Here is an account of a black women's trip to Australia and Senegal and her quest to find out what it means to be black in these times.
This sista is of a lighter skin tone. Maybe for some her words may have not any qualifications. But it is info still.
What Does It Mean to Be Black in the 21st Century?
Reflections on Senegal and Australia
By Danille K. Taylor
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his father loved,
Spice grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
~"Heritage," Countee Cullen
In 2004 I had the opportunity to visit Australia and Senegal, both experiences made me reflect on what it means to be Black in the twenty first century especially if you are a Black woman. This has been a journey into history. The United States, Australia, and Africa are worlds apart connected by the kiss of mother Africa but also scarred by the legacy of a racialized world where imperialism, capitalism, sexism, genocide and slavery are still very apparent. This complex legacy impacted my experiences; I could not help but draw upon my understanding of the world in my attempt to make sense of what I saw. The visual can be seductive, enthralling, and humbling. We exist in a world that manipulates the visual to sell us things and to diminish who we think we are. What is Africa to me?
May 2004 – Australia, fourteen hours from Los Angeles, a day behind and a season reversed. Arriving in Sydney with my son to visit my daughter who was studying architecture at the University of Sydney the time and climate shift were anticipated. The city itself was beautiful well maintained with scenic views. Its European layout and feel belied how far away it was from England. Yet as I, through the miracle of email in correspondence with my daughter for the four preceding months, knew Blacks and Aboriginals were rare on the university campus.
In one of her first class sessions a teacher lauded the diversity of the university but as my daughter boldly pointed out she didn’t see any Africans, other African Americans or Aboriginals except her; diversity meant Asian. As we toured the campus I found a postcard addressing racism, there are racial issues on the campus but it was hard to discern what these were precisely because the card was designed to answer questions I did not know. The card seemed to address a perception of an Asian “invasion.”
Asians are very visible on the streets of Sydney. Invisible are the Aboriginals . . . who are called “blacks.” “Blacktown,” is a suburb of Sydney whose name has been retained our proud tour guide noted on our trip to the Blue Mountains. As he told it Aboriginals insisted on keeping the name despite the politically correct instincts of politicians.
I speculate that given how invisible Aboriginals are in Sydney their intentions are more complex than this. The Museum of Natural History had a very good exhibit that depicted the cultural and political history of Australia’s first people but trying to absorb the material was difficult. Terrorism – at the museum I endured the worst behaved group of preadolescent schoolboys I have ever seen in a museum, and if this is any indication of how these truths are received then nothing is being learned.
The whiteness of Sydney became disquieting. Where were the “blacks?” In Redfern, the “ghetto” had recently convulsed in protests over police brutality, a young boy was killed during a police pursuit and Redfern erupted. Sounded too familiar and sad.
It also became more and more apparent as I toured that the history of Australia was frighteningly similar to that of the United States. In 1788 England needed to empty its prisons and a world away became its dumping ground. By the time of Australia’s colonialization the ideologies of “black”/African inferiority and savage/bestiality were well entrenched in English culture so an indigenous group whose skin was indeed black were slaughtered like rabbits.
A sickening feeling settled in my gut with this realization and I knew the rest of the story. Where were the Blacks? Not cleaning the sparkling streets or hotel rooms, and if not here where did they fit into the economy of this world class city? I found the television to be another window into this culture. Sports everywhere, sports that are uniquely Australian where men of color could be heroes. It is amazing the worship of the physical yet fear of those who are physically different. The macho athleticism of a sports driven society combined with a frontier culture makes it possible for men of color to become heroes but the women are phantoms.
With this perspective we headed to the Red Heart, Uluru, and Alice Springs in the center of not merely this nation but continent. It looked and felt like the southwest, New Mexico or Arizona, vast stretches of land with few trees with a predominance of reds, browns, and yellows splashed against blue vistas.
Alice Springs is a quaint town with an artsy bohemian feel. And here were the “Blacks.” The housing of the Aboriginals looked like a Native American Indian reservation /ghettos that might exist outside Santa Fe. People milled around, it being Saturday and they were black in skin color - a full flat unabashed black. They had round fleshy faces, deep set eyes, long torsos, thin limbs, lots and lots of straight black hair, we had found the people!
But either from social custom or social history there was no eye contact, no recognition. But should there be? We visited a cultural center/shop talked a little moved down the street to a bookstore. My need to find something in print to help me decipher what I was experiencing was part of my own academic baggage. My daughter who had decided to do her senior architecture thesis at Howard University on an Aboriginal issue after all needed some books.
At a small bookstore the proprietor was an elderly white woman who pointed out the difference between the physiques of the current people and those seen in book. “They were much healthier in the past,” she said. “Look at their bodies their diets and lifestyles were better.” I was concerned and noted myself the emaciated calves of many of the women who otherwise had round torsos.
Protein deficiency? A possible explanation but for a people who traditionally walked extensive distances now they would not get very far on those legs. In the pedestrian mall we watched as we ate lunch two women with several children settle in the middle with their painted canvases. One woman called out loudly to whom it was never clear to me, but you could hear her. Soon a patty wagon appeared; she was loaded up and removed from themall.
No disturbing the tranquility for tourists shopping. My son and I went out and purchased canvases from the remaining woman who bargained through a child, her English being limited. We didn’t bargain hard giving her the price she asked for, we were comforted by the fact she would receive the money directly. As we walked around I believe I saw our boisterous lady outside the mall so hopefully she did not have to pay any bail but it was understood if you are too loud, more than a physical presence, then you will be removed.
Uluru, the Red Heart, is approximately in the center of the continent. It is a magnificent rock formation of red sandstone whose massive dimensions make it the “world’s largest monolith.” The Aboriginals won a major court decision and have reclaimed their land rights, but the caveat was access for tourists had to be maintained. We signed up for the Aboriginal tour because I had to get closer to the people. This was the break I needed to unlock the mysteries of down under and who were these people. Our guide Richard Kulitja, an Aboriginal, conducted the tour in his language.
The sound!!! Like nothing I had ever heard before it had a melodic quality like the didgeridoo. I was struck by the stories, the tales of the ancestors whose adventures created the very contours of the land around us. The stories were then abstracted into a visual language of color and symbols that are for sale everywhere – these canvases of riotous patterns now made sense to me.
I may not know all the symbols but there is a language, a symbolic language. And the guide noted that it is the women who create much of this artwork. Here is a voice of the Aboriginal woman. Perhaps it is fitting that my first purchase was from a sister that I didn’t understand. The second piece I bought was from a gallery and was created by a young man who was taught by his grandmother. The women who I thought were so invisible were here, they were visible everywhere but I didn’t perceive them.
Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, the last city of our visit. A beautiful town on the coast which reminded me a little of New Orleans in its lushness, water everywhere stories of crocodiles/alligators, and sugar cane.
My irritation with white Australians seeing Blacks act “white,” that is do what they do, was alleviated in Cairns. No more blue eyes caught in the headlights of wonder. There were “folk” all around. Folk integrated into the everyday economy and whites reflected this in their nonchalant interactions with me. It was no big deal to serve you, no smugness. Then I spied one, a sister, not an Aboriginal, she had to be a sister because she definitely looked more African.
Aboriginals look more like East Indians from the southern India (the debate of their racial origins aside for the moment) in the texture of their hair and skin color (which again can be very black but is not as luminous is the best way I can describe it as an African blackness). The people I saw looked African. This is a vast descriptor but they were browner, had more narrow heads and noses, and hair that could readily lock.
So why no eye contact, no sisterly recognition? Then I saw more people younger and older still no contact. Something else was happening but I didn’t know what. Walking around I came to a mall and chanced upon a kiosk, which featured products by “Brothers from the Bush.” I am not making this up. They were selling products, which were made by “Cape York Aboriginals” as part of a reconnecting youth to traditional knowledge to offset the effects of colonialism, social dislocation, and self-alienation. We discussed rap music –50 Cent, Tupac Shakur. Oh well.
But the young man made a comment about his “island roots” and I asked him to elaborate. Islanders are those from the nearby islands many of whom are obviously more African in appearance. As I further learned Islanders were enslaved and brought to this part of Australia to work on sugar plantations, my stomach sunk again. Many of them apparently intermarried with Aboriginals and as this young man illustrated identify with their shared historical and cultural legacies.
At Tjapukai Cultural Center a dose of militancy became apparent. The Center is sophisticated in the way visitors are exposed to indigenous culture and history. There are the cultural exhibits with young people explaining various plants and their uses, an Aboriginal dwelling, the ubiquitous didgeridoo, and boomerang throwing lessons. There she was, very self-assured and strong, with long fierce hair, straight back, muscled arms decorated in jewelry.
She silently communicated to me that though white men will sleep with women all over the globe (and to be fair not just white men) fathering children while demeaning and brutalizing their bloodlines the women of these babies were warriors. And like the center which had lured us into feeling comfortable with the Aboriginals the last exhibit was a movie which pulled no punches I was proud: take our money and show us the truth!
July 2004 – Senegal, Dakar, Goree Island. I was so excited about my first trip to the motherland, Africa. As part of the Mellon/UNCF Faculty development program I and four other faculty members from my university won coveted slots to participate in a seminar on “The Transatlantic Slave Trade.”
My research project on modes of cultural expression for African American women brought me to Senegal to hear traditional African women’s voices. Dakar was like being awash in deep dark rich velvety chocolate, it was a sensuous feast. The Senegalese are black, a deep black: a shiny black. They are tall and sinewy the women develop perfect posture from the traditional walking with cargo on their heads. The riot of colors and patterns, flowing robes and tight tops assaults you in this complex city of western, Islamic and African traditions.
The contrast of sky blue robes on black skin entranced me. Spiraling mosques and catholic cathedrals, winding streets and teeming markets there was so much to see. But everyone wants to sell you something. What most of the small vendors do not realize is that their brethren have flooded the fairs and festivals in America with handicrafts, fabrics, and jewelry therefore we sought the unusual. Thus we were hardened to the entreaties of sisterhood from the infamous African market women whose voices were loud and clear. “Tina Turner” was one street vendor on Goree who would appear at any moment night or day sometimes startling us as we walked around Goree, our home for ten days.
In Australia I sought kinship here in Africa “kinship” was too often predicated on a financial exchange. We were Americans, tourists and therefore “rich.” Nonetheless, it is demeaning to be viewed as an ATM, making one insensitive and cold, a machine, unable to fully empathize with suffering. The seminar made us face our emotional need to be connected to Africa. Most of the participants were products of the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights and black power glory days when the image of “Africa” was evoked and embedded in our psyches.
My own academic and intellectual journey as a scholar in Africana Studies has established for me an understanding that the roots of blackness are cultural not merely color. Yet color/race and its significance have been externally imposed on us through our contact with Europeans. “One three centuries removed . . . . What is Africa to me?” Slavery was an economic enterprise that benefited specific Africans and Europeans; traumatizing Africa and enriching Europe, leaving us on the other side of the ocean to fend for ourselves like orphans.
The tours around Dakar exposed us to a city whose traffic was chaotic, streets teaming with energy, and splendid architecture that had lost its gleam. The markets are a focal point. We visited the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, which we learned from our interactions with various academics at the West African Research Center was bursting at the seams. This university is based upon the French model where attrition is a must and rewards for survival a given. The result is a clamoring for space, inability to educate all those who seek it, and an economy that cannot guarantee a coveted slot at the top for graduates. There was a sense of frustration, a drop of desperation and a great deal of arrogance amongst the academics – not unlike their American counterparts. But conversations and my observations lead me to detect a pressure building, so much talent and beauty but how to fulfill the dreams?
The Goree Institute sponsored our visit its mission is to “promote self-reliant and open societies in Africa.” Located on Goree, an island off the coast of Dakar, which used during the decades of the slave trade as a slave fort. There are no motor vehicles on the island and the architecture is French colonial very reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Pastel stucco buildings with hidden courtyards faced narrow cobblestone walkways; it was a journey back in time. I became focused on passageways, windows, and doors.
As I walked in the tranquil air of early morning I didn’t know where I was going, what awaited me at the end of the narrow lanes that forced me forward. When I gazed out my shuttered window at dawn the soft shades of purple colored the ocean as I watching other early raisers swim or prepare to go fishing. But it was “the door of no return” in the Slave House that sent chills down my spine. A dark hallway leading from the dungeons where Africans were held until the ships arrived. The blackness of the hall contrasts sharply with the brightness of the exit. It is a passage into blackness, a death of the old and rebirth into the hell of the new world’s slavery.
It was at the Slave House that the unique experience of African women in this history struck me. My short tenure in New Orleans has made me very aware of the complicated relationship between Black women, their enslaved pasts, and their sexualized bodies. Women are coerced into relationships with men who because of male economic dominance women use their bodies as a medium of exchange. The deep roots of this phenomenon were revealed to me on Goree Island.
Goree was a slave factory a site where Africans were warehoused until ships came to take them to the Americas. Part of the history of the one remaining Slave House is that those African women who bore children for whites were permitted to stay on Goree. Was this a reward for their rape? Was this a bargaining chip to make the coupling seem less violent?
Were the resulting pregnancies less humiliating and shameful because they saved the mothers from an unknown fate? There is a history of the resulting mulatto class on Goree and in New Orleans. In New Orleans this became institutionalized in decoupage and the infamous Quadroon Balls. There is still a silence but I hear the fear, despair, cunning, and anger – the warrior spirit of the women who had to navigate these treacherous waters.
Despite my irritation with being hounded as tourist I found my voice “Trop chere! Too much!” The Senegalese love to barter, the give and take of the bargaining process. I discovered that once I surrendered to it and decided on what were my limits I was able to relax. I listened to the Senegalese women’s voices despite the linguistic barriers posed by Wolof and French.
I gazed and saw their beauty. I marveled at the grace of the manager of the Goree Institute and requested permission to take her picture, but I felt that she did not see her own beauty. Perhaps it was the medium of the camera, whose image should be captured in the age of the visual? Billboards, advertising bottled water, cigarettes, etc. never captured the lustrous black of the skins I saw. While the majority of people are black there are dark browns, but why were the women on the billboards always lighter than what I saw on the streets?
Photography is the art of black and white, light and dark. The technologies of photography have been developed for white skin tones, and as my disappointing endeavors of photography revealed, additional skill is needed to capture dark skin tones. The blue sky against the dark skin tones so brilliantly captured in Daughters of the Dust was the effect I wanted.
But I remember a friend remarking that a white colleague of hers disclaimed the possibility of black women in the film could be that beautiful. She could not believe her eyes. Ms. Sophie Mbodj was very self-conscious in the photograph I took. No wonder on the limited Senegalese television I saw most of the programming was European a great deal of the local programs were music videos- lighter women dancing to the tunes of dark male vocalists. Even here the poison of white supremacy is eroding Africa’s self image especially that of the African women.
Racialization defined here is the impact of superficial physical characteristics as the determining factor for one’s social, economic, and political status. Thus white is defined as superior and beautiful, and black as inferior and ugly. The twenty-first century will be even more shaped by the global economy and age of media that relies upon the visual therefore racailization becomes even more inescapable. We are called black around the globe even if not directly linked to Africa because of skin color. This has created a common history of sexual exploitation that still exists predicated on the economic marginalization of women.
But Black women are warriors and we refuse to be silent or be confined to the roles assigned us. We shout in malls, we travel, we glide gracefully, and we shop in African markets without molestation. Maybe it is best to be invisible in such a world where it is easy to become a commodity. If you listen you can hear us singing, laughing, crying and hollering; haunting the world with our voices that cannot be silenced.
Danille Taylor. Currently I serve as Dean of Humanities at Dillard University, New Orleans, La. I received my Ph.D. from Brown University in American Studies and I have a M.A. in African American Studies from Boston University. Prior to coming to New Orleans last summer I was Chair of Minority Studies at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind., and was former chair of Women’s Studies.
I lived and worked in Chicago for twenty five years having taught at Northwestern University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago. My teaching areas are African American literature, Toni Morrison and Black women writers, Black women in music, African American folklore and material culture, minority literatures, Native American literature and women’s studies.
I serve on the Ethnic Studies committee of the American Studies Association and have served on the Women’s and Minority Scholars committees. I am the editor of Conversations with Toni Morrison (1984) and other publications. My major research project is “The Saintly Blues” which explores the impact of music on black women’s writing especially Toni Morrison’s. The interconnectivenes of different art forms to inform and shape one another is of particular interest to me.
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