Browse Category: Media

In Honor of Nina Simone: Why Black Women Must Re-Frame the Conversation about Racism in Hollywood

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the internet’s sensationalized debate over Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone in a Hollywood biopic: How the Light- vs. Dark- Skinned Debate Misses the Point about Black Women in Media.

In summary, my post called for marginalized communities–especially, in this instance, black women– to be more aware of the way the mechanism of racism and colorism in Hollywood too often keeps us sensationalizing debates about Hollywood’s perception of our beauty (and even, as in this case, pits us against each other), rather than embracing the opportunity for us to affirm our collective power as both media producers and consumers.

For me, this debate was yet another moment in the cycle of abuse between the black community and the gatekeepers that control white media; the fact that Zoe Saldaña, another woman of color was getting a lot of backlash (via comments that suggested she was hijacking a role meant for black women, dismissing her self-identification as a Black Latina, not to mention personal attacks against her character etc), was discouraging, to say the least.

It’s one thing to criticize the white supremacist media machine that is Hollywood; it’s another thing entirely for us to let that criticism distract us from seeing how that machine is designed to keep us fighting each other over scraps (e.g. debating over who gets the few lead roles written for women of color) more often than we brainstorm how we can work together to grow and harvest enough seeds to keep nourishing us all.

As long as we keep Hollywood and mainstream media at the focal point of our discussions (and criticisms) around media representation, we will remain stuck in a very unproductive cycle.

Same Ole’ Mainstream Media vs. Nuanced Alternative Media

Case in Point: The New York Times published a story this week, summarizing the debate around Zoe Saldaña’s casting for the lead role of Nina Simone. (Please note: My comments are based on the article published online, and not what made it into print, as I’m currently in South Africa).

Despite being interviewed by the reporter, and sharing my thoughts about the importance of black communities recognizing the ways in which alternative media–and initiatives to produce more black-owed and -directed content–could lead to  better representation in the future, the article didn’t do much at all to move the conversation forward. In fact, it maintained the status quo.

The NYT article‘s framing of the issue was barely nuanced. In a nutshell, here’s how it went: black people are angry because Zoe Saldaña doesn’t look like Nina Simone, here are other examples of black people protesting the casting of light-skinned actresses, Hollywood is racist and will always prioritize profit, oh well.

Panelist, Salamishah Tillet
Source: Wikipedia

Conversely, Huffington Post Live was able to expand the conversation beyond the sensationalized polarity because black women actually led the conversation.

The segment, titled “50 Shades of Black,” featured an impressive panel of five black women commentators, including Ann Daramola, Michaela Angela Davis, Salamisha TilletTiffani Jones, and Gayla Burks.

Further, this lively panel was facilitated by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an academic, activist, journalist, and television personality (i.e. the male version of my idol Melissa Hill Perry). Hence, the collective response to the messy biopic debate was way more nuanced, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Marc Lamont Hill, Huffington Post Live Host

In this case, black women’s voices didn’t just play a supporting role; the panelists had more control over the conversation, the media through which they were sharing  their perspectives, and thus, the outcome.

Even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way the conversation was framed (or even the way it ended), the segment, for me, proved that the more ownership we take of media, the better we have of ensuring that our stories and perspectives are authentic, complex, and representative of the plethora of issues we care about.

Black Women Must Re-frame (Then Lead) the Conversation

In the NYT piece, Cynthia Mort, the director, of the biopic is quoted as dismissing the historical implications of her casting choice by stating, “It’s a Biopic, not a Documentary,” and thus, a creative take on Nina Simone’s life. Her response offers more proof (as if we needed any at this point) of how rampant white privilege is in Hollywood; that a white director gets to use an African-American socio-political icon as formidable and celebrated as Nina Simone as creative fodder with no consequence should be scaring folks into finally moving beyond these cyclical conversations that aren’t getting us anywhere.

So, for instance, instead of a segment titled “Why Does Hollywood Light-Wash Blacks?” (’cause, seriously, we already know the answer to that), how about we as media professionals and activists get into the habit of tackling more action-elicit questions e.g. “How Can Black People Combat White-Washing of Our Images in the Media?”, especially when we have five brilliant black women social commentators on standby? Just a thought.

Cynthia Mort, Nina Simone Biopic Director
Source: NYDailyNews

When I was interviewed by the reporter for NYT, she revealed that she’d spoken to a high end stakeholder in the biopic, who said, and I quote, “Listen, Zoe is hot right now,” as justification for the casting decision.

Need I elaborate? This is — and always will be — about money. This movie will be made, online petition or not. Per my rant on Tumblr,  Hollywood will not suddenly wake up one day and prioritize our authentic histories over their capitalist projects. The situation is not going to change. So, we need to change our strategy. Thankfully, there are others in the media sphere calling for this as well.

Yaba Blay, Africana Studies teacher, scholar, and consultant to CNN Black in America recently commented:

… although I think casting Zoe is a bad move (and disrespectful to Nina’s image and estate), I also think we have to hold “us-folk” accountable. Why haven’t any Black filmmakers made a film about Nina yet? Doesn’t the late, great High Priestess of Soul deserve more than one movie? Or is it only now that a White filmmaker is doing her own thing with Nina’s image that we recognize/remember her legacy? Rather than (or in addition to) complaining, we need to be creating.

Similarly, amidst the familiar stagnant critiques of racism and colorism in Hollywood that were saturating the Huffington Post Live segment, Ann Daramola , stated repeatedly, “Why are we surprised? Why should we continue to expect that Hollywood will tell our stories for us?”

In her post, Zoe Saldaña as Nina Simone is a Reminder to Keep Telling Your Story, Ann offers more than just a fluffy call to action, but calls for strategic investment in black media infrastructure that will give us more autonomy over the creation, curation, and distribution of our stories.

we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them.  We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers.

To Ann’s point, if we can accept that we are actually not surprised, and we know that Hollywood won’t change, I think we’d naturally focus more of our efforts on highlighting and supporting solutions, of which there actually are many.

We Need More Than Black Media Producers; We Need Black Media Consumers, Too

Source: Madame Noire

During the Huffington Post Live segment, Michaela Angela Davis highlighted a few of these solutions: AFFRM, an African-American film distribution company dedicated to diverse cinematic images; Image Nation, a film production company nurturing a strong local film industry in the United Arab Emirates; Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry (and the 3rd largest in the world), which produces and distributes films made with very small budgets.

Still, what good are black-owned film production initiatives if we as a community don’t call for more strategic consumption and critique of the media produced by them? What value are we assigning these solutions in the media if we ourselves reduce them to being one-off mentions, tangents in the larger conversation about racism and colorism in Hollywood?

Source: Wikipedia

In a 25 minute segment, a total of about 3 minutes (yes I timed it) was dedicated to highlighting solutions already in place, before getting right back to criticizing Hollywood.

It isn’t enough to simply mention that there are minority film professionals already contributing to part of the solution (i.e. by creating more media). We need more discussions around their work’s value and potential to subvert the power structure in the film industry.

I don’t doubt for one second that criticism of Hollywood plays an important role in keeping Hollywood accountable. I just question how often that phrase (“keeping Hollywood accountable”) keeps our voices restricted to being reactive, when we are way more powerful when we use our voices in service of others; young black women, for instance, who need to know that there is hope for them to have flourishing careers in film and media; older black women who are tired and frustrated with Hollywood’s chronic appropriation and alteration of our histories.

We owe it to each other to more frequently use our voices to highlight our resistance, and use our collective power to increase support and visibility for the projects that will get us closer to the future we wish to see, because it is possible. Here’s how:

  • Black People Are Repeat Consumers of Blockbusters, Why Not Redirect the Dollars?: A quick scan of this study on black movie-goers from BET Networks shows that the black community has way more power than it’s using e.g. African-Americans go to the movies 13.4 times a year vs. 11 times for general market, they’re repeat movie-goers for films they like, and are heavy consumers of alternative media. However, in this same study, when listing the top films supported by black audiences, only 3 out of 19 films featured a prominent African-American character. What would happen if we changed that? What would happen if made it a priority to only support the films we want to see? Think on that.
  • Hollywood Taps into Their 1% and So Should We: When I published my call for more creation and support of black media, the most popular attack at the plausibility of profitable black media infrastructure was limit to capital. That is certainly an obstacle to contend with, but from the recent successes of the Tyler Perry franchise, Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man, and other projects, not one that’s insurmountable. There is a black middle class and elite in the entertainment industry, creating and leading their own projects, raising millions of dollars for Obama. Let’s not erase their accomplishments by continually perpetuating the idea that there is no capital for projects we’d like to see at all.

There are so many other avenues to explore when it comes to black alternative media, even if for the purpose of mainstreaming that media eventually. So why do the most vocal commentators on this issue keep reverting to the same old conversation i.e. the “problematicness” of Hollywood?

Michaela Angela Davis,
Image Activist and Consultant

As one of the panelists, Michaela Angela Davis noted, the colorism evident via this casting decision is very triggering for black women, who constantly have to defend their right to feel beautiful, appreciated, and respected. I imagine that’s part of the reason it’s been so challenging for us to break this cycle; our feelings regarding the media’s (mis)representation of our beauty and aesthetics have been either continually invalidated, or worse, ignored.

Still, we cannot let our pain keep us lingering outside of Hollywood’s gates, hoping for an apology, expecting retribution, or worse, throwing stones at the few of us who have managed to make it inside. We must embrace the idea that we can be gamechangers, that our collective power is formidable, that we can create media that’s better and more representative of who we are, for the sake of young black girls everywhere, for the sake of  Nina Simone herself. Time to change the game.

Gabby Douglas, Olympic Gold Winner, 16-Yr Old Role Model

Food for Thought: When the facilitator stated that he didn’t want his daughter growing up to think Nina Simone looked like Zoe Saldaña, it would have been incredible to have all those brilliant minds put their heads together and offer, from their various perspectives, ways in which we as community could ensure such a thing never happens.

Instead, via a vote about who each panelist would have liked to see play Nina Simone, the conversation ended with these black women on the bench as spectators of Hollywood’s game.

After such a lively conversation, I couldn’t think of anything more disempowering to end on a note that ultimately suggests to young black girls that Hollywood will always be upheld as the ultimate validation of their voices, their stories, their work. Can we please change this?

Here lies an opportunity for us to commit to handling the next conversation like this differently, to frame future conversations around racism, colorism, and media around solutions, which tap into our power as a community, and send the message to future generations that change is indeed possible

Even though we have very far to go, I believe this conversation was a solid start. Take a look. And let me know what you think.

 

“I Dare to Say” Book Review: A Lesson in Hope and Resilience from African Women

I first learned about “I Dare to Say”, a new anthology of African women sharing their stories of hope and survival, after I’d recently decided that, when it came to writing about Africa, I would only ever highlight stories of struggle alongside resistance.

Incidentally, I’d also just published a response to the Kony 2012 campaign about the need for more African women’s voices in the media. Needless to say, the publication of this anthology by FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women’s Writers Association, was timely.

When my copy arrived in the mail, I felt a sense of pride staring at the glossy cover, a sepia photo of two older African women dressed modestly in old garments. Something about the woman in the foreground felt familiar, wrinkles on her bare forearms, wearing the kind of smile that only follows after a really good laugh.

A month later, I realized it had been the memory of both my grandmothers that the image had invoked; they too masked a lifetime of pain and perseverance behind bright white smiles in the sepia photos of my family’s history, their stories held captive within fading images of moments when they temporarily forgot their burdens.

I had once felt I could never know what my grandmothers (and even my own mother) suffered at the hands of poverty, the unforgiving hand of patriarchal traditions, and Nigeria’s bloody civil war. I’d for a very long time resented my mother for her matter-of-fact way of moving through life, never stopping long enough to share the details with an eager first daughter who yearned for a deeper connection with the women in her family; I spent my childhood yearning for stories that lived beyond the slew of parental commands that came infused with generations of gendered duty.

My mother was the kind of woman that would casually toss harsh truths at you from the other end of the dinner table, right before asking you to pass the salt. “I Dare to Say” captures the reality of that kind of resilience – the kind that has learned to live in the next second, the next minute, the next day, never having had the luxury of sitting on a rock for timed introspection; the kind that’s learned to convert detachment into the instinct to keep breathing despite the suffocating feeling of hopelessness.

Reading the book itself was a lesson in perseverance; the longer I paused between stories, the harder it was to bring myself to brave the next one. So, onward I would press on, carrying all the pain, anger, frustration, and chest-heavy burden from being triggered by these women’s experiences, reliving their trauma with them.

Through tears and turning pages, I would question everything I believed: whether I was truly grateful for the life I was currently living or gorging my ego with self-pity, whether or not the work I was currently doing as an activist was meaningful, given how few of these women it touched. I would feel myself shutting down, wanting to close my heart to further pain by closing the book, and in essence, silencing these women’s voices.

But when African women facing overwhelming hardship and circumstances, re-live their trauma to share their journey with us, in order to engage us, educate us, even heal us, we owe them more than a few brief moments of empathy; we owe them our undivided attention, our gratitude, and our commitment to holding on to the voices and their stories as though lives depend on it; because they absolutely do.

“I Dare to Say” not only reveals to the reader, the unrelenting burden of resilience that comes with living in some of the most impoverished areas and under the most debilitating circumstances in Africa, but its first-hand accounts by Ugandan women offer poignant insight into some of the most prominent issues facing women all over the world today.

Here are a few reasons why this groundbreaking collection should be gifted, purchased, and read by every women’s and gender studies department, every single African feminist, every human rights activist, every father, brother, and uncle, everywhere:

1) Concise, Clear Focus on Concrete Set of Issues: Rather than attempt to cram the myriad of issues facing African women into a dense and overwhelming product, this anthology focuses on the ones tied to culture and tradition, and thus are often stigmatized, making their exploration more powerful. The editors organized the collection into four distinct sections:

  • Tears of Hope: Surviving Domestic Abuse
  • Farming Ashes: Tales of Agony and Resilience (Post-Conflict)
  • I Dare to Say: Facing HIV/AIDS
  • Beyond the Dance: The Torture and Trauma of Female Gential Mutilation.

2) Stories Remain Powerful When Read in Order or At Random: I read the stories in order, from start to finish. I must confess, however, that even though I initially believed the sections would prepare me for what was to come, each story felt like a different emotional expedition, raw and unexpected. So, I’m not sure how different the experience would be for a reader who opted instead to select stories at random. Nonetheless, the modular way in which the narratives were presented, certainly made the context around some of the issues a lot easier to learn and digest.

3) Ethical Curation: This Anthology Honors the Storyteller, Not Just the Story: Each story pays homage to Africa’s long tradition of oral storytelling, by acknowledging the power in both the listener and the person doing the storytelling. In every chapter, the moments leading up to the initial meeting between the writer and the subject are described in first-person and italicized. The interviewer literally holds our hands as they travel on overcrowded buses, walk through villages, and get their subjects to start speaking. When this happens, the narrative voice of the African woman, jolts you into the main story; its rough edges and insights feel raw and uncensored  in verbatim, and you can ‘hear’ her, and experience her story as you would if you were right there with her in the room.

Every so often, I meet a book that opens up itself to me in a way that, in turn, encourages me  to be more open with the world about who I am. “I Dare to Say” is one of those books; after reading it, I am forever changed. I feel stronger and prouder than ever to carry the weight of these inspiring women’s stories on my back; their bravery has encouraged me to keep telling my own story, keep fighting for a future in which all our voices are heard, and live from the same place of hope and resilience as the women who have walked this path before me.

The London Feminist Film Festival Seeks Submissions from African Women Filmmakers

Dear Readers,

I was contacted by the London Feminist Film Festival committee to help share some very exciting news. Not only are they receiving great film submissions from all over the world (from as far as Sudan and Burkina Faso!), but they seem very committed to making sure African women and the Diaspora are represented in the festival’s programming, including the films themselves and post-screening panel discussions.

If you’re an African woman filmmaker (or know of any) who identifies as a feminist or has produced a film exploring feminist themes, please submit! The deadline for submissions is August 31st, so you still have time to prepare your reel.

I may actually submit something myself; I’ve been in a feminist erotica filmmaking mood of late. On a more serious note, I’ve been casually collecting footage of African women having conversations (or proclamations) about feminism for the past few months via my Africans for Africa project. The London Feminist Film Festival (LFFF) committee is interested in seeing it, so perhaps their impending deadline will serve as enough motivation for me to edit the first round of footage so that I can send them a short on African feminism. We shall see.

Meanwhile, here are some quick-hit submission criteria:

  • Women directors can be from any country
  • Films should deal with feminist issues and/or be feminist in their representation of women
  • Films can be of any length or genre, and from any year
  • Non-English language films must be presented in English-subtitled versions

NOTE: Submissions by mail will still be accepted as long as they are post-marked on or before that day. Read the full call for submissions here.

More info about the inaugural London Feminist Film Festival below:

The London Feminist Film Festival was set up as a response to the underrepresentation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues and the fact that the representation of women on screen is often narrow and stereotypical. The festival aims to counterbalance the mainstream film industry’s narrow representation of women and its neglect of feminist issues by showing a season of feminist feature films, documentaries, and shorts made by women directors from around the world.

Festival Director, Anna Read, says “We want to celebrate women creatives whilst ensuring that this feminist ethos also extends to the films we show. The festival will be a celebration of feminist films past and present. Our aim is to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience”.

The festival’s first matron, writer, critic, and broadcaster Bidisha, released shared in support,“In a year when the Cannes film festival had no women in its official selection, when less than 10% of industry directors, writers, cinematographers, and leading characters are women, the London Feminist Film Festival is here to challenge, change, inspire, redress, entertain, and satisfy. I support it wholeheartedly as a women’s advocate and also as someone who has always loved film and sat in countless screenings watching the action and the credits and thinking, where the hell are the women? Well, here they are.”

Read / download their Full Press Release.

Incidentally, the LFFF has confirmed Jacqueline Williams, author of Out of the Shadows: Black Women in Film 1900-1959, a book which explores the contribution black women have made to movie making in the first half of the twentieth century. They are still confirming more speakers which they hope to represent a wide spectrum of feminist perspectives on film and the industry.

As with many feminist spaces, the emphasis on “women” almost always tends to universalize the experiences of the dominant group (e.g. straight women, white women, theorists/academics with class privilege and a macbook, etc.) so that over time the space becomes monolithic and unwelcoming to minorities. The organizers are aware of this and are working quite hard to get the call out to as many communities as possible.

I deeply appreciate LFFF’s effort to ensure diverse voices are represented in every aspect of the festival, including their decision to do outreach so that they can mainstream films from minorities (vs. create a separate track for them). Hence, I would love to see ALL kinds of submissions make it into their submissions pool, not just for the sake of sustaining their enthusiasm about working diligently towards diversity (however important), but so that the voices of African women and the Diaspora (including LGBTI people) will be heard in this very important forum.

So! If you’re an African woman who either identifies as feminist or would like to submit a film/short that explores feminist themes, read the full criteria, then submit!

If you have any questions about submissions, feel free to get in touch with LFF directly via info@londonfeministfilmfestival.com. Feel free to join the LFFF Facebook Group and/or Like their Facebook Page. You can also follow the LFFF on Twitter @ldnfemfilmfest for more information and updates.

Zoe Saldana to Star in Nina Simone Biopic: How the Dark vs. Light Skin Debate Misses the Point about Black Women and the Media

In case you missed it, Hollywood is gearing up to release a biopic of Nina Simone, an African-American singer, pianist, and civil rights activists whose music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the US.

I myself was only introduced to Nina Simone via a remake of her song, “Feeling Good.” I remember jamming to it in my dorm room when a friend of mine remarked that it was no where near being as good as the original. I promptly searched for the original on YouTube and was blown away by the command of her voice.

Further searches led me to “Strange Fruit“, a song (based on a famous poem written by Abel Meeropol) she performed about lynchings in the south, along with a slew of other noteworthy appearances that punctuated her career path as a Black woman singer-turned-political figure.

A biopic about Nina Simone will undoubtedly strike a chord with the African-American community. But given the recent controversy surrounding the project’s casting choices (i.e. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress as the lead), it’s not likely to be perceived as the “right” chord.

But when is it ever?

In a recent update on Facebook, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, shared her thoughts about the new film project. Here are, for me, the most important aspects of her comment:

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

You can read the rest of her comments here. In a nutshell, here are my two cents…. 

I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source.

I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.

And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of mis-representation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.

This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly-simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.

The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable. 

Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences — that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone) there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman to “sit this one out.”

When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?

Whenever I pose this question, the conversation is almost always derailed by arguments that advocate about “allies” i.e. whether or not they have the right to be the owners and producers of our stories based on the fact that they have “skill”. Take for instance arguments that suggest the writer-director of the project, Cynthia Mort, doesn’t necessarily deserve the right to lead such a critical project with just chops from writing for shows such as Roseanne and Will and Grace. Or that Zoe Saldana is a brilliant actress regardless of her skin tone, and so will undoubtedly do a great job in her lead role as Nina Simone (and that therefore, black women shouldn’t be angry?).

But when we frequently prioritize debates about “industry expertise” vs. “authenticity/stakeholdership of the storyteller” we completely miss the point: our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character, or even the accuracy of one story, but about the (dis)empowerment of the storyteller i.e. who writes and owns the f**king book.

Afrolicious, one of my favorite black woman media advocates says in her most recent blog post:

… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them. We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers. But most of all we need to keep telling our stories.

I couldn’t have said it better. Now, back to writing and documenting my work training and coaching African women and LGBTI groups in Southern Africa to tell their own stories, so that they can become thought leaders, and change the world.

NOTE 1: Correction added. Strange Fruit was based on a poem written originally by Abel Meeropol, and performed by a number of singers, including Billie Holiday. Thanks, Sarah J. Jackson for the tip!

NOTE 2: Updated to include black-owned studios as additional point at which we can subvert white-dominated film industry i.e. ignore them and create our own.

What Does an African Feminist Look Like? Ms. Magazine Features African Feminist Bloggers

I was recently interviewed by writer, feminist, and #africansforafrica ally, , for her Femisphere series on the reknowned Ms. Magazine.

The Femisphere is “a blog series of the many diverse corners of the feminist blogsphere,” and the latest installment featured three African feminists, Minna Salami (aka Afropolitan)Lesley Agams, and yours truly. Here’s the introduction to the series:

Despite centuries of cultural practice that has routinely silenced the voices of African women, one of the most vibrant and vocal online global feminist communities comes from Africa. The online writers from the African feminist movement are nuanced and complex as they share their stories, their lives, their struggles and their triumphs.

And here’s an excerpt from my interview:

My writing isn’t so much about the topics I write about as it is how I write about them. There are the usual suspects — women, gender, LGBT, and other identity issues — filtered through an international lens due to my Nigerian heritage and media advocacy and development work in Africa. But I also take the approach of highlighting solutions versus contributing to the constant re-articulation of problems I find over-saturates the feminist blogsphere.

I pride myself on thinking forward, and so I push myself to write from a place of hope and positivity. I believe that personal relationships — not just rhetoric — are the building blocks of progress, and that winning hearts — not just arguments — are what bring about real change. My afrofeminist principles are a roadmap for navigating the spaces between us as human beings, towards deeper, more empathic connections. My mantra is “Love is My Revolution”.

You can read my full interview here, during which I share my principles of Afrofeminism for the first time. Also, check out Minna and Lesley‘s interviews as well.

Diversity Is Important within the Context of Discussing Africans, Too

The series is titled “The Femisphere: African Feminist Bloggers”, but I think it’s important to note that all of the feminists included in this round are West African.

As I applauded the voices of my sisters, Lesley and Minna, I thought instantly of other African feminists I know, and wondered how they would feel about seeing a list of “African Feminists” occupied by mainly west Africans, and specifically Nigerians. Though African women’s voices are marginalized in western media, the fact still remains that Nigeria is one of the most economically advantaged countries in Africa, and its citizens, the most tech-savvy Africans on the web. Hence, we often dominate (or at least take up a lot of space on) Twitter lists, “Top __ lists”, and important media conversations about Africa.

Still, to expect that Ms. Magazine could capture all of this in a series featuring just three African bloggers is unrealistic. The short list certainly created obstacles to featuring a more diverse set of African feminist voices, but this is generally the case when we expect westerners to highlight our work; we’re either presented as special interest and thrown into the same bucket, or by way of tokenization, pitted against each other as we struggle for the few seats at the table, or in this case, slots in a blog series. (Must-Read: Ms Afropolitan’s piece on the problem with reductive Twitter lists).

I must add at this point, that Minna and Lesley inspire me daily, and that all three of us (including our Twitter #afrifem family) were absolutely thrilled and proud of this series. For this reason, I’m grateful to the writer for the work she put in researching this topic, seeking out writers/bloggers — including myself, and crafting questions that gave us enough room to talk about the complexity our work and present original viewpoints, versus react to reductive questions e.g. how is African feminism different from western feminism? Oy, if I had a penny for every time a white woman asked me to explain my experiences in relation to hers, I’d be rich.

Whose Responsibility Is It to Highlight African Feminism?

Too often, due to our voices being excluded in the media, our stories and perspectives are constantly re-presented, re-told, and/or reduced to incidental testimonies; due to the hegemony of western narratives, implicit in so many questions about Africa (and African feminists) is the fallacy that our stories come second, our perspectives are deduced from outside of the continent, and that our stories only exist to add context to other people’s conversations about us. So, over and over again, we’re asked to frame what we say about who we are around a western narratives; this is tiring, to say the least. Hence, the opportunity to share what I perceive as the nuances within my own framework, #afrofeminism, was (and is always) welcome.

Nonetheless, the responsibility lies on us as African women — and this is true for any group, LGBT, people of color, disabled etc — to create our own spaces, big enough to hold all our complex, nuanced perspectives. It is ultimately the responsibility of every African feminist to speak up, contribute to the conversation, create our own media spaces so that we don’t rely on westerners to portray African feminism authentically. As we continue to have conversations amongst ourselves, and define who we are, our stories and perspectives will carry more weight.

As Lesley Agams states so eloquently:

White feminism drowned out our voices with their privileged access to the media. I’ve heard their stories, I want to hear from my African sisters and not just the ones with Ph.D’s. Before the internet I mostly heard what white feminism and their black students had to say about me and about us. Now I can hear what my African sisters say about me and about us and compare our experiences, our priorities and our needs and articulate those when speaking to white feminisms. Maybe then when we speak in a loud voice together they will actually listen to us.

When people visit Ms. Magazine to read about “African Feminists” what will they walk away with? How are we unique? What experiences do we share? More importantly, given the short length of the list, what assumptions about African feminists are being perpetuated? Are we all Nigerian? Does it matter what country we’re from or where we’re living? (Yes, I think it does). What kind of language do we use? What spaces do we typically occupy?

What does an African Feminist look like? 


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