Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Homegoing, Black Goddess... Bigger than Africa, Bigger than the Black Atlantic

One of the lovely things that summer always brings for me is the New York African Film Festival, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Maysles Cinema. This year I saw eleven of the programs of feature films and shorts, some of them premiering for the first time in the U.S., some of them old classics brought back to the silver screen from the archives. Two of the movies I saw this year were about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing cultural work that maintains the ties between black people in the Americas with their African motherland. One of these is Bigger than Africa, a new documentary about the persistence of Yoruba culture across the Americas to our present day, that premiered for the first time in New York at this festival. Its director Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye, originally from Nigeria, was there to answer questions about his movie after the screening. The second was an older classic, Black Goddess (A Deusa Negra), directed in 1978 by Ola Balogun that takes place in both Nigeria and Brazil and provocatively travels not only across the Atlantic but also across time, from the 1970s back to the 18th century. Perhaps coincidentally, during my subway rides to and from the festival this year, I was reading the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, published in 2016, that tells a genealogical saga of the descendants of two half-sisters, one who remained in Ghana and one who was sold into slavery and shipped to North America. The novel progresses through eight generations of the family from the eighteenth century to the present day. Chapter by chapter, the reader moves back and forth across the Atlantic, as the histories of two separate worlds unfold through the lives of a single family genealogy.

Naturally, since I experienced these three interesting works all in the same week, my mind made connections between them, noticing similarities and resonances as well as differences. How do these three works tell their "Atlantic" story -- a story both of space and of time? And perhaps it is obvious here that I'm also alluding to Paul Gilroy's famously provocative book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993, but I'll come back to his book at the end of this blog post.

The director of Bigger than Africa explained to us in the audience during the Q&A that he got the idea for his movie after he moved to America from Nigeria and began noticing Yoruba influences in western culture. His argument is essentially that Yoruba culture is "bigger than Africa" because it exists all across the world. What was incredible and wonderful about this movie was its movement across the Americas. He interviewed experts, artists, and community leaders in South Carolina, New York, Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil. Members of the Oyutunji African Village in South Carolina explained how black people in the United States reclaimed African culture in the 1950s and 60s out of the dehumanizing oppression and degradation of American slavery and Jim Crow. Interestingly some of the inspiration for reclamation of Yoruba culture in particular came after black activists and writers traveled from the U.S. to other places in the Americas such as Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad where many of the Yoruba traditions had survived and continue to be practiced through events like the annual Olodum festival in Brazil. Trinidad also has a Yoruba Village to preserve this heritage. One of the explanations for how Yoruba culture remained so vibrant in Cuba and Brazil is that it was able to somewhat easily syncretize its traditions with Catholic practices, each Catholic saint matching up to a Yoruba deity -- a sort of cultural camouflage so that African culture wouldn't be totally suppressed by the European colonial governments. What was especially cool about this presentation at the NY African film festival was that some of the spiritual leaders of the Yoruba cultural movement from Harlem and from South Carolina were present in the audience to share in this profound moment. Just to be clear, this is a movement started by African Americans whose ancestors were brought to America on slave ships centuries before, not by recent Yoruba immigrants. The filmmaker, in contrast, is a Yoruba immigrant who reached out to these African-American organizations as he was making his film. So, what is interesting about this film is that it's not the story that many Americans are used to hearing about -- the story of black people in America "going back to Africa" to rediscover their roots; rather it's the opposite, an African coming to America to discover the persistence and transformation of his heritage.

As impressive as this film is, there were two things I wondered about. First, the film was so focused on what was exceptional about the Yoruba culture in America that he never really explained how Yoruba culture compared to other African cultures such as the neighboring Akan, Hausa, Igbo, Wolof, Fulani, Bantu, Fon, etc., as well as the Congo further south. We learn nothing about how these ethnic groups relate to each other in Africa. Did they all share some similar religious practices and ideas that might have contributed to the syncretic, multi-ethnic culture in the Americas where various African, Native American, and European cultures mixed, or were the Yoruba unique? Although the movie was being screened widely throughout the Americas, it was unclear from his answer to one of the questions from the audience how his implied argument about the "exceptionalism" of Yoruba culture in the Americas was being received in his home country of Nigeria where the Yoruba are just one of many ethnic groups. What I hope the film inspires is future movies on the many ways the multiplicity and diversity of African cultures transformed the Americas.

Ironically, what this film could also have included in its archival footage was other movies that have been featured at the same African film festival -- namely the movie Black Goddess, written and directed by another Nigerian, Ola Balogun, in 1978, forty years before Bigger than Africa. Ola Balogun's film, which you can watch on YouTube (unfortunately without subtitles, so it helps to know Portuguese), in some ways is a perfect cinematic example of the previous generation's efforts at a global, Pan-African solidarity. The meaning of the film is conveyed through flash-back techniques juxtaposing historical moments. The opening scene of the movie is a battle between two African states in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, resulting in some captives being sold into slavery, and then the movie immediately flash-forwards to a scene of contemporary, urban Africa in the 1970s. It then proceeds to tell the story of Batatunde in Nigeria who is asked by his dying father to find his relatives in Brazil who had been enslaved centuries before. After arriving in Brazil, he seeks out a Candomble priestess in hopes that she can help him find his family. In Brazil, especially in Bahai, Candomble is the one of the forms of religion also discussed in Bigger than Africa where Catholic, Yoruba, and other ethnic traditions fused to form a new religious tradition. In the movie, Batatunde is happy to learn about how African cultural practices have been adapted to the American context as he learns one of the dances and falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the priestess. She has a vision that they must travel to Bahai, and after they travel there together, he is thrown into a trance and has a dream about a conflict between slaves and masters in the eighteenth century. Some of the same actors and actresses play the parts in both time periods to help establish the continuity across time. This flashback technique was employed fifteen years later to great effect in a more well-known movie Sankofa by the Ethiopian-American director Haile Gerima in 1993. What amazed me, as I reflected on my experience watching the movie, is how little attention Ola Balogun's movie has received in the scholarly literature compared to similar movies. Although I had two years ago researched and published an essay in the book The Cinematic Eighteenth Century on movies about slavery, in which I talk about African movies such as Sankofa and Ceddo as well as Brazilian movies Xica and Quilombo, I had never heard of Black Goddess before. I became simultaneously ashamed of my own ignorance and frustrated with the lack of scholarly attention to this movie. Here is a clip from Sankofa of the historical flashback technique:

These movies were all on my mind as I read Yaa Gyasi's novel Homecoming. Like the movies, the novel is tremendously ambitious in its transatlantic and historical scope, but it is also quite different from the movies. The novel begins with stories about two half-sisters in the eighteenth century, one of whom is somewhat forced by her mother to marry a white slave trader and the other is captured in a battle between the Asante and Fante and sold into slavery. Thus, the novel sets up two parallel family trees with a singular paternal root, one tree in America and one tree in Ghana. Each chapter a different generation, the novel explores some of the salient issues for each historical moment, so it almost feels like, through this family, we the reader are being educated on some of the major issues for black history on both sides of the Atlantic: e.g., the slave trade, the difficulty of keeping families together during slavery, the challenges to solidarity among white and black laborers after the Civil War at the end of the nineteenth century, the migration north to New York, racial passing, jazz, drugs, college, etc. On the Ghana side, there are the conflicts between ethnic groups encouraged by Europe to facilitate the slave trade, the war between the Asante and the British, the introduction of the cacao crop, the training of a comprador class of elite Africans to serve British interests, etc. Each chapter could be a novel in and of itself, and in fact, they sometimes reminded me of other novels I'd read, but that sort of in-depth character development and exploration of a single event is not the goal of her novel. One can hardly criticize her for skimming the surface of three centuries on two continents.

In some ways, as a Washington Post review of the novel observed, Homecoming is kind of like the famous TV miniseries Roots, which was originally broadcast in 1977, one of the most-watched shows of all time worldwide about several generations of a family, starting with the capture of the famed Kunta Kinte in Africa in the eighteenth century and ending with his grandson George moving the family west shortly after the Civil War. One of the main ideas of Roots was the same idea as the two films mentioned above -- the search for a connection with the motherland and a reconstruction of the genealogical and cultural links across time and space. The novel Homecoming in some ways changes the directions of that quest for roots. As the author mentions in her interview about her novel with the Daily Show's Trevor Noah, after she immigrated to America with her parents, she felt confronted by two aspects of her identity, her ethnic identity in Africa and her racial identity in America, as a young woman existing between two ways of looking at the world and searching for connection on both continents. In contrast to Roots, which tells a very linear narrative moving from Africa to America, the novel Homegoing tells a parallel story in two places. But, I argue, this isn't just a matter of space, but also a matter of time. Why I say that is because when Roots tells a story of movement from one place to another, the historical framework is entirely American. Despite its interest in rediscovering their roots in Africa, it is remarkably un-historical when it comes to Africa. Hence, its spacial movement westward is in a way a metaphor (or chronotope) for American temporal movement, the progress of the nation in history. This is perhaps why it was so popular with white audiences, since it was, after all, the story of America. In contrast, Homegoing is not just the story of America and doesn't just follow the American sense of history. Instead, it puts two histories in dialogue with each other, one a history of racial conflict/identity, the other a history of ethnic conflict/identity.

Coincidentally, the very same year that Yaa Gyasi published her novel, the History Channel broadcast a re-make of Roots. Several reviews of the new television version questioned why re-make the show -- in other words, why not just re-broadcast the old show -- unless they were going to do something innovative and new? (They didn't change much, in fact.) In a sense, Yaa Gyasi's novel gives us one sort of innovation that audiences may have been hoping for, as did a wonderful Canadian show broadcast the year before, The Book of Negroes (2015). One of the profound ways Homegoing challenges us in ways that the original Roots and the movie Bigger than Africa don't is by asking Africans to think about their own contribution to the slave trade. Many of the Asante and Fante characters are directly involved in the trade and even profit from it. In contrast to this central plot point in the novel, we never learn from the documentary movie Bigger than Africa what the Yoruba kings and queens were doing in the eighteenth century while the slave trade was happening.

Obviously, in some ways, Homegoing is like the movies Bigger than Africa and Black Goddess, but in some ways it is quite different. All three of them come at the topic of American culture from what we might call an "African" point of view. However, there are some significant differences between these three works, and one of the biggest differences, I think, is their sense of time. Bigger than Africa asserts a clear continuity of Yoruba tradition across the Atlantic and across the Americas. In that movement, time almost seems to be suspended, the gap between the eighteenth century and the twentieth century reduced almost to nothing, as he discovers resemblance everywhere. Although the movie does recognize the considerable labor and political activism of black intellectuals in the twentieth century to shape and create Pan-African continuity, one might argue the movie does not do enough to explore how that labor happened and what it accomplished in its profoundly political transformation of the world in which we now live.

In contrast, Black Goddess uses the cinematic techniques of flashback and montage to deliberately foreground the question of continuity and discontinuity as a philosophical question. The drama of Black Goddess is not the discovery of that continuity, but the search for it. At the end of the movie, the hero Batatunde never finds his lost family, but he does find love. His psychic journey back in time through the mystical, cinematic dream does not recover his lost genealogy and does not compensate for the two-century-long gap in time, but it does give him wisdom and understanding. Moreover, throughout the movie, over the narrative is its soundtrack (the soundtrack being almost more well-known than the movie itself), which is not traditional music from the past, but hip, experimental jazz. While the story may take us back in time, the music takes us forward.

So too, perhaps, does Homegoing, ultimately ask us to look forward. The end of the novel is, not surprisingly, similar to the end of Black Goddess, as the descendants of the African and the African-American sides of the family finally meet, fall in love, and travel back to Ghana, reconciling the 200-year divide. All the history of the novel seems to serve the purpose of orienting this future coupling. Curiously what is not really explored at all in Homegoing is precisely what the two movies explore -- the survivance of African ethnic culture (whether Yoruba, Asante, Fante, or other) in the Americas. By the end of the twentieth century, the African-American characters of Homegoing seem to know hardly anything about where they came from. Although some of the characters at the beginning of the novel maintain a few words of the Twi language, what is missing from the American chapters of Homegoing are the laborious efforts of many African Americans to reclaim their cultural identities, and a long list of literary classics, starting with Olaudah Equiano in the eighteenth century to Martin Delany in the nineteenth century to W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston in the twentieth century to remind us of the centrality of Africa for American culture. Yaa Gyasi perhaps missed a golden opportunity to think about the intersections of American racial identity and African ethnic identity in her chapter on jazz, since arguably, that's what jazz is all about. Instead, unfortunately, the novel focuses on the alcohol and drug culture around the jazz scene, and not the music itself. Likewise, on the other side of the ocean, one would not know from the novel that the United States had any connections at all to west Africa after the termination of the transatlantic slave trade in the early nineteenth century, but in fat, not only were Hollywood movies popular in west Africa (famously Charlie Chaplin movies but also, weirdly, westerns), so too was the United States all up in Africa's business all the time after World War II, often dangerously so.

In other words, if the goal of the novel was to reconsider the ways in which the two sides of the Atlantic connected, there are many other points of connection still yet to explore -- and what this means is that there are a lot more stories to tell, movies to make, and novels to write!!!

I want to conclude with a brief, theoretical meditation on Paul Gilroy's book The Black Atlantic and how we, as scholars, understand and make use of that book. Clearly, the subject here is both geographic and temporal. It is geographic because all of the texts I've discussed here make, in different ways, a connection across the Atlantic, and it is temporal because they also make that connection across the centuries. Readers of my blog who are students and professors of literature and history probably will recall how Gilroy, back in 1993, argued for the historical importance of the transatlantic slave trade and the transatlantic culture that emerged out of that traumatic event for what we call "modernity." In many ways, his argument challenged the still dominant understanding of world history and human progress that has been presented in schools in mostly Euro-centric terms. My point about Gilroy here -- a point that I think my interpretation of the movies and the novel suggest -- is that when we conceive of the "Black Atlantic," we are confronting a conundrum of temporality, not just a conundrum of spatiality. Those who study and teach the "black Atlantic" perhaps should recall that Gilroy's argument was not just geographic and racial (i.e., thinking of culture in terms of racial dynamics across an ocean rather than thinking of culture in terms of a nation, like "American culture" or "French culture, etc.) Gilroy's argument was also temporal, challenging our understanding of historical time. His fundamental thesis is not about the Atlantic itself but about "the modern" and of what it means to use the word "modern" in a sentence. Although my colleagues who are scholars of the eighteenth century focus on the first chapter of his book about the slave trade, they sometimes forget that most of his book is about the twentieth century culture from W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright to jazz and hip hop. His two central metaphors are the slave ship and the LP record. Point being, the sense of African temporality and its futuricity are not just bigger than Africa, they are bigger than the Atlantic too.

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