Hello there! Yesterday was Green Green Grasses‘ debut day! New episodes will be out every Wednesday evening until all eight episodes are done. This post is more for the benefit of people who follow my WordPress and not my social media. So here you go:
This is something I complain about often: I knew who Hitler was, way before I knew what Hitler really did. It’s the power of heavily-circulated rhetoric. Even before you’re conscious of it, you’ve digested that if you have any sense in the world, you should hate him. I am still deeply disturbed that I didn’t know who King Leopold II was until the internet randomly educated me on him a few years ago. As I sit here in my room today, I detest Leopold several times more than I even care about Hitler, for what I think are obvious reasons. Not that I am trying to commit blasphemy or instigate some sort of Oppressor Olympics, but there’s a very important lesson in here.
I didn’t even know Zimbabwe’s colonial name was Rhodesia (and therefore had no clue who the hell Rhodes was) until I read Nervous Conditions in 2017. Twenty seventeen. I was nineteen years old when I found out. (If you knew the mission of the high school I went to and the variety of African classmates I went to school with, I think you would be a lot more ashamed for and with me.) Also, it was this very year that I read Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (which is an 11/10 book, in my opinion), which presented Rhodes again, which is when I realized: yo. This guy colonized southern Africa, not just Zimbabwe. As you can see, I found out a lot of essential things at age nineteen. It amazes me how I was aware of the #FeesMustFall movement while it was happening, yet hadn’t ever heard a thing about the intertwined #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall movements. If I’d known of at least the latter, maybe I’d have gotten wise a lot sooner than I did. Another lesson to be found here.
A year after finding out who Rhodes was, here I am in southern Africa again, with a lot more contextual knowledge of its history. Even though I haven’t been wise for very long, my first time in the Cape Town gardens with the group of majority-American study abroad students still stressed me all the way out because of the following incident: I expressed my incredulity about how a huge statue of Rhodes still stood right in the midst of the garden’s greenery, and insisted, quite vehemently, that it had to come down in the next few years. I was met, by several Americans, with a collective, “Huh? Who’s Rhodes?” reaction. When that happened, I wanted to sit down and cry.
It became even worse for me when my tour guide explained him to be “a really rich guy; owned a lot of property in Southern Africa; heavily involved in the diamond business—the DeBeers Company and so on…” I couldn’t help thinking that these were extremely kind and neutral words for a ruthless colonizer whose statue should have been demolished latest by 1995. Of course, such a mild summarization of Rhodes’ life and legacy produced reactions of, “Oh, okay, I see” reactions in everyone but me. Not “Oh my, what an evil man” reactions. I therefore considered the entire incident weird and inappropriate. It bothered me then, and it bothers me now. How many of these folks, I wondered, would leave South Africa with Rhodes’ name having already been half-forgotten and relegated to irrelevance in their minds?
What made it even worse than worse for me was how, a few minutes later, ignited by my comment about the statue having to come down, the conversation turned to the topic of all the decolonization attempts currently taking place particularly in American colleges; movements to remove statues and historical monuments related to racists or slavers, petitions to rename buildings that bear the names of notable bigots et cetera. I couldn’t help thinking, once again, “Okay, cool, but I don’t see how we were talking about Africa for thirty seconds, and now we’re going to spend the next half hour on America again.” I dissociated mentally from the conversation, not because the topic wasn’t relevant, but because of context and… everything else.
I think, sometimes, I get disproportionately annoyed at some things, at least in comparison to the gravity and scale of what’s actually annoying me. It stems from years of built-up frustration about how the foreignness between different people, histories and knowledge just isn’t equal. Back in high school, while studying human geography, I was surprised to find out that “Americanization” was considered a synonym for “globalization.” Now, I’m merely surprised at how surprised I was then. Cultural exchange, education, and the enlightenment they’re supposed to be able to produce just isn’t manifesting at equal rates in all directions. The history of the globe is a violent one full of intense power-plays, and it’s most obvious for me in these moments. But so is people’s individual obstinacy.
Here’s an example of something I think I overreacted to: I was eating at an Ethiopian restaurant a few weeks ago with some Americans who kept freaking out about how good the injera was, yet seeming to almost deliberately refuse to learn the word injera. They continuously exclaimed things like, “Yo, what is this bread thing?! It’s sooo good!” And I would repeatedly tell them it’s called injera, because it’s called injera and I would like it to be called injera in a very similar way that I would insist bofrot be referred to as bofrot and not “this doughnut thing.” My companions, that evening, would acknowledge that they’d heard me, and then, a second later, repeat, “Dude! This bread!” I would state it again. I would be acknowledged. A few minutes later, “Ugh, I don’t even understand why this bread thing is so good!” Then one or two would look at me sheepishly, half-heartedly asking, “What did you say it was called again?” And I wanted to sit down and cry. Effort matters. It speaks volumes about one’s disposition towards things other than oneself, when effort is absent.
Here is something I think I under-reacted to: Immediately after a UCT tour, a group of Americans were having a discussion in bleacher chairs behind me about how #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall type movements weren’t really as important as people were making it seem, because yeah, sure, the past happened, but obviously none of would matter soon, now that we were in 2018, and people clearly aren’t as problematic now as they used to be. (I think it had flown over their heads that they were in a country that had only been democratic for a couple of years before they were born.) The entire conversation seemed to hinge on the false logic that people suddenly develop sense without anybody needing to protest, to fight inequality, fight for the right to be regarded as human, fight against systematic oppression. Because there’s definitely enough evidence in history of people magically developing sense with nobody’s help, right? *cue eye-roll*
The mad thing for me was how they were all agreeing with each other like, “Yeah, yeah, I totally know what you mean.” You’ve probably figured out by now that none of the people in the above conversation were Black. Listening to them, my hands were itching with the desire to backhand somebody one time. I settled for going on a rant to one of my new African-American friends who was sitting right beside me, about the shocking and complete disregard for context, the ignorance of their own ignorance, and their nonexistent knowledge of when to be quiet. Life is great.
Fun fact: about seventy percent of my Uber drivers in this city have been Zimbabwean. A significant percentage are Congolese as well, it seems. I’ve also been driven by a Burundian once. With these folks, almost as soon as I get into the car, they ask, “Akotowaa? I don’t know this kind of name. Where’s it from?” Ironically, it’s a different story with the South African drivers, who start chatting Xhosa or Zulu to me the moment I enter the car, and I have to be like, ei, paakyew, slow down for me, wai. It’s interesting for me that among Africans that I’ve been exposed to, there appears to be a heightened awareness to foreignness, and a consequent curiosity, when they are in countries other than their own. This relieves me.
One time, I was picked up by a Zimbabwean Uber driver who also immediately asked me where I’m from. I told him I came from Ghana, and he asked, “Where is that? Is it far from here?” That made me sad, but I proceeded to explain its geographical location to him. After he asked me to tell him more about life there, he said, “I’m from Zimbabwe. Have you ever heard of Zimbabwe?” And that made me even sadder. He seemed to consider it normal that a Ghanaian wouldn’t know of Zimbabwe. Another time, I was buying stationery from a shop at school, and as I was paying, the vendor saw my TwoCedi dashiki bag and asked me if I was East African. I denied and told her where I am from. And then I spent the next few minutes trying to answer all her questions about Ghana, a country about which she knew about as much as my Uber driver had. She apologized, at some point, for all her questions, because, “You know, over here, we just stick to ourselves and we don’t know anywhere else. Maybe a little Botswana, a little Zimbabwe, but the rest of Africa, we really don’t know anything about them. People like you are the only chance we get.” And I got sad. Just this past week, I experienced a similar thing with a vendor on campus, from whom I bought coffee. I had to open Instagram to show her pictures of Accra, because she was just insanely curious about this country she had zero knowledge of. It was kind of amusing, but you know, it also made me sad. The real tragedy, I think, is that every single one of these incidents would have disappointed me way more, had I not remembered that two years ago, I didn’t have a clue who Cecil John Rhodes was. The foreignness, mes amis, is not equal.
As a side note, something else that bothers me is that I’m an Africana Studies major who’s currently enjoying the opportunity to study Africana Studies-related things in an African country other than my own; yet it seems like everywhere I turn, I’m encountering non-students of this university (vendors etc.) who seem to want to know so much about parts of Africa other than SA. It just doesn’t sit right with me that people of a lower class than I am, are in the very same educational institution as I am, harbor the same curiosities about Africa as I do, but look at what I’m getting out of being here and what they’re not. Also, in my South African history class, there’s so much of the class’s content that nobody—neither South Africans nor foreigners—knew before being presented with the information through the course. So now, here I am, suspecting that I’m accumulating more random academic knowledge about South Africa than a good proportion of the South African population, and it’s just… an extremely weird feeling. =(
One of my professors here said, in the very first lecture—and I paraphrase only slightly—when white people landed on the shores of Africa, they did not see people. They saw resources, they saw nature, they saw land, all free for the taking. They chose not to recognize that real, legitimate human beings already inhabited this continent; if they had, history would have been a completely different story.
I thought about African tourism a lot, my first couple of weeks here, particularly within the South African context, and even more specifically, within the context of Cape Town. Naturally, a few touristy things have been part of my introductory experience to this city. But personally, speaking as an African from one of the most important countries on the continent when it comes to slave history and colonialism, I have been processing some of my experiences rather differently from many of my American counterparts who are also on this study abroad program.
In the first week, one of my RA’s led a walking tour through Cape Town city. For context, he is both South African and Black. I think he is a truly wonderful human being, and that he gave an effective and comprehensible summary of Cape Town’s history, as well as the explanations for some of the things we saw and places we passed through. I learned things like where festivals happen, where the Muslim population is concentrated, why South Africa has three capitals—random things like that. Since I was neither writing nor taking many pictures, a lot of it has flown out of my head through my ear. There are, however, a couple of things about his tone and diction at certain times that have lingered in my mind for a while.
A handful of times, he would say variations of the sentence, “It’s very, very difficult to talk about the history of Cape Town without talking about [race/colonialism/slavery].” These felt like apologetic disclaimers, which he gave in specific areas—like in front of the Iziko Slave Lodge or something—right before he would give us context about the place. Every time he said that, I wanted, but didn’t dare, to interject. I would have otherwise liked to tell him to speak the history as it is, without preamble, disclaimer, or apology, and especially not with repeated ones. I wanted to remind him that anybody else’s discomfort would not be his responsibility. Of course, I believe the reason the disclaimers even made an appearance is because the majority of this tour group was comprised of (white) Americans on the African continent for the first time. I can’t imagine that the statements could have been directed at anyone else. But, I mean, if we had all come to Cape Town to learn about the city, the country or the continent it’s in, then allow the learning to happen, even if (or, especially if) it would make most of us “tourists” highly uncomfortable. We should have been left to hold ourselves responsible for our own responses, without the need for him to mince words.
On at least three different occasions, he used the word “discovered” as he was speaking. Once upon a time, the Portuguese “discovered” the city, or the British “discovered” gold, or the Afrikaners “discovered” something or the other. For me, at least, it’s not like being presented with African history through this lens is a new experience; my colonized Ghanaian primary school education gave me enough of that to last me a lifetime, thank you very much—but all of us on the program were at least halfway through college. I would call us adults, if even very loosely. Surely, that calls for a far more critical mode of presentation than this?
I zoned out several times just reflecting on the semantics of “discovery.” I suppose, in a sense, according to the mostliteral definition of the word, it would be contextually accurate. However, that doesn’t automatically make it contextually appropriate. True, to discover is not to invent; it is to literally come into consciousness of something that is already there. But using the word does beg this question: Towhom exactly was the newly “discovered” thing previously “covered”? Because if the answer isn’t “everyone,” we ought to think twice about centering the people it was previously covered to—as though the history of a place only began when They arrived. And so, we are back to the essence of this post’s first paragraph: when They came, were there or weren’t there already people here?
Touring an African city is great and all, but I would like to be presented information from the point of view of the not-colonizer, especially if the words are coming out of a native person’s mouth. Framework is important. Because, you see, whenever I hear “[European person/people] discovered…,” I translate it automatically to “[European person/people] saw a new opportunity to exploit/steal/colonize/manipulate…” Which is what I think tour guides should be saying. But I suppose the impartation of these words is usually a job guides are trying to get paid for, and employers might not think my proposed readjustment of the framework is very good for business.
This begs yet another question of centrality, given that African tourism is indeed a business. Which people are being centered as the users? Who exactly is the content (not the economic gains, although that too) of the tourism meant to serve? Because I suspect African tourism would look very different if it were being directed towards, for instance, other Africans. To an African, it is not necessary to explain what Africa is from scratch, babying your listeners; tourism might then be more like reading a paragraph aloud to someone than introducing them to an entirely new alphabet. So, I wondered, as I was listening to my RA speak, if or how his delivery might have changed if the tour group was made up of non-South African Africans, rather than majority-white Americans.
Also in my first week here, I went on a deeply disappointing peninsula tour, during which I spent most of the time sitting in a bus and listening to a bona fide Englishman drone on and on about Cape Town’s history. Yes, you read right: an Englishman. At first, I thought he might be an Afrikaner/white South African—which would have come with its own set of problems too—but then I know what an English accent sounds like. My suspicions were confirmed when he began passing comments such as: “Back in my part of the world…” or “When I first came to South Africa…” Ah, I just want someone to tell me how (I’m lying, o, I don’t want to know) an Englishman ends up being hired as a tour guide for, of all places in the world, a South African city?
As if his existence and presence weren’t problematic enough, during the tour, he said several, several things that made me stop and go, “Ah.” Most of his monologues were facts about Cape Town’s natural environment, or about the colonizers’ activities within Cape Town’s natural environment. We’re back to the first paragraph of this post again. When They came, were there people here or nah?! On the few occasions that native Capetonians came up, his comments would either be inherently inappropriate, or delivered in ridiculously insensitive ways.
“There was a shipwreck here,” he would say. “All the British sailors survived, and all the slaves perished.” And then he would continue like what he said hadn’t meant a thing.
“The Hottentots used to inhabit this area,” he would say, and I would think Oh thank God, we’re about to learn something about actual Africans. Then he would continue, “Unfortunately, they were exterminated.” That one really hit me in the chest. Is extermination a world you use for rodents, or is it a word you truly believe is an appropriate way to refer to the genocides your race committed? Trying to regulate my blood pressure can be a struggle as uphill as climbing Devil’s Peak. (Which I haven’t done yet, by the way. Eventually, chale.)
What, I think, bothers me the most about Cape Town tourism—and most attempts to sell or teach about Africa—is its willingness to center anything but Africans themselves. I know for a fact that there’s a lot to say about how Africans interacted with their own physical spaces, and that for no legitimate reason, these were things I was simply not being told. (The reason I know many things now is through the South African history class that I’m taking.) Passing by or through a Cape Town brewery, for instance, I expect to be told—in addition to how essential beer is to the Capetonian industry or whatever—about how local beer brewing culture was pioneered by African women in some of the tensest political periods of the nation. But, like, nah. My “tourism” of Cape Town hasn’t meant finding out about South African people, it’s meant going up Table Mountain, or learning about all the great Safari trips I could take—you know, if I actually had sika. I imagine, if I were someone other than myself, I might have been very comfortable with having spent a week in “Africa” and, upon going home, knowing that all I have to show for it are selfies of me with a baboon, me in a cable car, and my new knowledge of what a freakin’ dassie is.
The concept of tourism is itself very strange to me, primarily because it’s a business. African tourism makes me uncomfortable because it truly feels, sometimes, like voyeurism; European tourism makes me uncomfortable because it feels like paying colonizers money to be presented with the results of their massive exploitation of other people, which are being passed off as legitimate European accomplishments; American tourism makes me uncomfortable just because of globalization/Amercanization, and sheer capitalism. I’ve never experienced Asian tourism, but I know that at this point, I just sound like a dissenter who’s entirely unsatisfied with anything she comes across in life. So that’s great.
I’m not a comic book fanatic. I know very little about superheroes. Don’t ask me to choose between Marvel and DC. If you ask me who my favorite superhero is, I will say Spiderman, not necessarily because I think he’s better than everyone else, but because I’ve had more exposure to him than anyone else. Also, I’ve been a kid all my life, and as far as I’ve seen, so has he. It does not, by the way, have anything to do with my adoption of the spider as my totem. In any case, Kwaku Ananse > Spiderman by principle, because I’m a patriot to the point of stupidity when it comes to fictional stuff. Even though I’m nothing close to deeply invested in any comic book universe or franchise, I’m pretty sure there is nothing that can ever make me love Wakanda the way I wish I did.
The first I heard of Wakanda was before the release of Captain America: Civil War. Before that, I’d never heard much of any African superhero in the Marvel universe. But suddenly, there was a large number of screen names on my primarily Ghanaian Twitter timeline changed to “T’challa” or something with his name or title in it. Now, bear in mind that I was only watching Ghanaians get excited about this African prince superhero being debuted on the big screen. There are a lot of comic book franchise fanatics in Ghana, you know. It was, unfortunately, a bit difficult for me to identify with the excitement, most of which actually seemed to be centered on the sexiness of the suit, rather than race or representation. (I love Ghanaians, no sarcasm here. Because true, true, the Black Panther’s suit is hella sexy.)
The movie came out, and I thought it was good. I was upset about a few things that I tweeted, and for the sake of recollection:
The love of my life, Iron Man, had nearly all of the wit and sarcasm I adored taken out of his role, and he sounded far too serious, so I didn’t enjoy him as much.
These folks really, truly pronounced “Lagos” as “Lah-goes” and it stressed me all the way out.
Every time I heard Chadwick Boseman’s unidentifiable, yet still recognizably “Hollywood African” accent, I cringed. I decided to let it slide because Wakanda is fictional and so doesn’t have anything I can deem as a legitimate accent. But I have a paragraph that will show up later that will come back to this point.
Now, my problem with the Black Panther isn’t even about portrayal or accuracy. I don’t have any argument about why the African hero is linked to a jungle animal or why the Black African has to have Black in his superhero name or that Wakanda is primitive and stereotypical, or complain about how the African superhero has to be royalty as opposed to an ordinary (rich) citizen of somewhere like nearly everyone else. These are probably valid things to complain about, I don’t know. I’m not involved in those. My issue with the Black Panther is that he is American. He is not African; he is American. (Treat absolutely everything I say in this blog post as my opinion, rather than straight, undebatable fact, because I don’t want to have to keep saying “in my opinion” throughout, and it’s obvious anyway.)
T’challa’s Americanness really isn’t his fault; he is fictional and so is his country. So are all the other fictional African countries in the Marvel universe. T’challa and Wakanda, though, were created by a couple of white men. I’m not saying that neither T’challa nor Wakanda are truly Black; I’m just saying that, even though they are fictional, they are part of American people’s Africa. They created it, it is theirs. He is theirs. And perhaps he isn’t white, but he’s American. Let me say something about imagination.
Here is the thing about imagination: perhaps it is limitless in one direction (outwards) and not the other, the origin. It starts from somewhere. We only make things up out of what we know or have. There are no words for things that don’t exist, for example. Once it’s named, it’s a thing, whether imaginary (dragon) or real (spider). For example, (and this is the point about the accent I said I’d get back to), Wakanda is East African? Then it is logically restrained to sound East African, even though not necessarily, since imagination is boundless. But that would be a decision to break out of a boundary, not an automatic provision. Also, Wakanda is made up of reworked versions of aspects of (African) culture that actually exist. Consult Black-culture-expert Twitter for consolidation. All I’m trying to say is, Wakanda did not pop out of a vacuum. Human beings, unlike God, are incapable of making something out of nothing, and in the case of Wakanda, being rewritten by Americans, both Black and White, that origin is not experience. And even this isn’t entirely my problem. My problem is that the things we imagine, we imagine usually to serve a purpose for ourselves. And if Americans created Wakanda, they created Wakanda for themselves, not anyone else.
I can only surmise that Black Americans were the most excited about T’challa’s debut on the big screen. Because, I think, even though the Black Panther was created by White men, he is still a Black man, and a Black superhero on the big screen is a victory, even if a minute one for Black…wait for it…Americans. T’challa is a Black American. He’s for them.
Remember all the potential reasons I gave near the beginning of this post about why one might have beef with Wakanda? Well, some people actually do have that kind of beef. Why, they ask, is a Black superhero being envisioned by white people and then served to Black people so that Black people can say, “Yay, representation?” So, what’s the solution: To have T’challa recreated and continued by a Black person, of course! Someone who empathizes, someone who identifies. Boom: Ta-Nehisi Coates. (After reading Between the World and Me, I have my own beef with this guy, but it’s largely unrelated to BP, so I won’t bring it up here.) Perfect, right? Yes, completely. A Black American author, I think, is the best person to write a Black American superhero.
Marvel is American, and everything Marvel creates is American, even if it isn’t. I highly doubt Stan Lee had African kids in mind as a target audience for his stories. Perhaps as the early critics say, Wakanda, though fictional, was primitive, stereotypical and under-researched. Cool beans. And so we thank goodness that Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing proper research about Africa before he writes his own Wakanda, no? Well…wouldn’t a white author also be capable of doing proper research? But you see, it’s not about research in the least, no matter how much we like pretending it is. It’s about identity, specifically the identity of the author. Or actor. 😊
I cannot love Wakanda the way I would like to, because it will never be part of an Africa that is for Africans. I have no doubt that it is significant and important to all the Black kids elsewhere who have just been growing up for ages without their skin colors and no memories of what could have been their cultures – several of them do not know, thanks to the slavers — on the screen. I think Wakanda is cool and it’s lit. It’s just for them and that’s absolutely okay. It doesn’t feel useful to me.
I have turned it over in my mind, whether I might be able to generate a more genuine love for Wakanda if the series were ever taken over by an African writer. I have decided that I would not. I think the Americans deserve to keep what they have created, and I’m not about to be the one who comes and wrestles it from them. Especially for the Black Americans, there has already been enough wrested from their ownership. Let them keep what they have, for goodness’ sake. I strongly believe that, especially in the case of imagination, we have our own that we can use and make… ONCE WE STOP BLOODY SHOOTING OUR CREATIVE KIDS DOWN OR FORCING THEM INTO CAREERS THEY DON’T WANT TO BE IN AND QUIT TELLING THEM THAT AFRICA ISN’T READY FOR FANTASY OR SUPERHEROES OR SCIENCE-FICTION OR…. Excuse me, I spasmed on my keyboard, but I’m back. Yes, we have our own imaginations that we can use and make. And if you don’t believe me, Google “Aburiria.” And if your argument is that Aburiria is clearly not imaginary, that it is just Kenya with magic added and its name changed, I will ask you who the hell doesn’t know that Gotham City is just New York City. Sit down.
[I think this is the paragraph that most holes can be poked in.] Now, not only is Wakanda American, it also feels fairly irrelevant to me within the Marvel universe. T’challa’s relevance, especially in the American Marvel universe, is in his interaction with international events or with American superheroes, or with Americans in general. Think well. T’challa’s first on-screen appearance was in the movie Captain…America. Ooh, what a shock. See, everyone in Wakanda be tryna mind their own damn business until suddenly some Americans are suspected as responsible for the death of their king. The Black Panther, I believe, would have continued to mind his own Wakandan business, and needn’t have had any relevance in that story, if his role didn’t rest on the premise of reacting to the Americans. I further hypothesize that T’challa would be rather irrelevant if he were contained in Wakanda, the way, for example, Batman is largely contained in Gotham. How interested would Americans be in reading a Wakandan story just about a Wakandan in Wakanda? (Usually, when I think things like this, they are accompanied by thoughts like: Have as many Americans read Purple Hibiscus as have read Americanah?)
I think every non-American superhero, whether in Marvel or DC is American, because Americans made them, and America makes them relevant. The most foreign superhero I know is the alien, Superman, and he is just lucky enough not to be required to have an accent.
Wakanda is good, Wakanda is lit, Wakanda is useful. For Americans. They have a fictional Black space to dwell in, and it is very good for them. I’m happy for African-Americans who are excited to claim their hero in his own movie on the big screen. In fact, I just watched the trailer, which got released halfway between me starting and finishing this post, and it looks LIT AF. I’m almost certain I’m going to love the movie. And certain still, that I’ll never love Wakanda the way I wish I did. Also, Chadwick Boseman is kind of hot.
As a side-note, I have been increasingly amused at African-Americans’ indignation about things about the Black Panther movie regarding Africa’s representation, which Africans ourselves are not offended in the least about. In fact, several of us are sitting down behind our computers wondering what at all people are complaining about. But that’s just by the way.
Speaking of African heroes, I made one, and if you haven’t read Kuukua and the Magical Markers, you should! Second installment should be out before June ends, by the grace of Odomankoma!