Communicating in the Diaspora: A Story of Senegambia and Me

A professor shares insights gained during a Fulbright fellowship

Baruti N. Kopano, Ph.D., Faculty Contributor

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My father had many rules for his three children, although he was inconsistent in applying them.  One of the most infamous for us and most inconsistently enforced was that we could not watch television at meal time. A glaring exception to this rule occurred during the original airing of ABC television’s 1977 miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley claimed to have traced his ancestry to the Juffureh Village in The Gambia in West Africa. For eight consecutive nights at the end of January 1977, my family turned on our television to watch Haley chronicle his ancestry as a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte of The Gambia. Indeed, we watched every night of the series until night eight when we were part of the 51 percent of all American TV homes tuned to ABC for the conclusion of Haley’s epic story about the African-American experience[i].

I was eager, then, when given a chance last summer, to walk in the village where Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte was kidnapped.

L-R: Samba, our Wolof interpreter; Lamine Faal, proprietor; Dr. Kopano; Daddy Loh, a colleague from the St. Louis region

I was participating in the 2016 Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad in Senegal and The Gambia sponsored by the Department of World Languages and International Studies at Morgan State University through a grant from the United States Department of Education. In addition to me, our group was comprised of two other Morgan professors, one Morgan graduate student, and ten Maryland public school teachers. Together we embarked on a five-week intensive study and research program, called Islam in sub-Saharan Africa: Religion, Culture, and Society in Senegambia.

It marked both a professional and a personal pinnacle when I touched African soil for the first time.

 I examined various communication elements within Senegambia and investigated possible intersecting points with the people and culture of the black Diaspora, specifically within the United States.  My research agenda was based on Jack Daniels and Geneva Smitherman’s theory that a traditional African worldview exists and that this view is significant for understanding black communication practices.[ii] Their theory posits that although there are cultural differences among black people throughout the Diaspora, those differences are surface ones. However, there are deep structures that are at the root of the value system and the cultural expressions of black people throughout the world. It is the deep structure that allows us to talk about a traditional African worldview. The two main areas in which we find commonality among black cultures are in our communication system and in the expression of our spirituality/religion. Daniels and Smitherman’s theory became the foundation on which I explored Senegal and The Gambia.

Kunta Kinteh Island

 (All photos courtesy the author)

Although I was elated that the Fulbright group would be able to travel to Kunta Kinteh Island despite the visit not being on our original itinerary, much to my chagrin many of my fellow Fulbright scholars – including many of the African-Americans – did not want to visit this historic site.

There were various reasons offered for why folks objected to the visit: They had already visited one slave fort; Alex Haley’s narrative was fictitious; and there was an enormous emotional toil of confronting the past. I was flummoxed, irritated, and even angered as to why everyone did not share my passion for wanting to visit Kunta Kinteh Island – until a fellow Fulbright colleague, an Iranian, asked why some of us were so adamant about visiting this historic site.

I explained to him that Haley’s story of Kunta Kinte is metaphorical, and maybe even mythological for many African-Americans. We knew that we had a home somewhere far from America; we just did not know where it was or how to search for it. Kunta’s story resolved this conundrum and made us similar to all other racial and ethnic groups in America and in the world who could connect to an ancestral homeland. Every group needs to be grounded in history and to know “where they come from.” African-Americans are no exception.

Haley’s discovery allowed many black people in the Diaspora to have an allegorical home. Kunta became the symbol of every black person who was ever enslaved. Kunta Kinte was the only African name that many African-Americans knew. Certainly, it was the first African name knowingly uttered in my house.

I explained to my colleague that the story of Kunta Kinte does not have to be indisputably historically accurate to be true to African Americans and to be necessary for us. I reminded him that Christianity and Islam contain mythological elements and incongruities, but these inconsistencies do not prevent millions of people from adhering to the tenets of these religions and to their practices. Finally, I explained that I needed the story of Kunta Kinte, even if it was part myth. I needed it as part of my effort to define who I am and to find a history longer than the sharecropping, cotton picking, and log cutting family history that my father provided me.

Once I arrived at the island and stood inside the holding cell where Kunta was said to have been the sole survivor, I knew that I was empowered to talk to my students about the historical relevancy of Africa in ways that no accumulation of readings alone could match.

The Global Effect of American Popular Culture

For most of our years in America, we descendants of Africa have not called ourselves African. We have been colored, Negro, and black. Some of us also have been called and now respond to another name: nigger.

I saw the electronics accessory store Nigger Animation in a small village in Senegal. My Fulbright travel mate and French interpreter, Dadie Loh, our Wolof interpreter Samba and I had a spirited talk with the owner of Nigger Animation, Lamine Faal, about the use of the word nigger. Lamine speaks Wolof; Samba speaks Wolof and French; Dadie speaks French and English, and I speak only English. I spoke in English; Dadie translated to French, Samba translated to Wolof, and so it went.

Lamine told us that the inspiration for his shop’s name is American rap music and that he is a member of a Senegalese rap group that embraces nigger as a term of endearment. I shared my belief with Lamine and Samba that corporate American media exploit black musical creations and that the global images of African-Americans are largely the control of white corporate interests. These images are projected to maintain white economic and cultural hegemony.[iii]  Lamine reminded me of many of the African-American university students with whom I have interacted for nearly thirty years. Their embrace of black cultural degradation is a result of the appropriation of black music and culture by those intent on hijacking black souls.[iv]

When African-Americans call themselves colored, Negro, or black, their names fail to connect them to a geographical place. Certainly, when people call themselves nigger they do not connect to a physical land. Instead, the embrace of this word is a continuation of the self-degradation that slavery, Jim Crow, and global white supremacy (racism) have afflicted upon black people for centuries. Many of us are now co-conspirators in our demise; nigger is a continuation of that demise, and it is abetted by a globally-distributed array of visual, aural, and text images that often present the vilest images of black people.

Lamine admitted that he had not thought much about who controls the American music that had made its way to Senegal. He also acknowledged that most of the American hip-hop images that he encounters in Senegal do not show diverse images of black people in America. Samba lamented that Lamine and many other male youth of Senegal wear sagging pants and urged me to explain the origin of this fad. I told Lamine that many people believe that wearing sagging pants is an extension of the U.S. prison culture and that various theories exist as to the original meaning of this fad, including being a symbol of gang affiliation, advertising oneself as sexually available to another male inmate, and simply the effect of having no belts available in prison. Lamine seemed taken aback by any of these possible fashion origins. Samba seemed pleased that Lamine was listening to my arguments.

Lamine challenged me to send him music and images from American hip hop that represents diverse experiences from the black world.  I am now accumulating maerial to share with Lamine and Samba.

Using What I Learned

The poet Countee Cullen asks, “What is Africa to Me?”[v]  I require my students to answer Cullen’s question in a course that I teach at Morgan called Communication and the Black Diaspora. In fact, I continually refine my response to this question. Professionally, I share the belief that studying Africa is important to the academy’s mission of “challenging and advancing social, scientific and humanistic modes of inquiry.”[vi] I believe historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should be at the forefront in exploring Africa’s importance as the birthplace of humanity and the spiritual home of black people in the Diaspora. Perhaps, more pragmatically, as one of the most mineral-rich continents in the world and with sub-Saharan Africa now home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Africa offers abundant financial opportunities to the global community. As African-Americans wonder how they are to be viable forces as producers in the world economy, the increased prevalence of stabilizing African governments, bourgeoning African economies, and blossoming information technologies throughout sub-Saharan Africa have led to a rapidly-expanding African middle class that offers untold potential partnerships for enterprising African-Americans and Africans.[vii]

No meaningful partnership can materialize until African-Americans and Africans destroy the mental barriers that prevent them from realizing their cultural connections and their commonality of historical oppression. They must ward off the propaganda that feeds mutual inaccurate and derogatory images of black people and culture. Prioritizing the study of Africa is important as part of the cultural reclamation project that is necessary for black mental health.

My travels to Senegal and The Gambia reaffirmed my belief that Africa is my motherland and is indispensable to me. The spiritual awakening of visiting our ancestral homeland, the rejuvenation of witnessing the industriousness of street vendors and the effects of African ingenuity, and the marveling of the ubiquity of spiritual fervor throughout Senegal and The Gambia should make any journalist – or anyone seeking to understand black people – tell more accurate and complete stories about the black experience abroad and at home.

 

[i]Josef Adalian.  “Roots is Still One of the Biggest TV Success Stories Ever.”  http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/roots-miniseries-ratings-were-off-the-charts.html (accessed July 17, 2017).

[ii] Jack Daniel and Geneva Smitherman, “How I Got Over: Communication Dynamics in the Black Community,” in African American Communication & Identities: Essential Readings, edited by Ronald L. Jackson II, 3-15. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 5-6.

[iii] Tamara Brown and Baruti Kopano.  Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Major Jackson (Ed.).  Countee Cullen: Collected Poems: (American Poets Project #32).  (New York: Library of America, 2013).

[vi] African Studies at the University of Chicago.  https://africanstudies.uchicago.edu/ (accessed January 14, 2016)

[vii] John P. Banks et al. Top Five Reasons Why Africa Should Be a Priority for the United States. Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings, March 2013.  https://www.brookings.edu/research/top-five-reasons-why-africa-should-be-a-priority-for-the-united-states/(accessed January 14, 2016).

 

 

 

 

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Communicating in the Diaspora: A Story of Senegambia and Me