Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Seduction of Inadequacy

These words come from one, Lupita Nyong’o’s speech about beauty, given at the Essence Awards. The seduction of inadequacy. It refers to the alluring power of clinging on to pitiful definitions of ourselves; definitions that have taken root over generations of mental slavery, so powerfully and effectively injected into our African psyche that inadequacy has become a mental scourge we inherit and spread like a virus. Dr. Kenneth Clark’s Doll experiment of 1939 still rings true to date.

It’s December of 2013. I’m at Sarit Centre’s The Baby Shop in Nairobi, having already visited a number of children’s stores.

“I’m looking for a black doll,” I say to the attendant, still holding out hope that some Kenyan will surprise me.

“Sorry, we have none,” comes the matter-of-fact answer.

“Why? Why don’t you have black dolls?” I try to keep my cool. “I’ve been all over Nairobi and I can’t find a black doll anywhere. You know, 20 years ago I trekked all across this city looking for a black doll for a friend’s baby, and I found a hand-made one thrown at the back with broken merchandize. I dusted it up and bought it, felt as if I’d found gold. You must be the change we need.” I pause.

She says, “Sorry, no one will buy, that’s why we don’t stock them.”

“Do they buy these ones?” I point to the row of white dolls with blond hair.

“Yes.” She says, and continues defiantly, “But there’s nothing wrong with white dolls.” O, was she accusing me of racism?  

“No, there isn’t,” I agree. I'm too tired to argue with her that it’s not the choice of white dolls that is disturbing; it’s the lack of the alternative, which suggested a loathe of that which looks like us. I have also seen birthday cakes for little girls in Nairobi decked with white princesses in flowing blond hair. I suppose the image of a little black warrior princess with short hair, a Mekatilili of sorts, standing atop a birthday cake, would make the poor African girl weep her eyes out with horror. This horror has a deep-seated history

Enter Alek Wek, Djimon Hounsou, Lupita, and all the directors and producers who dared to bet on black. Wait- before they enter, please note, Africans come in all variety of shades, from the darkest cotton soil hues to the milkiest river-sand shades. The majority are “black”. White Africans whose ancestors settled in Africa from Europe do not suffer the same fate of inherited inadequacy as black Africans, but they are our fellow Africans all the same. See, Charlize Theron was the first African to win an Oscar but that does not mean she’s in the same position on the socio-racial totem pole as Lupita Nyong’o. It is the difficult task of our dark-hued African heroes to stand on that international stage upon which they have been thrust and dismantle the biased standards that place us at the bottom.

When an African comes to America, whether they end up as teachers, managers or Oscar winners, they are at first mercifully shielded by an ignorance of their positioning at the bottom of this socio-racial totem pole. They do not know that in the minds of those who have set up the hierarchy, they scrape the ground for scraps of dignity. My Kenyan friends bought a house in a Harford County neighborhood that had whites only. The neighborhood kids came by and wrote all manner of racist words on their shed. My friends treated it as a case of naughty kids and moved on. Privately, they were awakened to a new reality.

Naivety makes us Africans slow in applying our knowledge of history to the reality we find ourselves in. You hear a lot of Africans say, “I was not aware I was an African until I came to the US.” We just thought we were Kenyan, or Zambian, or Nigerian… “African” brings in the race identity, a concept Africans are oblivious to while in Africa. Africa is also a massive geographical entity with 53 countries. There's no singularity in the "African" identity; there are thousands of African cultures, religions, histories, all with distinct languages and norms. Africans identify themselves either by their countries or ethnicity, which is meaningless to Americans.

To the average American, "Africa" is a small village-country somewhere with a primitive tribe black as coal, running around shooting each other, dying of Aids, or going wooga-wooga with a bone in their nose. Surely, how can they have the same place of social belonging as whites? As we slowly learn our designated place as "Africans" while in America, we play the ignorant card and proceed to buying our way into the wrong nice neighborhoods, apply our way into companies that employ very few blacks, secure fellowships that seem exclusive, apply for PhDs because that’s what the village sent us off to get, and get an Oscar because why not.

In the privacy of our own knowing, we nurse the wounds we have suffered from countless collisions with attempts to put us in our place. Then we discover a certain beauty in this country; that the opportunities to rise and prove ourselves, no matter the obstacles, are right at our feet. It is the courage to conquer enslaving institutionalized standards of belonging and acceptance that frees us. When we choose not to be courageous, we fall back into the comforts of our inadequacy. We settle into the ugly cushions of mediocrity.

Only we can demand from ourselves an image of Africans that deserves to be celebrated. Yes, we deserve to occupy spaces of elegance, we deserve the spotlight that reveals our eloquence, we deserve the seats that elevate our smarts, and we deserve the second chances that prove our ability to rise from failure to heroism. But all this is hard work, a revolution of the beautiful.  We must give up the comfortable mediocrity that we now maintain at a heavy, heavy cost.

We maintain an image dross with politics of greed that has brought us civil strife; unstable economies that have brought us shocking squalor; gullibility that has made us fools for twisted religiosities and unquestioning servitude; apathy that has spawned a new philosophy of Utado? (what can you do?). The voices of change that seek our beauty where ugliness reigns are fought off by the ruling elite and ignored by the rising middle-class.  

There’s a lot of psychological damage to overcome in the fight against Africa’s real and imagined ugliness. We’ve been scarred since the early 20th Century when scientists falsely published as proven fact that the African brain is inherently inferior and ape-like, giving license to gross abuse of the African race and justification for colonization. And now the fear of our own beauty paralyses us. At the same time we're terrified that our Africanness falls far too short of anything admirable. Inward journeying into the discovery of the Imago Dei in us is an imperative.

Astonishing in itself, our beauty lies hidden beneath the planks of a thrust stage upon which stands a chorus of Africans too timid to raise their voices. There must be a trap door somewhere on this stage, a trap door that releases the fury of new courage so the audience may gasp in awe, a spectacle all at once overwhelming and consuming. 

Then the furious courage of a young lady rises from stage left, raising an eloquent voice, a schooled mind and a forbidden image that seems carved out of African Blackwood, until the gasp of an Oscar climax is heard around the world. Once again, Africans are startlingly, wholesomely beautiful.

Yet we must not pompously stagger under the weight of our own greatness when we become the instruments of its manifestation. We carry it with grace, like our mothers taught us, dancing to the seduction of our own adequacy.