Black Narratives of Transcultural Appropriation: Constructing Afropean Worlds, Questioning European Foundations

How is Europe imagined in literary texts by African European, African, and African diasporic writers? Is it a “white” continent that forces its Black inhabitants into the roles of eternal outsiders or unwanted invaders? Has it become a provincial part of a world increasingly dominated by other centers? Or is it a place that can become one’s first or second home, make possible a life in security and prosperity, or allow for the founding of new, inclusive communities?

The project studies literary narratives by African European, African, and African diasporic writers from the 19th century to the present that are written in different languages and relate to Europe in different ways. All the texts share a complex, sometimes ambivalent, and often subversive way of engaging with questions of ownership and appropriation. In the texts, this engagement is articulated both explicitly and implicitly on a thematic as well as a formal-aesthetic level. Theoretically, this intricate relation will be approached with the concept of transcultural appropriation. Firstly, the use of this concept highlights the violent primary appropriation of the African continent and its inhabitants as well as the proprietorial conception of Europe as white. Nowadays, these exclusionary, originally colonial forms of appropriation continue to be echoed in neo-colonial structures and images such as that of the “Fortress Europe” or the “colorblind continent,” which claims not to see race. Secondly, the concept of appropriation opens up a fruitful perspective on the genuinely literary acts of imagining and building Europe, for example as “Afropea” or—as in Bernardine Evaristo’s alternate history novel Blonde Roots—“Aphrika,” a continent located in Europe’s geographical position and inhabited by “blak Ambossans,” who have enslaved the white inhabitants of a feudal, backward “Europa” located in the southern hemisphere. Other texts tell the stories of Afropeans that have already been at home in Europe hundreds of years ago; they repurpose aesthetic devices from the European canon; or they make ironic use of the concept of property or subversively employ techniques of colonial discourse. As the self-described Afropean flâneur Johny Pitts puts it in Afropean: “As a member of Europe’s black community, this Europe I speak of is all part of my inheritance, too, and it was time to wander and celebrate the continent like I owned it.”

By studying the texts as Black narratives of transcultural appropriation, the project aims to develop a new understanding of the ways in which Black literature actively shapes, critically reveals, or bluntly refuses common notions about territorial and cultural ownership, world heritage, and the ambiguities of European belonging. Additionally, the project’s approach, a heuristic reversal of the concept of cultural appropriation, will allow us to separate its negatively connotated, evaluative use within a contemporary discourse from older, morally neutral, or positive emancipatory uses, i.e., in the sense of a postcolonial “writing back.”

By analyzing the temporarily and spatially expansive, aesthetically innovative, and only partially known Black literary tradition of imagining Europe, the project opens up a new field of research within European comparative literature. At the same time, it fosters the dialogue between the discipline of comparative literature and the recently emerging, interdisciplinary field of African European studies. Moreover, a particular interest of the project lies with African European writing which takes place in the gray areas and middle grounds beyond the dichotomy of the colonizers and the colonized. The project thus centers on literary texts written in other languages than English and French—both of them world languages and primary languages of the African diaspora— as well as on texts depicting middle, eastern, and provincial parts of Europe. The individual sub-projects will also explore some specific literary genres of African European writing, including the slave narrative, the anthology, and the travelogue.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement 101075842: AFROPEA). 2023–2028
Head researcher(s): Gianna Zocco
Associate Researcher(s): Sandra Folie

Publications

Sandra Folie, Gianna Zocco (ed./eds.)

Sketches of Black Europe in African and African Diasporic Narratives
CompLit. Journal of European Literature, Arts and Society

n° 6
Classiques Garnier, Paris 2024, 257 pages
ISSN 2782-0874; ISBN 978-2-406-16075-5

Sandra Folie