On Being Gabriel Apata Instead of Achille Mbembe

Thursday, 18th July 2019

This is an interesting reflection on a black man being mistaken for another black man, at a conference that was overwhelmingly white. I was at that conference. I met Gabriel Apata (and had a couple of very interesting chats with him – and he also mentioned at the time that he was being mistaken for Mbembe). I also know Achille Mbembe. Most of those who were at the conference likely only knew him from photos, and if that’s all you knew, then at some level the mistake is understandable.

What’s interesting, though, and what Apata gets at here, is that being mistaken for Mbembe uncovers something significant. This was a philosophy conference – the Association for Philosophy and Literature. We can’t guard ourselves against false beliefs at all times – no one can – but it is also interesting how readily someone can convince themselves that this black person is this other black person. Especially when you don’t expect to see a lot of black people at a conference. Maybe there’s only one? And so, this must be the one.

To be sure, I can see how this could happen. I first saw Apata at a distance, and my first reaction was, is that Mbembe? But I know him, and when I got closer I realized it wasn’t him. I’ve gone for lunch with him before, and we’ve talked on several occasions. So I had more than a photo to go by.

What if I didn’t have the benefit of actual interactions? Would I have made this mistake? Maybe. And that tells me something about my own inclination to make finer distinctions within my own racial background, and less fine distinctions in others. Much as I might want to think that I would be above all that, that I’d treat people as people and race wouldn’t be a factor, clearly that’s not true. I could have made this mistake too, if I’m honest.

But this also speaks to celebrity. Achille Mbembe is, as friends have recently reminded me, a rock star in the world of African studies. That has its pluses and minuses. Apata was mistaken for a celebrity, and then the social cues were there to indicate that he wasn’t one. To quote one incident from his article:

“Once briefly alone a lady walked up to me, slowly and deliberately, sizing me up and smiling expectantly: I know you’re not him because I do not see people swarming around you, she said. She meant of course that she had suspected I was not Mbembe, because I lacked the celebrity attraction often evidenced by fellow scholar ‘fans’ hanging around a celebrated scholar. I discovered not long after that this curiosity had become a talking point around the conference corridors: Is that him or not, people asked.”

So there are questions of race here, obviously, but also questions of how celebrity works in academia. Will Apata’s work be taken seriously? I hope so, but he has two strikes – he’s not a celebrity (and, perhaps worse, someone might subconsciously feel fooled and embarrassed that they mistook him and thus disregard him, even though he did nothing to promote that mistake), and he is (as his article indicates) an “independent scholar”. We don’t know how to place him – the usual markers don’t apply, and so we’re likely to dismiss him. We might even feel cheated, like, we thought he was someone important but he’s not, so we save face by flocking to the important person and leaving this person to himself.

I hope that doesn’t happen. My couple of chats with him indicated a keen mind and an interesting perspective. This article gives evidence of that – he draws out some very interesting implications of these events. I didn’t know him before – he hasn’t, as far as I know, been at the same African philosophy conferences I have.

I do look forward to the day, though, when Africans who are present at a conference that is not directly about African issues are regarded as something other than a novelty. The organizers of this conference clearly took diversity seriously when they chose keynotes and structured the conference, but as Apata indicated, there was not much diversity at the level of attendees. And so, that creates a particular kind of atmosphere. He’s generous in this piece – he’s not out to find fault with the conference itself, but rather reflect on this strange phenomenon of being mistaken for the only other black person likely to be at the conference (and, I’m actually not sure whether he was the only other black person – I wasn’t taking attendance – there might have been others).

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