The Diaspora Wars of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

Originally published in OkayAfrica.

British actors are “taking all of our roles” says Nola Darling to Olu, her British-Nigerian love interest in the latest season of She’s Gotta Have It (#SuperFunkyCaliFragiSexy). “We have dope, talented, trained, qualified, black actors right here in the States—and at the end of the day, Black Brits just come cheaper,” she continues, echoing Samuel L. Jackson’s real-life commentary on the subject.

In response, Olu argues that Black Brits are “free of the psychological burden” of slavery and Jim Crow, prompting Nola to inform him that he “just [has] Stockholm Syndrome and fell in love with your captors”—but not before explaining the basic facts of British involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade.

The backlash from the Black Diaspora in the United Kingdom was swift: Nola Darling’s sentiments were an insult to the experience of Black Brits. While a fictional character’s problematic views don’t necessarily reflect their creator’s feelings, when taken to task for the clip on Instagram, Spike Lee responded with a brusque “Truth Hurts?”.

The scene frames the British character as the villain in the interaction—”how can someone so gorgeous be so ignorant?” Nola asks. It’s an odd premise considering recent political history in the UK. Events like the fire at the Grenfell Towers, the Windrush generation scandal, and the ongoing Brexit debacle are all clear indicators that the modern Britain, like the US, has not shaken free of its white supremacist foundations. And why would Black Brits be “unburdened” by slavery when a large proportion also descended from chattel slavery? Given this clear misrepresentation, it’s understandable why someone like John Boyega would push back. In the exchange between Nola and Olu who is truly the ignorant one?

In a review for the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It, writer Zoe Samudzi criticized the show’s inauthentic feel and stilted dialogue, noting that “the result is an inorganic character constantly uttering strained, overly witty Gilmore Girls-esque banter…who feels detached from actual experience and conversation, living in a purgatory between 1986 and now.” In a series that strove to recapture the boldness of the original film’s perspective of modern Black women’s sexuality and life in Brooklyn, it fell short in both accords, settling instead for a paint-by-numbers plot update tethered to a facsimile of the original story, anchored with overwrought vocabulary that lacks the cadence of a genuine conversation between peers.

Season 2 continues on that note, unbound by the parameters of the original source material—resulting in a chaotic string of episodes composed of curious extended asides and plot contrivances used to make unwieldy points on gentrification, queer relationships, artistic expression and exploitation, self love, classism, and Black diaspora relations. With the latter, Lee tackles the subject with the precision of a sledgehammer.

Unfortunately Nola and Olu’s tête-à-tête derails any opportunity to properly examine the ability of Black British actors to take on and do justice to roles for Black Americans. The controversy flared recently with the backlash to Cynthia Erivo’s casting as Harriet Tubman and Samuel L. Jackson’s comments on casting patterns in which he inaccurately described Britain’s relationship with interracial dating. These nuances should be explored—but without projecting other groups’ experiences, or using language akin to xenophobic tropes.

There are multiple threads at play. Hollywood remains the West’s largest film industry with significantly more roles available for Black actors, prompting more Black Brits to cross the pond; and with the United Kingdom education system investing in arts training at a rate that far exceeds the scope of the States, casting agents are known to openly fetishize the “pedigree” of the British imports. This tends to come at a higher cost to Black Americans due to the more limited availability of top-billing roles intended specifically for Black actors.

All of this manufactured scarcity is, of course, due largely to white production companies and various other gatekeepers. As we work to build our own platforms and tell our own stories, it’s prudent to explore what equity in representation looks like in race-based casting and how we can work to expand the pool of available significant positions for Black people in the film industry on either side of the Atlantic and on either side of the camera.

It was especially jarring that Nola and Olu’s argument was further undercut by choosing to mispronounce the names of Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Boyega, an anti-black trope, and turning Olu into an incoherent mishmash of West African identities—a British Nigerian with a Yoruba name claiming the Fulani tribe while casually donning Ghanaian Kente regalia.

In an ironic twist, Nola’s character searches for clarity by tapping into Yoruba spirituality during a trip to Puerto Rico, failing to acknowledge the sources that she was previously so dismissive of. She is identified as a daughter of Oshun (an orisha made globally infamous after Beyoncé’s interpolation of Yoruba iconography in Lemonade).

The present-day African diaspora is more connected than ever, and nowhere is that more evident than modern-day Brooklyn, home to a large Caribbean population, the West Indian Day Parade, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and other Black cultural institutions. This past Memorial Day Weekend, the streets of Spike Lee’s beloved Fort Greene were littered with BAM’s annual celebration of African Identity, creative expression, and performance, DanceAfrica, as well as newly established diaspora traditions like Everyday Afrique. By failing to recognize the rhythms of the borough, Lee reveals just how removed he is from the particulars of the experiences of day-to-day Black Brooklyn life, and he is only doing himself and the show a disservice by allowing the show to be dominated by his voice and direction.

As Black creatives continue to tell the stories that we find important, their impacts and themes tend to resonate broadly. It’s why Roots was a phenomenon that aired not just in the US but in Europe, and the story of the Haitian Revolution is universally recalled as one of Black self-determination and insurrection. That extends to marketing: BlacKkKlansman, for example, was an American story that Lee made efforts to connect with Black British audiences, similar in logic to the targeted global campaign that Marvel engaged in for Black Panther.

Engaging in the labor of storytelling is not a tradition of exclusivity; it’s one of exchange and collaboration, as long as all parties arriving at the table have entered into a safe space of mutual respect and understanding. It’s a loss for us all when a new piece of Black work fails to understand that framework.

An Examination of Aunty: Documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn on the Historical Weight of the Word

Originally published for OkayAfrica as part of their annual 100Women campaign. 

Ask any Black person of the African Diaspora who their favorite celebrity aunty is and you’ll likely receive 10 different responses.

There’s Maxine Waters, whose tenure and temerity in Congress have endeared her to the Black community at large. In entertainment, you may get Jenifer Lewis, who has effortlessly played so many maternal figures on the big screen that she proudly titled her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood. The music industry has given us women ranging from Mary J. Blige to Anita Baker—different eras of songstresses, but aunties all the same. And then there’s Bose Ogulu, mother of Burna Boy, whose no-nonsense persona reminds fans so much of their own aunties that she has been affectionately ordained “Mama Burna.”

The thread that binds all these women to this label is the sense of kinship, adoration, and respect endowed upon them by the Black Diaspora; the title is one that is earned, and to be carried proudly. “Aunty” is a name that surpasses its biological definition. It is a sentiment that photographer and documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and I discuss as we ponder our own transitions to such a position in our families—hers a pan-African unit several generations out of the continent—at the OkayAfrica 100 Women photoshoot. Barrayn is still buzzing from her go in front of the lens; it is not lost on the creative that the table—or the cameras—have quite literally turned. She is now the one being documented.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Barrayn says, switching out the wide brim hat she’s wearing to another one in her bag. Lately, she tells us behind-the-scenes, hats are her thing.

Barrayn’s greatest works focus on documentation, and reclaiming and preserving the so very uniquely African use of “aunty” came naturally. This composition of lived experience anchored by historical context brought Barrayn to collaborating with author and art collector Catherine McKinley on Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to the Present, a Brooklyn exhibit that unfurled the legacy of African womanhood and agency through the lens and timeline of photography on the continent. The term “aunty” as a titular framework for the collection is equal parts reverence, exploration, and reclamation of the word, drawing through-lines on how the perception of African women has shifted in tandem with the storytellers in charge.

In many African cultures, aunty is a label bestowed unto a woman as a term of respect or status rather than an indicator of any familial relationship; an inversion of its application in the colonial era, where white landowners used the term to mammify or subjugate African women as the laborers and caretakers of their European overlords. In this way, the manner in which we reclaim it present day is not dissimilar to the painful history of the word “nigga” in the United States.

“We can’t do a show called Aunty and not talk about that,” Barrayn says. “Aunty was a derogative, colonial term… It was not positive so we wanted to look at both of sides of what aunty means.”

In other words, as Barrayn says, “I like to show the whole conversation.”

The agency represented in Aunty’s photographs as new generations took hold of their images (and the words used to describe them) extends to curation as well, as Barrayn points out that a large portion of African works are mostly presented by white, male, European collectors: “It’s important for me to kind of have that pushback by two women of African descent to present the works in our own context and contextualize it in a way that wouldn’t erase some of the history and the culture of how and when and why these pictures were taken.”

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present , “Three Women” — Image by Oumar Ly, Podor, Senegal, Circa 1980

With that contextualization comes a reckoning of images she collected featuring African women before the establishment of African studios: colonial photography that reinforced a mammification (or inherent servitude) of the women not just on the continent, but also abroad. “They were used as postcards, they were used as part of the colonial project and regime to document what was happening on the continent as it related to their pursuits on the land,” Barrayn says, highlighting that African women were an object of fascination. (Think Sarah Baartman, the Khoi woman taken from South Africa and paraded around Europe’s freak shows.)

“What I didn’t show in the exhibition was the back of the postcard. There were a lot of negative messages—’look where I am, look at this ugly woman on this postcard, I’m in the jungle, I’m glad this isn’t you,’—and different things like that,” Barrayn says.

This derogatory collection is juxtaposed by photos of African studios in the 50s and 60s by legendary artists such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe—portraits and celebrations of young women engaging in everyday life—ultimately transitioning into the work of contemporary African photographers such as Fatoumata Diabate, using the camera as a medium to push the vanguard of representations of the African woman in present-day. As the African studios began to flourish, the photos veered away from third-person gawking to fuller depictions of daily life—anything from traditional ceremonies to young adults on their way to the club, with full consent of the parties involved.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, “Woman in Afro” — Image by Adama Sylla, Saint-Louis, Senegal, Circa 1970

“Now, a lot of African photographers are shying away from the photojournalism and documentary work and really using a lot of creativity and their imagination and creating new ideas about their lives and the world,” Barrayn mentions excitedly. “And a lot of the work now is fictionalized and storied which is really interesting and fun. It’s an experience to engage with because you get to see what people on the continent are thinking about themselves and what could be.”

Naming this generational collection of photos came easy. Aunty, Laylah says, is what intrinsically developed as she and McKinley went through the process of selecting which of the photos amassed would make the final cut for the exhibit: “We were like, ‘Okay let’s put this aunty to the side.’ We were calling these women aunties. We had seen the photographs before, they felt very close to us, even though they were photographs, they were African women from various African countries….it was just so intuitive.”

The century-long transition Barrayn’s project showcased rendered the dynamic of the subject of the photos from purely exploitative to more collaborative, allowing for the women to choose how they want their stories to be captured for themselves, as opposed to having a narrative foisted upon them. As was deserving of proper aunties, they were now being granted with the respect, deference, and agency they had long been denied.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, “Fela Queens” — Image by Bernard Matussiere, European Tour 1983, The McKinley Collection

In a manner, these photos had been seen before by many of us first generation children; a fair number of these images were reminiscent of the photo albums tucked away in the houses of our parents and grandparents. Our albums possess snapshots akin to the artifacts being gathered by the various white collectors across the globe—priceless commodities that preserved the legacies of the women who came before us. For Barrayn, they were a critical opportunity in allowing us to become our own archivists, as opposed to letting our stories continue to fall in the hands and context of said collectors, such as Andre Magnin’s collection of Sidibe’s work.

“Family archives are very important to me in understanding who you are as a person, as an individual, your familial and cultural identity, and also really documenting the time too,” she says. “Now, some of the photography that’s from the 40s and 50s are worth a lot of money—so if you don’t value it somebody else will.”

“Women Paying Respect to Mame Diarra Bousso, Prokhane” — Image by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Senegal, 2014

As she relays this to me with conviction, I think about my upcoming trip this summer—back to my family’s homeland of Comoros, where I’ll spend time with my many aunts, biological and otherwise, in a woman-dominant clan. For most of my life, I have called all of them Tata—the French word for aunty—but in recent years, as the next generation has started to come of age, I have been elevated to Tata status of my very own. Inheriting that mantle comes with a duty to preserve the family legacy before those memories are lost—or, perhaps even worse, defined by someone else.

For Barrayn, she hopes that her work encourages people to create platforms that continue to show the whole conversation, similar to Aunty and her project MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora—a publication that showcases the works of 100 women of African descent, and continues the tradition of using photography as a launching point for new perspectives and under-discussed narratives .

Chronicling our heritage through photographs is a privilege, and one that shouldn’t be taken for granted as our forebearers lacked the ability to dictate narratives on their own terms. And exploring the language used against us, and how our current colloquialism has turned it into something we honor, is an important context to our overall history.

Aunty is more than a photographic exhibit to change the perceptions of how African women were seen and how they see themselves.

“A reclamation of the word, yes,” Barrayn says. “And an examination of the word.”

The Idea of Africa

The Flattening of the Diaspora in Pan-African Consumption Markets

Originally published for Sun Song.

Every spring, Black students at predominantly white universities (PWIs) across the United States participate in Black Commencement, an event dedicated to celebrating the shared experience of successfully navigating their respective institutions. Often the ceremony is highlighted by a “donning of the kente,” where the soon-to-be graduates are presented with ceremonial stoles, often ornamented with lettering of their choice, be it Greek-organization or social club, to proudly decorate themselves with during the experience they will share at the university-wide commencement.

"Donning of the Kente" Ceremony 
“Donning of the Kente” Ceremony 

More often than not, the kente on the stoles is not authentic; kente being a rather dense and heavy fabric laboriously hand-woven by the Akan peoples of Ghana. Instead, the stoles feature mass-produced kente-like prints, and while an African-named vendor may sell the kente stoles, a cursory look at the lining will confirm that it is in fact “Made in China.” 

Weaving of kente cloth 
Weaving of kente cloth 

Nevertheless, this phenomenon is not unique to the celebratory kente stole. In the post-colonial era, consumption of “African” wares and content has frequently mutated into an investment into an aesthetic rather than a verified artifact indigenous to a community or culture, a predicament that has cascaded overtime on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Africana-as-commodity is much easier to market and distill than the unique labors of localized people – an unfortunate byproduct of the acquisitive industrialized capitalist era where profits trump legacy. The impacts of the marketization of identity are most apparent by the significant exports that arose; and what is highlighted when we discuss “African identity” and the attempts to signal our affiliation with Africana can be tracked by the expansion of the intercontinental fabric market (and subsequent transformation of attire) over the course of the 20th Century. The most profitable trades – in this case, textiles – have a direct impact on shaping the narrative of one of the most revisited questions across the Black Diaspora: “how can I connect better to Africa?”

In general, when people speak of wanting authentic “African prints” they’re frequently referring to Ankara, which is in actuality a Dutch invention – a repurposing of the Indonesian “batik” method that was originally intended for the Javan markets but more readily adopted by elite West  Africans. To this day, the oldest and largest company producing Ankara fabric, Vlisco, is headquartered in the Netherlands, despite purporting itself as the “originator of African wax” with flagship stores in the elite urban enclaves of Accra, Lagos, and Johannesburg. As highlighted by Tunde Akinwumi in his research paper The African Print Hoax, “what is obtainable in the contemporary time as African print is nothing but a wholesale copy of Indonesian batik style.”

No matter the deceptive origin, however, the marginally tweaked fabrics and patterns provided a level of homogeneity to an entire region within the vast continent of Africa, that is in fact home to dozens of ethnicities, languages, and lived experiences. African prints provide a more natural market sell then the adire of Nigeria or Ashanti adinkra. The business has expanded rapidly – the industry went from purely selling textiles by the yard to repurposing into remade fashion wares, such as hats, bathing suits, and purses – and Vlisco quickly began to face competition not only from textile companies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, but also “counterfeit” materials coming in from Chinese traders, which undercut the market due to the significantly lower manufacturing price point. There is an inescapable irony to there being an imitation market for a fabric industry constructed out of a manufactured reality – the term “African wax” itself is just as fraudulent as the Asian production factories that emerged to meet the increased product demand. This accelerated industry growth, however, created a window for expansion, leading to the increased export of the textiles to the United States – in tandem with increased immigration from West Africa to the United States.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated national immigration quotas, which allowed for an influx of West Africans searching for a new labor market in urban hubs such as Harlem, New York City, the peak of which took place in the 80s and 90s. This migration, however, came with a flattening of a demographic; communities weren’t Fulani, or Hausa, or Wolof, or Soninke – they were merely African, and ultimately established trading networks that were cross-tribal and cross-national from the regions they considered their original homelands. Senegalese vendors would make connections with Ivorian manufacturers and vice versa – a circumstance ameliorated by the fact that these textile markets were all producing the same amorphous Ankara, authenticated by the presence of an African face, but not inherently native to one location. As the Chinese and Taiwanese production markets undercut the more onerous costs and tariffs of imports of African textile companies, immigrant vendors traded in those relationships as well, buying into the idea of profiting off of Africana-as-commodity vs. standing by Africana-as-identity: the performance of a uniform, homogeneous African identity generated capital in ways that stratifying the distinctions would not. Today, one can enter the storied “Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market” in what was formerly known as the “Little Senegal” enclave of Central Harlem (although not nearly as Senegalese anymore, courtesy of aggressive gentrification), and find a vendor proudly selling “authentic African clothes and fabrics” despite the textile facility being based in China, enjoying the higher margins at $7 a yard as opposed to a price nearly double that which would be required of West African textile operations.

Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market
Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market

This rapid commodification arose in tandem with the rise of Afro-centric hip-hop in Black American culture. The late 80s and early 90s saw the explosion of the “Native Tongues” era – De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah – who all sought to represent Africana not purely in their lyrics but in their presentation. The dashiki – a West African Hausa export – made its reappearance in music videos and films such as Poetic Justice as a continued symbol of Panafricanism and black liberation, and with these trends came the heavy investment in the loud Ankara prints in the West. Regardless of the faux affiliation with African tribal legacy, the fashion served as an external symbol of kinship with the greater diaspora – a commodity that superseded any expectations of authenticity, the impacts of which continued to reverberate as hip-hop expanded into a global enterprise and capitalist machine. Dashiki production quickly escalated – not as an outgrowth of Hausa or Islamic Africana identity, but as a trend affiliated with the worldwide phenomenon of hip-hop, and the Asian markets rapidly integrated these styles into the ever-expanding repertoire of “Africana” textiles and fashions. Now, continent-wide, you can see people donning dashikis, not as a representation of cultural affinity, but as a tangible association to hip-hop culture.

A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest

Over the last two decades, the expansion of the Ankara aesthetic in West Africa and into the West has turned into a boomerang effect into the rest of the continent –  bold Ankara print outfits can be found from South Africa to Mozambique to Tunisia, highlighted in fashion blogs and magazines as “the best of African style,” despite the absence of African origination. The African owned textile factories themselves have severely decreased production by figures reported by The Financial Times of as much as 75 percent in Nigeria, due to the inability to maintain scalability and profitability in competition with Asian manufacturers. Yet the consumption of the fabric is steadily increasing – as the years proceed, new African or “African-inspired” designers have continued to utilize the Ankara, kente, and dashiki as distinct components of marketable fashion, regardless of the authenticity or origin of the style of production: just this past weekend, Black Panther premiered to the general Western public and thousands, if not millions of Black people throughout the diaspora proudly displayed their “royal attire” to celebrate the advent of the fictional nation of Wakanda to the big screen. There’s also the “kentekini,” which made waves as a modern twist on “African fashion” in 2017. In 2013, Michelle Obama infamously donned two separate Ankara dresses, which quickly circulated throughout the West African blogosphere; and most controversially, Stella McCartney previewed her “African inspired” Spring 2018 line, laden with white models parading Ankara prints, to significant pushback from the African diaspora for erasure.

Stella McCartney RTW Spring 2018
Stella McCartney RTW Spring 2018

The Stella McCartney fiasco brought to a head the longstanding problem: can we now say that Ankara is officially “African” despite it not being our own creation? Is the fact that the Ankara print is commonly associated with “authentic African fashion” enough to claim any other use of it as appropriation? It would seem that for now, Africana-as-commodity has successfully superseded any required discussions of authenticity or identity. We are defending our public face, our homogenous market, a kinship created out of capitalism and white supremacy, while the localities suffer; because whether it is sported by a self-professed Afropolitan, Pan-African, or Anglo-Saxon, the textile profits are almost certainly coming from Asia and not West Africa.

Ankara and “kente” and “dashiki” in all of its iterations and mutations have been shared throughout social media to a litany of view, likes, and retweets. I cannot pretend that it isn’t a joy to see Black people showcasing our affinity for colors and patterns, in all of our vibrancy and vitality. However, the Africana-as-commodity vs. Africana-as-identity debate remains: is it more important to signal kinship to the African identity, regardless of true origin, manufacturing, and branding as opposed to genuinely drawing out authentic African production? Should we feel uncomfortable donning kente that is not being created in the authentic Akan weaving style while wistfully fantasizing about an African land that is free from the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery? I don’t deem to have the answer, but I can only hope that we continue to use this global cultural touchpoint to further the discourse about the ethics of such a critical intersection of identity and capitalism, and strive to understand what we are really seeking when we associate these Chinese productions as our connection to the Motherland.