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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