sense of African identity within the plays.

First, people may identify themselves by where they are from: their home or place of origin. Mcleod states, “both ‘race’ and ethnicity are concepts used to posit a common bond or identity between individuals. But whereas, ‘race’ tends to prioritize physiological features as evidence of similarity between individuals, the parameters of ‘ethnicity’ tend to be more wide” (132). Ethnicity suggests origin, a place of boundaries, where there are those who belong and those who do not. Mcleod adds, “in particular, an individual’s ethnicity can provide an invaluable sense of belonging to a particular group in the present and also to a tradition or inheritance of cultural and historical treasures” (133). Thus, in other words, identification is by origin.

In Strangers Don’t Drink Coffee, Diyab has simplified our understanding of origin to mean: a man with a house and neighbors. The house, just like a country or nation becomes the place endowed with memories and records of those memories. The Man, who represents the colonized, wrestles with the Strangers’, the colonizers, intrusive and blunt nature with his house. The Strangers fix a measurement to the Man’s once arbitrary house boundaries and destroy all the evidence that stated the Man owned the house. The Man announces to his wife:

They’ve torn up all our papers, Saniyya…they didn’t spare any of them…they even tore up my poems and your first letter to me…and the boys birth certificate…they didn’t leave a single document proving my ownership. (403)

The Man expresses himself as if his very identity has been removed from him. His poems and letters serve as revered symbols for him that help to forge his African identity.

Furthermore, according to Eric Hobsbawm, the repetition of the performance of national symbols and icons helps to create the nation and its identity. Mcleod explains that, “nations homogenize: they fashion unity and togetherness. They often traffic in highly revered symbols that help forge a sense of its particular, idiosyncratic identity in which the nation’s people come to emotionally invest” (82). There are deliberate activities that people will take on to form a sense of identity. Similarly, in Diyab’s play, the Man wrote poems, took pictures and had letters that made up his African identity. Once the Strangers left, he searched for any remaining evidence of his ownership to his home and identity. The Man announces to his wife:

I’ve found it Sariyya…Here it is! The heart with the arrow and our names, that’s real proof…There it is, proof they weren’t aware of…and it will stay there. And inside the house…in the rooms and corridors…are the tiny nail marks I made on the walls as I clung to them when I learned to walk…” (404)

The Man’s idiosyncratic identity is manifested in the remaining proof of his past. His identity is embedded in the walls of his house and he deems it evidence of his existence.

Secondly, Traditions can be used to construct African identity and enforce it. According to Mcleod, “ It is often pointed out that a sense of mutual belonging is manufactured by the performance of various traditions, narratives, rituals and symbols which stimulate an individual’s sense of being a member of a particular national collective” (82). The repetition of these can create a sense of national identity.

In Death and the King’s Horseman, the prevalence of traditional culture becomes a dominant theme that is seen in opposition to institutional and colonial authority. In the face of the government, the indigenous people believe that tradition must go on. It is something that they identify with and no one can stop them from practicing it, not even the British. Amusa, a representative of the government argues with Iyaloja, an influential woman in the village:

Amusa…I am here to arrest Elesin for criminal intent. Tell these women to stop obstructing me in the performance of my duty.

Iyaloja And you? What gives you the right to obstruct our leader of men in the performance of his duty?(337)

Iyaloja believes that tradition should happen. Not even a government official can tell her otherwise.

In Soyinka’s play, Iyaloja and Olunde are outspoken characters who voice the importance of traditions to the indigenous people. Olunde’s thinking and words shock his British friends who assume he has changed since he studied abroad. They think he will talk his father out of performing the traditional rituals. However, Olunde justifies his father’s death and states,

How can I make you understand? He has protection. No one can undertake what he does tonight without the deepest protection the mind can conceive. What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind, in place of the honor and veneration of his own people?(356)

Regardless of his assimilation into the British culture, Olunde still identifies with his origins and with the traditions of the indigenous people. His father’s suicide, must take place. In fact, Frantz Fanon would call Olunde the ‘native intellectual’: one who has grown dissatisfied with “copying the colonizer and instead becomes immersed in the cultural history of the people” (104). The native who identifies with his culture enters what Fanon calls a ‘fighting phase’ in which he fights to preserve traditions. Olunde is fighting to preserve the traditions of his people. Soon, the repetition of the traditions and cultural practices reinforce the African identity of the people as a tribe and even as a nation.

Third, the use of language becomes a major part of a person’s identity when there are power relations at play. Language, whether utilized in poetry, in jargon or in speech creates a form of expression that can serve as a differentiation factor from one person to another. Fanon expresses that in his ‘rehabilitation’ as a Negro he gained “poetic power” (127). In writing poetry, he found something he could identify by, an avenue of “escape” from the white man’s oppression (128). Just as Fanon was able to assume a position of power over the white man using poetry, the person who is multi-lingual is able to cross boundaries and assume authority over those who are monolingual. Their dominance is derived from their ability to understand two different modes of speech. In speaking about the colonizer and the colonized, Homi Bhabha posits, “hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonized, the colonizers are faced with worrying threat of resemblance between colonizer and colonized” (66). The multilingual is able to reassign themselves a role in society and reconstruct his African identity around his advantage with language.

Sizwe Bansi is dead offers several examples of how language may act as a differentiation factor for the characters and their role in the play. This differentiation helps to either disregard their identity or enforce it. The character of Styles in particular has a strong awareness of the advantage he has as a bilingual. He takes pride in it. When asked by his boss to translate a word into the Xhosa language, Styles savors the moment. He comments, “Hey! That was my moment, man. Kneeling there on the floor…foreman, general foreman, plant supervisor, plant manager…and styles? Standing?” (95). Styles relishes the moment because he knows that in having a language other than that of his bosses, he has a sort of power over their comprehension of each moment. The African identity that Styles has is largely supported by his ability to speak two languages.

Aside from the agency that language can give to the individual, it aids in creating a sense of national identity. Mcleod quotes Benedict Anderson arguing that, “a defining feature of the nation is the standardization of one unitary language that all members can understand and with which they communicate” (86). Language acts as a unifying factor for a people thus creating a sense of African identity. This is exemplified in the play through Styles:

Mr. ‘Baas’ Bradley speaks on one side, Styles translates on the other.

‘Tell the boys in your language, that this is a very big day in their lives’

‘Gentlemen, this old fool says this is a hell of a big day in our lives.’

The men laughed

‘They are very happy to hear that, sir’(95)

The language barrier between Bradley and ‘the men’ places Bradley in a vulnerable position. He is speaking to a group of men who could turn against him at any time because they are united by their language and hence, African identify. Language unifies peoples and it can give a person a form of agency in life. In so doing, it reasserts their identity as people with a voice.

Finally, the impact of colonization and apartheid resides as a subtle force that drives the need for reinforcement of African identity in the three plays. Each play, respectively utilizes home or origin, traditional culture and language as the main incentive for this strengthening of African identity for its characters. Hence, the identity of the colonizer becomes the significant other identity that African identity can be contrasted against. In fact Edward Said claims “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient [African countries] as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (49). European identity was established by contrasting it with the Orient. Likewise, African identity can be seen in opposition to the colonizers. Said agrees that, “Western views of the Orient, [African countries], are not based on what may actually exist in Oriental lands, but result from the West’s, [Colonizers], dreams, fantasies and assumptions about what this apparently radically different, contrasting place contains” (50). Thus the plays not only demonstrate, what African identity is, they show what it is not.

In Strangers Don’t Drink Coffee, the Strangers fix set borders to the Man’s life that were not there before, they strip away his previous identity and tell him who he is. They say, “This house…isn’t yours” (400). They emphatically state to the man that he has no claim on something he has known his whole life. The Man is forced to see himself as an object, “as inferior and less than fully human, subservient to” the definitions of the strangers, thus identifying himself by their negative terms (23). The Strangers take on a subject position to the Man and speak to him as if he were an object. Fanon refers to this as an amputation: to be imprisoned by another, to be told who you are and seen as an object. Fanon writes, “On that day, completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object” (112). The naming of someone serves as both a negation of their original identity and the designation of a new identity. Ironically, in taking his house and “eliminating” his African identity, the Strangers, in fact, acknowledge his African identity. Thus making it possible for us to understand that African identity is seen to be full of cherished memories of home: a home that is without a defined house border but rather, spreads to establish connections with neighbors as well.

Similarly, despite the resilience of the indigenous people in Death and the King’s Horseman, the British succeed in stopping their indigenous peoples barbaric ritual. Elesin who was to carry out the ritual asks:

I no longer blame you. You stole from me my first-born, sent him to your country so you could turn him into something in your own image. Did you plan it all beforehand? There are moments when it seems part of a larger plan. He who must follow my footsteps is taken from me, sent across the ocean. Then, in my turn, I am stopped from fulfilling my destiny, did you think it all out before, this plan to push out world from its course and sever the cord that links us to the great origin?(367)

Elesin understands that something is being taken from him: first his son, then his destiny but overall, it is his life, what he believes in.   He too suffers a kind of amputation. Fanon continues, “My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored…” (113). The purpose of this recoloring is what Elesin grapples with. Has this amputation, re-identification accomplished anything? Elesin wonders what potency there is too colonization. To him, African identity has an origin, it’s not established “overnight” like the colonizers governments. It’s filled with tradition and within it each person has his or her destiny.

On the other hand, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak contends with the consciousness and subjectivity of the subaltern in power relations. The subaltern is the “colonially elite”, the “upper-middle-class peasants” similar to the colonized (218). According to Spivak, “ We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood” (218). In other words, one cannot the identities wrought by the colonizers are viable and appropriate. Thus, the Man in Strangers Don’t Drink Coffee perhaps has no right to speak, and Elesin in the King’s Horseman shouldn’t protest the British rule after all. However, this is handled differently in Sizwe Bansi is Dead. Rather than allowing their given identity to dictate who they are, Styles and Sizwe go about naming their own African identity.

Sizwe contemplates his choice of having a new identity with his friend, Buntu:

MAN I don’t want to lose my name, Buntu.

BUNTU You mean you don’t want to lose your bloody passbook! You love it, hey?

                        MAN Buntu. I cannot lose my name.

BUNTU All right, I was only trying to help. As Robert Zwelinzima you could have stayed and worked in this town. As Sizwe bansi…? Start walking, friend. King William’s Town. Hundred and fifty miles. And don’t wast any time! You’ve got to be there by yesterday. (119)

Sizwe has to decide between his name with its fateful credentials and the name of a dead man with adequate credentials. Shall he take a given identity that deems him worthless and useless to the state or choose his own identity that will enable him to provide for his family. He chooses the latter. Sizwe has to, according to Ngugi Wa Thiango, “decolonize” his mind and think differently in order to save himself and family (25). Sizwe needs to come to see his African identity in a new way, a way that does “no replicate colonialist values” (25). He has to choose his own name and identity.

Examining the three plays it is possible to see that African identity in the 1970’s was mainly a struggle to achieve an identity other than that imposed by the oppressor. This was manifested through definition of home, through traditional culture and through language. Each play expounded on each of these issues in a way that was unique to the situation within the play. In these 1970 plays, African identity is a struggle for the right to one’s own home, customs and freewill in speech and life. It is less about blackness and primitiveness than the ability to reaffirm ones own person in the face of another. The critics lead us to think that perhaps in considering African identity, what the plays really do is present the differences between the Occidental and the Oriental; the extent to which the Oriental identity is only possible in contrast to Occidental identity. Africans have then have to find their identity away from both the Occidental and the Oriental. Within the plays this establishes the characters’ true African-ness. It becomes what distinguishes them from the other Orientals that may share similar experiences from colonization. Home, language and traditional culture, specific to the world of the plays, serve to develop this contrast of African identity from the rest of the oriental identities. African identity becomes something that is created for oneself and ingrained through its constant repetition.


Works Cited


Diyab, Mahmud. “Strangers Dont Drink Coffee.” Modern Arabic Drama: an Anthology.

Ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Roger Allen. Indiana UP, 1995.


Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New

York: Grove Weidenfeld, n.d.


Fugard, Athol, John Kani and Wintson Ntshona. “Sizwe Bansi is Dead .” Modern African

Drama. Ed. Biodun Jeyifo. New York: W.W. Nortan & Company, 2002. 92-125.


Mcleod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. New York: Manchester UP, 2010.


Soyinka, Wole. “Death and the Kings Horseman.” Contemporary African Plays. Ed.

Martin Banham and Jane Plastow. Methuen Publishing Limited, 1999.