I recently stumbled upon a documentary film, “10 Days In Africa,” by filmmaker and S&A reader, Regi Allen, on the Black Public Media website. Since I’ve known the founder of this site, the subject of black identity and black depictions and representation in the media have often been topics of discussion, before, on and off this site. In touching on these topics, African-American cases are often cited, perhaps because we live in the West, and perhaps because the African-American image (whether in words or pictures) is probably the most widely disseminated and, more recently, commercially successful worldwide when it comes to the representation of blacks in the media.
When I first heard the term African-American (being a Brit of Nigerian descent) it took a while for me to get used to using it (Black American having been the norm hitherto). However, I was also somewhat bemused with the term as, from what I could glean, the view of Africans by the average Black American tended to veer from the polar extremes of romanticism to disdain. I’d even go so far as to say that words that might feature somewhere along that spectrum might include “apathy,” “ignorance” and even “hate,” so the adoption of the word “African” as a means of identity among a group of Americans seemed to be an interesting and ultimately, I think, positive one.
However, being of Nigerian descent and having lived in the UK for more than three quarters of my life, I’m certainly not immune to the issues of black identity in the West. I too grew up as a black kid being plied with very skewed images of Africa and Africans – famine, poverty, war, all very true but also somewhat limited scenarios – and, if it weren’t for the fact that my parents didn’t exactly give off that image themselves, it was easy to think of the continent as a charity case, in need of help from outsiders (preferably white and capitalist) in order to feed, develop and govern itself and its people.
Just as skewered, however, is the image that Africans have of African-Americans. I remember an African-American friend telling me about his dismay and disappointment at being greeted with and hailed as “Nigga” in the streets of Tanzania on people (usually young people) finding out he was American. And, of course, there’s usually the assumption that, because you’re American (of from anywhere in the West, for that matter), you’re rich. So it was with great pleasure and interest that I watched “10 Days In Africa.” The blurb on blackpublicmedia.org states: “In a wonderfully textured narrative style, African American filmmaker Regi Allen makes a sojourn to three West African countries to discover for himself the truth behind the myths that separate black identity in Africa from black identity in the Diaspora. With a critical lens often pointed at himself, Allen creates an intoxicatingly chaotic film that raises as many questions as it answers. Filled with deeply moving cinematic stills and 8MM footage, 10 Days In Africa is a song of love intended to heal many wounds, while weaving a complicated path to his firmer understanding of black identity.”
Even without Allen’s own self-critical commentary, the thing that hit me was the way in which Africans and African-Americans reacted to one another on being re-united. Cultural identity tourism was a theme that inadvertently reared its head, with Africans reciting, by rote, sales patter designed to either part the swarthy American brothers and sisters from their money (preferably in hard currency – i.e. US$), or impart information as quickly as possible before getting on with the business of repeating the same schpiel to the next batch of vulnerable cultural identity pilgrims. It was both compelling and uncomfortable to watch, with the only salve being the fact that the African-Americans seemed to have found some touching moments in those old slave forts and dungeons (though, for me, the use of an R Kelly song to demonstrate this, kind of took away from the poignancy). These poignnt moemnts, however, were no great thanks to their local tour touts/guides. But the attitude of some of the African-Americans was just as frustrating too. The tourist Allen calls Black Barbie (I doubt that’s a moniker she adopts herself, although I could be wrong), saved herself from being totally exasperating by her own eventually self-admitted exasperating behaviour. And even before Allen first puts forth the refrain himself, I couldn’t help but think “get off the fvcking bus!” (um, “fvcking” being my own personal touch :| ). Sitting in a luxury bus, driving through neighbourhoods inhabited by, in the words of the tour guide “people who are rich with a capital ‘R’ ” and then juxtaposing that with guided tours to visit real African royalty in a court, seemingly devoid of the type of mega wealth signified by gold encrusted crowns and thrones (they would have been better off in a museum in London or Paris for that), certainly played with preconceived ideas of African poverty and romanticized notions of “Coming To America”-style African wealth.
The highlight of the trip for some, though, seemed to be a visit to the (white) American ambassador’s residence – no doubt something that, while not necessarily familiar, finally seemed to make sense. But it wasn’t until Allen finally followed his gut and got off the bus that he actually really met Africa and Africans. In a world in which images of Africa and the people of its diaspora are controlled mainly by non-Africans lacking in melanin pigment, the best way to experience Africa is, not just to get out of your armchair but, once you’ve stepped off the big iron bird, to make an effort to get out of your luxury bus seat. It’s refreshing to see an honest, engaging and, in some instances, self-consciously tortured depiction of, and reflection on Africa from an African-American perspective but, more than anything, what this film drove home for me was the point that, black people cannot, and should not, rely on white-owned and controlled media (regardless of whether or not it features black people) to form our understanding of ourselves, or the rich and diverse diaspora that, while displaying many commonalities among its people, couldn’t be a monolith if it tried.
Below is the complete film, “10 Days in Africa.”