Travel as a Radical Tool Against the Americanisation of Blackness
I’ve experienced various consciousness-shifting, vibe-reorienting, persona-contorting things since the start of 2022. For instance, I recently grabbed coffee with a friend at Close-Up − a small cinema space in Shoreditch − over which we opined about Blackness and the zeitgeist around race relations.
As I left the space, it occurred to me that we had spent the majority of the last 2 hours discussing American culture in a tiny basement in East London, an area once viewed as one of London’s Black cultural meccas. Making a mental note to actively attempt to introduce topics around other forms of Blackness in whatever conversions I had moving forward, I said my goodbyes and headed home. But the thought lingered, eventually spreading like an incurable virus.
Video artist Nam June Paik says: “The culture that’s going to survive in the future is the culture that you can carry around in your head”. So what ideas around Blackness consume our collective consciousness? When you attempt to envision a Black person what are they wearing? How do they sound? What makes up their habitat? Who is the first Black historical figure that springs to mind?
When covid hit I witnessed a mass exodus of Millennial friends of mine from London, many moving to cities like Berlin, some to the countryside. Gen Zer’s however seemed to channel the angst that came with living through a world-altering event into forming new homes online. Discords, podcasts, subreddits and collective run meme pages popped up across the internet, enclaves dedicated to the exploration of transgressive ideas. One conversation I encountered across several of these destinations centred around the capitalisation of the letter B in Black. Many argued for the limitation of its use strictly to American people of African descent suggesting it served as a marker for their specific identity whilst others (myself included), in line with DuBois' argument from a 1926 letter for the capitalisation of N in Negro, suggested its use across the board. It’s been nearly a century since DuBois wrote his letter, culture has changed in several ways and something about this discourse felt indicative of the hierarchical structures around Blackness formed since then.
It can feel as though we exist in a hyper race-conscious society at times, but for the majority of my tenure on this planet, most of the media I have consumed has been American.
From literature to film to digital trends, American culture, specifically Black culture from America, has held a firm grip on my media diet. Furthermore, it’s held a grip on my education. I spent my formative years between Tanzania and the United Kingdom and the only times Blackness arose in class, the discussions centred around slavery or the civil rights movement. The history of race in Northern America is an important one of course which deserves to be explored and understood as its repercussions are evident in contemporary life. However, beyond the popular depictions of poverty, beautiful rainforests or beaches, what do the majority of people in the West really know about the vast range of Black cultures across the world?
Around 51% of Brazilians are of African descent. There are an estimated 1500 to 2000 languages spoken in Africa, the Blackest continent, each tied to unique groups of people with vast histories, most of which the majority of us know little of. From speaking to an intergenerational mix of Black people in my immediate circle and the various digital spheres I inhabit, this ignorance of other forms of Blackness (their own included) appears to be a universal experience. In one of such conversations with a friend's 65-year-old uncle about the practices of the Haya people of Northern Tanzania I was told: “I only experienced these traditions as a young boy and cannot really offer explanations for them, in fact, many of them no longer exist.”
So who is carrying these cultures in their heads, who is attempting to breathe life into these dying practices?
A question raised not in an attempt to undermine the agency of the people living in these areas, but rather as a call to push back against the erosion of indigenous cultures occurring internationally due to our current form of globalisation that favours Western culture. The question of why American culture, even when tied to marginalised groups from the region, dominates the global stage is complex, but when boiled down to its core is directly linked to the propaganda machine upheld by the US of A to further American hegemony through cultural influence.
As a dilettante voyager, travel came to mind as a possible tool against this Americanisation of Blackness. Going to these locations, interacting with the people, soaking up the culture and keeping it alive through the stories we tell or practices we embody. Nothing stimulates the mind quite like an experience. However, fragmented pictures of cultures garnered from short visits to places do little to help combat ignorance unless undertaken with vigour and deep awareness. To truly broaden one's horizons through the act of physical travel requires a degree of dedication, time and financial freedom many of us aren’t afforded under our current capitalist regimes.
In spite of the mind fog brought on by this line of questioning, I attended a screening program of experimental moving image films by contemporary Black artists from across the diaspora at Cubitt Gallery titled Reel: Axis Not Poles. A selection of 12 short films played on loop. Some centred around Blackness in America or the slave trade, but many broke from the confines of this discourse exploring Blackness in Europe, West Asia and Africa. One of these was, Kondo Heller’s MU/T/T/ER, a carefully stitched together amalgamation of image and sound, an exploration of language which syphoned many of the ideas bouncing around my head into a singular cohesive digital artefact.
MU/T/T/ER led me to another form of travel, one made available by means of simulacra − Jean Baudrillard's term for the replacement of reality with its representations −, the digital realm.
As people drift further away from the real into this digital sphere, the depictions of Blackness we are exposed to here will play an increasingly important role in shaping how Blackness exists as a concept in our minds.
The flick of a finger or tap of a button now allows you to travel through space and time from the comfort of your bed. A blue screen lights up in your palm and you’re teleported to 19th century Kenya by means of Wer Jokenya, a space curated by Wairimu Nduba celebrating the nuanced history of Kenyan music, or Sunu Journal a Pan-African repository of archival and contemporary material. Carefully curated digital experiments such as @listening2images present rolodexes of Black artistic expression from across the world, asking questions around new ways to engage or interpret these depictions of Blackness. Here at Trippin, a global database of cultures is slowly being built in collaboration with locals. A new ‘Library of Alexandria’ is forming, one resistant to the throes of fire, one that can be explored regardless of weather or physical location.
Maybe, the jolts and shifts I’m experiencing are a side effect of spending the last 2 years in front of a screen, then suddenly regaining the ability to interact with people and art again. But regardless of their genesis, I feel different. After the exhibition at Cubitt, I walked to see a group of musician friends perform at a bar in Dalston, thinking of Heller’s film along the way. Sitting in front of that projection in what appeared to be a converted warehouse all the thoughts that arose after my conversation at Close-Up churned inside me. In MU/T/T/ER we hear many languages, simultaneously layered over one another, a transnational symphony of dialects seeping in through the cracks in the walls, a depiction of the scattered states many of us in the diaspora inhabit. One of these languages was Swahili the national language of Heller’s home country of Kenya and of my childhood home of Tanzania. At times this Swahili is muzzled, soft and distant, at others loud and domineering. Walking, I realised I had internalised the fluctuations in the sound of Heller’s mother tongue as the calling we hear within ourselves as members of the diaspora. The gentle whispers or loud pleas of our ancestors to be pulled from oblivion, their practices and traditions carried forward, to live on through us.