Category Archives: Identity

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Kudos Report: White Rapper Tells White People About Themselves

As anyone who has ever read this blog well knows, I am unapologetically proud of my hometown of Seattle. Which is why I want to take a brief moment to highlight an artist and song that came from a fellow Seattleite. About race. And privilege. And white supremacy. And not just any rapper. A White rapper, whom I recently found out I have literally one degree of separation from. The same one that for many people, put Seattle on the map. And the same one who epically failed to use his Grammy win to celebrate a Black artist we all know should have won, an artist on my personal list of top five rappers of all time, but who lost because he didn’t have the same White privilege and cultural capital as the rapper who won. This kudos report is personal. Let’s do this, Macklemore.

This piece is also personal because a huge part of what I do as a diversity & inclusion professional is help people of color navigate white supremacy and thrive in the workplace while their White colleagues benefit from a racial privilege that they themselves will never know. On the flip side, my professional objective exists because White people continually blunder in their articulations of race and their promotion of racial equity. Simply put: I have a job because White people still don’t “get it.”

Now, this professional paradox of promoting an illusory racial equity that is deeply rooted in racial exclusion is something I have to wrestle with. And knowing that on some level, a portion of diversity and inclusion exists to appease racially insecure White people is discouraging, to say the least. But that’s another article.

Here I want to highlight Macklemore as a White male who actually tried to to talk–TO FELLOW WHITE PEOPLE in various stages of their racial awareness–about being WHITE, living in a white supremacist society, and benefitting from White privilege. If I look back on January 2016 and the entire twelve months of 2015, I can count a solid two White people who used their celebrity to do just that: Macklemore and Bernie Sanders. Though this personal estimate is devastatingly disappointing, it’s sobering and illustrates the fact Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” is kind of a big deal. Plus, if we’re being super honest, although Bernie Sanders wins undisputed gangster points for that Killer Mike interview, Macklemore’s appeal is far more broad than Bernie’s. On  the heels of another #OscarsSoWhite debacle in the American entertainment industry, Macklemore’s 9-minute musical tour, “White Privilege II,” is timely.

I’m not going to deconstruct Macklemore’s presentation of race and racism. Plenty of other media platforms have taken on that task. Rather, I’d like to encourage the Diasporans in the room to  pause, focus on your breath, and do whatever activities you had planned to do today that have absolutely nothing with being Black. Relish in this rare moment of not bearing the responsibility of calling out/schooling/explaining/minimizing/getting exhausted/losing hope in humanity/throwing up your hands at White people’s refusal to engage the racial realities that we as Diasporans cannot opt out of. Macklemore  stepped up and effectively gave us 9 minutes of our lives back. I’m not saying he nailed it, or even that he didn’t, but I will declare that it felt good to see a White person try today. Two points to you, Mack. I can go get my laptop fixed now and get back to a manuscript that I haven’t looked at in months. Thank you.

Oh, and if you didn’t catch it, “White Privilege II” is a sequel, which means this song  –and several Macklemore interviews–are just one step along his journey in figuring out how to to be an ally in the fight for racially equity. That deserves extra kudos.

Not sure what to think of “White Privilege II?” Take a listen.

 

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My Love Letter to Junot Diaz

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Me and Junot Diaz, Occidental College, September 22, 2015.

Last night was the best night of my life. And I say that having had some good times, all over the world, with strangers, and with those whom I share unbreakable bonds.  I’m still high from meeting Junot Diaz, the Dominicano, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times best-selling, uses words like “culo,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker,” Junot Diaz. The same one who, when I read This is How You Lose Her, made me examine why I accepted deceit veiled as love from a man, why I didn’t expect more out of my own quest for my heart to be understood and cherished, how we’re taught to view women as male means to ends, how one would write about love and loss so effortlessly, so naturally, and, among other things, why he spelled the vernacular use of the “n” word with an “er.” I was mesmerized and hooked and anxious to see where his narrative would take my mind and heart in the next book of his that I read, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And I gotta say, when I picked up the book, I was instantly hooked. Like, Game of Thrones and Empire kind of hooked. Afro-Latino Diaspora? Nerds who aspire to be novelists? Women who didn’t bend to social conventions?  He was speaking the language of my heart.  And he is one of the few authors who, by the book’s end, brought me to tears.  Yes, I’m sensitive sometimes.  I own every ounce of that.

I almost passed on my opportunity to meet Junot Diaz last night.  Even though my mom emailed me a few days prior that he would be speaking at Occidental College, just a 20- minute drive from where I live in downtown Los Angeles, I was feeling tired and didn’t want to throw off my workout plan.  Priorities.  But then,  my inner circle spoke some sense to me.  Inspiration is worth a minor inconvenience, they said.  And if it’s wack, I can always dip. Plus my mom was going, so the accountability (read: guilt) factor kicked in right on time.  I was going.  And for the first time, I brought his book with the intention of getting him to sign it. It might be the kind of night where the unimaginable happened.

That night, I experienced a miracle that I will likely fail to attempt to articulate here.  After waiting in a line that spanned what must have been at least three city blocks, me and 600+ other souls sat raptly on the edges of our seats, calling and responding like only the Diaspora can, when Junot insert-explicative Diaz read from This is How You Lose Her and Oscar Wao, then answered questions ranging from when he’ll write a children’s book, to his advice for writers, to how he responds to criticisms that his writing is misogynistic.  I listened to him shout out the Latinos, Domincanos, and people of African descent.  Listened to him talk about how art puts you in contact with your best self, how the hardest thing you’ll ever do, whether you’re a writer or not, is to deal with yourself, how we’re all complicit in racism and sexism, how he considers himself a lazy writer, how he exudes compassion when his older relatives criticize him for claiming blackness, because, after having survived a regime wherein Dominicans were hacked to death for their blackness, his grandma still associates the machete with being Black.  There was no place I would have wanted to be and I thanked the cosmos that entire time for conspiring to make my presence at his reading—just one week after I finished Oscar Wao—happen.  I was elated.  I was transfixed. I was in awe.

Words have always held a special power to me. Maybe that’s why I take them so seriously. This is what I get for being the daughter of a novelist/librarian.  Growing up, I was never into the things that would gain me popularity and social status like fashion or beauty, instead I read books. My mom always enrolled my older sister and me in summer reading clubs and by the time I discovered Toni Morrison, Gabriel Marquez, Laura Esquivel, and Herman Hesse as a pre-teen, and was in.  Deep.

At some point in my mid-twenties (read: professional career and tumultuous marriage), I realized that I had stopped reading and writing. Not in the literal sense, trust me, I was writing plenty of emails and occasional speeches for work events.  But I stopped reading and writing to feed my spirit.  Stopped writing to discover myself—the flaws hiding in the darkest crevasses, hidden to my public and private world, and my strength and resilience that had sometimes poured out of me so seamlessly it terrified me. If I’m staying honest here, I’ll have to admit that graduate school was the culprit, or rather, forcing myself into an intellectual and creative constraint that was too tight, too coarse, too much of a plan that my father or ex-husband approved, too suffocating for my voice echo off the walls of the universe. Funny how your spirit dies when you live for everyone but yourself.

If it weren’t for my mother’s unwavering belief in some of my untold stories—you know that kind of conviction only a mother can give, the kind that voices opinions ever so subtly because they know they have to introduce you to your own brilliance when you can’t yet see it for yourself, the kind that then overtly urges when they know you’re not really hearing them and you’re wasting time—I wouldn’t have rediscovered writing, and by extension, reading, at the age of 28. But I did.  And slowly, I started writing, freely, in my spare time. That summer, and for the next six months, I began writing what’s become a manuscript for my memoir that loosely deals with African and African Americans, gender, and becoming, well, myself.

Then I began writing articles. About different aspects of Black life that fascinated, confounded, inspired, or tickled me.  And it was a miraculous process because I soon discovered that my words and accounts actually resonated with people I had never met, and some who I had, in different geographic locations, with different life stories.  I guess James Joyce got it right: “In the particular is contained the universal.”  And all of a sudden, this hidden essential part of me that I had buried for so long in pursuit of an unattainable self somehow started to flourish.

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Being in the presence of Junot Diaz last night gave a tremendous amount of joy to the part of me that’s been reawakened.  To the part of me that thrives and utters its truth, because to do anything else betrays my soul.  I will forever cherish my evening with him and the blurred selfie that we took together (because we thought my mom’s maneuvers ruined our shot, an accusation for which I’m still eating crow) because it reminded me why I’m alive. More importantly it reminded me the unimaginable power of words and their gift.  Junot Diaz, sus palabras son tesoros.

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African-American

African-American

African-American

Sometime in September of 2002, when I was seven years old, my four-year old sister and I were secretly smuggled from our apartment in Uptown Harlem, New York, to a borough known as Alakuko in Lagos, Nigeria.

The smugglers were my mother and older sister.

That’s the version of the story that usually shocks people. That’s also the version of the story that I truly believed. That is the version of the story that tried to bandage old wounds with humor. But what I did not realize until I made peace with my past is that those wounds are what made me both who I am and what I am. Because of those wounds, because of the sacrifices my family made for my future, I can say that I am an African-American man, in the total and literal sense of the word.

I grew up Black. I was raised in Harlem, New York, during its pre-gentrified days, when it wasn’t always safe to walk 20 blocks by yourself at night, when seeing a white person near the polo grounds or the projects was cause for confusion, if not a subtle bit of anger. Growing up, I was told that my family was Nigerian, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I could never stay in school because I would get suspended for fighting and ignoring my teachers. Outside of school, I spent my days either with girls or on the concrete court of Rucker Park. I had no comprehension of what it meant to be African, and I was as normal as one could be in my neighborhood, until I picked up my entire life one day and shipped it to the motherland.

When we arrived at my uncle’s house in Alakuko, I was under the impression that I was just being introduced to relatives I had never seen before in a place I had never seen before. But my perception of the visit swiftly changed when my mom exited the complex without me and my little sister.

I turned to my aunty and asked her where my mother was going, and to that, the aunty that I had only known for about two days replied, “you can call me mom now.”

That response initiated the two and half years of reprogramming that I went through in Nigeria. I say reprogramming because just about every habit I had adopted during my time in America went against some part of Nigerian culture or tradition. To sum up, I was unruly, undisciplined, and lazy, amongst a plethora of other character flaws. I eventually had most of those character flaws beaten and punished out of me.

Over time, I began to understand the culture and its customs. I learned the meaning of respect for one’s elders. And as a bonus, under the tutelage of my cousins, I learned how to play the piano.

Skip ahead two years to December of 2004, and I am back with my family in the United States. My family has fallen in love with my new disciplined mannerisms, and the work I get at school is so easy that I’m asking for work from the grade level above me. My abilities, my intelligence, and my character, however, separated me from my classmates, especially the males, and that brought with it a strain of bullying and taunting. Ironically,  I was finally the one being bullied, and my Africanness was the prime fuel for everyone’s jokes.

The distinction between African and Black was yanked to the forefront of my mind. From my return to the U.S. in the fourth grade up to my last year of high school, I had to deal with the ignorance of peers who understood little to nothing about Africa. I had to deal with being called a monkey, with people constantly joking about the darkness of my skin, with people making click noises and singing Lion King songs around me.

All of these microaggressions turned me from someone who wore his newfound culture with pride into someone who ran away from anything that even tempted to remind him of his ethnicity. As a result, I fell into a dismal hole of existence in which I found myself casting away my culture in order to be seen as normal. I was chasing an identity that no longer applied to me, and a people that no longer wanted me. Meanwhile, my family began to pity my retreat from Nigerian culture–one of my sisters even began to look down on me for it. Relatives and family friends would call me “white boy” or “American” in our native tongue, Yoruba.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I stopped hiding signs of my Nigerian identity, until I accepted that my last name would occasionally get butchered, until I realized that I was both an American and a Nigerian.

I identify and experience the struggles of Black life. And yet, my pride in my Nigerian heritage grows constantly. I live as a medium between these two identities, understanding the world from the lens of both cultures. My inner struggle simply taught me that accepting all that makes me who I am, sharing my identity with the world around me–THAT is the very essence of diversity–not a homogenous group of like-minded look-alikes, but a blend of vastly different individuals, who by the very existence of their originality, enrich our world exponentially. Being different is normal. Understanding the beauty of that difference is a blessing. When we hide our unique qualities, we rob society of our gifts, and worse, we betray our own selves.

To be Black in America can be both exhilarating and traumatizing, partly because that label has the power to unify so many, but also because it has the power to divide and minimize countless cultures and identities. I wanted that solidarity, but it came at the cost of my own integrity, and it made me run from who I was.

Every soul is a jewel. I have no reason to hide who I am, because I am the only one like me in the entire universe. And I stand tall as an African-American, as a child of two worlds, because I have realized that alone, we are strong, but united, we are unstoppable.

Benjamin Adekunle-Raji will be a junior at Kenyon College with a major in Psychology, a minor in Music, and a concentration in Law and Society. If he’s not busy sleeping, playing video-games, eating, or griping about how much work Kenyon professors assign, then you’ll probably catch him on a piano, on a basketball court, in a Chinese food restaurant, or in one of his journals, writing away his endless flow of thoughts.

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Growing Up Black in Seattle

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The four generations.  Pictured from left to right: Charlotte Watson Sherman, Aisha Sherman Commeh, Dorothy R. Glass, Maya L.K. Commeh, and me at Grandma Dorothy’s Seattle home. June 5, 2015.

Last week I had the colossal pleasure of returning to my hometown of Seattle, Washington for my grandmother’s 80th birthday.  The trip was absolutely amazing—I reunited with most of family, who, for the most part, are doing incredible things, checked on one of my besties, and was reminded of all of the things I love about where I grew up. Maybe it was the fact that my life just took an unprecedented turn for the better and I could celebrate it with loved ones, or maybe it was because living in rural Ohio for four years has made me yearn for urban swagger, but the trip was absolutely everything to me.

Whenever I meet new people, I’m quick to tell them that I loved growing up in Seattle.  And just so we’re clear, I let them know that I grew up in the Seattle that had a slight chip on its shoulder– the one that relentlessly sold off superstar athletes like A-Rod, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro.  The one that could only claim Jimmy Hendrix, Starbucks, grunge music, and Kenny G.  Yes, chile, Kenny freakin’ G.  Going to the Super Bowl was unheard of during my childhood.  We had a better chance of getting rocked by another earthquake.

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The view of Mt. Rainier from Seward Park.

Seattle was good to me.  I spent 18 years living in one the Seattle’s most racially diverse enclaves (what up, Rainier Beach!) where my best friends were Black (like me), Eritrean, Vietnamese , Ethiopian, Laotian, and Chinese. I was surrounded—literally–by breathtaking mountain ranges and immense bodies of water. As such, I learned how to swim, snow shoe, ski, and canoe.  I attended one of the largest and notorious public high schools, which means that I was just as accustomed to walkouts in protest of war as I was to award-winning orchestras and jazz ensembles.  And don’t get me started about Sockeye salmon (true story: to this day, salmon of any sort is my go-to comfort food whenever I feel homesick).  I never regretted growing up in Seattle, even if the city got dissed occasionally.

But people have a new and improved view of my city.  The Seahawks put us on the map a couple of times.  Then that movie about the guy with cancer came out.  Then Macklemore did his thing.  People finally recognize how dope Seattle really is.

Except for one thing: I still get asked if Seattle really has any Black people. And people of all races ask me this in all seriousness.  So in case you were wondering, yes, we exist!  We represent 8% of the city’s finest.  No, that’s not a lot, but let’s be honest, it’s probably more than you thought there were.  More importantly, there are 5 essential Black Seattleite experiences that unite us.  They are as follows:

  1. Your Blackness is regularly up for debate.  Maybe it’s coming from a relative who  did or didn’t grow up in Seattle.  Or maybe it’s by a fellow Black classmate who thinks they grew up in a more authentically Black part of the city.  There will even be times when non-Black folks try to check you.   But you kind of understand because, hey, you live in one of the Whitest cities in the US.
  2. Your Black restaurants are severely limited.  King Fish CafeCatfish Corner? Ms. Helen’s?  Casualita’s Caribbean Cafe and Rum Bar? The Diasporan cuisine type doesn’t matter.  All Black restaurants in Seattle are cursed to eventually close for reasons we’ll never fully understand.  If there is currently one open, frequent it as much as you can, because God only knows when they’ll close.
  3. There’s a max of 3 degrees of separation between you and another Black person. So you know that joke about how all Black people are related, or at least know each other?  Turns out this one is basically true in Seattle.  If you don’t know said Black person living or working in the city of Seattle (all bets are off for Bellevue, Everett, Kirkland, etc.), ask your friends or family, and voila!  Ya’ll know exactly who they are.
  4. Your hair will get wet and there’s no point in fighting it. The rain is real.  You have always known this.  You and your hair have made your peace with it, and you have either given up or know exactly which styles are going to be suitable for the ever-present precipitation. And please believe, you know just how to fit your raincoat’s hood all the way around your edges.
  5. You kinda like alternative stuff. Skateboarding? Kale? Recyling?  Artists that no one has ever heard of? If it’s something that your grandparents would tease you about on the grounds that it’s not Black enough, that’s you all day.  And you love it.  Because how many Black folks’ families migrated all the way to the Pacific Northwest and proudly call it home?
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Racism in Japan: A Beauty Queen’s Battle

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Ariana Miyamoto looking flawless. Photo courtesy of Facebook/ArianaMiyamoto.

Sometimes I come across news headlines that are just too awesome to swipe past.  Such is the case with 21-year old Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, who made headlines in March as the first biracial conetestant to win the prestigious pageant.  Well, she’s capturing our attention again, this time for leading a campaign for racial inclusion in Japan.

As you might imagine, Ariana’s racial background wasn’t always celebrated in a society that is over 98% ethnic Japanese.  She was often ridiculted by her classmates for having an African American father and Japanese mother, despite her identifying as Japanese.  In an interview with CBS news, she recounts how her clasmmates would throw garbage at her and told her not to touch them, for fear that her black skin would contaminate them.

Unfortunately, Ariana’s experiences with racism and being bullied were similar to many other biracial and multiracial Japanese.  After one of Ariana’s closest friends–who was also biracial– committed suicide after relentless bullying, Ariana decided to take a stand against racism.  She entered the 2015 Miss Universe Japan pageant.  And with her exemplary calligraphy skills, permanent smile, and genuine aura, Ariana killed it.

But after Ariana won the 2015 Miss Universe Japan, the internet blew up with criticisms that she wasn’t Japanese enough.  Many pigeon-holed her as “haafu” (half), not fully Japanese, and thus not fully deserving of the title.

Luckily, Ariana drew on her own adversity and even that of beauty pioneer Naomi Campbell, to fight her crusade against racism.  She’s also using the changing racial demongraphics of her Japan to propel her campaign.  According to the film, “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” 20,000 biracial and multiracial people are born in Japan every year.  “I think there will be a lot of mixed-race children in the future,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg, “and we need to create an environment where they can grow up free from prejudice.”  And later, Miyamoto told AFP. “I can’t change things overnight but in 100–200 years, there will be very few pure Japanese left, so we have to start changing the way we think.”

Ariana will compete for the Miss Universe crown early next year.

Do your thing, girl!

 

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Black in Greece

Black in Greece

Black in Greece
Imani (bottom, center) with her students in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Walk down the “paralea” (waterfront) in downtown Thessaloniki any day of the week between 9 and 5, and the cafes are filled with individuals and “pareas” (groups of friends) sitting in carefully decorated cafe-bars drinking coffee and relaxing as the crisp wind from the Aegean carries laughter and gossip between the tables. Even during business hours, when you would expect most people to be working, the stretch of establishments between the lefkos pyrgos (White Tower) and the limani (port) have customers. Walk towards the ano poli (old city) and many of the shops and businesses are open as well. However, you will see more people enjoying their €3 coffee than shopping for the latest fashions at Zara or H&M. With a youth unemployment rate of 50%, it is no wonder why more Greek people are sitting at the cafe-bar than sitting behind a desk.

Anyone who has listened to the news within the last 5 years is well aware that the Greek economy is in the midst, or as many Syriza supporters like to say now – on its way out of – an incredible debt crisis. Greeks of all ages, but particularly young people ages 18-30, are struggling to find work, and those who have managed to secure a new job or tenure a previously held position have had to accept low wages or significant salary cuts. As new political groups, like Gold Dawn, gain more following, spreading anti-immigrant sentiments and demanding job security for Greek citizens, employed expats in Greece must exercise caution when sharing their reasons for living in the country.

As a 24-year old African American woman with caramel colored skin, tight, natural spiral curls and arguably racially ambiguous facial features, Greeks do not take me for an African immigrant. In fact, most Greeks upon meeting me stare silently unable to pinpoint my ethnicity before finally asking, “Where are you from?” After being asked this question dozens of times, I decided to make a game of it by not immediately answering the question, but rather asking the inquisitor to guess. I am most commonly confused for being Brazilian, for the record. Regardless, no Greek ascribes me to the groups of North African people who have recently immigrated. Most Greeks assume that I am here, as many foreign tourists are, for vacation. After sharing that I am from the U.S., some even follow up with that all too vexing question “No, where are you really from?”  I usually skip the American history lesson and subsequent explanation of my unknown ancestry beyond about 3 generations ago, for all of which my family lived within U.S. borders. I reply stolidly, “I am from New Jersey.” The conversation then turns to the delicate issue of my reason for living here past the holiday season. Diction is key. I can never begin by saying that I am working, but rather explaining that I am participating in a temporary fellowship program which offers recent college graduates professional development and work experience. I made the mistake of just saying that I was working a few times, and I didn’t understand the sudden cold disposition and lowered muttering in Greek that followed. During these times, Greeks are a bit hostile toward employed foreigners, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Yet, my racialization in the context of anti-immigrant sentiments is still affected by my privilege as an American citizen and by the fact that I am participating in a sanctioned fellowship program. I am provided with free housing within the gates of the American Farm School campus, free meals in the school cafeteria, a contract to work within a guaranteed window of time, and an immediate network of supportive colleagues and supervisors to help me adjust this new home. Black immigrants from other parts of the diaspora, on the other hand, have a different experience that I cannot ignore. When they come to this country, they must compete with locals for the few jobs that are available in a society that regards networking and ties more highly than meritocracy. Regardless of skill or ability it is difficult for Greeks to find work, let alone Blacks, without a friend on the inside or some connection willing to advocate on their behalf. I believe this is a large part of the reason why I can count the number of Black professionals I have seen here on my hands. Most of the Blacks I see in Thessaloniki are selling knockoff Beats by Dre headphones, designer belts, purses, sneakers, watches, and other kiosk goods. They do not have the security and comfort that I came to Greece with, so in order to feed themselves and their families they must make ends meet by whatever means necessary.

At the same time, I do understand that my privilege has its own limits. My professional opportunities do not extend outside of the American institution where I work, which values my English language facility and knowledge of the American higher educational system. My reason for living in Greece is first and foremost to educate young high school students about how to attend a U.S. college or university and to help prepare them for that transition by improving their English, exposing them to American culture, informing them about college entrance practices, and preparing them for standardized testing. Starting a life outside of that work and on my own would be an entirely different feat, one that I must tip my hat to those brave souls who are doing it every day.

Imani Ladson graduated from Kenyon College in 2013, where she double majored in Sociology and American Studies, with a concentration in African Diaspora Studies.  She just finished her second year of service as the College Counseling Fellow at the American Farm School (AFS) in Thessaloniki, Greece. She will be begin her Masters in School Counseling at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education this summer.

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Yellow Fever

Skin Bleaching and “Yellow Fever”

I’m not one to personally comment on issues of colorism.  Especially if it’s about colorism in Black communities. When “Dark Girls” and “Light Girls” came out last year, I consciously didn’t watch them and made sure to stay out of the comments sections on articles about them.   I didn’t want to remember how as a child, I would watch R&B and hip hop music videos and fantasize about being lighter skinned so that the Black boys in my class would think I was pretty.  I didn’t want to think about how I thought my sister was more valuable than me because she was my dad’s peanut butter color and not the burnt copper tone that my mother and I shared.

My Afrocentric upbringing was supposed to shield me from colorism, after all.  I played with Black dolls (because my mom made sure we had them, all the while discarding the White dolls that relatives and friends gave us).  I read books with Black protaganists.  Hell, I knew the principles and elements of Kwanzaa like the back of my hand.  But I couldn’t escape the feeling– from a multiracial society birthed from racist tenets, and from the media that guaranteed its survival–that I was worth less because of my Blackness.  And let’s not mention the lack of Black culture, politics, and history from my K-12 education.  So, no, I never wanted to discuss colorism let alone skin bleaching publicly because it’s continued existence in society, my community, and in my own life was a source of shame for me.  I was supposed to have overcome it.

And on a scholarly level, the Africanist historian in me has always loathed hackneyed discussions of what Africans do with their bodies (i.e.circumcision, nakedness, and skin bleaching).   I find them distasteful, ethnocentric, and uncomfortable.  To me, they end up as conversations that scorn the backwardness of African practices, erase local agency and uphold a required Western savior, whether in principle or in person.  I tap out of those convos and representations emotionally and intellectually because I can’t stomach them.  So when I saw the buzz around Yellow Fever, I was turned off.

But alas.  My source for hot Diasporan topics (aka my mom) emailed me an article about the new short, “Yellow Fever.”  So of course, I watched it.  And I was glad I did.  Not because it dramatically altered any of my feelings on colorism, or even taught me anything new about Black people going to desperate lengths to alter our appearance (I’ve been to the continent enough to have seen women who failed at achieving a well-balanced skin bleaching effect).  I appreciated it being told by a Kenyan female artist and filmmaker who wants to challenge Western beauty standards instead of chastizing African women for succumbing to the pressure to bleach their skin as Fela Kuti’s 1976 song, “Yellow Fever,” did.  It could also be that I appreciated it because I’m a glutton for the airing out of our dirty laundry.

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I applaud  Ng’endo Mukii for providing a new platform–an animated short that employs dance sequences and interviews–to wrestle with these deep-seated global beauty standards.  I find the short’s honesty and thoughtfulness refreshing.  Especially because you don’t walk away from it feeling debilitated as many films of the same topic leave you.  I hope this is another lens to help us come to grips with the power of loving ourselves on our own terms.  She deserves all the accolades she’s received thus far.

Let me know what you think.  Will you watch?  What do you think about colorism and skin bleaching?  How can we overcome impossible and damaging beauty standards?

 

 

 

 

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When We Colonize: Negroes in Pop Culture and History

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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?

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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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A Bittersweet Respite

 

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Street Art, Berlin, Germany. Taken by Kimberly Alicia Singletary, PhD.

When I was 11, I read about a black girl, like me, who was from the Midwest and managed to escape a racial present that all but determined a racial future predicated on ideas from a racial past. I wondered if I, too, could be like Miss Josephine Baker and find the same kind of respite overseas. Was it possible, I wondered, to shrug off the straitjacket of racial certitude—where people thought they knew everything about you just by the color of your skin—and live outside of the confines of race? I’ve been testing that question since I was 15, relishing how my nationality often seems to cause more offense than my race in nearly every one of the 25 countries I’ve visited.

Like Ms. Baker and the scores of American blacks before and after her, I have found Europe to be a space where the twoness I feel at home as a Person of Color and an American weighs less heavily upon me. And yet, if I am honest, the problems of race and racism aren’t ameliorated overseas, rather, they have a different accent. While I have found a second home in Germany, I am protected by my Americanness and my ability to return at any time to the Midwest and my blue house with its pond in the backyard and the cat in the front window. For Germans of Color, however, the problems of racism and racial exclusion cannot be alleviated with a plane ticket and a passport.

When I took my first school trip to Germany as a 15 year old, I encountered two neo-Nazis on the train in Hamburg who looked at me with open hatred. My host brother quickly intervened and soon the two men were asking me about Chicago and wishing me a nice stay. “Why were they so nice?” I asked, shaken. “Oh. You’re not trying to stay here,” M responded, casually. “You bring tourist dollars.” That experience sums up the problems of inclusion that members of the global black diaspora often face: to visit is one thing, but to ask for rights, to seek power, to claimspace is another thing altogether.

It seems odd to talk about racial privilege as an American of Color, but in Germany, there remains a real and persistent threat of political and social disenfranchisement in addition to the threat of bodily harm.  It is impossible not to notice that the warm welcome I receive as a young(ish) woman (with class privilege) abroad is predicated upon a certain degree of hypervisible black American glamour prevalent in US film, music, TV, and other forms of pop culture in Germany.  The spotlight on non-German blackness opens the door for the simultaneous erasure of black Germanness in the German public sphere.  The many representations of blackness in Germany represent North American, Caribbean, or African cultures; it implicitly marks blackness as foreign, allowing the longstanding misconception that all Germans are white to fester. This ultimately creates the “impossibility” of claiming Black and German as a potential category of being.

The overabundance of U.S. American blackness in the German public sphere makes it seem as if the Afro-German population is smaller than it is, or less politically active than it is. Afro-Germans face a battle not only to gain more visibility as always already German citizens, but to also stake a claim in how Afro-German history and identity is relayed in realms where they have been historically disenfranchised. In a recent open letter to the University of Bremen, a long list of Afro-German political groups, academics, and activists condemned the university’s new Creative Unit on Black Studies.  In not offering any one of its graduate or faculty positions to a black person, German or otherwise, they argue, the unit reproduces the very inequality they purport to be committed to solving.   “Although Black German researchers pioneered this historiographical and conceptual work, they remain mostly at the margins of the white German academy or have had to leave the country to seek academic employment elsewhere,” they write. “The research of those Black German scholars, who have been working and publishing on this topic in Germany for many years are only mentioned within the context of a ‘grassroots activism of black diasporic writers’ which is why they – according to the proposal – ‘enjoy only a very precarious visibility on the fringes of academic scholarship or outside of academic disciplines.’ The reasons for this ‘precarious visibility,’ however, are neither discussed in the proposal nor does it lead the authors to consider changes in their own hiring and funding practices.”

The erasure of black Germanness from the German public sphere has long been an irritant for Germans of Color and it is something I take into account when I travel to Germany. I often ask myself if my inclusion is predicated upon the understanding that I don’t want to claim a German identity or foresee having (at least) half black German children who will want to lay ancestral (and economic) claim to the German Fatherland. I often wonder if I am not treated as a threat because even now, several years hence, I bring tourist dollars.

Kimberly Alecia Singletary is a PhD from Northwestern University’s Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture. She analyzes images of US blackness in the German public sphere and maintains a blog, “Melancholy and the Infinite Post-Blackness.” She currently is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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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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