All posts by Zahida Sherman

When We Colonize: Negroes in Pop Culture and History

Aunjanue Ellis in “The Book of Negroes.”

Last week I finally got up the courage to watch The Book of Negroes on BET.  I’m embarrased to admit it, but the word “Negroes” was really preventing me from giving it a chance.  I imagined the miniseries to be an Eyes on the Prize meets Roots kind of narrative.  Something to the tone of “Look how far we’ve come and how much we’ve overcome,” and narrated by some old, authoritative, and inspirational-sounding Black man like James Earl Jones. Or, you know, Morgan Freeman.  Because, well, that’s what usually happens.

What I watched once I got over myself was a completely soul-wrenching experience.  Now, mind you, the first time I watched it, I caught it maybe halfway through, so I didn’t even have the complete story.  But the strength of cast, power of Aminata’s–and so many others’– pursuit of freedom in the midst of relentless inhumanity had me in tears multiple times in the first thirty minutes.  I had no idea I would experience so many feelings of hope, love, rage, betrayal, and kinship in such a short time period.  The Book of Negroes took me on a multi-generational Diasporan passage that I felt obligated to take and would not leave.  I dvr’d it and sat glued to my couch as I watched the entire series later that week.

And yet.  I couldn’t help but wonder why the series lead–  whose character was abducted by slave raiders in modern-day Sierra Leone– was played by a Black [American] woman with roots in Mississippi.  Were there no West African actors to hold it down?  Was her talent so authentic and encapsulating of the human experience that she killed her African competition?  Did the casting directors cast a wide enough net for the role?  Was I the only one thinking this?

Let me be clear: This is not a dig to Aunjanue Ellis.  That woman undeniably SLAYED her role.  And I do understand that much of the cast of The Book of Negroes was Diasporan (they even featured Black Canadian actors, which I found refreshing).  No.  I am questioning what seems to be a standard practice of Black Americans representing African or other Diasporan key figures instead of actors from those cultures and nations.

I ask these questions in the context of [most] films about Winnie or Nelson Mandela.  Yes, ya’ll.  Jennifer Hudson, Alfre Woodard, Morgan Freeman, Sidney Poitier, and Danny Glover have all played them.  I raise these questions in the context of Jill Scott having starred in HBO’s Botswana-based No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency , Eddie Murphy playing Zamunda (I know, the topic of fake African nations is a different article!) native Hakeem in Coming to America, Don Cheadle (yes, I love him, too) as Paul in Hotel Rwanda, Leonard Earl Howze playing Dinka in Barbershop, and  O.T. Genasis invoking an African accent in his hit song, “I’m in Love With the CoCo.”  I’m asking why we assume center stage in Diasporan stories when we only represent a tiny fraction of the African Diaspora.  In other words: Why are taking up so much space?

We Black Americans seems to have a problem colonizing and inserting ourselves into Diasporan places that aren’t ours to claim.  But this is nothing new.  And of course it has its own complications.  What The Book of Negroes illustrated so well was that our never-ending quest for freedom (Aminata literally moved throughout North America, Sierra Leone, and to then on to the UK in search of it) is how creative, desperate, hopeful, and ugly the journey has been and can be.  Aminata and others alive during antebellum America had to grasp at freedom–and survival– by whatever means they had at their disposal.  Flight, working for and fighting in anti-American armies, petit resistance on the plantation, and colonization (excuse me,  “resettlement”) were all on the table.  And we chose accordingly.

But what happens when we colonize, appropriate, and silence our kinfolk in ways that we’ve been oppressed?  What does it look like, and and what are the lasting impacts of bullying our way up and through other Black folks’ space?

Liberia in the 19th century.

At worst, it looks like Liberia.  Unlike the resettlement of former North American slaves and British expats that hedged their chances in Sierra Leone, most Americo-Liberians survived the diseases that welcomed them in their new land.  And by “survived,” I mean they had the time and energy to set up a plantation society similar to the ones they left behind in America.  Only this time they were on top.  Naturally.  All the way until the civil war of the 1980’s when they were overthrown by a new government.  Many Americo-Liberians departed thereafter because as you might imagine, the oppressed ethnic majority wasn’t feeling them.

But I also suppose, on a micro level, Black American silencing looks a little something like the the aforementioned films and songs.  Though the Black American actors’ and musicians’ paychecks aren’t rivaling the generational revenue that Americans and Americo-Liberians reaped from forced laborers at Firestone, I’m sure that denying African talent comes at a financial and personal cost to them.  So, I’m proposing that in 2015 us Negroes take a couple steps back, refocus our casting gaze, and respect folks’ right to tell their own truths.  What could be more Diasporan than that?

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3 African Fashion Lines Making Their Mark Online

Sanaa Aku dress,

I fell in love with local prints and custom-made designs on my first trip to Ghana nearly ten years ago.  How was it that I had made it nineteen years on earth without realizing that I could purchase and co-design beautiful and vibrant clothing made to fit me like a glove? And on the cheap!??  I hadn’t been living.  Suffice to say, I was instantly hooked, so much so that the luggage full of clothes from home was quickly and inexpensively replaced with a Cape Coast-made wardrobe.

But my excitement fizzled each time I returned to the US and couldn’t enjoy the same shopping experience.  I was relegated to department store sample size garments with limited styles and fit options.  Further, I didn’t know any local Ghanaian seamstresses who could hook up all the fabric I had purchased and brought back with me.  I was stuck, and began the practice of waiting until my next trip to rock the hottest designs.

Luckily, you don’t have to do that!  The last couple of years have birthed online shopping options for custom-made African-inspired clothing.  And even better news: it’s pretty affordable.

Here are 3 African women’s fashion lines to support:

At D’iyanu (dee-ya-new), you can purchase everything from maxi skirts, to headwraps, to high-waisted shorts.   Addie Olutola launched the company in 2014 to give buyers a Nigerian-inspired line that blends western and African culture.


Chic high-waist African print skirt maxi, $64.99


Babydoll African print dress, $54.99.

The Zuvaa line is a bit more extensive, and offers accessories and outfits by occasion and fabric.  The icing on the cake is that founder Kelechi, who identifies as African American by way of Nigeria, custom designs shoes.  Yes, honey. SHOES.  Zuvaa also debuted in 2014.

Zuvaa creator Kelechi.


Model Agatha displays her styled by Zuvaa look.

For those of you with a slightly larger budget (of just a budget that is bigger than mine!), Kisua offers a high-end collection designed by a pan-African cast of designers.  We’re talking Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria, just to name a few of the nations represented.  Samuel Mensah launched Kisua in 2013 to give talented designers the obvious shine they deserve in the international market.

Cotton pencil dress, $145.


Nairobi blue jumpsuit, $150.

I love so many things about these fashion lines!  I love the entreprenuerial hustle that the creators have demonstrated launching their own lines instead of waiting for a mainstream company to take note.  I love that the the lines illustrate the syncretization of local and Western cultures– which has been a staple in African societies for centuries–to the world.  I respect the diversity of styles and prices that the lines present:  It’s cool as hell that I can’t afford (or maybe won’t cuz I’m cheap) some of the looks on Kisua.  Black fashion doesn’t have to be synonymous with inexpensive, in quality or price.  I love that!  And these lines represent some looks I would wear in a hearbeat, while others are not for me at all.  I love that the collections have the freedom to even have hits and misses.  I find this all refreshingly inspiring.

What do you think?  Would you rock these?

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Let’s Talk About the Queens of Africa Dolls

Earlier this week, HuffPost Brazil featured an article on the Queens of Africa dolls that are outselling Barbie in Nigeria.  This is major news, not just for the Nigerian economy–which is one of Africa’s largest– or for the toy franchise that is Mattel (ya’ll better watch your back!).  This is groundbreaking for global beauty standards.  Families of all races can now purchase and play with a line of dolls whose beauty–from their hair to their dress (which is on point!)–is inspired by the Yorubu, Igbo, and Hausa women of Nigeria.  And Black children can see themselves represented in the toys they adore. 

Upon looking at the dolls, though, you’ll notice some striking similarities with Barbie.  For one, the Queens appear to wear the same dress size and possess the superhuman (and unrealistic) slimness of Barbie.  Second, you might give a side-eye to the skin tones of the dolls: most look like the White Barbie we’re used to dipped in shades of tawny, terra-cotta, and golds.  Their eyes are also a range of hazels, grays, and greens.  While all skin tones, eye colors, and body types deserve to be celebrated and represented, I couldn’t help but conclude that despite their clothes and hair, these dolls don’t look like any of the Nigerian women I’ve known throughout my life.

Entrepreneur and Queens of Africa creator, Taofick Okoya, admits that the dolls’ shape is something he hopes to alter in the future, once the brand is better established.  Until then, we’re going to have to take one for the team and celebrate this signigicant step for Black beauty and culture.  The doll isn’t perfect, but now my niece can have an addition to the possibilities of Black womanhood in her arsenal.  And ain’t nothin wrong with that.

What do you think of the Queens?  Will you buy one?


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Film Watch: These New Diasporan Films Just Might Be Everything

We’re in the midst of a truth-telling and potentially reconciling moment for people of the African Diaspora.  These two films are taking the indie film world by storm and getting a lot of buzz in the process.  Try to watch them in your city, if you can!

Deeper Than Black tackles how second-generation Ghanaian-Americans, or American-born Ghanaians, straddle their African and African American identities.  Film-maker Sean Addo takes on the questions of identity, place, and cultural belonging in this first-person documentary short.

In the trailer and on Addo’s website, he comments on the ebbs and flows of being accepted and rejected by his Black American and Ghanaian communities.  The short offers glimpses into the heart-wrenching challenges of second-generation African immigrants who possess dual identities, cultures, and languages.  I anticipate that Deeper Than Black will prompt a lot of people to examine the roles they’ve played in culturally accepting or questioning themselves and Diasporans with dual identities.

Bound: Africans vs. African Americans focuses on the tensions and fractures between both groups stemming from Atlantic slavery and colonialism and persisting to today.   Kenyan director Peres Owino uses interviews and her own unique style of story-telling to prompt Africans and African Americans to share their feelings about each other, their similiariteis and differences, and what kind of relationships are possible.   Throughout the film she asks difficult questions such as, “Do Africans owe African Americans an apology for slavery?”  Yeah, she holds no punches.

In a Seattle Medium interview late last year, Owino described her impetus to explore the often-frought relationship between African Americans and Africans.  She stated:

I live in La Dera, Inglewood area, and I’ve lived there for like four years.  And I didn’t know my neighbors, and I didn’t want to know my neighbors.  I’m living here in a Black community and I’m alienating myself.  Why?  When I was in Kenya all I wanted to do was to connect with African Americans, but here I am now, in the midst, and I’m like, ‘What is this thing?’ And then you sit and you start to look at everyone’s face.  When I look at young Black boys, 15, 16, 17 years old–cuz I have brothers who are 16 and 17 years old– I see my brothers.  I literally see my brothers.   And that just continued to do this thing…like, ‘No, you have to go in here.  You have to go in here.’  And I went in and realized that it wasn’t even me who had to go back in.  It was a call that’s coming from way back, that’s saying, ‘I need you to go in here for me.’

I had to take a deep breath after that.  And I bet many people will too after they watch Bound.  If you’ve watched either Bound or Deeper than Black, or are thinking about watching them, please share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section!

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I’m Moving to the South, and I’m Terrified

Grandma Dorothy and me at her home. Seattle, Washington, Summer 2009.

My grandmother stands at a frail 5’6 and has been on this earth for 79 years.  She hails from the small town of Louiseville, Mississippi, a place that I visited only twice, once only because I was driving through.  Her aunt and uncle sent for her after her step-father brutally beat her with barbed wire.  She was 19.  My grandmother received her one-way bus ticket and wound up in Seattle, Washington, which would go on to be known for grunge music, the Seahawks, and Macklemore.  I bet she didn’t see that coming.  More than that though, I know she couldn’t have predicted that not one of her three children or six grandchildren would ever call the South home.  Until now.

In approximately six months I’ll be moving to the South.  Not the cotton-picking-Bible-Belt-South of Gone With the Wind.  I’m moving to Charlotte, North Carolina.  The “New South.”  (I still have no idea what that actually means, having missed my one chance to visit the Museum of the New South, but I’ll find out soon enough!) This is a move I never thought I would make.  In life.  The older genration in my family circumnavigated the south-to-north railroad routes to places like Detroit and Chicago.  They chartered over 2,000 miles of unknown territory all the way to the Pacific Northwest.  Forget Great Migration, my folks bolted.  So it’s no surprise that I have often viewed the South as a place to avoid at all costs.

Add to that the fact that I actually know, on an intellectual level, what went down for people in the South who looked like me.  My graduate degree is in African history and African American Studies, which means that I know how life transformed for the departed from the time before they were shackled, to the Civil Rights movement.  So now I gotta reckon with all the horror stories from my family about the South, and actually understanding the archaelogy of the plantations that my ancestors worked on.  Thanks a lot, grad school.

I know that I shouldn’t categorically view the South as the source of so much pain.  Hell, it birthed us.  Not to mention folk endured, carried on with their lives, raised families, praised God, taught us how to boycott, and gifted us all kinds of music.  There’s magnificence in that.  And yet, I can’t seem to shake my fear that I won’t be able to exist there.

Blatant racism aside,  my fear of the South is based on my fear  and rejection of Black conservatism.  I’m the type of Black woman who won’t get my hair straightened at the salon because I’ll sweat it out during my afternoon workout.  I will join a political protest at the drop of a hat.  I travel internationally at least once a year.  I support gay marriage. I like walking down the street and not having to say “hello” to strangers.   And wait for it: I have never identified as Christian, and likely never will.  The “Old South” of my grandma’s generation never loved me, but I hope the New South is willing to take a chance.

In recent years the South has witnessed a reverse migration.  Many Black Northerners who have had enough of pricey housing, two-faced White liberalism, and tough job markets have headed to places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, and Raleigh.  My husband and I are moving because he landed an awesome job and deep down I know that the South is the best place for me to plug into and shape Black life in ways I always dreamed.  Though many Black southern transplants have had to make some initial adjustments, most are finding peace and balance.  I hope I will, too.

Update: In a twist of fate and clarity, I wound up moving to Los Angeles. Solo.


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Hello world!

Welcome to my very first post on Black on Both Sides!  This blog was years in the making, I suppose.  But after seeing my articles post to other blogs and reading the engaging comments that ensued, I thought, “It’s time.”

In the next couple of months, I’ll be blogging on topics ranging from the challenges of being Afrocentric, to the intricacies of being in a cross-cultural Black relationship.  Some of my posts will be academically based, while others may read more personal.  I aim for all posts to be thought-provoking.  Enjoy!

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