The lockdown has created a booming new videoconferencing economy where all kinds of self-described experts talk about all kinds of things all day long. Financial advisors, self-help gurus, personal trainers and corporate feminists have been thriving all over the Zoom and Webex platforms, but so much of the talk feels like rambling, as fly-by-nights see this global quarantine as an opportunity to push their personal branding.
For those who were looking for meaningful conversations around some of the issues facing diaspora Africans in America, The Thread: Conversations Beyond the Return has rapidly become a safe space on the internet where those who register—and pay a small fee which is actually a donation to a non-profit—can engage with high level panelists on topics related to health, business, travel, art and sex. Participation is actually encouraged, and the straight talk indicated that political correctness is not tolerated.
The liveliest debates on The Thread are about the newly disrupted lives of those black adults in America who happen to care deeply about Africa. Cheraé Robinson, the African American, New York-based founder and CEO of travel experience tech startup Tastemakers Africa is a founder—and the face—of The Thread. She began the April 19th conference—an all-day gathering that was the third iteration of the event and went on from 11am to 7pm EST—by explaining why she decided to launch this new series.
“The thread is an idea that came to us when we looked at the energy that happened with the Year of Return, when the African diaspora prioritized our return to the African continent. Now, we’re asking ourselves how we can collaborate around pan-Africanism to win in this world. The Thread came as an idea around what we can do during COVID when we cannot travel to Africa.” She added that the idea is to bring together diaspora Africans who are all living their different experiences, given their different lineages and geographies.
At a moment when the culture has gone virtual, Robinson wants speakers and participants to ask themselves how they can survive (and thrive) in these current circumstances while pooling their resources, insights, and information to help others in local as well as faraway communities. Dancing in front of her turntables a few feet from a wall decorated with classic LPs (including the 1959 studio album “The Amazing Nina Simone”), DJ Young Wavy Fox kicked it off with a dancehall set, playing Half Pint’s “Substitute Lover” before easing into Sade.
Robinson opened with a “fireside chat” with Dr. Zinga Fraser, the executive director of Shirley Chisolm Project. Dr. Fraser talked about how she went to Ghana for the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence. Speaking about this current coronavirus crisis, she said, “The main thing we are seeing now is innovation and connectivity, helping us to figure out how we can create opportunities for people in the African diaspora. In this era of turmoil, people are questioning the role of political leadership. How do we think about education, public policy, universal health care? Now, we’re thinking out the box. How do we maximize this moment, and realize that we as African people are connected to each other?”
The first panel, on creating new ways of existing, was with Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin, Mark Blake (who happens to be Cheraé Robinson’s father), the Brooklyn-based Sudanese American health advocate Aala Marra, and the Nigerian American singer Jidenna. “This is a new way for existing for me,” joked Jidenna. “Cheraé, you got me waking us at 8:30am here in LA.” Jidenna wondered about the utility of 9-to-5 office lifestyles. “There’s entire industries that never needed to be in person all the time. Working eight hours a day was based on farming. We were not necessarily working for eight hours in the office. What do I do with all this time that I used to spend in transportation, or socializing for four of those eight hours at work?”
Jidenna mentioned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist who has become the most visible member of the White House’s task force on the coronavirus. “He said last week that he doesn’t think we should ever shake hands again. Are we going to change completely as a society? I’m wondering about the rituals that will continue, and those that won’t.” He continued with an analogy based on author Charles Eisenstein’s popular March essay titled The Coronation. “The fish was sick, because the tank was dirty. Traditional medicine is, clean the tank. Modern medicine is, isolate the fish. Right now, we are afraid to clean the tank.”
Aala Marra spoke about the actionable steps that we can take to raise our consciousness. “Meditating for ten minutes a day will boost your immune system. It can become a defense mechanism against viruses and bacteria. Putting ginger water, lemon water in your body first thing in the morning, that can help. Some people might want to explore herbs. We have a lot of tools to elevate black health in this moment.”
Swaady Martin was the contrarian in the group. “We cannot be applying the same thinking to this current pandemic,” she said. “The immediate thing is, let’s put people on lockdown. There’s a part of me thinking, why do we need to lock down the whole world for something that is not deadly unless your immune system is compromised? For me, the sensible thing to do is to try to get people to be healthier in the first place.” Then, she added that she believes this is a time for us to reevaluate our relationship to death.
That discussion was followed by a temperature check with some of the people who are at the forefront of travel on the African continent. Robinson feel that “this is the opportunity to harness the spirit of collectivism into ways where we can win as a people.” She said her organization has raised money through donations to give grants to small independent tour guides and operators in Africa who are devastated by what has happened.
Naledi Khabo is the executive director of Africa Tourism Association. She revealed that the tourism industry is often 10 to 12% of GDP in many African countries. “Some African countries are trying to create financial resources for small businesses. What we need is ways to quickly help support the smaller businesses in a way that is tangible. Some of the multi-million-dollar initiatives will take a while to trickle down.” Akwasi Agyeman, the CEO of the Ghana Tourism Authority who is also the coordinator of The Year of Return initiative said that the Ghanaian government is looking to support small, medium and also larger scale tourism businesses, because they are all struggling.
The debate on race, class and justice in the COVID-19 era was a highlight of the conference. Candi Castleberry, a vice-president for diversity at Twitter gave a historical perspective. “We are not addressing some issues that are below the surface that we in communities of color are familiar with, that other communities are now discovering.” She said that we need to leverage innovative technologies to create a different narrative that will actually help our own communities.
Speaking of the implications of so many black people walking around with masks, the communications executive Aseante Renee believes that “right now, black and brown people have to choose between catching coronavirus or catching a bullet.” She said black people have often created responses to crises in real time. “How do we continue to build and push for equity in a much stronger way? We need to maintain to sustain.”
The French Senegalese activist and writer Rokhaya Diallo spoke about the situation in France, particularly the rise of police brutality against blacks in this period of confinement. “I’ve seen several cases of minorities being checked by the police. Police are now allowed to proceed with more brutal methods, because of the new powers that are conferred on them.” Despite that, she pointed to signs of increased solidarity, and to a narrative that is so different from the bad behavior and violence that blacks are so often associated with.
“Right now, we’re seeing people who are donating food to people who recently lost their jobs.” Diallo also spoke about the Western media predicting a very negative outcome on the African continent, particularly those journalists who are reporting terrible scenarios around the spread of the coronavirus. “We need different kinds of coverage on what is happening in Africa.”
Robinson insisted on the fact that our differences are what we should be using to solve these kinds of problems. The discussion was then narrowed down to the issue of class. Diallo said that “stopping certain people from being outside of their home is a death sentence, because they need to be out, in order to provide for their families. Those people don’t earn as much money as they deserve.”
At the start of the conversation around art in these turbulent times, James Bartlett, a co-founder of the Open Art platform lamented the fact that the entire economy is turned on its head because of the virus. Meyanne Loum-Martin, the owner of Jnane Tamsna boutique hotel in Marrakech and co-founder of AFree Culture events pointed to renewal when she referred to a conversation she had recently with the Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast, who noted that shortly after the Spanish flu of 1918 killed over 50 million people around the world the influential Bauhaus movement started in Germany. Her thesis is that “connectivity will boost everyone’s creativity,” providing more access to cultural institutions like museums.
Certainly, the most fun discussion of the day was on black joy and pleasure, particularly in the way Penda N’diaye, founder of the sexual liberation platform PRO HOE, entrepreneur Taiyé Samuel and Màat Petrova, the Brooklyn Trini behind FemMagic, opened up about sex and carnal pleasures. The consensus was that these times of confinement are ideal for harnessing our sexual energy to do anything we want to achieve. Petrova mentioned her 6:40am meditations, and the new strategies she has come up with. She argued that those strategies can help us to feel empowered throughout the day. Because most people don’t even know how to communicate their sexual needs to their partner, this no holds barred fest felt like a proper kitchen table conversation.
Some more simple advice around daily routines to stay sane in these crazy times revolved around workouts, and how much 80 jumping jacks and 25 pushups a day can help. Another strategy might be “fasting from the news,” meaning spending three days without watching or reading or hearing any news at all. Other tactics were writing your thoughts down… and watching a lot of Dave Chappelle. One book that was recommended was “The Erotic as Power,” by the feminist writer Audre Lorde.