We still live in a world where racial narratives are clearly defined and blurred at the same time. Despite some progress in racial equality policy, some of the issues around race that were acute decades ago, are still poignant now.
Many black story tellers have pointed out the similarities and nuances between racial narratives past and present, but when I watched the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro at Block Party Cinema’s Film Club series, it remined me of how racism is driven by mindset. It’s these ideologies that drive the social structures built to oppress the powerless.
I was quite lucky to find The Film Club showing of this award-winning documentary, released in 2016. Upon arrival, there was a DJ’s, street food and the signature beanbags, and just before the film started a brief synopsis was given by the Block Party team. Some of the quotes from the documentary that will stay with me are below, if you’ve seen the documentary which quotes resonate with you? Comment below.
“I was not a Black Muslim, for the same vein, though for different reasons that I did not become a Black Panther, because I did not believe that white people were devils and I did not want the young Black people to believe that.”
“If we were white, our heroes would be your heroes too. Malcolm X would still be alive…when the Israelis or the Poles pick up guns and say ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one. Everything is done to make an example of this bad n**ga so there won’t be anymore like him.”
“All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie: a lie of their pretended humanism. History has no moral justification and the west has no moral authority.
“History is not the past, “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
“The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“.
What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.
Few writers’ words still resonate thirty years after their death, but James Baldwin was no ordinary writer. It’s believed that Baldwin died of cancer on 1 December 1987 aged 63 while starting, what is now his final manuscript – Remember This House. Comprising only 30 pages at the time of his death, the focus of this manuscript were personal recollections of the lives and assassinations of 3 juggernauts of the civil rights movement in America – Martin Luther King Jr,. Malcom X and Medgar Evers.
The lives of the former two have been compared throughout history. The ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X even came up during the commentary surrounding Marvel’s Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler. The ideologies of Black Panther (T’Challa – played by Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Kilmonger (played by Michael B Jordan) were likened to the two civil rights activists. Some thought Kilmonger’s desire to arm all oppressed people so they could protect themselves reflected Malcom X’s rhetoric. While T’Challa’s (what some would deem) measured approach was like that of Martin Luther King Jr.
I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said, indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see, and for which he paid with his life – James Baldwin in a 1963 TV interview
Medgar Evers died on 12th June 1963; a World War II veteran and university graduate, Medgar Evers was instrumental in overturning segregation laws at the University of Mississippi, public facilities and collating evidence from witnesses in the Emmitt Till murder case. Malcom X died on 21st February 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. died on 4th April 1968. All three of these civil rights activists were killed within a 5 year period and none of them lived to see their 40th birthdays.
In his array of writings and novels where he documents the civil rights movement, Baldwin’s words are still pertinent today. Events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and similar situations, played out over social media is testament to this. When the civil rights movement started there was no social media, now we all have front row seats to witness injustice and oppression. While there has been progress, there is still some way to go for black lives to be seen as equal to others of the human race. There’s still unfinished business to handle…
Clip from 1963 where James Baldwin is asked about his view on the future of America.
“The future of the Negro in this country, is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country. James Baldwin
“Especially when I started out. It was more shocking than anything else. That was how I ended up buying my house..I was living in a complex and I had issues with a few of the lighter-skinned people. I used to live near a lawyer and when I moved in, he said to me ‘be careful, they don’t like to see young people strive’.”
Strolling, is an online documentary series by director Cecile Emeke from London – “connecting the scattered stories of the black diaspora”. One episode follows two Jamaicans, recounting their experiences of Jamaica’s class/colour divide.
Snippets of an African legacy from a colourful perspective
Fashion isn’t just about clothes and models; it’s supposed to be but it isn’t. There’s been a lot of talk about racism in the fashion industry, from those within and those outside the industry. Racism is a problem in many industries, fashion isn’t unique here. No matter how creative/chic/stylish the clothes are on runways in the West, the lack of ethnic diversity is always on show – race and fashion now come hand in hand.
The fashion industry has been a certain way for a long time and change is difficult to embrace. It’s not just about having more ethnic models on the runway, but ethnic people in positions of power and influence behind the scenes of the industry, whether that be designers or casting agents etc. Fashion designers get inspiration from various cultures, but generally display their creations on a white canvas. This has been done for years, but now with everything else that’s going on, it seems we’re grappling with race in nearly every facet of Western society. Whether it be in the education system, in the corporate world, the film industry, the judicial system – the issue of race lurks.
Black models have been complaining for years about makeup artists unwilling to work with them, not having the makeup they need for photoshoots and sometimes resorting to bringing their own make up. It’s also been voiced about how much harder it’s for black models to actually get modelling jobs, compared to their white counterparts. For one famous black model, Sudanese beauty, Ajak Deng the industry became too much to bear and she announced that she was quitting! Ajak didn’t explicitly say that racism was the cause of leaving a career that millions of girls around the world covet, however the media has drew its conclusions.
“I am happy to announce that I am officially done with the fashion industry, I will be moving back to Australia in order to live the life that I fully deserve. Which is real life.” – Ajak Deng.
Ajak arrived in Australia as a child refugee, and has been photographed in renowned fashion publications and modelled for world famous designers, such as Louis Vuitton, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs. She has appeared in Vogue Australia before, but it was earlier comments by her manager Stephen Bucknall, which gave further indications that her decision to quit had something to do with discrimination. Bucknall claims he finds it difficult to book jobs for Ajak in Australia, and was quoted in an Australian newspaper saying, “The Australian market doesn’t want to take the risk of using darker models as mainstream models…“They’ll book the big Caucasian girls, spend the big dollars, and fly them in from LA, but I’m yet to see them book a dark skinned girl in that way.”
Psychological and emotionally it’s hard to accept that a country you call home doesn’t accept you just because of your skin colour. However, when I heard that Ajak quit modelling I thought it was a bit premature and so did she! A few days ago, after a week ‘in retirement’ she announced she is coming back to modelling!
photo credit: fashionhauler.com
Even if she can’t get work in Australia, she does well in other markets! When you’re put in a position of prominence sometimes you have to stick it out and pave the way for those to come after you. She is part of a bigger picture and summed it up nicely:
“I feel like I have touched so many young people’s lives, gave them hope. Just because I come from NOTHING does not mean that I can’t make something for myself and for that I will still want to continue to touch more lives. Yes sure giving up is easier but who will fight the war that we are so in denial about? … I apologize to every kind souls/hearts that I have broken in the past week. I thought giving up was easier but I am going to stay and fight this war with kindness, forgiveness, love, and support to all humanity.”
Good for you Ajak!
“Representation” is another word you’ll find dancing around the fashion/race row boxing ring, but like most things in life, the solutions to this issue are not black and white. During Zac Posen’s show at NYFW 2016, 25 black models (including Ajak), walked the runway, displaying his designs.
Photo credit: Daniele Oberrauch.
This rubbed some people up the wrong way. There were white models in the lineup, but some spectators were not happy that black models were in the majority, in a country (America), where black people are a minority. In general Posen’s show was well received but some were not filled with the same sentiment. Is it simply a case of mirroring model quotas to census data of the general population?
Part of this problem is that there isn’t any balance in the world, full stop. If the fashion industry in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America was as established as it is in the West, then maybe there would be a larger pie to eat from? The race issue in fashion is no longer dormant. If the industry wants to divorce itself from its unsavoury companion, then it will have to change. That may only happen if society changes, after all the fashion industry is run by human beings. If the fashion industry is prejudice, it’s because society is still prejudice.
Whatever the cause / intention of one of the shortest retirements in history, the fashion and race discourse continues. Watch this runway…
Snippets of an African legacy from a colourful perspective.