“We may call ourselves African Americans but we are truly disconnected from Africa. I say WE because I’m not excluded! I thought ‘my people’ came from South Carolina … but this heritage was only a small part of my people’s journey that began in Ghana, a place that had kings well before Europe had theirs.”
These were the words of American actor and director Michael Jai White, who visited Ghana towards the end of 2018.
He and over 40 African diasporan celebrities took part in “The Full Circle Festival”, designed to attract visitors to Ghana. The list included Idris Elba, Boris Kodjoe, Naomi Campbell, Anthony Anderson, and Adrienne-Joi Johnson. During the visit, Akwamuhene Odeneho Kwafo Akoto III, the Akwamu Paramount Chief, enstooled White as Chief “Oduapong” meaning “Tree with strong roots that does not fear the storm”.
The Ghana government invited the celebrities as part of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019”. The initiative involves a year-long series of activities. These include visits to heritage sites, healing ceremonies, theatre, and musical performances, lectures, investment forums, and relocation conferences. The aim is to promote Ghana as a tourist destination and investment opportunity.
This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown in the US. The Year of Return represents an effort to “unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora”.
In support, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said:
We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions (Africans in the diaspora) made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.
In commemoration, numerous visitors are traveling to Ghana. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will also conduct the Jamestown (Virginia, US) to Jamestown (Accra, Ghana) Memorial Trip.
Ghana is number 4 on CNN Travel’s 19 best places to visit in 2019.
African diasporans as “returnees” dates back to Ghana’s immediate post-independence period. Shortly after independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah invited many well-known African diasporans to assist with nation-building. These included Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., George Padmore, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Leslie Lacy, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In the 1990s, President Jerry Rawlings initiated heritage tourism based on the transatlantic slave trade and Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s coastal forts and castles became integral to heritage, tourism and development strategies. Events included the Pan African Festival of Theatre and Arts (PANAFEST) and Emancipation Day. All were dedicated to the promotion of Pan-Africanism and attracted African diasporans, notably African Americans.
As part of the nation’s 50th independence in 2007, President John Kufour partnered with the Discovery Channel and launched “Ghana – The Presidential Tour”. He introduced “The Joseph Project” that targeted middle-class, Christian African-Americans.
The forts and castles remained center stage. Additional plans included the development of commemoration gardens, DNA projects, and sponsored tours. It also involved developing an interfaith center at Assin Manso, where captive Africans had their last bath before being transported onto the slave ships.
President John Atta Mills continued with heritage tourism as a means of development. In 2009, the most high-profile African diasporan tourist and pilgrim, US President Barack Obama, visited Cape Coast Castle.
In 2015, President John Mahama sought assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the forts and castles, and further development of heritage tourism.
Over the years, successive governments have also offered opportunities such as granting citizenship, dual nationality status, tax exemptions, and land grants to diasporans to encourage returnees.
Since Alex Haley’s 1980s popular novel and television series, Roots, African diasporans engaging in “heritage tourism”, “roots tourism” or “pilgrimage”, travel to Africa as tourists and pilgrims. This blurs the distinctions between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage.
African diasporans visit the forts and castles as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the transatlantic slave trade. They are the sites where captive Africans forcibly departed the continent to be trafficked through the Middle Passage and enslaved in the New World. Interpretations over the histories told at these sites are frequently contested.
Diasporans also visit other sites such as Manyhia Palace in Asante that represent the glorification of an African regal past.
In 2018, Ghana secured $40 million from the World Bank to develop heritage tourism. It is hoped this will stimulate economic development.
Yet, ongoing debates view heritage, tourism, and development in various ways. Some view it as exploitative and destructive, replicating and perpetuating colonial forms of domination and structural underdevelopment. Others view it positively. A few remain ambivalent.
An act of reclamation
The Year of Return 2019 remains deeply embedded within a capitalist culture that engages with a complex set of practices, discourses, and meanings.
Commercialization of the “return” requires the saleability of the history of the transatlantic slave trade for African diasporan consumption.
Herein lies a painful irony: the commodification of heritage directed at African diasporans is based on a system that was once the commodification of people, through the transatlantic slave trade.
Descendants of the enslaved of the past are the heritage tourists and/or pilgrims in the present.
Still, constructions of Africa have always been central to African diasporic imaginaries. White’s comments resonate for many African diasporans. For many diasporans, the “return” symbolises an act of heritage reclamation. Africa is viewed as the motherland. It is considered a source of black resistance, pride and dignity.
For Africans and African diasporans such as White, knowing heritage pasts are important. But it remains to be seen how this will translate into critical and sustained engagement to realise the potentials for transforming heritage futures.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”
Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.
Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?
Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?
Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.
How we face adversity
Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:
“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”
He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.
He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:
“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.
Hope against hope
Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.
Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.
Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.
Understanding the human experience
In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.
Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.
So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.
Of all the challenges faced by people who’ve been displaced, perhaps none is more important than to find new meaning in their lives. And so it is with the four young women who are students in a college prep class that I teach at Dickinson College.
As we approach the five-year anniversary of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls – many of whom are still being held captive – it is worth taking a look at what the world has done to help those who have survived the ordeal. The Nigerian government has secured the release of less than half of the kidnapped schoolgirls, with at least 100 still being held captive.
The class I teach at Dickinson offers a small glimpse into the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls’ lives. It is an outcome that their captors in Boko Haram – a terrorist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden” – never wanted to imagine.
Over the past year or so, the four students I teach have worked hard to achieve their dream of obtaining a high school equivalency diploma so they can have a shot at college. They have attempted the GED practice test and real tests quite a few times.
Assessors said it would take about five to seven years to get them ready for college. However, something took place in February that leads me to believe it won’t take that long. But before I tell that story, a little background is in order.
While the Chibok school kidnapping is widely associated with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, fortunately, my students never had to be “brought back.” That’s because they were among the lucky ones who escaped from the insurgent group as they were being taken to the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria.
How the four young women came to be my students at a small, historic, private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania is a long and complicated story. Not all of it has been pleasant. The Wall Street Journal told much of their rough ordeal in the United States in 2018.
That same year, Dickinson College president Margee Ensign was asked and agreed to welcome the young women to our campus. She had done the same a few years earlier with some of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls when she was head of the American University of Nigeria, where I also used to teach.
I came to Dickinson College in the fall of 2017 as a visiting professor in international studies. I first met the four former Chibok schoolgirls in April 2018, when Dickinson launched the College Bridge program in which they are now enrolled.
Through the program, the young women take a college prep class with me that focuses on critical and analytical thinking skills. They also take math, English, science, social studies and GED preparatory classes.
A global mission, challenging work
In many ways, the bridge program at Dickinson is in line with UNESCO’s new #RightToEducation campaign that is meant to expand access to higher education for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, among the world’s 16.1 million refugees, only 1 percent of college-aged refugees attend university, compared to 34 percent of all college-aged youth globally.
The work of preparing students with refugee backgrounds for college is far from easy. Aside from adjusting to a new culture and environment, sometimes a new language and a different method of learning, displaced persons struggle to find new meanings in their displacement. When education becomes their main pursuit, it must necessarily provide those new meanings.
For a student named Patience, new meaning has been found in her quest to become a schoolteacher or counselor. Patience has taken a significant step toward that goal. It came to light when she showed up over an hour late to my class one day in February.
“What happened today?” I asked when she walked in, trying to keep my voice and expression from revealing my disappointment.
“I went to take my GED Math this morning. I told you,” she said.
I’m not sure how I forgot that she was going to take the GED Math, but I did. Had I remembered, I would have sent her one of my motivational texts to get her inspired. This was her third attempt on the GED.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“It went well,” she answered, her voice flat, face emotionless.
“So …” I stammered, “did you pass?”
“Yes, I did,” she said, and then told me her score. The whole class erupted in cheers and claps. I was so excited, I rushed and hugged her without thinking. The other students joined. It was one of the most rewarding moments in my decade of teaching. A few weeks later, Patience passed her GED Science exam as well.
Patience is the first among the four women to pass a GED test. In order to appreciate what a big deal this is, consider where these young women have come from.
Beyond having had a tumultuous life, the students come from an unimaginably poor educational background. The Government Girls Secondary School they attended in Chibok, Borno state, is in a very remote part of Nigeria. You normally wouldn’t have good teachers in such remote areas. But with the Boko Haram insurgency that has plagued the region for the past decade, the situation is far worse. The insurgency has prompted most of the good teachers to leave. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 611 teachers have been deliberately killed by the insurgents since 2009, forcing a further 19,000 teachers to flee. The students have told me that their school at Chibok did not have qualified science, math or language teachers. Their science labs had no equipment.
The Borno state Ministry of Education and many other states in northern Nigeria generally do not prioritize education for girls due to religion and culture, which both support early marriage. In Borno state, the attendance rate for female secondary school students is 29 percent, compared with a national average of 53 percent. So this is a huge achievement for Patience and the other women in their journey toward college. When they eventually get into college, I believe it will inspire thousands of other young girls from that region of the world.
For her part, Patience hopes to inspire girls worldwide.
I know this because in early 2019, I worked with Patience and her fellow students on listening and comprehension skills. For one exercise, I had them watch and then write their opinion about this inspiring talk by Mary Maker, a former South Sudanese refugee who is now a teacher at a school in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, on the power of education for women from crises societies.
Patience and the others could relate very easily with the speech and with the speaker. It spoke to their past and their present, their hopes and aspirations. The proof is that in her essay about the video, Patience wrote that she wants to have a voice like Mary Maker’s – and to speak for women who cannot speak for themselves.
Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, center, and opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, right, stand for a group photo with other candidates after signing an electoral peace accord at a conference center in Abuja, Nigeria, on Feb. 13, 2019. Nigeria is due to hold general elections on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Ask worshippers at St. Charles Catholic Church what they want most from Nigeria’s presidential election, and the answer is peace.
“We don’t want any more bloodshed in Nigeria,” said Everistus Suburu, vice chairman of the church in the northern state of Kano. “We are tired of (Islamic extremist group) Boko Haram.”
The presidential campaign has been largely free of the religious pressures that marked the 2015 vote when Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner, defeated a Christian president from the south who had grown unpopular over his failure to control Boko Haram.
Now, with the leading candidates both northern Muslims, the Christian vote may be decisive in sweeping the incumbent from power for the second time in as many elections in Africa’s most populous country.
Nigeria’s 190 million people are divided almost equally between Christians mainly in the south and Muslims, like Buhari and his opponent Atiku Abubakar, who dominate in the north.
Across northern Nigeria, where street scenes are rich with Islamic customs and mosques, people of different faiths have co-existed over the decades, even joining forces in recent years to fight Boko Haram, which opposes a secular Nigeria.
Yet religious tensions remain even in an election that offers no clear sectarian choice, underscoring the pervasive influence of faith in Nigerian politics.
It’s not certain which of the top two candidates Christian voters will support, or if they will vote as a bloc.
In a bit of last-minute drama, the electoral commission decided early Saturday, just hours before polls were to open, to postpone the election until Feb. 23. The commission’s chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, cited “very trying circumstances” in logistics for the balloting, including bad weather affecting flights and fires at three commission offices in an apparent attempt “to sabotage our preparations.”
The delay has deepened the sense of mistrust and frustration some northern Christians feel toward Buhari’s government.
“The major problem we have in this country is that our leaders don’t have the fear of God,” said Murna Samuel, a schoolteacher in Yola, capital of the northern state of Adamawa, complaining about the postponement. “We are in a mess. It’s like they don’t want to do this election.”
Over the years, in an informal system known as zoning, Nigeria’s presidency has tended to rotate: A Muslim from the north is succeeded by a Christian from the south. This is widely seen as key to holding the country together.
The incumbent Buhari, a Muslim, took over from Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Now Buhari is seeking a second term, and his chief opponent is Muslim. The rotation to a Christian could come after a second term for Buhari.
Both Buhari and Abubakar have Christian running mates, in keeping with tradition. Without legal backing, however, the rotational system essentially relies on the goodwill of the politicians of the day.
“I am concerned,” said the Rev. Maurice Kwairanga of the Catholic Secretariat in Yola. “If the Muslims are given a platform where there are no checks and balances, they want to turn the whole country to Islam. If you want to build a chapel, the process you have to go through is very difficult. And even if you complete the process you may not get the chapel.”
In Yola and other northern towns, killings allegedly undertaken by Muslim herders from the Fulani ethnic group have alarmed Christians, especially when no suspects are arrested.
Abubakar is expected to perform well among Christian voters in some central states, such as Plateau and Kaduna, where the problem of marauding herders is severe, said Sylvester Akhaine, professor of political science at Lagos State University.
“The issue of herdsman disturbs the Christians,” said Godswill Sambo, a barman in Yola who is a member of the Lutheran Church. “For me, I will support a person who will bring peace to Nigeria and who is opposed to discrimination. You can see that Nigeria is disunited.”
Other Christians in Yola strongly support Abubakar, noting that his companies, including a major hotel and a university, employ hundreds of people across the religious divide.
“Atiku may be Muslim, but he has opened up more job opportunities for everyone in this place,” said Sunday Abraham, a spaghetti salesman with the Dangote Group. “At least there is a sign of job creation for all in him.”
Every Easter weekend, several millions of Zion Christian Church (ZCC) faithful from across southern Africa descend on “Moria city”, the church’s capital in the north of the country, for their annual pilgrimage.
The church, founded by Engenas Lekganyane in 1925, is “the largest indigenous religious movement in southern Africa.” An estimated one in ten South Africans is a member, according to University Allan Anderson, Professor of Theology at University of Birmingham.
Both of these competing branches are headquartered at Moria, two kilometres apart on the same farm on which Engenas died and was buried. They hold separate pilgrimages and other events.
The regular members of the main branch are expected to wear Star badges at all times. For their part the St Engenas members sport Dove badges. Both organisations are similar in theology – a fusion of Christianity and traditional African beliefs. They prohibit drinking, smoking and eating pork, among other practices. The Star section has a distinctive men’s organisation.
The unrelenting growth of the ZCC has essentially sidelined the traditional Protestant churches that introduced Christianity to southern Africa. In addition to their vast membership base across the region, they also control extensive business empires in areas such as transport, agribusiness and insurance.
But, even though Lekganyane was central to the redefinition of Christianity in southern Africa, his life story has been extremely difficult to track down. Few written records have survived. In addition, the ZCC has always been secretive. Members are forbidden from discussing the church with outsiders.
Church writings are restricted to members and still cannot be found in public libraries. Researchers, from the 1940s onwards, were also stifled as the church sought to maintain tight control over its message and practices.
My new book, Engenas Lekganyane and the Early ZCC: An Unauthorized History sheds light on the enigmatic figure and foundations of his church. The full biography became possible after a substantial cache of new documentation emerged about Engenas and the ZCC in the last few years.
Who was Engenas Lekganyane?
The Lekganyanes were ordinary members of a small Pedi chieftaincy living in the hills east of Polokwane. They lived on land owned by German missionaries, and Engenas grew up as a Lutheran before a political disagreement erupted over a land dispute between the mission and the tribe.
In the late 1890s the young Engenas was educated by Xhosa Presbyterian missionaries brought in to replace the Lutherans. So Engenas had a very orthodox Protestant background and education.
Lekganyane’s education and life were completely disrupted following the outbreak of the South African War between the British and the Boers in 1899. He eventually became a migrant worker, leaving home to work in nearby Tzaneen and faraway Boksburg on municipal construction projects.
During these years he first joined Pentecostal or Zionist churches. But he was expelled from Tzaneen by the Protestant chief. Returning home in 1915 at the age of 30 he began his own church with 14 members. Within 10 years he had 926 followers and began the ZCC following a vision he had at the top of Mt Thabakgone, a now sacred hill adjacent to his village.
After a legal dispute involving the stillbirth of his illegitimate child, Lekganyane was expelled by his chief in 1930. He lived on private land thereafter, carefully maintaining his autonomy and privacy.
Making of the ZCC
Lekganyane was initially inspired by an Australian faith healer named John Alexander Dowie. He took most of his theology from the then white-led Apostolic Faith Mission a Pentecostal group he belonged to from 1910 to 1916.
He incorporated many syncretic practices taken from African tradition. The most important of these was to incorporate ancestral worship into his church, a practice that he adopted from an early Zionist named Daniel Nkonyane.
ZCC members were expected to make cash offerings to their ancestors, which they gave to Lekganyane so that he could intercede on their behalf. He also reputedly protected his members against witchcraft, crime and disease. Over time, he usurped the roles of the chiefs as the claimed major rainmaker in the region.
By 1948, his church had grown to about 50 000 members. His legend within the ZCC community has grown substantially ever since. Even though he left no writing texts behind, the ZCC has made him the focus of its sacred narrative. The story of his religious calling, and also his various claimed miracles and prophesies, are well known by all members.
One of the reasons he managed to turn the ZCC into a religious juggernaut was his financial astuteness. He acquired property and carefully used donations for expansion. Additionally, he catered primarily to migrant workers, the largest growing segment of the African population.
Engenas Lekganyane (c. 1885-1948) died 71 years ago on his private farm east of Polokwane.
During his lifetime, Lekganyane was never mentioned in print. Nor did anyone write his obituary following his rapid burial. He lived, to the end, a secretive and enigmatic existence.
Renowned visual artist Mickalene Thomas has taken over the fifth-floor gallery space of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with her show “Femmes Noires.” Working with curator Julie Crooks, it is the first time the Brooklyn-based artist has staged an exhibition in Canada — and it is only the second time the AGO has exhibited the work of a Black woman artist.
Thomas’s exhibit is a powerful and extraordinary contemplation on the intersections of being both Black and a woman. Thomas takes inspiration from multiple art forms, movements, and histories, like Impressionism, and focuses on issues such as race, representation, sexuality, and Black celebrity culture.
As a Black woman, it is the first time I have ever walked the floors of the AGO and have seen myself reflected back at me. However, something for Canadians like myself to note is that Thomas’s visioning of Black womanhood is from an American point of view.
(The last solo exhibition by a Black woman at the AGO took place in 2010 — “This You Call Civilization?” featuring the work of Kenyan-born, New York-based Wangechi Mutu.)
For example, one of the reasons why Black beauty culture has not received much attention in Canada until now is because the task of locating Black voices in the Canadian historical record has been and remains a difficult challenge. Across the border, there are archival collections dedicated to African Americans, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, but we don’t have anything like this in Canada.
Media circulates African American experiences
When I started researching Black beauty in Canada, most people were shocked there was enough material for me to write about in a book. The assumption was that the topic would have to focus squarely on African-American women.
For decades, Canadian cultural institutions have consumed African-American desires and fantasies as stand-ins for Black Canada. As a result, Black Canadian representations in popular culture have been rendered invisible.
Throughout the 20th century, cultural and economic practices were co-produced through the circulation of “African-Americanness” through media. From African-American TV shows in the 1970s, films in the 1980s and beyond, Canadians probably know more about the African-American experience than they do about Black Canadians because of media culture.
Canada’s media culture has participated in the creation of identities that privileged African-American images, products, and ideologies. These identities originally crossed the U.S./Canada border as desires and fantasies represented in advertising and, later, television and film, and today, art.
Black Canadian women are here
When Trey Anthony’s ’da Kink in My Hair TV series appeared from 2007-09 (based on the play of the same name), it was the first comedy series created by and starring Black women on Canadian national television. The broadcast of ’da Kink in My Hair happened nearly 40 years after Julia (1968–71) in which Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to star on a U.S. sitcom in a non-stereotypical role. The representation gap between African American women and Black women in Canada spans decades.
To make up for some of this historical invisibility, this month and throughout the winter, the AGO’s “In the Living Room” series will feature Black Canadian women engaging with Thomas’s art and discussing their experiences.
Each talk will be set in the Femme Noires’ living room space, which is modeled after Thomas’s childhood home growing up in New Jersey. The patchwork chairs and books from African-American women authors become the art installation. Visitors are called to engage intimately with the paintings, installations, and videos on the walls but also the productive space, the living room, that birthed Thomas’s art in the first place.
While I can say much about the differences between Black Canadian experiences and African-American ones, there are universal Black beauty experiences that unite all women of African descent. For example, one of these experiences is the caring for and discussions around Black hair. Some of these public conversations are hurtful to many Black women.
On the one hand, our hair is connected to many painful childhood memories of being teased by other children (and sometimes adults) about our various braided hairstyles. On the other hand, natural hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks or cornrows (tightly braided rows of hair) might denote a Black woman’s politics, but they can also be just a hairstyle or her preference, with no political meaning whatsoever.
Black hair is constantly debated, politicized and misrepresented in media, art, and popular culture. A simple decision about wearing it natural or straightened could result in punitive action — not in America, but right here in Canada. This was the case for a waitress-in-training who lost her job at Jack Astor’s because she wore her hair in a bun, and not “down” as required by female wait staff while working at the restaurant.
Black hair stories resonate with Black Canadian women, too. But resonance is not the same as representation.
Why have Black Canadian women artists not been given the same opportunity to exhibit their work as solo artists in Canada? This question about Black Canadian artists and how Black art has been represented and circulated has become prominent in Canadian media lately.
Curator Ashley McKenzie-Barnes wrote an article for the Toronto Star, and argued that Canadian art fairs, public art installations, festivals, major institutions, and galleries need to make space for Black Canadian artists. She is right. We’re doing the work — now we need the space to get recognized for it.