Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Let’s Talk More About Intercontinental Blackness.

Note: If this post seems dated, it is. I wrote it a couple weeks ago, but not for this space. I pitched it to another publication that ultimately opted to pass on it. It also isn’t written in a voice entirely consistent with my other work here, but that, too, is because I intended to publish it elsewhere. If it helps, some of the content in Smith and Adichie’s discussion has become quite relevant in the past two days, with the news of first-generation American of Ghanaian descent Kwasi Enin who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. USA Today’s report on Enin’s accomplishment goes out of its way to include this quote from a college admissions expert: “He’s not a typical African American kid.” At any rate, I hope you’ll read and engage it. 

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Begin with the common ground. It will, at first, seem hard to find, hidden as it is by a thick underbrush of assumption — African immigrants in the U.S. are haughty; African Americans don’t respect themselves — and tangled as it is in the foliage of frustration — Africans come to America and distance themselves; black Americans distance themselves by not bothering to distinguish between African countries’ histories. Yes, the common ground will seem miniscule at first; we are all so invested in our distinct cultural identities, all so protective when discussion about them is broached. But if we are ever going to have candid conversations about our intercontinental experiences of blackness, we’ll need to begin at the borders we share.

Authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this in mind on March 19 when they shared a stage at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their conversation primarily centered on Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, which grapples with the differences in the ways American-born blacks and African immigrants perceive (and internalize) race and racism in America. Since its release last year, Americanah has gradually made more public the long-simmering tensions between many black Americans and people of color born and raised abroad.

This public discourse is long overdue. Never before have black intercultural experiences been so multifarious in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the African foreign-born population doubled in size, growing from 881,300 to 1.6 million. And the recent raised profile of black British actors in America has deepened our need for nuance. This was readily apparent at this year’s NAACP Image Awards when host Anthony Anderson spent much of his opening monologue making superficial differences between black American and black British actors a running joke. He couldn’t seem to let go of accents and “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Idris Elba (who is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent), Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo (both of Nigerian descent) and Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan descent).

The show could have used its opening to build a transcontinental admiration society, encouraging us to look into some of the actors’ pre-Hollywood work or to note how many languages and accents they’ve had to learn to work in the U.S. film industry. But Anderson went for the shallowest observations, at a time when our need for nuance and depth couldn’t be more imperative. A few viewers balked at Anderson’s divisive jokes on Twitter, stating, “I really wish Anthony Anderson would quit the African vs. African American nonsense. It’s ignorant and unnecessary,” and “Black Twitter needs to handle whoever wrote Anthony Anderson’s opening monologue.” But Anderson’s lazy either/or quips are representative of larger incurious ideas about what black looks and sounds like in America and abroad — ideas that should be publicly challenged at every turn.

Challenging cultural assumptions seemed the order of the day, as Zadie Smith interviewed Adichie at the Schomburg — especially as Smith, herself of Jamaican and British descent, shared her perceptions of Nigerians and, at times, asked Adichie to confirm or debunk them. “Every Nigerian in London says they’re a prince, and we have no evidence otherwise,” Smith quipped. “There are maybe two princes in the whole damn country,” Adichie replied. They shared how the American use of “brother” and “sister” as racialized terms of endearment is foreign to them. “No black person in England would call me sister in a million years,” Smith noted, while Adichie said Nigerians do use “sister,” but it isn’t racialized.

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This kind of “We do this. Do you?” tone permeated the discussion — and some topics elicited responses that seemed aware of how close every word might draw them toward a conversational landmine. Both writers’ faces seemed to brighten when they unearthed a shared experience or custom. And where their ideas and perceptions diverged, they listened intently, set on reaching an understanding. To be sure, they both had very specific ideas about African Americans and about America’s approach to engaging racial discourse. “In America, there is a willful denial of history,” Adichie observed. Both agreed that whites in the U.S. find it difficult to understand the role of race, and Adichie further mused, “I keep thinking: how can white people not get it, if they know the history of America?”

It was a bit disorienting, as an African American woman, watching these black women born and raised abroad discuss the function and dysfunction of race in U.S. It always is. Race plays such a central (and fraught and psychological and emotional role) in my experience as an American that it’s fairly surreal listening to women of color discuss it with the distance of cultural anthropologists. That insularity can be a barrier to African Americans’ candor with black immigrants.

But there was no denying Zadie Smith’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s deep reverence for the black experience in this country. Smith, having seen a documentary with graphic depictions of public lynching, long before visiting the U.S., admitted to Adichie, “The first time I came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning.” Adichie also acknowledged, “The ethnic group I most admire in America is African Americans.” It was as important for me to hear their affirmation of my racial history and experience here as it was for me to listen to their own experiences of blackness in the U.K. and Nigeria.

In truth, there is more at stake in African immigrants’ and African Americans’ conversations with one another than in our interactions with whites in the U.S. Often, whites in America view the experience of blackness as a flat plain, regardless of complexion or nationality; here, stereotypes are primarily assigned by skin color, not country of birth or rearing. In the context of white supremacy, blackness is associated with primativism, regardless of where the black experience is lived. Even when this isn’t overtly expressed and even when, as in Smith’s and Adichie’s cases, black immigrants are considered “good black” because they aren’t African American, they still are not insulated from racism here.

This is where we find our largest plot of common ground. In America, racism visits us all. The currents our ancestors have crossed, even when traveling toward destinations that couldn’t be more far-flung from one another suggest that we stand a strong chance of forging crosscultural bonds. But doing so will mean tossing away the chaff of a loaded question’s intimations before answering it. , Adichie did this at the Schomberg when an audience member asked her to speak directly to her impressions of African-African American relations in the U.S. She ventured gingerly, “We’re trying to forge the bonds between Africans and African Americans, not crack them,” and stuck with a short answer. Keeping our tenuous bonds from cracking will also mean treading lightly along those borders we do share; the most innocuous misstep can derail our bridge-building efforts. It will mean holding some hearsay in reserve; not every rumor about another culture bears repeating. And we must refrain, no matter how tempting, from taking new acquaintances to task for past slights we’ve borne at the hands of their countrymen.

When we begin to pull up the overgrowth of our cultural misconceptions, we find that there is nothing flat about this plain. It is mountainous and nourishing and fertile. We come bearing our different kernels of truth, and it is only when we openly share them that our common ground can widen and our intercultural understanding can grow.

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture

When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

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This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

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We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

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Uncategorized

List 1: Literary Heirlooms.

To keep myself from descending into one of the deeper depressions of my life to date, I’ve decided to compile a list–well, a series of lists, actually, between now and then, for you.

You’ll find that, above all else, I’m aspirational.

I want you to believe in old things and to find the literary in the mundane. I want you to be patient with minutia, so you’ll know its meaning. I want you to learn how to tolerate tedium, because so much of life swells with it. I know, because of who we were, that you’ll be eccentric and sensitive and perceptive. But I need for you to have things to hold–insurance of a sort–tangible and intangible talismans of art so that your doubts, which may proliferate rapidly and without warning, will always find themselves undermined by hope and then conquered.

Here is where we’ll begin. These are the things I will hold to your ear, before you are here:

1. Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers, O Pioneers!” as read by Will Geer:

2. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”:

3. “Generations” by Suji Kwock Kim (2:35-7:28)

4. The Seven Seasons of Man monologue from As You Like It (5:14-:7:46):

5. Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

6. Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”:

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