Culture


Back in the day, in my former life I was a working actor. Looking back at my life to that time so long ago, it does seem like it was a former life. I am certainly a much different person than back then.

Anywayzzz… when I was making my living as an actor in Toronto Canada, the experience was fulfilling in many ways, but it was mainly very frustrating. When it came to film and television roles, they were primarily U.S. based productions, so all the main characters were already cast with American actors. My first few years were working as an “extra” … basically in non-descript roles making up the background scenery. It was grueling work and somewhat demeaning. I remember many times when as an “extra”, I had to wait off to the side during meal breaks until the lead characters and the crew had eaten, before we were allowed to get our lunch and/or dinner (i.e. leftovers) from the meal table. After some time I was able to get an agent and I got cast in “better” roles in these productions. As a Black actor, I was primarily offered the role of “Black thug on the right”, or “Black thug on the left” … or if I was really fortunate, I got cast as “Black thug in the middle” , who got arrested by the lead “white” cop character and got to say a variation of the line: “hey man… I didn’t do nuttin!” After a number of these roles, my sense of self-respect couldn’t handle it, so I told my agent I wasn’t going to do them anymore and to try to get me auditions for roles that were not “race” specific. I think I went on 2 auditions after that before the agent dropped me.

When it came to theatre productions, things were a little better. There was certainly more “artistic-license” taken by producers and directors when it came to “non-traditional” casting. I played a variety of roles in numerous productions. I was given the opportunity to play “Benvolio” in a summer stock production of Romeo and Juliet. It was a fantastic experience and it led to an audition for the artistic director of the Stratford Festival. This festival is the premiere Shakespearean festival in Canada and it is world renown. I had known a couple of my peers… and I literally mean two Black actors, who had been cast in minor roles at the festival. However they were cast as background figures, non-speaking roles… “spear carrier on the right” or “servant on the left”. As a part of the festival’s training program, both were given the opportunity to “understudy” minor roles. From conversations with these friends about their experiences, it was obvious (to me at least) that the festival only hired Black actors (and other “actors of colour”) in an effort to appear to be inclusive, so as to ward off any criticism that they were racist or discriminatory in their casting.

So I decided that instead of doing a “standard” audition where I would recite a monologue and then stroke the artistic director’s ego and claim how it had always been my lifelong dream to work with him and be a part of the festival, no matter how small the role, and that I would be forever grateful and in his debt for the opportunity… I decided to put him on the spot and ask him why I should want to work at the festival? What was the advantage for me? What role(s) did he have in mind for me? I informed him it wouldn’t be worth it to me, to go there and play insignificant background roles. Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed. He gave me an exasperated lecture on the importance of respecting the auditioning process and “paying my dues” . He then ended the audition. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get an invite to work at Stratford… but strangely I felt a certain amount of pride for my stance.

I then made the decision to do low budget independent films and theatrical production dealing with social issues, primarily those relating to the Black and African community. I also worked with a collective of Black artists doing our own productions. However it became increasingly difficult to work on a continuous basis as there wasn’t much community support and the government funding for what was termed “non-traditional productions”, went primarily to “white” film production and theatre companies that had submitted proposals to do “ethnic-based” productions. I worked for a couple of these companies and found that they were very eurocentric in their perspectives on social issues, as well as blatantly condescending and patronizing in their ethnic-based” productions. Although I worked for approximately another year or so in the arts before I decided to do something else, my most rewarding efforts during this period were the productions I did with other “artists of colour”. I didn’t feel like I was a slave to the whims and self-promoting generosity of “white” producers and directors.

(more…)

I watched another heart-wrenching documentary on the genocide in Darfur. Titled “On Our Watch”, it was featured on PBS Frontline. It’s unbelievable that this atrocity is still occurring in 2008 and the leaders of our world community cannot muster the “will” to impress upon Sudan that it must stop this genocide. The documentary touched on some of the reasons why there is such a failure to act… the most vital being oil. It’s paradoxical that there are those who believe that Iraq was invaded because of it’s oil fields, while Sudan is left to continue it’s policy of genocide because of it’s oil fields.

There is lots of blame to go around for this failure to act, from the U.N; the U.S. (which has taken a hardline and imposed strict economic sanctions on Sudan, but could obviously do more… see here); the European Community, The Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Iran, The African Union, The Arab League and China… to name just a few of the major players. Let’s not forget about the Afrosphere, which could do much more to advocate for the people of Darfur. If half as much energy, focus and commitment was utilized by bloggers of African descent to organize, petition and demand action to stop the genocide in Darfur, as was generated to support the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, there would be more pressure on our leaders, both community and political, to address this issue. If we don’t show we care by taking action, they certainly won’t! For some of us, it will be a historic achievement to have a black face in the White House… while for others, it’s a historic achievement to survive the day without being raped, tortured or killed… and being able to have one meal for the day. Let me give a “dap and a big up!” to Yobachi over at BlackPerspectives.net, who has been constant in his commitment on keeping Darfur an issue in the Afrosphere.

Below are links to the PBS Frontline documentary and other informative sites on Darfur. There are also links on these sites giving you the opportunity to get involved in stopping the genocide.

  1. On Our Watch
  2. sudanreeves.org
  3. Eyes on Darfur
  4. Save Darfur
  5. Save Darfur: Partner Campaigns

I watched a fascinating discussion on Sunday afternoon on a program on BBC World called “The World Debate”. The panel, which was made up of Carl Bernstein, the award winning journalist who helped uncover the Watergate scandal; Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of the internet giant Google; Dan Gilbert, a Harvard Psychologist; Queen Noor of Jordan and the Ugandan journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Mwenda, discussed the role and influence of the “New Media”, via the IT revolution, specifically the dissemination of information and the pros and cons associated with this democratization of journalism.

What I found interesting was how the old guard and protectors of the status quo, embodied by the views of Bernstein and Gilbert, were openly condescending and somewhat alarmist in their opinions concerning what they referred to as the “citizen journalism” via the internet. Berin, Queen Noor and Mwenda were more understanding and supportive of the value and need of alternative voices, who aren’t “trained or schooled” at some recognized institution for journalism and therefore don’t hold the standard eurocentric prejudices, but in many ways provide a more realistic, personal and honest view of events in their environment. 

As I listened to the discussion I came to realise once again the power of the internet in sharing information (especially real time events), views, beliefs and opinions among people throughout the round corners of the world. We have all heard the adages: “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword and Knowledge is Power”. This is truer today than any time in the history of humankind and whomever controls knowledge, and more importantly the access to knowledge, as well as controls the pen (or today the keystrokes), is the master (or chief manipulator) of reality. This is why regimes such as China and Myanmar have such strict controls on their populations access to the information highway. This is why during periods of civil strife and unrest in countries such as Pakistan and Kenya, access to certain sites such as Youtube by their citizens, which may show videos of the brutality of the regime against those protesting for their political and human rights, are shut down. This is why the Bernsteins and Gilberts are fearful of the “New Media”, because the power to shape ideas, beliefs, values (and henceforth culture)… and the power to control (and restrict) information and knowledge, are no longer in the hands of the elite or a select few with common interests to maintain and perpetuate the status quo. This rise of the “New Media” is much more than a democratization of information sharing, it is more of a revolution in “people participation”.  

It is this participation, or the potential of the power of this participation, which makes the blogosphere in general and the “Afrosphere” in particular such a potent force. It brings people together who would have never had the opportunity to connect before and through these relationships, we have the ability to expand our focus, influence and experiences. Through blogging, I have been able to communicate with many people throughout the world. People I have never met face to face and most likely, never will. People from different countries, as well as a variety of political, religious, economic, cultural and social backgrounds, beliefs, values and opinions.

This gathering of people of African descent — whether born in the U.S. or Africa or elsewhere, whether descendants of slaves or free men, whether rich or indigent –this gathering arises out of a need for self-determination and a history of forced subordination and removed relativity to an abstract outsider. We face each other under a banner of survivalist solidarity because regardless of our differences — whether they be our sexualities, our disabilities, our religions or our interests — we are viewed as one. What jerks at one of us sends tremors through all of us. So we need to understand each other.”  From the Mission Statement of the Afrospear, written by Sylvia.

Powerful! The above statement is truly a call for those of African descent throughout the world, who have the ability to utilize the “New Media”, to come together for the advancement of our people, regardless of our “isms” ! It is a challenge to revolutionize our way of thinking, and rise to the higher and uncharted territory of focusing on the value in our different perspectives. We need to do away with the mindset that because we are all not of, and/or from, the same social or economic class, political beliefs (or affiliations), religious or spiritual sects, continent, country, tribe, ‘hood, gender, sexual orientation etc., that we can demonize, dehumanize, disrespect, define and declare who belongs to our community and who does not. We need to do away with egotistical and self-righteous declarations that those who do not think, believe or live like us… are not with us… they are against us. We need to do away with intellectual tribalism… which like Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone and most recently Kenya… leads only to our communal genocide. The only requirement is that one is sincerely working for the benefit and advancement of people of African descent, whether in the local, national, international and/or virtual arena.

I am not so naive to believe that all people of African descent will agree, get along with each other or come together for the greater good of the community. It won’t happen! I am resigned to the fact that it will never happen! Selfishness and self-centered interests are chief among the reasons which makes this impossible. I have already seen it within the Afrosphere and Afrospear, how differences in beliefs and opinions, as well as self-interests, have caused very smart and committed Black people to refuse and/or decide that they cannot… will not… work with other very smart and committed Black people.

However… this does not prevent me (and others) from working to create a “new deal” among us. To be a part of, connected to and add our collective voice to the variety of other Afrocentric/Black individuals, cells, conglomerations and collectives out in the AfroSphere. I am indeed hopeful because I have also seen the potential and practice of the power of the “New Media” in the past successes of the Afrosphere surrounding the issues of the Jena 6, Kenneth Foster and Shaquanda Cotton. Furthermore. I have foreseen the potential power of the Afrosphere spurring the future successes that are to come, regarding issues such as BET, Dunbar Village, Darfur and even the election a person of African descent as the President of the United States of America.        

 

In 1998 when I was planning my pilgrimage to West Africa, I was warned against visiting Mauritania. It was explained to me that slavery against the “Black” African population was still practised there by the “White” Arabs and I could therefore put my self at risk. The fear was not so much my abduction and enslavement, but certainly blatant discrimination in a hostile environment where I would have no protection by (or from) the law. Needless to say, I avoided Mauritania.  

I subsequently read a book by Samuel Cotton entitled: Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery”. Published in 1999, it highlighted his research into the dynamics of modern day slavery in Mauritania and Sudan. I recently read “Slave: My True Story” by Mende Nazer, a horrifying autobiography of her 1993 abduction and enslavement in Sudan at age 12, and her flight to freedom 7 years later while working for a Sudanese diplomat in London England.

I have also read a number of articles on the issue of child slavery in West Africa today. While the system of slavery in Mauritania and Sudan is based primarily on historical and traditional social systems, the phenomenon of child slavery in West African countries is based on poverty. Parents sell their children into slavery for a few dollars and false promises that they will only be working part-time, taken care of and sent to school. It’s ironic that I had visited Ghana during my pilgrimage and toured a number of the slave castles along the coast. I even visited the slave castle in the Kormance Region, where it is very likely that my ancestor(s) were housed before being shipped off to Jamaica as slaves. Today, Ghana is one of the West African countries that has a serious problem with child slavery.   

I would like to share an indepth report from last month on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation website (CBC.ca), concerning this issues of modern day slavery and child trafficking in West Africa. The link is here. There are links to the 3 articles penned by David Gutnick which discusses these topics in detail. You will also find links to previous CBC articles and other resource materials about modern day slavery. 

Here is a another link to a case study and other articles by the BBC World Service pertaining to Article 4 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Freedom From Slavery”

The challenge now becomes: “now that we know, what are we going to do or can do about it?”  Suggestions are welcomed.              

 VS 

Recently I have been contemplating if the church has any real significant and positive influence on the world today, especially in the beliefs and actions of western society in particular. There was a time when Christian ideology, through the church was very influential (good and bad) in shaping political, social, cultural and even personal beliefs and viewpoints. I would argued that today this influence is not as great as it was say… even 30 years ago.

I read an analytical report on The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life website which somewhat dealt with this issue, from an interesting point of reference. This article entitled: “Science in America: Religious Beliefs and Public Attitudes”, discussed the findings of a survey which concluded that “when scientific evidence and long-held religious beliefs come into direct conflict, many Americans reject science.” 

According to the authours of the report, American society has a unique dichotomy in that on one hand, it is the most religious of the advanced industrial democracies, while on the other hand, it’s leadership in scientific research and application has been instrumental in making it a powerful nation. This has… not surprisingly… created some conflict between faith and science on societal beliefs, particularly on controversial issues such as evolution, homosexuality and global warming. The report primarily looked at the influence of religion and science on these three topics in American society.

The report contended that a close reading of the survey shows that large majorities of the American public respect science and scientists, but where scientific evidence and long-held religious belief come into direct conflict, “many Americans reject science in favor of the teachings of their faith tradition.” However, surprisingly today such areas of explicit differences are not common. 

It was interesting to compare the beliefs of Black and White Christians (specifically Evangelicals) on the above three issues, as well as secularists, Conservatives, Moderates, Liberals, college and high school graduates. The results were not as straightforward and/or obvious as one would be expect. There are definite mixtures and combinations of scientific and religious influences which run through even strong held beliefs and opinions.

The report does not necessarily answer my original question on whether the church, Christianity and religion in general is a positive driving force on western society, but it does offer some insight on what motivates beliefs and therefore actions… which can have obvious implications in areas such as the formulation of government statutes and public policies. 

 

Here are some of the jewels from Africa that has enriched my life:

My favourite online African magazine, The African Executive. Here are 2 of this month’s articles that may be of interest:   

Tribalism in Africa: A Western Creation? 

Is Democracy Working in Africa? 

Blogs:

Africa Beat: political and economic development by an Afro-optimist;

Blog Africa: wide variety of African blogs; 

Le Pangolin: French blogger from Senegal;

Ore’s Notes: Nigerian woman living in Lagos;

Poefrika: a weblog of creative African-inspired writing; 

What an African Woman Thinks: one of my favourites. This blogger in Kenya really personalizes the fears and aspirations of those who are currently experiencing the events in that country. A must read!

Books:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Why Are We So Blest both by Ayi Kwei Armah

Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

God’s Bit’s of Wood by Sembene Ousmane

Death and the King’s Horsemen; Madmen and Specialists. Both are by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka

Long Walk To Freedom. The autobiography of Nelson Mandela

The Wretched Of The Earth by Frantz Fanon

Civilization and Barbarism by Cheikh Anta Diop

West Africa Traditional Religion by T.N.O. Quarcoopome  

Music:

Femi Kuti: Nigerian Afrobeat and Jazz artist.

Angelique Kidjo: Beninese singer and songwriter who performs a variety of afrostyles.

Salif Keita: Albino Malian singer and songwriter with a sweet voice that fits well with his buoyant beats. 

Youssou N’Dour: Senegalese musician who is a modern day Griot.

Miriam Makeba: South African singer, actress, anti-Apartheid activist who was at one time married to Stokley Carmichael.

Hugh Masekela: South Africa Jazz composer and musician, known for his skillz on the trumpet.

Interactive

A Day in the Life of Africa: On February 28th 2002, 100 photojournalists captured the essense of Africa in a 24 hour period. Enter the Gallery at this site and click on each of the 10 Timezones to enjoy some of the magnificent photos.This effort was to raise funds and awareness of the AIDS-HIV crisis on the continent. A photo book is available for sale with proceeds going to Africa AIDS Education Fund.      

 

As I have been following the current news events out of Africa, it is disturbing to see all the images of chaos, death, disease, greed, genocide and corruption. Is that all there is or is that only what is being fed to us? I have always believed that western society’s (and the global) view of those of African descent starts, is influenced and perpetuated by these negative media images from the Motherland. I also believe that these images have an effect on how “we” see ourselves here in the Diaspora.

Africa is indeed resource rich. However, despite the dismal news reports and negative images, Africa has much more to offer the world other than it’s material resources, that is being raped and stolen for the benefit of former neocolonial regimes and to enrich their propped up African overseers! One of the resources we don’t utilize enough as people of African descent, are the many voices that are available to be “mined” for our benefit. There are cultural, political, econimic, artistic, literary and spiritual gems of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, values, insights and opinions, which are available to help bring clarity and strength to our being. The continent is rich in books, films, magazines, music, websites and blogs, etc., which are the invaluable jewels that their best and brightest have to offer the world.  

For this month’s carnival, let’s share and exchange some of the priceless resources from the Motherland that have enriched and brought joy to our lives. Create a post on your page with African based web links, as well as book, music, magazine, movie and blog lists, etc., and submit a link to Afrospear@hotmail.com by this Sunday 10th February. I will compile the links and publish the carnival on Monday the 11th. 

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