Illustration by Nikki Muller
What are two cute-ass, eager college girls to do when they have something frictiony to say about “the Black experience”? Take their chutzpah and make their first documentary, that’s what—even if the single VHS copy is destined not to survive the turn of the century.
As a non-traditional student at a Kansas City university back in the late bitches + hoes hip hop 90s, I co-directed a doc about how Black men want to be supported by the Black mothers, sisters, cousins, friends, and lovers in their lives, and how these women imagine supporting Black men. Guys and girls of all ages, regions, and phases of their careers readily lined up to answer our narrative question and potentially course correct the perceived rift between Black men and women.
It was one Yoruba interviewee who would change my worldview—and, therefore, my life—forever. Four reasons: 1) nothing like this had ever occurred to me before he spoke his fateful words, 2) I belonged to the demographic demoralized by his assertion, and 3) my hurt revealed my own unconscious tendency to accept dangerous falsehoods about cultural groups’ post-media consumption.
What this Afrikan interviewee admitted gently like a guilt-riddled secret—I will never forget—is that all around the world, Black people are seen as parasites on America.
Having grown up with uncles who matured in the sex-lib-halucinaflower-power-to-the-people 1960s, I was raised subscribed to the belief that Afrika is the drumbeat of all Blackness with a reverence and sentiment of kinship for its people. For me, Afrikanness informed—no, defined—the root cause and ability for identity in modern-day American Black folks.
This statement—“parasites on America”—was my first brush with what I believe to be a third-party imposed intra-Afrikan separatism. Still, it revealed grayness in a corner of the world that, for me, until that moment, had been bursting with color. The fourth reason my worldview was dismantled with this statement was my realization that, tragically, if we wanted or needed to, Black Americans had no place to go, no place where we truly belong.
Growing up, I had learned of diasporic Afrika through accounts such as the Panthers, who’d taken refuge in Afrikan nations from American political tyranny, or of the Marcus Garvey exodus to Liberia, so it wasn’t so much geography or terrain that felt lost. Heart and hearth. Flame and fireside. Love. Shelter. Family. That is what slipped away from my rose-colored dream of siblingship with Afrika. Without kinship, we—Black Americans—are lost.
A quick internet search for “conflict between Black Americans and Africans” yields headline after headline devoted to examining the heartbreaking tensions between cousins—the Afrikan born on the continent or the Afrikan immigrated to the West and Afrikan descendants of chattel slavery displaced by the West.
On January 20, 2023, comes a shepherd’s call from the most unlikely of cultural nooks. The sexiest man alive—dance-makin’ DJ and mega movie star Idris Elba—posts a video on Instagram about his Ebony Magazine cover shoot with his fabulously gorgeous and entrepreneurial wife and partner, Sabrina.
Cloaked in a tuxedo in the palace, camera flashin’ opulence, beauty, fun—celebrity—Elba delivers a humbling statement of acknowledgment that breaks open a hardened-by-hopelessness part of my spirit. Using his beauty and access to Western mores like a mattah before the Red Sea, Elba, with the authority of someone whose parents are from the continent, who was raised in Ghanaian culture and exposed to mother tongues, casually positions himself as a prospective guide back to Afrika.
“This issue of Ebony is about Afrika. There’s one thing that I want to make sure that everyone on the diaspora understands… Afrika is your home, too,” says Elba. “It ain’t just ‘cuz my parents are West Afrikan that makes me more Afrikan than you—no, no—as long as you are Black, you come from that continent, and it is your home. It’s your ancestral home.”
To be abandoned in the desert of placelessness, being unclaimed by that familial anchor, produces an identity mirage is something volatile and unstable. Something fake but desperately pursued.
From the hip hop born of the electric New York streets to jazz activism poetry to political protests, Black expression evaluates Black life, being, existence, and desire, but somehow always in contention with its responsibility to summit White standards—like opulence, beauty, fun— and its need to counterweigh itself in the interest of survival.
Elba turns that contention on its head. “Celebrity is fascinating, not so much because of the glamor of it all,” he told Ebony Magazine in their cover series, “but because of its potential use as a tool for something beyond glamor.”
Like celebrities before him—Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and the great Paul Robeson—in one smooth social media post, Elba casts an easy lifeline of change agency that attempts to capture the minds of any who believe Black Americans are not Afrika’s legacy. He attempts to join a long-established charge to redefine and protect the collective.
Don’t let the smoke and mirrors fool you, though. Black Americans suffer silly ideas toward Afrikans, too. In that same Instagram post, Elba urges the world to shift and see Afrika as safe—if not as home, then as a travel destination—which, for me, addresses long-held attitudes born of the superiority embedded in the fabric of American arrogance.
We’re also fed images of Afrika that lead us to pop these collars, believing it is better to be American, we are better. Thanks to the USA Aid for Afrika campaigns of the 1980s, generations have been bamboozled into thinking even though Afrika may have been booming in antiquity, presently, the motherland is little more than a warzone and those poor people—famine-struck, diseased, naked, potbelly fly magnets—there’s no way we’re not better. Gosh, let’s mission to save them.
This is the power of media, story, and fame.
In this Insta post and subsequent articles, using the influence of fame, beauty, and access to Afrika for thought-shaping and humanitarianism, the Elbas simultaneously redefine Black identity as collective and Afrika as diverse and playful. There is a self- and cultural confidence reconstituted by acceptance and investment. And hope for kinship rekindled. A place. This is what Elba promises.