The Diaspora: Continental Drift

The word Diaspora is an acknowledgement of the nature of our relationship. That though we are scattered across the globe, we share common blood and ancestry. The nurture part seems to always get in the way of our reconciliation efforts however: this is the unusual story about how Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther helped me bridge this gap.

Continental drift

I know we like to laugh about who makes the best jollof (I’m not touching that) or how I spent 20 minutes misunderstanding my date once when he kept going on about peppers in Nigeria and their many (specific and remarkable) uses and properties, because I couldn’t believe that he was talking about the same boring peppers I’d been eating all my life (we eventually established that he was indeed speaking about entirely different peppers which I hope to try one day soon). It bothers me that I still don’t know what happened to Great Zimbabwe, that our continent’s history is rarely taught in schools and that intra-continental travel is both heavily discouraged (particularly for solo female travelers such as myself) and quite expensive (because Afro Tourism is not geared with fellow Africans in mind). I roll my eyes knowingly at Twitter hashtags when we (lovingly?) roast each other by country and hang my head in shame when Xenophobia rears it’s ugly head. I watch from a safe but eavesdropping-friendly distance when the Diaspora has its spats (from Cape to Caribbean). I enjoy how we revel in our many similarities, evidenced by my enthusiastic participation in an Insecure (HBO) support group (Thank you Issa Rae), but it is how we are different that concerns me. This is most apparent in our complicated relationship with African-Americans specifically. We don’t need crowns to have glory.

Our situation feels a lot like if your brother was stolen from their crib in the middle of the night (I almost used the word ‘adopted’ here but it doesn’t quite capture the trauma of what happened), severed all communication from your entire family and was raised in servitude and cruelty in the house of an arrogant but powerfully influential white man (with a bald eagle’s head). You also know that their mistreatment was a direct response to their relation to you. Are you then surprised that their entire world view, including their understanding of you their literal family, is inadvertently informed by their proximity to this whiteness despite experiencing immense cruelty and pain in that same house? An entitlement and arrogance found, even to this day, in the consistent and continued lack of specificity when referring to the continent that birthed them: the use of “Africa” as a homogenous adjective as if we are a singular country and entity? What is an African Mask/Cloth/Dance/Music? I’m not saying don’t enjoy or consume art if you can’t name exactly where it’s from, I’m saying attention to detail is always a highly valued trait and prevents the perpetuation of this idea that the full breadth and scope of what it means to be African can be condensed into one single thing.

Continental view(s)

I confess that my understating of African-Americans was once limited to and entirely informed by their representation in pop culture (for better or worse) making my image of them both superficial and incomplete. As Chimamanda once put so eloquently, that is the danger of the single story. It’s complicated because the impact of American pop culture is undeniable, far-reaching and somewhat aspirational. There were many things that were universally Black that we could relate and project ourselves into like an elaborate escapist fantasy (see: The Sister Sister pilot starring me as Tia and Tamera as African-American culture). Other things in no way tied into my lived experience but influenced me nonetheless: One could be forgiven for believing that the Black American experience was all guns, gangs, hip hop, comedy and supporting-role sass outside of the occasional family sitcom. Aaliyah made me want hair that could completely cover one of my eyes, I truly believed that Beyoncé’s hair came out of her scalp in blonde tresses, that African American women didn’t have curly/coily hair (until I saw The Colour Purple) and that Dark & Lovely relaxer really made Kelly’s hair that way (I would later learn about wigs and weaves). The only time this veneer of supposed truth via was shattered was, with rare exception, whenever it pertained to the representation of “Africa”; being an entire living breathing “African” living in the aforementioned “Africa” and all, I objected (and still do).

I enjoy Coming to America as much as (if not more than) the next person but I really bristle at the “We were Kings in Africa” rhetoric. It’s one thing to enjoy fiction and another to latch on to this fiction as the truth. At least 12 million humans left the continent as part of the trans-atlantic slave trade. Are you telling me that they were all royalty? If you believe that, this next part is going to be a bandaid-ripping of sorts: Africa is literally many things (many countries and cultures for example) but what it is not, is a fantasy. We can sit for hours trading Eddie Murphy jokes but I draw the line at invoking the fictional Zamunda and Wakanda anytime you see or hear anything remotely “African”. Unless you believe that the “motherland” as you perceive it in reality is unworthy if you only wish to experience it with the help of a fictional crutch. Know better, do better, see more.

I think we’d benefit from looking at each other as siblings. To see that which ties us together and use it as a route to find our way back towards one another. Siblings don’t always get along and there is room for complexity, differences, disagreements and nuance in that dynamic. We may be bound by blood but the rest is a choice. I’ve since learned a deep sense of compassion for African Americans and our other siblings scattered across the sea. I think I see it more for what it is: our long lost (see: stolen) siblings are trying to find their way back, even if the trip is impeded by the confining prism that is their adopted worldview. Hear me brothers (and sisters): You do not need to be exceptional or bathed in riches and glory to justify the simple act of being alive and tied to this continent. The same courtesy applies to those of us currently occupying the continent. What are you telling us you believe about ordinary Africans when you can only conceptualise your African identities this way?

Chinua Achebe has repeatedly questioned this manipulated view of Africa as an entity. From its existence as mere backdrop to a White man’s insanity in Heart of Darkness to this constant swing from heathen to royalty in Western media. We need to tell the middle story where we’re just humans, because that’s enough.

Continental breakfast

I freely admit that I didn’t reach this place of compassion quickly or with ease. All this “motherland” and kissing the earth at the airport nonsense irked me growing up. I couldn’t read the impulse as sincere because American shows & films frequently used said “motherland” as a punchline. A whole entire continent, not even awarded the minor effort or due diligence of picking a country to make fun of. It annoys me when white characters do it but it hurts when it comes from those who claim (with truth and convenient selectivity) to be of our soil.

Interestingly enough, Marvel’s Black Panther of all things, was the turning point for me. It felt like that scene in the Breakfast Club where everyone had walked in with a label (jock, weirdo etc) that was a mildly accurate but widely accepted account of who those individuals were. Then they proceed to share very intimate specific parts of themselves that both literally and abstractly fill in the blanks. It led to this complicated catharsis of understanding in me because it represented so many things at once: this grief for my long-lost siblings and understanding of their perspective wrapped in this triumphant cinematic celebration of a world reimagined; a world where just a smidgeon of the continent was left untouched by colonisation and we got to bask in the shared image of what might have happened had we been left alone. It was this momentous feat where an all black cast depicting “the dark continent” was a critical and commercial success. In one of the most stunning metaphors for the Diaspora, descendants from all corners of the continent found their place in (and worked on) the film. I saw it in the love letter of inclusivity and specificity woven into Ruth Carters costume design. In the production and colour design (colonisers are in blue BTW). There’s an entire sequence where the colour palette visually represents the concept of Pan-Africanism (red black and green).

I found myself understanding through fiction something I hadn’t before. Ryan Coogler captured their yearning for what could’ve been and what it feels like to come ‘home’ but continuing to feel like an outsider who is unable to participate but tries anyway through study and collaboration and art. He put it all on the table: this is what it feels like to have to Google your clan name, robbed of the privilege to casually carry your heritage and bloodline with you daily through a stable identity rooted in years of tradition, language and culture.

In SeSotho, my home language, our greeting that comes closest to the English “how are you” directly translates into a more beautifully poetic yet literal exchange: “I am here, where are you?”. I know where I am and I’m a interested in where you are in your being. We take that answer for granted. Ryan explicitly depicted this traumatic uprooting and subsequent disorientation in the form of Michael B Jordan’s Erik Killmonger who stood in contrast to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa; a man completely connected and orientated to who and what and where he was. Obviously this is not exactly what happened and the story would be more accurate if Erik had been stolen in the dead of night instead of left behind jn Oakland but I did it’s job as art is supposed to. I don’t think we should be allowed to hold art to the standard of realism, we can only demand that it tell the truth, and in this case I believe it did that. It was like reading your annoying brother’s diary: I finally got it. It hit me like a truck: they can’t come home. They were ripped from us (stolen) so they have a new home now. They can visit but they can’t ever really come back. That’s the power of fiction, it disarms you then gets under your skin and allows us to digest difficult things because they’re somewhat removed.

And now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it. I have brothers and sisters all over the world. Many of whom were stolen, violently ripped from their roots now bearing strange fruit in foreign soil but they still originate from the same seed from which I sprung, however distantly. I’m OK with thinking of it as a family. Families clash and misunderstand each other frequently, diaspora wars will continue but I only ask that we extend each other the same courtesy and respect as we would if we had been allowed to live under the same roof. It would help if we listened and learned about each other as we truly are and not as we hoped or imagined we would be. Let’s have breakfast and put it all on the table. Even without a crown, there is still a seat for you.

I would argue that the pendulum will eventually find it’s way to the centre having previously swung to (and then held in place for millennia) “savage” heathen territory and has now overshot to regal afro surrealism. The latter isn’t inherently unrealistic or, in fact, unattainable. It just implies that being a regular living breathing human of African soil is somehow not enough.

While we do the collective and exhausting work of dismantling the racial systems that oppress and led us here through forced separation and the unique experience of the same pain: Let us dismantle and abolish the illusions we have about each other. We are different, but we share blood and we can tell each other the truth: if you envoke Africa as a whole, claim all of it or leave it be. Perfection is an impossible standard but honesty is a good place to start.

Editors note: and it’s annoying that it even has to be said but this piece, like most of my writing, has been stewing for weeks. Beyoncé is not the premise. I realise that her dives into “African” culture are catching heat lately particularly since the release of the Black Is King trailer (her upcoming visual album) but I am not personally offended by her work. Beyoncé is part of a long line of artists who are reaching out. I see it as an attempt to expand the pantheon of narrative that exists about our cultures and identities. She clearly thinks we are beautiful and worthy of celebration with frequent and often accurate attempts at regional specificity and artist collaboration. While she frequently falls into the royalty trap (which I spent a lot of time unpacking above) and frequently excludes us unless the circumstances are extreme (see: global citizens), she’s neither under obligation to be perfect nor above correction. That said, she uses her global reach to sidestep the pitfall that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche warned us about: the danger of a “single story”. It’s complicated.

Featured artist illustrations: Gerrel Saunders

As an artist Spotlight, I’d encourage you to read this wonderful interview in i-D written by Zio Baritaux on this digital illustration collection (featured) entitled Crown: here.

Follow Gerrel Saunders instagram: @gaksdesigns.

6 thoughts on “The Diaspora: Continental Drift

  1. Thank you for your piece, very thought provoking indeed. After living abroad for sometime, I absolutely empathise with black people in the diaspora especially those with no immediate family connecting them to the continent. I also understand the desperation for representation to counter the narratives imposed by Eurocentric media. At the same time I always grapple with what we want that representation looks like and what the implications of it are.

    Black panther was a huge success in the sense that it rightfully empowered a lot black people raised in the diaspora. A few months ago I was on you tube and I came across a tutorial on how to make Queen Ramonda’s hat for a Halloween costume and I couldn’t help but feel a little outrage. Isicholo has meaning to us Northern Ndebele and Zulu people. I also find myself feeling frustrated when I see young girls and unmarried young women within our culture wearing it and I often ask myself how much we respect the symbols of our culture. Contrary to popular belief, I do believe that we as African can appropriate a fellow Africa’s culture because we are ignorant about each other’s cultures.

    I myself am very confused about what it means to be represented. Being born and raised on the continent and living abroad, sometimes it feels like hugging a cactus because I find myself constantly having to defend myself to fellow black people for not knowing a certain black rapper or not having watched a particular cartoon that everyone grew up watching. The assumption that the black experience is universal and expectation that I should be praising Beyonce and be grateful is quite frustrating. I can see the frustration on both side and I wish we talked about these issues more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your unique perspective Simiso. I think it perfectly illustrates that there is no singular black experience and that it’s always going to be grey and complicated because we’re so alike yet so different and power dynamics are fluid and shift constantly (particularly where media and representation are concerned). I think we should talk about it more without having to be right/wrong. A conversation nje.
      And I absolutely hear you with regards to isicholo. I feel that way about the Basotho blanket and the seshoeshoe fabric being commodified by anyone outside of my culture (whether that’s a rational feeling or not is irrelevant, it’s how I feel). It’s always good to air things out and let some truth into the room, even if gets a little uncomfortable.


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