About a month ago, I found myself with several dozen college students in a retreat center somewhere on a hill in cold Western Massachusetts. After a routine coffee break our facilitator, an exuberant man in his early thirties with a thrift for words and the most theatrical gesticulations, instructed us to sort ourselves into groups according to what race or ethnicity we identified with.
I attended the retreat with a few friends of mine. All of us are students from the African continent. All of us identify as black. As one would, we gravitated towards all the other black people in the room and sat down for a discussion, and each person in the group began to introduce themselves.
Where We Came From.
Where We Came From.
When the time time came for one of the other young women in our group, a dimpled girl with burgundy hair, to introduce herself, she looked around nervously and said “I’m just ‘black, black’”.
To be ‘Black Black’ In America
Blackness in America is staunchly defined. What it means to be black is defined according to American rubrics, so that non-american black people find themselves at the peripheries of the mainstream understandings within the black community of blackness itself. And in many senses, this is justified- against forces so intent on drowning them out, black people in this country, like those of us in many other places, have had to work very hard to hold on to their very selves.
What comes at issue then is not this definition of self- it is the erasure that inevitably happens when the span of our understanding of blackness does not encapsulate or demonstrate an awareness of the experience of black non-Americans in and outside of America. It therefore becomes that in order to be seen, heard, celebrated or even advocated for, other forms of living and existing as black must bend to some of these common understandings, that are often tinged with a strange, ironic cousin of nationalism one might call black exclusivity.
I think it’s this sort of exclusivity that informs opinions such as those that Samuel L Jackson expressed about a week ago. If you spend any time at all on these internet streets, you’ll know what the award-winning actor said, in reference to British Actor Daniel Kaluuya’s role in the immensely successful movie Get Out- that a ‘brother’ would have best played the role. I do not believe that Jackson’s assertions are completely out of line. There is power in representation, and I suppose there is even greater power when one’s mastery at their craft is seasoned by their own lived experience. What I take issue with is that sentiments such as these further some of the rifts that exist in global black communities, and strengthen fissures that are a legacy of our shared history of oppression.
This critique can take several forms. It can touch on how especially difficult it was for me as an African person to read Samuel L Jackson’s remarks without thinking about the countless ways in which African actors have been overlooked for roles that their lived experiences might, by his logic, have better been portrayed by them. It can delve into all the ways in which the African continent is consistently mystified and tokenized in Hollywood films- even those with fellow black people in them. And between nuancing the conversation and bringing to light issues such as geopolitical and socio-economic privilege that comes with being a successful, palatable actor for Western consumption, and summoning the history of storytelling as a tool that has contributed to Africa’s tarnished image, this post would be much too tedious a read.
The bottom line is that the legacy of colonialism, slavery and global imperialism as it pertains to white supremacy goes beyond the subjugation, exploitation and violence that is perpetuated and enforced against black bodies. It is in the cracks that it placed and continues to reinforce within the black community. It is embedded in the ways in which some black bodies matter more than others, in the ways in which some forms of blackness are seen more than others.
Furthermore, I counter the compartmentalization that undergirds Jackson’s viewpoints- this mythical idea that the experiences of black people around the world are somehow disjointed from one another, as though they are not governed by the very same forces.
Throwing It ‘Black’
Countless revolutionary movements for black lives across the globe and throughout history have been born out of black solidarity around the world. Ideologies of Pan-Africanism, the Negritude movement of the 1930’s, the fall of apartheid in South Africa- all these saw value in the recognition of the intertwined histories and experiences of black people across the globe and pushed for a shared vision and aligned efforts for the future. Of course, this sense of solidarity does not mean that we suddenly grow blind to the differences and multiplicity that exists in black communities, but it calls for a nuanced appreciation of how much we need each other to move forward. This means operating from a place where we pay adequate mind to the intersecting identities represented by us, and that we realize that the more representation there is, and the more nuanced that representation, the more room we make at the table for more causes that further us all.
It’d be one thing if Kaluuya’s performance and place in the movie was as lackluster as Will Smith’s portrayal of a Nigerian Doctor, what with his Zamunda accent and all. Or if it was Zamunda itself- the physical embodiment of that classic essentialisation of an Africa most Africans cannot get with- one that obliterates the realities of who we are into these fictional imaginaries that are forever tinged with the gothic longing for a lost past. We can all agree, however, that his performance was scathing and raw, the discomfort and terror that his character experienced hauntingly real for those of us who know what it is to navigate all corners of the world in this black skin. So, my concern over these anti-Kaluuya sentiments remain.
Where it becomes a question of someone’s privilege- be it class, geopolitical, tribal or otherwise- resulting in their winning out in gaining access to opportunities that others are not equally positioned to access, then we have a fight. And still, the fight we have in such an instance is not with one-another, it is not a chance to make the fissures in our communities run deeper than they already do. It is an opportunity for us to build, to organize, to write, to learn and educate around and against these inequalities that exist. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in Get Out was nothing short of estimable and beyond this, his presence as a dark skinned, young actor bred in the U.K., of Ugandan descent, participating in forging the way in a groundbreaking genre of black-directed film is a true pinnacle of representation in its most all-encompassing form.