At Guernica, Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s.
Nina Simone has been a fascination of mine for good number of years now, as has the seemingly intellectually blissful period before various elites around Africa fully and completely alienated every day Africans. It was a period where African Americans, but also blacks from all over the diaspora, fled to other worlds. Where, like so many WWII soldiers like my grandfathers, found the world to be ready to seeing them as Black Americans, Black Canandians, etc. worthy of welcome and not derision. Many didn’t so much as flee, as they abdicated. The deaths of MLK Jr. , Malcolm X, and the rise and fall of the Black Panthers caused a loss of faith. Those who spoke peace were murdered. Those who spoke self-defense and evolution of thought were destroyed by those who only hurt themselves. Entire American agencies spent years seeding doubt, using undercover agents to fuel drug habits, and killing those young leaders who’d begun to see not only racial injustice but class injustice. Nina sang to a world that only half listened, a world that decades later only shakes their head while saying that “Mississippi Goddamn” is too harsh and the rhetoric stating black lives have value is threatening and wrong. Those who sang, spoke, and wrote like Nina did never gave up…but they sure as hell abdicated, removed themselves from people who seemingly wanted nothing to do with justice. They searched, reached out, and found an audience elsewhere, an audience that could provide a racial refuge unlike any many blacks across the Americas and Europe had never known.
They believe in Africa, in the diaspora, but unlike those expats of the 1960s and 1970s they generally have no westernized royal family to show them a gilded lily of racial equality where black is as black does.
Africa’s international elites and intellectuals listened attentively…but in the end they failed to listen to their own countrymen.
This has always fascinated me as well. The factors in the many coups, revolutions, and civil wars are varied across each individual nation. However, I believe it is fair to say that the gap between those excited intellectuals at universities, the heavily western influenced elites, and the common men and women trying to earn an honest days work destroyed that utopia Nina Simone and many others called home. It wasn’t just a matter of rich versus poor, but the student versus the maid; the idealistic activist v.s the farm hand. In many ways, as an American this is playing out on Western terms in 2017, but the forces of black lives and politics across the world are unique.
Liberia and many African nations have a sort of duel identity and an image fueled by national pride ego, and a long complex relationship with the west. So many blacks in the diaspora have negative views of Africa…and yet so many also have this overwhelmingly admirable love for Africa. Both can be unreasonable. I’ve known folks, so thoroughly excited to spend time in Ghana, Uganda, and elsewhere; folks who embrace the narrative of “Modern Africa” becoming a big player on the international scene, of fashion models in African fabrics, of an intellectual elite returning and invigorating their proud homes…and upon their return that excitement is thoroughly quelled. The potential is there, they say, bubbling beneath the surface…but they walk among the tent cities of South Africa, they drive through the rich neighborhoods with their western homes before going down a neighborhood of hard working people who they just saw working in homes with closets larger than their own. They believe in Africa, in the diaspora, but unlike those expats of the 1960s and 1970s they generally have no westernized royal family to show them a gilded lily of racial equality where black is as black does.
Africa…a place of high fashion, intense business, and economic development. Where you can either find powerful self-assurance or mild disappointment. It is a land of many dreams, and harsh realities about how Pan-Africanism was more lip-service in the last 60 years than genuine practice.
Class is very real, and intellectualism has a tendency to isolate.
I wonder what it says when friends of mine were told they were “white” when their tones were chocolatey brown. Is it ethnicity or ethnicity; Nation or race; Culture or place of birth? Are Black American’s permanently displaced in the eyes of the world unless we’re talking about American hip-hop and urban cultures? I don’t have an answer.
But I do have an understanding.
The isolation of the elites in black circles is toxic. The willingness to say that farmers, maids, chauffers, and others in the working class diaspora simply have no clue about “real life” or political power resulted in intellectuals becoming blind at best and dictators at worst. Those dictators gave way to tyrants whose working class, and ethnic roots gave unreasonable yet perfectly understandable support to states that claimed to change everything yet changed nothing. Class is very real, and intellectualism has a tendency to isolate.
White liberal socialists, or really whites in general on the left, have been telling me every day that racial issues will be all but solved by the balm of class equality. If you look at the dynamics of many wealthy Africans in relation to everyday working Africans from Liberia to South Africa you’d begin to think they were right. But it wasn’t simply class, and plenty of sons rose through the ranks of the military, of intellgensia, and ultimately repeated the same actions they said the former wealthy governments did. But then again maybe it was money…but then again it’s more complicated than that.
Socialism won’t stop racism. It’s something whites don’t like to acknowledge, but even the poorest rural whites throughout American history could say “I don’t have a pot to piss in, but at least I’m not a n*gger”. Social power isn’t just about class. In Africa it came from who your people were, from your education, from your foreign friends, and yes form your class too. It came about through those with big progressive ideas never acting and only talking to each other. So when they brought in others, unfamiliar with their nations and worlds, blacks eager to feel at home for the first time ever…those expatriated souls saw those circles as the whole of Africa. Why wouldn’t they?
African Americans like Nina abdicated their role in civil rights because white America elected Nixon, said Civil Rights needed to slow down, and that blacks being fired first in factories during the economic downturn was a matter of “Last hired first fired” and had nothing to do with race when race kept them from being first hired. They’d marched, sang, spoken, wrote, talked, confronted, and persuaded…and they still wouldn’t be fully heard or even believed. They didn’t give up. They had enough, and said they’d take their dreams to Africa and plant them there. But the soil was hard when you dug too far down, filled with nutrients but the layers simply didn’t connect. But those dreams grew tall regardless and so those expats assumed the fruit would be sweet forever. Leaders didn’t have to acknowledge farmers, and farmers didn’t have the knowledge to respond wisely. Leaders in their ivory towers danced in discos, while that same leaders maid barely afforded her children’s school uniforms while wealthy westerners talked about how free their homes were. Those discos were, in the eyes of the many, filled with greed, idiots, and those who were going to change their entire way of life to impress western foreigners.
They never seemed to meet much in the middle. They were two worlds orbiting and never meeting. Decades later I regularly see information about the sons of wealthy African leaders who travel the world leaving messes behind from assaults and incidents that embarrass their countrymen to hiding the very funds they stole from those countrymen around the world,barely touching home soil for long. Meanwhile the son of the nation is immigrated, at university, and faced with the reality of white racism in the west. He returns home dutifully, he brings back gifts. and goods for his uncle and aunties business. He eats well and is surrounded by the same vapid wealth as the former. He is wealthy. He is high class. He still loves his home. He could be a leader if he wanted…
Isolation kills black communities, and it happens no matter what. Most slave codes forbade blacks from gathering for a reason, and in modern times we have constructed our own codes. The paper bag test is the most famous, but saying something is “white” like watching Japanese anime or liking comic books is another. People who went to Howard or Morgan Universities have opinions about students who went to Aug down in NC. What is the issue here? Class? No. Not fully. Perhaps it is expectation.
Expectation that we should all understand, and that some for one reason or another cannot. Expectation that a nation of black folk will be a utopia when utopia is no place. Expectation that Africa is low, and that Africans who aren’t royalty/rich are low. Expectation that somehow being black will solve classism…or that destroying the upper classes will cease racism. Perhaps that’s what black folk remain gripped by…a hope so strong it strangles us and the insideous influence of thinking we’re all too different in a world that sees us all the same.