The Black Diaspora: Moments of Celebration and Grief
Upon the cinematic release of Black Panther in 2018, writer Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic that “blackness invites speculation. The very idea of a global African diaspora creates the most fertile of grounds for a field of what-ifs.” That Africa, as the epicentre for blackness itself, may be considered a cultural ground for diaspora to reimagine futuristic possibilities for black life, through speculative and experimental thought and art, means that we think of the motherland as not only a physical home, but a spiritual and mental one. It offers a space for our creative imaginations, but can also be summoned as a space for healing, introspection, and philosophy on the very nature of Blackness itself.
In light of the cultural and political events of 2020 which have mobilised the Black diaspora in either celebration or anguish, the omnipresence of our spiritual connectedness to the continent feels richer than ever. This year has seen the movement for Black Lives resurface as a dominant political force, escalating into abolitionist demands for police defunding. Beyoncé released her long-awaited Black Is King, a visual album and ballad to the Global black diaspora. Black Brits stayed up into the early hours of morning to catch the now legendary Brandy vs Monica Verzuz battle. And Chadwick Boseman, who played the protagonist T’Challa in Marvel’s The Black Panther, passed away after a private 4-year battle with colon cancer. These moments have felt intimately connected, and they have seen many of us retreat into the cultural aesthetics and traditions of the motherland as a source for hope, comfort, and celebration.
The visuals of Beyoncé’s Black Is King detail that intricate richness and charm that can be found when investigating the cultural landscape of African countries, dominantly communicated through the architecture and fashion which features in the short film. Through watching this, many of us who had been constantly forced to witness the presence of black social death throughout the year were permitted to immerse ourselves in the beauty of African cultures. There’s an escapism which the film permits, through its garments, technicolour visuals and the peaceful stillness of several shots of the horizons of the continent. As Zerina Akers, the head stylist for Black Is King, told Dazed Magazine, “I wanted to provide an escape, because even then when we worked on this last year, there’s this sort of urge, especially in fashion, this hunger and this thirst for fantasy.” And throughout the film Beyoncé wears garments from designers spreading across the continent – from the Ivorian Loza Maleombho to Senegalese designer Adama Paris. In many ways, as a noted descendant of slaves and Black woman in diaspora, she uses garments to speculate on the very nature of blackness and the manifold expressions it can take through culture and art. Similarly in my most private and intimate moments, when I think of my late father or grandmother, I wear my ‘edo beads’, a design of jewellery traditionally worn in Edo State, Nigeria. African fashion, in this way as a medium for contemplating on culture and identity, can be a source of joy, comfort, love and understanding in ways which are both material and metaphysical.
Criticism often abounds around Beyoncé’s interest in African aesthetics, similar to how they have been charged against the construction of the kingdom ‘Wakanda’ in Black Panther. There is the claim that this reimagining of the possibilities of the continent effectively essentialise African cultures – homogenising them and removing the specificities and cultural significance of them in pursuit of an aesthetic. Thinking from an anti-capitalist position, we could perhaps take this to represent how wealthy black celebrities become invested in afrofuturism in order to make possible, in the imagination, a site of Black existence which is coterminous with wealth and supremacy. Indeed as Judicaelle Irakoze writes for Essence “when she [Beyoncé] willingly, through her art, participates in telling romanticized African royalty stories, rooted in glamorizing Africa, she indirectly dehumanizes our Africanness.” In this way, speculating on blackness through an appeal to the continent isn’t a neutral act for black diaspora but can, it is claimed, be its own kind of western political agenda. In our search for meaning and identity, we can be guilty of supra-humanising Africans, and erasing their complexities, faults, and subjectivities in pursuit of comfort.
”That Africa, as the epicentre for blackness itself, may be considered a cultural ground for diaspora to reimagine futuristic possibilities for black life, through speculative and experimental thought and art, means that we think of the motherland as not only a physical home, but a spiritual and mental one.
But black diaspora may be forgiven for the desire to speculate on blackness and the continent, particularly where we may seek to retrace an ancestry or identity that we feel disconnected from, either through linguistic barriers, borders, or, for African Americans and Black Caribbean diaspora in particular, the history of transatlantic slavery. Whilst claims of appropriation and essentialising deserve careful attention and consideration, one of the more hurtful accusations is of investment in African aesthetics and pride being “corny” When Black Panther was released in 2018, it became a social obligation for black diaspora to dress up in native African attire to watch the film in the cinema. And naturally this was met with much scepticism or accusations of “overdoing it.” Since Chadwick Boseman passed, I can’t help but think of how that moment in 2018 is one I’m sure we all, as black diaspora, wish we could return to. Soaking up and owning the “corniness” of being excited by a Black marvel superhero, the dreams it’ll inspire in black children, and the gentle relief it has inspired in our elders that, finally, we have representation where we previously have not. This year, moments of celebration have felt too few and far between, moments of grief have felt almost permanent. When we are constantly forced to speculate on our blackness as a mark of death and ostracization, it is resistance itself to speculate on it rather as a possibility, as a symbol of global connectedness, and of the myriad cultures which are determined by it. And if that’s corny, then that’s fine.