On Thursday evening, I attended a discussion with the photographer Jamel Shabazz, at the Richard Beavers Gallery in deep Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn-bred Shabazz said many things over the course of a three-hour conversation with the journalist Clara Zawadi Morris-Richardson, but one statement I found particularly intriguing, in his reminiscence of nineteen seventies America, was related to the impact of one seminal television series. “The TV show Roots gave us a sense of pride and identity,” he said. I looked around the gallery and from their expressions I realized that many of the millennials in the audience didn’t know what he was talking about.
Roots (not to be confused with the disappointing 2016 remake currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime) was a wildly successful mini-series which premiered on ABC in January 1977, to a record-breaking audience of 130 million viewers. It was a dramatization of African American author Alex Haley’s family line from ancestor Kunta Kinte’s enslavement to his descendants’ liberation. I always found the controversy over historical accuracy and Haley’s claim that lead character Kunta Kinte was based on one of Haley’s ancestors—a Gambian man who was born in 1750, enslaved and taken to America and who died in 1822—to be irrelevant. The success of Roots led to an American dialog about slavery and liberation and also black pride and identity. Most importantly, it helped a generation of African Americans to wonder about their ancestry, genealogy, and their connection to the so-called motherland.
I was a child living in Washington DC (as the son of a Togolese Ambassador) when Roots became the subject of a national conversation about race, and I remember overhearing conversations between African diplomats and their African American friends. I remember my father saying that African Americans were naïve about Africa, and he invited so many of them to visit Togo, even though we all knew they would be hard pressed to locate our country on a map. Indeed, most African Americans who came to our house were clueless about the different African nations the diplomats were from, but I could see, through a child’s eyes, that there was a real desire to learn, and to connect.
When we were leaving the Richard Beavers Gallery on Thursday night, I heard a young Brooklyn couple talk about their weekend plans. “What else would we do this weekend,” the young black lady said. “We’ve got tickets for Black Panther.” Last weekend, everyone I know (or so it seemed) was talking about Black Panther. The Disney released sci-fi flick from Marvel Studios is already a bona fide cultural phenomenon. It is the first major super-hero release to feature an African protagonist and a majority-black cast. The African American director Ryan Coogler has been talking, in various interviews—and sometimes oversharing “naïve” anecdotes—about this three week “research” trip to “Africa”, but in a recent conversation with the New York Times, Lupita Nyong’o said, “Seeing it yesterday, I’m even more excited about the celebration of Pan-Africanism, because this movie is really about a contemporary Africa relating very intimately with a contemporary America via the characters of Black Panther and Killmonger.”
Lupita is from Kenya (although she was born in Mexico), and Danai Gurira is from Zimbabwe (although she was born in America), but the two lead characters Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther aka T-Challa aka King of Wakanda and Killmonger respectively) are African American. This symmetry is, to me, what makes the film—and the discussion around African versus African American identity—so interesting and timely. If Roots was about African Americans discovering their African origins, then Black Panther is really just as much about Africans learning about black America as it is about African Americans (and diaspora Africans) learning about Africa.
In a sense, the two-way street that is the discovery and learning process is really the main reason I created TRUE Africa, and launched it in 2015 as a media platform for both people living in Africa and non-Africans who happen to be interested in modern African cultures. I often get told (by advertisers and readers) that it’s impossible to target both Africa and the African diaspora, but on the commercial level the success of Black Panther—whose global ticket sales totaled an estimated $387 million by Monday, according to comScore—validates some of our journalistic efforts, in the way that it validates Alex Haley’s quest, which started way back in the 1970s.
The conversation around the cultural meaning of Black Panther is sure to continue for some time, but as we all keep gushing over the significance of this one film, while agreeing to contribute to the #BlackPantherChallenge on GoFundMe so that underprivileged students can get to see the film, I have been enjoying nearly all the transcultural memes and social media alter egos. One Facebook post I found particularly fully and relevant was French Congolese comedian Jaymaxvi’s video interview with Chadwick Bosman and Michael B. Jordan. I know that people in Kinshasa must be loving that interview, too, because these African American actors’ pronunciation of Lingala words is just so endearing. There’s nothing naïve about that. #WakandaForever
La famille J'ai eu la chance de rencontrer le casting de Black Panther ! Vous me croyez si je vous dit que j'ai réussi à faire parler en lingala Chadwick Bosman & Michael B Jordan ! Le film est Incroyable je vous le conseil !#BlackPanther #wakandaforever #disneyfr #ChadwinBoseman #MichaelBJordanInstagram : jaymaxvi
Posted by Jaymaxvi on Wednesday, February 14, 2018