Abolition, Afro Kitsch, and Bamako

December 31, 2009 Columns, Cosmopolitan in Brooklyn

by Patricia Spears Jones, March/April 2007

Patricia Spears Jones

Patricia Spears Jones, Columnist

The annual New Year’s card arrived from Tomie Arai—a most happy Pig.  This is the Pig’s year and already there’s a lot of rooting out of bad influences, bad people, bad ideas even as strange talk pollutes the airwaves.  Dead blondes in the Bahamas, missing billions in Iraq, Dick Cheney actually out of the U.S. and I thought he did not have a broom to fly on.  Year of the Pig, right on!

Tonight I went to a Lynda Hull Tribute at the New School, her Collected Poems was recently published and it was wonderful hearing her on a video reclaim her Jersey voice. Lynda was extraordinary poet and thoughtful teacher, and thinker about words and rhythm. Words and rhythm remain at the heart of poetry; at the heart of speech, really.  One of the reasons that we distrust Bush is the pauses in his speech. But when he wants to make things happen, there are no pauses.

Today, I walked around the garment district in the rain with a French scientist, who “loves to enjoy life.”  I think this is why he goes to Mali and Niger and Senegal and takes pictures of African musicians and artists and regular folk in their courtyards tending children or selling belts and bags. And he is a fan of African music, very French. African art, African music, Africans for that matter are all over New York; especially Brooklyn.  Last year, near my birthday in February, I went to Grand Dakar to hear famous Senegalese singer perform.  She was tall, regal, wore yellow costume and gold bracelets and huge gold earrings—she looked like a burst of sun.  At one point, someone called her on her cell phone and she took the call—kind of broke the diva spell.

It is amazing that much of the good news in The New York Times of late has been about Africa—the reforestation of Niger; the premier of the Last King of Scotland in Uganda, where Idi Amin’s legacy is seen in greater complexity that here in the West.  Africa is complex and should be.  Why Americans especially African Americans romanticize or idealize the Continent is strange to me.  The range of peoples and cultures is too large to sustain naive notions, and yet I see many Black Americans wrapped in what can only be called Afro kitsch.  I understand the impulse. We want so much to regain our footing on this planet since our most recent ancestors were uprooted and brought to the Americas as chattel.

But 2007 is the 200th anniversary of the end of the Slave Trade, the first world wide protest movement and possibly the greatest thing that came out of the Enlightenment.  The legacy of slavery is still painful, but so much of our culture in the Americas is shaped by the adherence to or resistance to Enslavement.  Maybe that’s why I found a copy of Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit for half price or why the French scientist sent me beautiful pictures of Bamako.

Our cousins in Africa are creating and sustaining cultures older than we can imagine even as the horrors in Darfur, the Aids pandemic, and the dictatorship in Zambia and elsewhere persist.  We need to idealize Africa’s strength, persistence and see how Idi Amin is both a hero and a monster; that a small country can reverse desertification; that African music undulates just about everywhere.  The patterns, the rhythms, the rituals are here in America if we want them—all we have to do is open our eyes, ears and heart.

Update March 18:

I wrote this column before the fire destroyed the lives of ten Malians in the Bronx.  The presence of African communities in New York, in America grows stronger each day.  That victims will be buried both here and in Mali is a moment of powerful change for an immigrant community.  Those who stay “back home” in their hearts are now confronted with not “who we are here”, but “how we fare here”—questions that bedevil migrants around the globe.  But to me, what truly abides is that the migration of Africans here points to an unstated question—what would have happened if Africans had come to the New World as migrants, not as slaves?  How would we have fared?  Of course, the Atlantic Slave Trade made that an impossibility for all but a very few.  As we mark the abolitionist triumph 200 years ago, let us look at Africans who migrate here for reasons economic, political, social and cultural.  Let us look at people free to decide how best to live their lives and who are willing to take the risk to make a better place for them, here or “back home.”

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