The Audacious Oroma Elewa

Today, be inspired to be audacious.

Recently, I discovered Nigerian-born Oroma Elewa and her critically acclaimed fashion magazine Pop Africana. This woman is a visionary who had the guts to realize her dreams.

Oroma Elewa

Oroma Elewa

Oroma  launched Pop Africana  in 2010 without any publishing experience. What she had was an intense desire to redirect the world’s opinion of Africa. She talks about her lack of publishing experience in an interview with Vogue:

I don’t have any publishing experience, but you have to admit, the audacity is what makes it interesting…the need to document the African experience and redirect the opinion of the African superseded the need to have everything in place first. I do not claim to be the most professional anything but what I did was that I take a shot at what I truly believed and what I truly believed was lacking for a global African community.

Cover of Pop Africana

Cover of Pop Africana

Pop Africana challenged the single story of Africa: the loin-cloth wearing native complete with spear and shield. In the magazine, Oroma presents us with a vibrant and fashion-forward Africa that not only speaks to today’s Africans but the rest of us fashion enthusiasts.

For a brief moment this Vogue 2011 style star shone in the fashion world. Her dream was alive. It pulsed. The visually stunning imagery of Pop Africana attracted attention from fashion megastars around the world.

Sadly, Pop Africana has ended its run. But images of the magazine’s pages can be viewed on Pop Africana’s facebook page. Take a look. Be inspired. Be audacious.

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I Am Slave: A Review

Slavery is not a thing of the past. Nor is it solely an American story.

The British film, I Am Slave, does an excellent job of reminding us of this persistent evil that still exists in the UK and worldwide.

Inspired by the story of  Mende Nazer, former slave turned author and activist, I Am Slave chronicles the life of Malia and her struggle to regain not only her freedom but also her identity while living in London.

tiff-iamslaveThrough a series of flashbacks we learn that at 12, Malia, the protaganist,  was kidnapped from her village in the the Nuba mountains in Sudan and sold to an Arab family in Khartoum. At 18, her owner gives her to a cousin in London.

The film highlights some of the obstacles that a modern-day slave faces.  Malia struggles with her fear and lack of understanding of the alien environment of London. In one scene she escapes from the house and rushes into the streets but she is confused about who to trust. Her ignorance and fear forces her back into captivity. Throughout the film Malia lives under the threat of violence: her current slave master threatens to have her father killed if she disobeys.

I Am Slave  shows Malia wrestling to hold onto her identity. Her days are spent as a slave: cooking, cleaning and caring for children. In one scene, she whispers into the darkness: “I am Malia Nour, daughter of Bah Al Nour, wrestler of Nuba.”

However, Malia is not the typical heroine that I expected to find in a movie about slavery.  Her years of slavery have broken her spirit. And throughout the film, I struggled to ‘like’ the character.

Malia is not sassy, cunning or bold. There is no backchat. No s*** in the pie. No muttering under her breath. No daggered looks.

Her fear of punishment has silenced her voice.

Throughout the film, she maintains a soft, childlike voice that is filled with fear. During the climax of the film when Malia is about to escape, her slave master begs her to stay. Malia’s response is not one of defiance or rebellion. Wearily, she tells her former slave master, “No more.”

Malia isn’t even angry. She is just tired.

Her character contrasts with the narratives of slavery that I have heard. As a child, I listened to stories about slave rebellions in Jamaica and Tobago. As I grew older I read about Haiti’s slave rebellion in 1791 that resulted in the island becoming the first independent black-ruled country in the Western Hemisphere. I watched Roots. And most recently I watched The Help and Black Girl about black domestic workers who worked under oppressive employers.

My view of a slave has been colored by these stories. And I wanted the defiant heroine with flashing eyes and a strong sense of identity. Who wouldn’t be so stupid to escape from captivity and then get into the car of the family’s chauffeur and return to her prison.

The film directly challenged my perspective of what a slave is supposed to be like. And perhaps this view of a slave as P. Djeli Clark’s brilliant blog post argues is “tied more to modern political ideologies of black self-reliance, in which black dignity is found in those who achieve on their own merits, despite what obstacles are placed in their way.”

And eventually Malia does achieve her freedom but without all the bravado.

Despite my dislike of Malia’s docility, I believe the actor Wunmi Mosaku captures the fear, vulnerability and

Wunmi Mosaku

Wunmi Mosaku

desperation that Malia experiences. Her expressive doe-like eyes and beautiful dark skin are captivating. She is supported by an excellent cast: Yigal Naor who played the family chauffeur, Hiam Abbass as her cruel slave master and Issac de Bankole as her father.

I Am Slave is a must-see film demonstrating how easily modern-day slavery can disguise itself in the Western world and one woman’s fight for her freedom.

Did Snow White Damage your Self-Image?

B(l)ack to fairy tales

B(l)ack to fairy tales

Researchers have indicated that as one of the longest existing genres of children’s literature, fairy tales play an important role in shaping the self-image and belief system of children.

Dorothy L. Hurley, an American researcher, argues that Western fairy tales like the Brothers Grimm stories and their visual Disney film versions, can negatively impact the self-image of children of color. These fairy tales continue to reinforce a perspective that white equals goodness and beauty, and black is evil and ugly.

Fairy tales are powerful.

But what happens when these fairy tales travel to non-Western cultures? Do they lose their power to influence beliefs about beauty and goodness?

Lebohang Kganye is a young South African photographer living in Johannesburg. In her most recent work,  B(l)ack to fairy tales, she photographically deconstructs fairy tales that played a defining role during her childhood.

I was intrigued by the images in Lebohang’s collection: her face, painted black, a decapitated doll with a blackened face and other images of herself as a clown and a flower. Throughout her collection, she places herself in the role of the fairy tale princess. I wanted to understand the motivation behind her work.

As a child, one of Lebohang’s favourite fairy tales was the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White. She believes that this fairy tale shaped her understanding of beauty, goodness and happiness, “She[Snow White] represented what I understood to be ‘beauty’, she was fair skinned with long, flowy hair…As girl children , we place ourselves in the fairy tale by identifying with the lead ‘good’ character, often the princess, and wish for a Prince Charming that is going to save us so that we live ‘happily ever after”

Lebohang yearned to possess these characteristics of beauty and in Grade 6, she auditioned for the part of Snow White, “I wanted the white skin, long hair, perfect figure and maybe the blue eyes.” But Lebohang not only wanted to possess beauty but goodness as well by embodying the character of Snow White in her school’s annual play. She writes, “As a child, fairy tales had convinced me that those represented beauty and beauty equated to being good and of right moral standing.”

This is disturbing. If Lebohang equated white with goodness, did she perceive herself and her black community as bad?

Also,I am puzzled: How is it possible for Western fairy tales to have such a damaging impact on a black girl growing up in a country with a black majority population?

Like Lebohang, I grew up in a country with a majority black population that had a history of colonialism–the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. I enjoyed watching Disney versions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. I never longed for white skin or blue eyes. And the princess I remembered role-playing was Pocahontas, a woman of color.

However, I recognize that the South African context is different. Unlike the Caribbean, South Africa suffered under the oppression of apartheid until 1994.

Is it possible that apartheid created fertile ground for the fairy tale to acquire power?

A recent BBC article, Africa: Where Black is not beautiful, in which a famous singer lightened her skin through bleaching suggest that a colonial past has contributed to a general preference in South Africa for lighter skin.

But Lebohang does not mention apartheid. She believes that attending a multiracial school with very few black children and the school’s annual plays about fairy tales damaged her self-image.

“As a child in a multiracial school, with very few black children,that held annual plays about fairy tales, re-instilled my dislocation in this space and I started wanting the long, straight hair and I wished my skin was lighter…”

She speaks about being taught to hate herself.

I would like to know a little bit more about Lehohang’s school experience. What was she taught? How did her classmates and teachers treat her?

Perhaps,  the fairy tale became powerful because it functioned in an environment that stressed Western values and ideals of beauty.

But what happened when Lebohang arrived home? Weren’t images of black beauty reinforced? Weren’t African folk tales told?

Lebohang describes a reality where she arrived home from school and played with a white Barbie. And her mother, would arrive home from work too tired  to tell her stories.

Yet, Lebohang believes that the power of the fairy tale can be curtailed if it is countered by a culturally specific narrative.

“…fairy tales become dangerous when they aren’t balanced by an equivalent effort by your family to teach you your own stories.”

I agree.

Growing up in the Caribbean, not only did I watch Western fairy tales but I also read American and European novels like Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.  However, unlike Lebohang, I attended a predominantly black school and the stories we read were written by Caribbean authors. When I arrived home, I played with my Barbies, they were black and white. Also, my mother, a high school teacher, exposed me to the works of Derek Walcott and other black Caribbean writers.

Western fairy tales weren’t the dominant narrative during my childhood. And therefore they weren’t influential in shaping my beliefs about beauty and goodness.

What do you think:

Does the fairy tale retain its power when it migrates to a non-Western context?

Is the power of the fairy tale neutralized by ensuring that our own stories are the dominant narrative?