When I was 14 there is a boy in my class who said, “Africans don’t think right!” I thought of how foolish his words were. I went home and banged out, what I thought at that time was, this awesome clapback poem on all the ways he was wrong. In retrospect, I see how my poem was riddled with assumptions and thoughts my 14-year-old mind had not yet learned could be erroneous about color, race, and culture. Nevertheless, that statement stuck with me and I believe my indignation even at that time, was rightfully placed. I don’t remember what caused the incident that sparked his comment or if his comment was just aimed directly at me as a way of getting under my skin. Perhaps he heard an adult in his life say that. Perhaps he had seen Africans portrayed negatively on TV. Either way, it was quite bold and ignorant of him to make such a blanket statement about an entire continent based on the experience he may or may not have had with a few Africans.
Being as I grew up in Newark, NJ and more than half the people around me were black, I assumed he was of African ancestry and that heightened my anger. The one line I somewhat still agree with from my poem is the following: “Until he sees Africa as a place where he comes from, instead of a place where people don’t think right, he will never think right.” If it is, in fact, true that life began in Africa, then we all owe it to ourselves to view Africa with less pitiful eyes and with a fresh lens of hopefulness and reverence.
I was very sarcastic as a teenager but if I had combined that with being glib and verbally confrontational I would have told him about Fela Kuti, the pioneer of Afrobeat who broke musical barriers by using his music as a form of human rights activism. He was so iconic that there’s a whole Broadway musical about him! I would have reminded that boy of Nelson Mandela, a well-educated black South African and one of the foremost leaders against apartheid. I would have reminded him of Mandela’s achievement of being South Africa’s first democratically elected president post-apartheid and one of South Africa’s most beloved civil rights leaders. I would have told him of Steve Biko who was also at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement and popularized the slogan, “black is beautiful”. I would have told him of Kofi Anan, a Ghanaian who was the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. I would have told him of Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian author who wrote novels that have influenced the education of literature students even here in America.
I would have told him of Seal and Sade and how their melodic smooth voices and songs were sought out by great producers, directors, companies, and concert halls. I would have brought his attention to Boris Kojoe and how Boris was a rising star. The list goes on: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Djimon Hounsou, etc. More personally I would have told him about my wonderful Aunty A who came to this country and graduated from NYU with a Bachelor and an MBA and worked her way up the ranks of Citibank to become one of their most respected vice presidents. Wow! Africans really don’t think right.
I can imagine that today this kid, who is now a man, is enjoying and praising Black Panther and Wakanda but has long forgotten the ignorance with which he viewed Africans. He was probably moved to tears by the performance of David Oyelowo in Selma. I can imagine that he squeals with glee at the humorous, yet clever, remarks that Trevor Noah makes as the host of The Daily Show. I can imagine that he gawks at the beauty of Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. I imagine that he leapt for joy when Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States of America and that he was amazed by the movie Concussion, which was inspired by Dr. Bennett Omalu‘s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I can also imagine that he’d probably have a difficult go at it with understanding the influential novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Gosh, Africans really need to start thinking right!
I’m saying all this to say that it is never wise to pass judgment on an entire people, nation, or continent. I’m saying all this to say that it is up to us to teach the generations coming up the importance of valuing cultural differences and nuances around us. I’m saying all this to say Africans do in fact think right and have in fact contributed a lot to our continent and to this world in a variety of ways: music, film, politics, medicine, education, etc.
Black History Month is one of my favorite months because it celebrates and uncovers so much of the history of a people who have long been viewed as inferior. Perhaps the scope of our study during this month should be broadened to cover ALL Black people. I think we do our students a disservice by not doing so, thus resulting in statements made by my classmate here. I think doing so would effectively unite black people and cause us to see each other as allies rather than as others.
Photo credit: The Afropolitan