By Yabome Gilpin-Jackson | Instagram
At age 7 in Grade 2, my son came home from chapel day at his private Christian school and said, “Mummy, I don’t want to be African anymore!”
I stopped and turned to face him.
I felt panic lodge itself in my chest and my heart respond by pumping and flooding blood to my ears.
I blinked – hoping that resetting my vision would rewind and reset the moment.
“Africans are poor,” he continued, and went on to say some more things I will not reprint.
The backstory when I found it out? There had been a presentation and video for a fundraiser to help “poor kids in Africa” in chapel.
In kindergarten at age 5, my daughter came home from school fussing about needing to choose and bring a picture of her favorite princess for a project. She ran through her choices.
“Cinderella, because she worked hard and overcame hard stuff.”
“Ariel … well, because I just like her”
“Pocahontas … because she’s brown and I don’t really like Tiana … well I liked her for my birthday cake, but I don’t really like the story … or I could choose the new British princess because she’s pretty.
I piped up … “Well, if you are going with a real princess instead of a fairy tale one, how about a modern-day African princess? Here, let’s look up Princess of Lesotho, or Princess of Swaziland.”
“What?!!! There are really black princesses? African Princesses???”
These stories are not about my children’s preferences. They are not about difference or diversity or even fundamentally about my daughter choosing a brown-skinned or dark-skinned princess over a lighter-skinned one. These stories are about representations of identity and why I wrote my short story collection – Identities. To me, that’s what Black Panther is about and that’s why it’s a milestone movie. Let me explain.
We, humanity, are storytelling beings. We live in and through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which are informed by the stories around us that send us identity signals. Subsequently, we make identity conclusions and live by them.
The majority of the identity signals in the stories about what it means to be a Black African in the world are simplistic, narrow and negative. Just pay attention to the stories about “Africa” and “Africans” that you can recall now and see what’s there…Right – that’s what I mean. Those identity signals you are recalling are the same ones that my daughter and sons receive when they see images of themselves reflected only as poor, dirty, helpless, orphaned, children.
They get these images and the message it sends to them often out of context, with little dignity or compassion and with the same, singular, simplistic storyline – African children and Africans in general are poor and helpless on that “dark continent.”
Of course, I am not saying socio-economic issues faced in countries on the continent are not real or that help isn’t necessary. However, the stories that are told about why and how ‘those people’ come to need help can become complicit reinforcements of the complex systems that created the poverty and adversities in the first place, and can hurt rather than help the changes needed.
In our subsequent exchange, my son told me the identity conclusion the presentation left him with – it is better to be white than black/African, so that you won’t be poor and he doesn’t think he ever wants to go to Africa. Of course, my husband and I did our parental bit to dislodge his narrative from his brain – we reminded him we were from Sierra Leone in West Africa, had lived and grew up there and will for sure take him back. We described and showed him ways in which “Africans” are in fact not helpless but amazingly resourceful, generous and innovative in the face of the challenges we face. We showed him maps and pinpointed the exact country and community his school had fundraised for and how small it was in the vastness of Africa.
Wakanda in Black Panther may be a fictional country in Africa, but the parallel of the beauty and richness of the African continent is real. Wakanda’s vibranium may as well be the tantalum that powers our information tech hardware found in abundance in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its environs; or the Blood Diamonds of Sierra Leone; or Oil in Nigeria or any of the other vast natural resources that continue to quietly and often illegally leave the richest continent in natural resources.
Africa’s resources fuel the world’s economies while “Africa” remains depicted as “uncivilized, at war, and poor and helpless.” This, of course was the exact plight the fictional Wakandans were concerned would occur – it is in fact the reality of what Africa and Africans have faced since her “discovery.”
Superheroines and superheroes have a place in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, because they stretch our imagination and inspire us to reach for more than what we are now. This – reaching beyond our current comfort zones – has always been the way humanity grows and thrives. Our Supers are simply projections of ourselves – the best parts of us – and for the villain Supers – representations of the worst parts of us. Supers are in effect simply role models – or our role icons that we place on pedestals to reach for. When a culture only projects one people group as Supers, it also says this is the ultimate image we must all aspire to.
When a culture only projects one people group as Supers, it also says this is the ultimate image we must all aspire to.
Black Panther’s T’Challa and all those powerfully intelligent, strong, relevant and relatable black African women in it, gives my daughter and sons images of super icons they can reach for. My daughter had the opposite issue to her princess selection challenges after watching Black Panther on preview day. She liked and could relate to so many of the black women in it, she kept changing her choice of favorite.
Perhaps the moments in the movie that depict most clearly what I am saying here are the closing scenes. At the end of the movie when T’Challa unveils his plan for the Wakandan Outreach Centre to Shuri, a Wakandan ship lands in the basketball court behind them to underscore the point. After marvelling at it, one of the boys walks over to T’Challa and says: “Hey … this yours? Who are you?”
Black children of African descent living off the continent need this. They need these moments of relatable role models, real and iconic, that they can look up to and hear stories from, so that they too can believe in their ability to reach higher. I am not just saying this theoretically. I lived my formative years in Sierra Leone and understand that the core identity I subconsciously developed by seeing and living among a myriad role models there–in spite of a legacy of colonial education that had me read about lots of non-Black role models–is not as easily accessible to my children as it was for me.
Coincidentally, I attended “A Conversation with Michelle Obama” on her visit to Vancouver, BC the same day as watching Black Panther [what icing on my global African identity cake!]. Michelle Obama’s description of the work her family had done to mentor children on the margins in ways that they can touch, feel and connect to while in the White House made these same points.
In the outtake, T’Challa shares his plan at the UN General Assembly to share Wakanda’s technology with the world and he aptly uses an African proverb often attributed to Nigeria: “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.”
So, I say, in a racially divided world, building bridges is our only option. The hour for self-preservation is over. It is time for meaningful reparations, forgiveness, healing, and progress. Let us widen our lenses to truly build open space for the original peoples of these Americas and all us immigrant communities and forced arrivals–Black and White–all made in God’s image – to thrive. Ensuring equal representations of all our peoples is the least of the ways we can do that. Thank you, Marvel.
Dr. Yabome Gilpin-Jackson considers herself to be a dreamer, doer and storyteller, committed to imagining and leading the futures we want. She is an award-winning scholar, consultant, writer and curator of African identity and leadership stories. She was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone, and completed her studies in Canada and the USA. Yabome was named International African Woman of the Year by UK-based Women4Africa and also won the Emerging Organization Development Practitioner by the US-based Organization Development Network. Yabome, who is married and the mother of 3 children, has also published several journal articles and book chapters and continues to research, write and speak – most recently at Princeton University – on the importance of holding global mindsets and honouring diversity and social inclusion in our locally global world.
Buy her book, Identities: A Short Story Collection here.
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