Manthia Diawara Won't Budge

NYU's Renaissance Man Contemplates the Fate of the African Expat


At Diawara's crammed NYU office, an assistant edits a film Diawara has made with friend Danny Glover about Conakry, Guinea, where he'll be teaching next year. It's part of a series about African cities, which makes the case that African immigrants must be willing to lose some parts of their culture in order to gain a new one; and that they must join forces with African Americans to combat racism. By Diawara's account, his scholarly work belongs to the Cornel West-Henry Louis Gates wing of black studies, "which teaches that black art, literature, and film are redefining America," rather than to the Afrocentric wing, which "privileges a lot of mystification of Africa and serious study of hermetic languages that have nothing to do with contemporary Africa."

Despite his achievements, Diawara carries the immigrant's perpetual alienation—he finds privacy in crowded cafés, and observes colleagues (black and white) leaving him out of discussions about Israel or Iraq, "as if because I am African I do not know about these things." The fragility of success haunts him. "I wonder if I have become the cosmopolitan individual of my dreams, or if I am still trapped in a racial or ethnic group," he writes. And lately, mortality looms on the periphery, fate its uncertain companion. As a boy, he prayed to Allah to help him leave Mali and live to 50 (the average life expectancy for men in Mali is 46): "I was bargaining my place in heaven for happiness in this world." Facing his 50th birthday in December, he says, "Yes, I'm worried I might die soon. I'm not religious, but I'm superstitious."

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