Before I left London to study in Los Angeles, my preconceptions of West Coast living were somewhere between sunsets behind the Hollywood sign and partying the night away in a Tupac-esque music video. The city I found had its pros and cons, but the hardest adjustment for me was the racial self-segregation separation.
Racial segregation in LA
Of course I had experienced racial segregation before but always in an understated and cautious manner. There was nothing cautious about race in LA; everyone seemed so comfortable with the stark divisions. Walking into the university cafeteria I was confronted with the most distinct racial self-segregation I had ever seen: white table, black table, Mexican table. I chose the empty table but it didn’t take long before I was invited to join my colour-correct table. I was the ‘whitest’ black person at the table so it was easier to maintain a silent presence than be lost in communication and translation. Until then I had never really understood how foreign Africans were to African-Americans. I wasn’t mistreated, just misunderstood, a walking geography lesson, explaining that Uganda and Zamunda weren’t neighbouring countries.
Advantage of being African
Being African worked in my favour, I was left to my own devices when I pleased and included when I chose to be. Some of the people I’ve kept in touch with from LA seem to remember me quite fondly and although I would love to credit their numerous compliments to my personality, beauty and humour, I know it’s more probable that the memorable je ne sais quoi about me was my Africanness.
The Miley Cyruses and Justin Biebers of popular culture continue the decades-long demonstration of the fact that the idolisation of – and fascination with – Black culture can be financially lucrative and earn you “cool” points. The past few years have also seen a growing international interest among those in the know for African fashion. However, it is mainly iconic Africans that stand as our most visible continental representations. The thing is: exceptional and rare icons like Mandela don’t quite pave the way for a realistic projection of today’s young Africans.
When I saw the famous 2014 Vanity Fair ‘New Kids on The Block’ gatefold cover shot, the presence of African actors Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor seemed slightly more significant than the obvious benefits of the magazine cashing in from all the hype. Three Africans on Hollywood’s hottest list (if we include the British born actor Idris Elba, who’s of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent) very much represents a forward moving message of African coolness. The international perception of Africans may still be somewhat impoverished and narrow, but that perception is changing rapidly with pop culture.
Lupita is a mystery to America, but extremely familiar to African women. Her silence doesn’t equate to innocence but to reserved poise. She wears her hair in its natural state, and, to Africans, doesn’t look particularly different from her fellow Kenyan women, which makes her more accessible and relatable to most young African women. (She’s not the first, of course – the South Sudanese fashion model Alek Wek was in the international spotlight way back in 1995, but high fashion is nowhere near as mainstream as Hollywood.) Her background isn’t a rags to riches story – she graduated from Yale University. Being African and famous is one thing but having more freedom display our diversity is much more powerful and cool.
I don’t quite know if America understands who these cool Africans are. Lupita, Chiwetel and Idris don’t resemble images of Africans that Americans are used to seeing. Do they understand that there are Africans living internationally by choice and not just circumstance, not searching for a way out of horrible, poor Africa?
Chiwetel Ejiofor is often referred to as a British Actor, and even Britain’s first Black Hollywood export, but there is no need for a custody battle between Britain and Nigeria for Ejiofor because it would be one of logistics and territory. Ejiofor doesn’t even have to step foot onto Nigerian soil again to remain eternally Nigerian, a given to many Africans worldwide and a representation of our chameleon tendencies.
I live half the year in Nigeria, the other half in the US. But home is Nigeria – it always will be. I consider myself a Nigerian who is comfortable in the world. I look at it through Nigerian eyes. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Being comfortable in ones skin as Africans
Comfortable. Being comfortable enough to choose to leave (Africa, Europe, America) and choose to come back is great liberation for many young Africans, and a desire and motivation for those who have not yet acquired this comfort. In the past, when I was abroad, I wasn’t always proud to be African. I would never deny my heritage but if it didn’t come up, it didn’t come up. Perceptions of Africa are changing, however, and it’s no news that it is flat out cooler to be African now than it was just ten years ago. This relatively new “coolness” may be fleeting, but provided people like Lupita and Chiwetel don’t remain the exceptions – and there’s no reason to believe they will be – the cumulative effect of the more visible global African stars will adjust stereotypes and leave permanent change.
Eddie Murphy – How to avoid fights when you’re black
I remember Eddie Murphy making a joke sometime in the 80s that White people in America, when talking to him about Black people, would say, “We don’t mean you. You’re not really black.” They said the same thing about Sidney Poitier. But the more African Americans they saw in mainstream movies the more people realised they could not keep dismissing talented African Americans as exceptions, that any Black person, not only the ones that stood out the most, had the potential to achieve great things, and that African Americans were not a monolith. Individuals like Lupita, Chiwetel, Idris and Chimamanda may, for now, be perceived by Americans and Europeans as unusual and “exceptional” Africans, but that will pass.
For us, the spotlight on these global stars is a nice distraction from our politics and problems, or the problems caused by our politics, and it will also take some getting used to. I had a conversation with a friend who was uncomfortable with the media’s fixation with Lupita. She felt Lupita was being ogled for her ‘exoticness’ and that she was willingly allowing herself to be Hollywood’s dark-skinned mannequin. That the attention was in reality some sort of obsession masking America’s discomfort with race, and an overcompensation for what Lupita symbolised with her role in 12 Years A Slave. I say, let them be obsessed, so that an image that is so familiar to us becomes less unfamiliar to them. Let them learn to pronounce our names and enjoy our beauty. And let us enjoy the celebration because they came late to the party. They are just confirming what we’ve known all along – we’re pretty damn cool.