What would make for best dressed African? Would it be well coiffed microbraids or plaits, an African print outfit and some sandals. That is for women, and for men, should you always be seen in a dashiki shirt or some other flowing attire, preferably with beads. As many writers on Africa have pointed out, there is a language behind saying that you are writing about Africa, and it often involves strong prints representing what region your interviewee or subject is from.
The media would have us believe that Africa dressed up is a child starving, or crying in an ad for Aid, an HIV+ mother breastfeeding her child with flies jostling with the hungry child for her breast. The ‘I am African” campaign shows African as celebrities dressed in body paint, and touting their Africanness in the fact that we all have the same essential DNA, a biological fact. Biology also shows us evolution, and we know that is not universally accepted, as is the fact that we are all African. Wearing African, and being best dressed African is not as simple as Kente influenced jewelery on a young girl, you and I both know that. Walk with me through a few ways I have seen Africa right where I am.
Africa Dressed in an African Fete
Mrs Owiri.* is a long time staffer at the firm where I am spending my summer as an apprentice. Two weeks ago she had a lavish 60th birthday celebration. She is a beloved member of the Nigerian community here. She invited an African American female colleague, T’Shawna* to her celebrations, and the invitee reported this story to me. Apparently, T’Shawna had never before seen an African party. To those who are unfamiliar with the flair and pomp that our brothers and sisters from Nigeria carry into their celebrations, you may never have witnessed some of Africa’s finest. T’Shawna had never in her 40-some odd years witnessed the vibrant bright reds, yellows, the fine jewellery and well heeled folks that the birthday matron had invited. She marvelled over the delicious fufu, tasty egusu soup and the complemetary party favors at the celebration. The room where the party was held had been transformed into an African village, complete with a high-life band and African music spun by a well known African DJ. This was Africa, dressed for fanfare in America.
Africa Dressed By TV Special Report
I am of the school of thought that many black people in America can trace their roots to Africa, whether via the Caribbean or otherwise. In fact, a new documentary featuring Kenya’s own premier female rapper Nazizi, called ‘Africa Unite‘, looks at the role that we have in creating the united African world. Bob Marley sang a song titled the same which asks us to consider that we are from the same place.
Hence as I live in the US for this time, I cannot help but see what dress the African descendants have been traded. Studies on the making of the African Diaspora illustrate how the legacy of slavery is passed on to every black child born in the United States today. If the abolitionists resurrected today, would they really believe that slavery was over? Many black men lie in chains all day, imprisoned from a young age, many black women and families are imprisoned by their resource-poor communities and black children wake up every day to violence in the buses they ride to school with and go to classes that teach them little of tangible value. For many black people in America, this is the dress you have been left.
CNN, the world’s leading news network has created a series that looks at the being black in America, no doubt driven by the very real possibility that Barack Obama may well be the next prez. If you can catch the series, please do see what being black African American black in America really means
African in the Subway
If you ever have the unique fortune of living in and around MD/VA/DC area, you have probably ridden the Metro rail. If you have spent time in public transportation, notice that people never, ever speak to each other, ever. One learns to keep to oneself, and the only window to another person is when you start watching others around you. There are a lot of Africans going to work, and this time, the word African refers to people I see as I go to work who look more like Kenyans back home than you can imagine.
There is the mama with her two kids taking them to day care sporting all western clothes, except for a unique skin carving on her shoulder, the vaccine scar many people born in Africa bear almost from birth. She betrays no sign of having lived in Africa, her Americanese English is flawless. If you lok around the crowd on the Metro, you will see the African professor. There is one gentleman, who rides the same Metro that I do, and whose bespectacled fact lined with years of training betrays his role as consultant to a thinktank in the area, because we are on school vacation tight now. He carries his drycleaning home, lots of shirts, and I figure that his family lives elsewhere, maybe. His breast pocket bears heavy weights, his subway card and some pens, it reminds me of the economics prof at my Kenyan small college, after a long day at work. These are Africans dressed in the subway.
I, like many Africans am a taught categorizer. Thanks to growing up with black Africans such as myself, with just but a sprinking of Asians ( South Asians, that is) and white people, I can tell someone is black and African very easily. Since arriving here, the definition is much expanded. What does an African face look like to me now? Well, it is like our school’s tennis and badminton instructor who came here as a tennis pro from South Africa, she is Caucasian, or my American friend, the Chinese-South African who grew up very near Kruger National Park and my gal from Ghana, who went to a secondary school at a high school which sounds remarkably like mine.
If we are to stop being labelled as poor black Africa, we have to recognize that the way we dress ourselves shows, the way we perceive who looks African and who does not makes a difference, and we have to shape up for ourselves as Africans all over the world. We have to realize that this issue of poverty, is our own, but that we had essential strength before the slavery, colonization, neo-colonialism, globalization and other world systems made us seem poor.
We have to wean our children on a diet heavy with world knowledge. Make the strong kingdoms of yesteryear come alive. Make the road that our forefathers tread clearer. Tell them about the modern heroes, have them write their own short stories, not teaching them about John and Jane, but of the Mekatililis and Koitalel arap Samoei’s and Dedan Kimathi’s who fought for freedom. And for those who are in the west, tell them about everyone back home. Pledge to them to make a united Africa. Call them by name, name them after these heroes, let them inherit more than a system. Build a village for your children to grow up in.
And if you think you cannot do anything as a solo being, ‘consider the impact of being alone with a single mosquito in a closed room’
I shall leave with that part of my missive written, and go to get dressed, and thank God that I know about dressing Africa a little bit more.
*Name changed to protect privacy