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Dominique Haensell


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Making Black History: Diasporic Fiction in the Moment of Afropolitanism 

Dissertation in Literature

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Ulla Haselstein
Second supervisor: Prof. Sabine Schülting
Third supervisor: Prof. Yogita Goyal

This dissertation looks at contemporary fictions of the African or Black Diaspora, which have been marketed or received in what I call the “moment” of Afropolitanism. I begin by describing Afropolitanism as a 21st century phenomenon and as a moment or historical constellation that has brought about a distinct shift towards a greater visibility and valorization of the African signifier. I immediately frame this as (also) part of a diasporic conversation which takes place in the US and is thus informed by various negotiations of blackness, race, class, and cultural identity. Rather than interpreting Afropolitan literatures (merely) as a rejection of racial solidarity, as some commentators have, I investigate them as ambivalent responses to post-racial discourses dominating the first decade of the 21st century, particularly in the US, which oscillate between moments of intense hope and acute disappointment. 

As this is the affective backdrop of Afropolitanism, it is unsurprising that this moment has reproduced this ambiguity in fiction. Shifting away from the singular focus on rift and brokenness, I argue that blackness is not only investigated, probed, stretched and made malleable by these novels, it is also employed, strategically, as a form of truce and as an earnest endeavor—signaling what I propose to call their “diasporic desire,” which is marked by these novel’s imagined collectivity and anticipation of not merely a post-racial but an antiracist future. In addition, I argue that these novels’ investigations of blackness are achieved by a foregrounding of what I call “race in/as history” which translates in these novels, both formally and thematically, through an emphasis on time, temporality and (meta-) history. 

In my readings, I primarily focus on the ways in which these novels dismiss or actualize Black Diaspora legacies, presents and futures. These subtle renderings of diasporic temporalities accrue specific meaning if one acknowledges that Afropolitanism emerges in a moment where both the promise of a post-racial US-America and that of black diasporic unity are called into question. Accordingly, these issues need to be carefully parsed, since all three novels employ these elements to varying degrees and effects. As Cole’s Open City probes both the generic confinements and the limitations of a (diasporic) solidarity grounded in the recognition of trauma—or, rather, the limited empathic transference engendered by an aesthetic sublimation of trauma—diasporic histories appear almost hopelessly gripped by the kind of historicism that conditions a melancholic response as much as it bars an actual engagement with the present. The gleam of hope merely anticipated in Open City is hyperbolically realized in Adichie’s Americanah, as genre-induced, libidinal attachments to a rosy, perhaps even race-less, future wrest its protagonists from the overdetermining reach of history and back to the mother country. Gyasi’s Homegoing, on the other hand, employs both the forward push of futurity and the backward pull of historicity as a novel that flashes the hopeful potential of restoration and connection across the rupture of the Middle Passage, without trivializing the long-lasting effects of slavery and its aftermath. 

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft