Sunday, February 15, 2015

On being black and rediscovering that you're also European

(A trailer for the short film, Ackee and Saltfish, directed by Cecile Emeke)

So here's the deal. When I first meet someone new in the United States, I avoid telling them anything about my life for as long as I can. I answer the dreaded "where are you from?" question by saying, "my family lives in Atlanta, Georgia." Notice: I didn't actually answer the question. I simply stated a fact. My parents do currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia. Are they from there? No. Heck, no. But I throw the line out there hoping it'll distract them long enough for me to change the topic.

I learned this trick when I moved here at age 15. It was simply too much for people to process my identity as a black girl who'd spent her entire life in Vienna, Austria, I think. They'd want to deny it or downplay it, or they'd think I was a freak of some kind. Worse, they'd want to talk out their feelings about this strange fact that they'd learned. My being black and European is still a contradiction to many Americans. So in order to avoid being someone else's therapist for 15 minutes as they processed their feelings about me ("Why?" "How?") I learned to tell a different story to fit into people's boxes.

I still get into trouble, though. People tell me that I talk white. I was once asked by a well-meaning hairdresser if I was adopted. After hearing me ask for help at a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, the receptionist asked me suspiciously where I was from (I told her I was from New York, and that seemed to help).  Moreover, what I know about African American culture has been intentionally learned over the past 15 years. I have pockets of knowledge here or there but I also have HUGE gaps. I've learned to love Erykah Badu but that's after intentionally listening to her albums on repeat until I figured out what the hell was going on. I still haven't read any Toni Morrison. I don't know classic African American tv shows. But I've learned to "blend" in well enough, I suppose. To fit the label people want me to have.

What also doesn't help matters is that when I'm in Germany or Austria, I also get the question, "where are you from?" And that in order for people to make sense of my identity in Europe, I have to tell them I'm from America. It's easier, less exhausting, to say that I'm American than to tell Germans that I consider German-speaking Europe also my Heimat (homeland). My blackness can't make me European here, either. It has to be located someplace else. So I say (in German) that I'm African American like Barack Obama, and that helps people to put me in a box.

Here, too, I get into trouble, though. Why is my German so good? A lady at a Viennese bakery asked me that question a few years ago. If I was an American student, why did I speak the language so well? I had to confess that I'd lived in Vienna for a little bit in the past. But only for a few years. I downplayed how long I'd lived in Vienna before.

I've lived on both continents now (Europe and the United States) for 15 years each. And for the past 15 years of my life, I've been trying to find ways to erase my European identity. Which is all kinds of crazy because my research is on the history of the black diaspora to Europe. But in order to avoid feeling schizophrenic all the time, I've focused on expressing and performing mostly one identity (American/African American).

Over the years, I think I've lost touch with this other half of my self. I deliberately abandoned her when I moved to the States, tried to lock her up in a small crate and let her out only when I was in Berlin or Vienna walking around on the streets. Why did I do that?

I have a few theories:
1. Language. I have such a complicated relationship to the German language. It will never be my mother tongue. I sound like I should be a native but I still stumble over words, especially when I'm nervous. And this makes me insecure. So it's hard to claim an identity in a language that I speak instinctively but worry that I'm getting wrong all the time. I grew up speaking English at home and at school and German while out and about. Psychologists and linguists will tell you that language learning is a fascinating non-linear process, and I think I'm proof of that. Also, I'm hearing-impaired, and that tends to make language learning more difficult, too (I didn't get hearing aids until I moved to the States). So my relationship to German is weird: I sound like a teeny-bopper and can speak quickly, but I worry all the time that I've gotten something wrong.

2. Representation. Growing up, I didn't know the term "Afro-German," or that there was a long history of people who looked like me in Europe. I discovered them in graduate school, thanks in part to a generation of Afro-European activists who had started demanding societal recognition as citizens and insiders. They laid the groundwork for public discussions on these topics starting in the 1980s, when I was a toddler eating Käsesemmel in Vienna.

When I finally began to positively embrace my blackness (which took a while; it wasn't until my mid-to-late 20s), I turned to African American women (Marian Anderson, the Williams sisters, and yes, Beyonce) to think about what my blackness meant.

But I've been learning lately that I don't have to do that anymore. Or rather that I can also find representations of Afro-European women that really do celebrate them (and me!). I don't have to ignore my European self anymore.

I've been thinking about that lately because of the film director, Cecile Emeke, who's been filming Black Britons strolling about the streets of London for a short series:
She wants to capture real people living their lives in Europe sharing their experiences. Some of these girls look like they could be my cousins (literally: my maternal side is Jamaican/British)!

In an article she wrote for Afropunk, Emeke explains, "Not only did I want to document these conversations, but also I was also tired of being invisible & powerless as a black, working class female living in Europe. When you are black in Britain, or in Sweden, or in any other “obscure” place in the African Diaspora (and by obscure I mean deliberately erased,) it feels like you don’t exist and therefore society encourages you latch on to whatever representation feels like the closest match. Not having your own cohesive identity is damaging. I wanted to be a part of ending that by increasing the visibility and volume of voices that are usually ignored and silenced in their respective societies. I also wanted to help “internationalise” these problems that many of us seem to have in common despite living on opposite sides of the word. "

I just love that quote. I don't have to latch on to whatever representation feels like the closest match. I can look for people who look like me who've experienced life like me - life as a black person, as a European, as an outsider/insider, who live that double consciousness that Paul Gilroy talked about every day.

Thanks to the marvelous age of the internet, it's also become easier to follow blogs and magazines and sites dedicated to celebrating being black and European. There's a brand new magazine in Austria called Black Austria, for example (I wish this had been around when I was a kid!):
There are also campaigns from organizations like Black Austria, too: 
Organizations and websites like ISD (Initiativ Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland), Afropean, M-Media, DeutschPlus, and so on are also celebrating black bodies in European spaces.

It's funny because I've known all of this for a long time. Again: I've dedicated the last 8 years of my life to researching Afro-Europeans! But for the longest time I resisted thinking that I was one of them, too. It was easier that way.

Now that I'm in my 30s, though, I really am learning to give less of a shit what people think. It's so freeing! And thanks to so many other black European activists encouraging and empowering others to celebrate their lives (in spite of the rejection they constantly face from society), I feel like it's time for me to just throw caution to the wind and start claiming this part of myself more fully and publicly, too. I can tell people, in other words, that I have Jamaican/British/Canadian/American/Austrian/German ties and connections. No, that is not too many. That is just enough. 

I don't have to hide. I don't have to explain myself to anyone. I can just... be.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Lyon in Winter

When I first started watching Fox's breakout hit Empire, I will admit that I was mostly watching from the standpoint that this show was probably going to be bad, but in a good way (and I would argue that my delayed-live-tweeting of the pilot was an indication of my basic mindset. But I stand behind everything I said regarding Cookie's various hairstyles. I could probably write an entire blog post solely about Cookie's mid-90s Philly Blond Wig from tonight's episode). I did find the show intriguing enough to keep at it, and while I have not had the chance to watch it 'live,' I have been doing my best to stay current. I had heard rumors flying around that the most recent episode was particularly noteworthy and let me just echo that sentiment with a resounding 'YAAAAAAAAAAAAAS.' Because Empire kicked it up a notch this week to almost Kimberly-blew-up-the-apartment-Melrose-level crazy--stated with all due respect--and has proven itself to be a worthy heir of its primetime soap ancestors.

Let me start by taking a moment to acknowledge the direction of John Singleton for this episode (yes, that John Singleton who made Boyz N the Hood) and who, I think, really got what primetime soaps are supposed to be all about. This is over-the-top crazy ridiculous nonsense, in the most compelling and amazing way. Not to mention that there is no taking your foot off the gas in this episode, which is precisely what this genre requires. The dramatic moments are stacked one on top of the other, so that if you had to briefly summarize what happened, you would just basically give up (in this way, primetime soaps are similar to many French and Italian 19th-C operas, where event after event occurs, leading to the denouement. So the opposite of Wagner). And while previous episodes had moments bordering on such sublime improbability, this week succeeded to an unprecedented degree. Don't get me wrong. Past episodes foreshadowed that this show had what it takes to make it. My all-time favorite line was from last week, when Cookie casually dropped the fact that the Nation of Islam killed Lucious' father (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? And no, there has been absolutely no follow-up. None. Nada. I cannot wait).

Other things that Empire has given us: Countless animal prints. A replica Elizabeth Taylor engagement ring. Board meetings with basketballs (yes, 'meetings' was plural there on purpose). What is possibly a rendering of Napoleon (someone on a horse?) on Hakeem's wall. Cookie preparing to go to war by taking out a gun, a wad of cash, and then pausing to don a fierce hat. Naomi Campbell as Hakeem's quite-a-lot older 'side piece.' A piano in virtually every room. Judd Nelson as exploitative villain. A club named Leviticus. Let me repeat that one, because it bears repeating: a club named Leviticus.

Where Empire differs from its forebearers, though, is in its ability to tie together various strands of cultural products, much in the same way that hip hop does. While there is no 'mixing' per se, the uncanny way that Empire draws on a variety of influences by presenting them both simultaneously and in juxtaposition is extraordinary. We see the glamor and violence of hip hop: artists perform on stage, then get in gunfights backstage. We see the underclass of Philly and the conspicuous consumption of New York's 1% (in this week's episode, Cookie's younger sister stated, 'Your kids aren't real, they're rich,' referring to the fact that she was far more concerned about saving her family from drug lords than Cookie could ever need to be. In the same episode, one of Cookie's kids walked around a hip hop video set downing champagne at will). Lucious' father was killed by the Nation, while his finacé was a debutant. Even the music is starting to feature a rift between the radio-ready, Drake-ish offerings of Hakeem ('Drip Drop') and the RnB arabesques of Jamal, inspired by the fact that he lives in the one neighborhood in Brooklyn wholly unaffected by gentrification. Oh, and did I forget to mention the Rihanna-esque character Tiana, this week revealed to be a lesbian? Within the first five minutes of this week's episode? So basically as a subplot?

[Ed. note: I need to point out that 'Kid Fo-Fo,' from previous episodes, is pretty much my favorite fake rapper name ever]

This show has been touted as a combination of Shakespeare's King Lear and the classic 1968 film The Lion in Winter (...and the family name is Lyon, get it?). At first, I thought that these comparisons were facile--all of these share the common theme of three kids, all fighting over an empire. But the more we learn about these characters, the more complicated these relationships become. The Lion in Winter also highlighted the flaws and contradictions in all of its characters--it's almost like a moviefied primetime soap in this respect:

I'm not sure how FOX managed to find a mid-season show that could evoke all of these varied and different responses in only five episodes, all in this modern setting of a hip hop label. There has been some talk that this version of hip hop feels slightly outdated, but I don't think that this is necessarily a criticism; certainly the show makes use of modern media and feels present to me. Like any empire, I'm sure that this one will eventually be toppled by something bigger and better, but until then, look upon this work, ye mighty, and do not despair. The primetime soap is back and it may be better than ever.