This week has been pretty amazing for Diasporan culture namely because I managed to find the awesome trailer for Shake the Dust, a Nas-backed documentary looking at manifestations and meanings of hip hop in Uganda, Yemen, Haiti, Colombia, and Cambodia. I’m not going to write a lengthy post here; I just want to wax briefly on what I love about this project and share a few of the chin-scratching questions about Black cultural meanings that it raises for me.
Shake the Dust kind of had me at Nas. But beyond that, I find it refreshing that the documentary highlights rarely focused on locales to explore the world of breakdancing and hip hop. Yemen? Cambodia? Really, though? Yes. In Shake the Dust Director Adam Sjoberg accurately connects the grit and creativity that birthed hip hop in Black and Brown ghettos of the Bronx to localized struggles for visibility, survival, and upward mobility elsewhere. And I greatly appreciate it.
Now, on to my questions. I don’t find it surprising that marginalized groups abroad are molding hip hop to the personal and political contours of their lives; folks have been doing that from Japan to Brazil for some time now. What Shake the Dust raises for me is what, if anything is at stake when Black (and Brown) folks culturally (and politically?) appropriate from one another? Or, is appropriation cool when it’s done on an intra-racial level?
Now don’t get me wrong. I recognize that Diasporanly-speaking, Black people have drawn on each other’s political and cultural struggles to strengthen our own (i.e. Civil Rights and decolonization are great examples). Appropriation/inspiration can be used for good, and unifying causes. I get that. What I’m wondering is if there’s a line crossed when we jack each other’s styles for our own uses? And if so, how do we define it?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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!