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Between A Place and No Place

I was looking for myself on television, but didn’t realize it until I didn’t see myself. At four years old, my favorite show was Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shephard. Family Ties, Punky Brewster. Small Wonder. All shows I loved. Looking back, I realize the first time I saw some version of myself was in the four episodes Rosalind Cash appeared as Dean Hughes on the series A Different World. Four appearances, across three years. A silver-haired, long locked, regal, sophisticated dean at the fictional Hillman University. She made quite the impression on me. The image of an erudite African American woman with hair texture like mine must have superimposed itself into my pscyhe. I ended up being a professor at a primarily White institution proudly wearing my long locks. But even as I look at her now, I don’t see myself.

Continue reading “Between A Place and No Place”

About Mr. T. No, not that Mr. T

For people of color, representation and ownership of images are far and few between. Before Jane the Virgin (2014), the last show featuring majority Latinx characters was George Lopez show (2002) which lasted until 2007. That’s 7 years, two shows centered on Latin-American life. And before Lopez, was Chico and the Man (1974). It was 24 years before there was Latinx lead. Meanwhile Latin-Americans make up eighteen percent of the U.S. population.

Asian Americans make up about six percent of the population, that is around 19 million people. Before Fresh off the Boat (2015), Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (1994) was said to have been the first sitcom featuring an all Asian-American cast, and Cho received much praise for being the first Asian American lead. is often credited for being the first Asian American star. (It should be noted that between AAAG and FoB was, a show called outsourced featuring Indian hybrids, but we can reserve the bias toward East Asians in television and sheer invisibility of Indian families on television for another entry.) Some research after binging Cobra Kai led to the discovery that Mr. Myagi (Pat Morita) starred in the sitcom Mr. T and Tina (1976). which had actually been one of the first (if not the first) network sitcom featuring a majority (East) Asian-American cast.

He was always Mr. Myagi to this millennial (or is it GenXer?), but Pat Morita was born in California to Japanese immigrants. Like many Asians in California during in the 1940s, his family owned a restaurant, but he would later find his fortune in entertainment. I may have recognized him in Happy Days when I’d watch Nick at Nite, but I wouldn’t come to see him until The Karate Kid. Before the The Karate Kid, however, Morita played many roles with his big break as Taro Takahashi in Mr. T. and Tina, a show about a Japanese inventor who immigrated from Tokya to Chicago with his family. The show only aired four episodes, but it’s certainly worth learning about as we consider the dearth of representation of BIPOC communities and the opportunities, albeit limited for immigrants and their children, to feature in stories which reflect their community.

It’s interesting to see the primer episode featuring cast members from Welcome Back Kotter, an Italian, an African-American, Latino and a Jew(?) approach a Japanese man. The enactment of racial and ethnic identity in the 1970s is eye-opening. It begs one to consider not only how Black actors were trained to perform blackness, but how Asian-American actors enacted Asianness, accents and all.

It is also important to understand the decision making that goes into who gets air time and how groups are portrayed. Margaret Cho has been open about the compromises she was foreced to make in presenting Asian-Americans including being forced to conform to the thin ideal and experiencing barriers to portraying Korean-Americans humorously, but authentically including the negotiations that second-generation Americans make between their parent’s culture and an American culture. In fact, Mr. T attempted to showcase these tensions in identity-formation among Mr. T’s kids who spent a lot of time with their American nanny, Tina.

Today, there are more shows centered on immigrant life and challenges. Maybe Mr. T. was before it’s time. But one thing is sure, and that is the visibility of an immigrant contributing to America, and making life better for his family is significant to our cultural media landscape and the value we ascribe to ourselves and others.

Black Box

No,it’s not Bird Box, and it’s likely better. But to be transparent, I am completely biased.

I don’t recall where I learned about the film, but the trailer seemed interesting enough. A psychological thriller about a single father with amnesia, trying to recall his old memories, and possibly discovering something terrible about himself. Fractured, comes to mind. (but don’t worry, it’s not what you think). Then the selling point. When I saw my television mom, Claire, Phylicia Rashad was in it. I clicked *Watch Now*.

And what a pleasant suprise!

Black Box, directed by Ghanian-American Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, features Mauritarian-American actor and producer Mamoudou Athie as Nolan, Nigerian-American actor and director Tosin Morohunfola, and Zimbabwean-Australian actress, writer, and director Charmaine Bingwa.

And this is all you need to know. Watch it!

Haha, just joshin’! But how exciting right? Or is it just me? Here are the reasons, I found Black Box interesting and worthy of support.

Humanity in Stories

Director, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, aims to tell”authentic, sensitive, human-centered stories”, and that he did. No doubt, Black Box is a story told by people across the African diaspora, about a human experience. It wasn’t about being African. Wasn’t even about being Black. Without giving it away, the story is about attachments, whether good or bad, and to some degree the film entertains the boundaries of science. Regardless of our hue or cultural background, most can relate with relational and professional tensions

Diversity in Stories

Remember when diversity meant the one Black character in a sea of White faces? The creative skills of Black people across the globe were featured in this film, and the racial diversity of the cast was reflective of American metropolitan cities in which Black Box takes place. A project with the contributions from rising stars, there is little information available about their narratives which may (or may not) have played a role in the kinds of stories they tell or are apart of. One thing is for sure though. From the writing to performance, the cast includes a diversity of Black people within the diaspora.

Black Box was originally written by Brooklynite Stephen Herman, a recent graduate from Baruch College and an award-winning director himself. Director, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour was born and raised in Houston, TX to Ghanaian parents. He studied in Japan for a while and it is there he discovered an interest in a style of storytelling which places emphasis on character’s psychological processing. Though he has directed a few shorts and commercials and received awards for them, Black Box is his first feature length film. Mamoudou Athie, though born in Mauritania, was raised in Maryland, US when his father came to the US to seek asylum. A rising talent, Athie has starred in a notable number of television series including Madame Secretary, The Get Down, and Patti’s Cake.

Tosin (we on a first name basis bc #Naijarepresent), probably best known for his roles in Black Lightning (2018), Love Is_(2018) , and The Chi (2018) defines himself as the proud son of Nigerian immigrants. Not only is he a filmmaker, but he is also the founder of the Multicultural Theatre Initiative, a theatre company which aims to cultivate interest and develop writing skills among diverse groups. Charmaine Bingwa winner of the 2018 Heath Ledger Scholarship, was born in Australia to Zimbabwean immigrants, and thus is the first Black recipient of the award. Bingwa is relatively new to the business, but has already written, produced, and directed a few flicks including Little Sista. Little Sista offers a window into a life of an second-generation Aussie whose mom engages in native spiritual rigutas. To add more complexity to the character, the main character (Bingwa) is also a lesbian. This intersectional approach to storytelling adds nuance often overlooked or undervalued in the mainstream. And of course, Phylicia Rashad needs no explanation.

It doesn’t stop there. The cast also includes other diverse characters including Dr. Reed , played by Hans Soto. In addition, Tosin plays a Ghanian character, Dr. Gary Yeboah. Look at that, an immigrant doctor. His immigrant identity is not relevant. He is just Nolan’s friend and is deeply concerned about him and his daughter.

Why does this matter?

By now, you should know. Representation matters. And representation isn’t sticking minoritized person of color in a script, whitewashing them or coaching them to perform an ethnicity. Representation matters in whose stories get opportunity. Thanks Blumhouse. Representation matters in whose lens through which we view a story, and it matters in the physical presentation of humanized bodies of color we view on screen. It matters because in the absence of these, it is easy to privilege an Anglo-centric view of bodies of color. However, seeing Osei-Kuffour, Athie, Mohorunfola, and Bingwa’s name in the credits reminds us all that our identities are plentiful. Even more, seeing second-generation Americans starring in a screenplay written by an African American and playing alongside an African American presens a view of unity countering some of the other narratives out there about Black American and Black Immigrant relations.

Overall, it was a thought-provoking film, so if my reasons are of no consequence to you, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Dear Founding Fathers, We Present Shyamala’s Daughter

I was so distracted by my fear of the continuation of an administration which would pose a threat to my physical and psychological well-being in these United States, that I couldn’t even enjoy the history Kamala Harris made as the first female Vice-President of the United States. And she is not just the first female, but also first South Asian for sure. But is she the first African-American woman?

Kamala Harris was evidently jogging when she won the vice presidency
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is harris-for-tovia-story-0013e37ab9a63cbfad834fd7beb282967b0b333d-s1300-c85.jpg

Speaking of which a dear friend of mine who is Indian called me to celebrate and asked me a question which she could probably only talk to me about.

“Her father is Jamaican. Why do they keep calling her African-American?” she queried. Along with this question, I see memes circulating about the authenticity of the Vice-President elect’s blackness, because she is mixed or bi-racial. So for some within the Black community, she is not really Black. (Here we go again)

These questions expose the limitations of the racial constructs we hold onto so tightly in this country, and the claims to authenticity some of us push forth to exclude others for the purposes of elevating our increasingly targeted sense of self.

Well, Vice-President Harris is Black.

She is Black because her father is a first-generation American, being born in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica to Afro-Jamaican parents. Consistent with the stories of many immigrants, Donald Harris came to the the United States to pursue higher education at the University of California and, depending on one’s take, contributed meaningfully to the field of economics. When Kamala’s father arrived in the 1960s, he was likely not just Jamaican, but became Black. He was certainly a descendent of Africans. Per the organization of racial classification systems here in the U.S., though he had come from an entirely different culture, he likely became a color, experiencing the meaning of his melanin in this country.

Her mother, born in Chennai, India came to the U.S to pursue her graduate degree at University of California, where Shyamala met Kamala’s father. According to the story, they met each other at a protest for civil rights. The both experienced what it meant to be non-White in this country and exercised their rights as Americans to do something about it.

What Kamala Harris's multi-ethnicity can teach us about race - Los Angeles  Times
Kamala as a young girl with her mother, sister and grandparents

Kamala is a second-generation, biracial American. To be born of a South Asian woman, does not cancel out her African ancestry from her Jamaican father and its implications for her lived experience in the U.S. It is perhaps for this reason her mother committed to her children developing their Black identity by moving to a majority Black neighborhood and building a Black community by attending Black churches. And though attending Howard University does not automatically make you Black (side-eye Rachel), it is often described as a “mecca” for Black people of all backgrounds. Yes including a young South Asian Black American woman.

Dallas attorney shares special connection with Kamala Harris as sorority  sisters
Kamala Harris with her AKA sisters which she pledged at Howard University

Along with many other groundbreaking successes, Kamala Harris gets the honor of deconstructing the rigid lines of racial identity we use to box people in. She gets to be a token of celebration among her South Asian, Black, and Caribbean communities. And having the privilege of being mixed, she might be able to utilize her cultural standpoints to express and exact empathy toward a multicultural America. Another brown leader in the White House not only widens the vantage point for those in power (fingers crossed), but widens the opportunities for many girls and girls of color striving to become more than gender assigned occupations. The low representation of women in STEM careers is the reason young girls, and especially those of color, may avoid the math and the sciences. If increased representation on screen can increase young girls’ self-efficacy (their belief in their capability) , what can seeing an actual vice-president who is female and brown do for girls in this country? Visualization helps dreams seem reachable and representation makes hopes attainable. Identification is a path through which we come to understand and see ourselves. For brown people in this country if we are seen, it is more often through the lens of limitations, than the actual attainment of our ability.

America, though it wrestles with welcoming foreigners, is a nation of immigrants. The Anglo founding fathers of this country likely did not imagine Obama’s son or Shyamala’s daughter, but Kamala surely represents what they imagined in their vision for the country–a land where any citizen can lead the people, not limited to a monarchy or a select few. Thank you forefathers. Another immigrant’s child is in the White House.

The Sit-In

The Sit In': When Harry Belafonte Hosted 'The Tonight Show' in 1968 |  IndieWire

What’s this have to do with first and second-gen Americans? I imagine that would be your first thought.

Unexpectedly, plenty.

The Sit-In is a documentary about the one week that entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte hosted Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. The documentary suggests that during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and civil unrest, Carson wanted to create space to address political issues on his show, but felt slightly ill-equipped to do so, especially as it relates to racial injustice. Belafonte had an evening special once on NBC and was generally beloved by African American and White audiences alike. During that week of letting a Negro man host a late show during the most segregated time in television history, Belafonte used his platform to humanize African Americans, amplify voices of color and the concerns of marginalized communities.

Not even sure where I heard about the show or ‘peacock’ for that matter. Likely instagram. Having an affinity for history, I couldn’t help but view it and I can say it left an imprint on me for the following reasons:

Immigrants Envision America

Belafonte who was a second generation American, born to Jamaican born parents and is an iconic figure in American history. Yes, he was known for his calypso flavor and even as an actor. But I’d argue his mark in history is less about his talent, but more about how he used his talent as a platform for social justice. Belafonte was known for bridging racial divides, have an integrated dance crew on his own show and inviting everyone from Robert Kennedy and Paul Newman, and the Smothers Brothers to Martin Luther King Jr., Leon Bibb, and Buffy Sainte-Marie

Reflecting on his experience hosting, Belafonte shared a sentiment that is probably common among many immigrants, and that is while there is much to be critical of in this country, there is also much to celebrate and he was determined to hold America to its aspirations of equality for all people. He would try to do so by making White audiences of The Tonight Show see people of color as not just entertainers, but Americans also

In a time where a nation is really struggling for its soul, [I] believe that all of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to salvage the best that’s in America because there’s a great deal that’s good about it. -Harry Belafonte

In an interview, Indigenous-Canadian American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie introduces her song Welcome Emigrante where she expresses the irony of anti-immigration sentiment.

“It’s pretty silly for first or second or third generation American to be making fun of and refusing help to newly arrived immigrants, when the fact is they haven’t been here that long themselves” – Buffy Sainte-Marie

The documentary also briefly covered Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian American who like Chadwick Boseman (may his soul rest in peace), actively selected roles which elevated Black people. Potier was likely one of the first Black men to slap a White man onscreen. To see such a thing in the 1960s just a few years after the Jim Crow era, where Black people couldn’t sit in fronts of buses or drink from the same water fountain, was empowering demanding to be seen as a person.

History Urges Hope

Much of the footage in the documentary cover the one of the ugliest times of America’s story, somewhat reminiscent of our current times. Division. Protests. Anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment. The emerging fist of White supremacy breaking through the promises of the Declaration of Independence, declaring all created men equal.

It was humbling to watch these individuals, Rev. King, Coretta Scott King, Belafonte, Robert Kennedy, John Lewis, Sidney Poitier and others be light against darkness. It seems so easy to hide against the shadows of hateful rhetoric. It’s easy to pick a side and participate in the illusion of us. vs. them compared to good vs. evil. Righteousness vs. unrighteousness. During a time where violence against Black bodies was legal and imminent, they spoke the truth and stood in love. Their message was not one of hared of any group, but hatred for injustice. As I reflect on our current challenges, I am encouraged that good can prevail, and perhaps I could be among those who do good works and be light.

Over 50 years later, we find ourselves in familiar territories, not just here, but around the world. And one thing that is consistent is the people pushed to the margins, push back, not to demand dominance, but dignity.

The immigrants of this country have used their voices and platforms to demand that the vision of this country since its independence comes to fruition. The Sit-In is just one of many examples of how immigrants and their children push to make this country better.

Just Moved to Yankee!

And what comes to mind when you hear this phrase?

Me? I see a packed suitcase and an airplane landing at JFK. Honestly, I see Akeem with his animal skinned turban screaming from a balcony “Yes! Yes! F@#! you too!” (Classic!)

Whereas the term “yankee” may more famously be known to refer to northerners in the U.S. during the Civil War, it was also a derogatory name the Brits used to describe their rebellious colonies in the Americas. In fact, the fun kid’s song I learned in preschool, “Yankee Doodle” was the proposed first national anthem (Thank you Francis Scott Key!) Today, when people say Yankee, they are referring to The United States of America.

This is certainly what Kemi and Dumebi had in mind last year when they named their organization, Just Moved to Yankee (JMTY) which helps new African immigrants adjust and succeed in the U.S. Kemi, who was just 15, when she arrived to attend college in West Virginia, found herself feeling lost in the sea of information or perhaps a better description would be the desert of ignorance. When she was a student she observed that the issues affecting international students were not adequately addressed. Support systems were not set up to assist immigrants in succeeding beyond academic excellence. Dumebi, on the other hand, arrived in Dallas, TX for graduate school and experienced a range of emotions from excitement to disappointment to loneliness. While she was happy to be in the land of opportunity, she realized staying connected with people from her ancestral land was critical to her psychosocial well-being.

Kemi and Dumebi connected while doing graduate work in Texas, a hub for international students, and collectively worked to make sure that international students would not have to face the challenges they faced. Given the opportunities that already existed for other immigrants, the two women focused specifically on helping other African immigrants.

I feel like a lot of schools do not give international students the right information to thrive. There were so many mistakes that I would have avoided as an international student if only I had the right information.

-Kemi

Using social media as their primary platform, Kemi and Dumebi post helpful tips and cautions for immigrant students and those entering the job market. Their posts often follow international news that impact students like the current administration’s recent attempt to strip visas from international students. Their posts offer strategies to achieve success in careers, presents reviews of companies seeking to hire, shares idea for legal side gigs, and inspires entrepreneurship. For Kemi and Dumebi, success is not just about grades, but achieving your purposes for leaving home and your family. Because jobs to international students are not guaranteed, JMTY has partnered with an organization called F-1 doctors to help international students secure jobs in the medical field.

An example of JMTY post

As best they can, JMTY also answers questions and attend to concerns their instagram followers send them. In addition to their instagram posts, they hosted a semi-formal networking brunch where guests could ask burning questions of a Nigerian American CIO about working in corporate America. The duo definitely had more in store, but COVID. Currently, Kemi and Dumebi host Instagram Live Chats in the place of live networking events. When things return to normal, the team plans to continue cultivating community in person to assist African immigrant students

The ultimate goal of JMTY is to “. . .guide [international students] through the school selection process, course selection, search for scholarships, visa interview prep, and ultimately, connect them with members of our community who can help them when they eventually move to the U.S.” However, JMTY does not only focus on the scholastic success of African immigrants, but they also addresses their overall well-being. Being African in America also means that one may need to adjust to being double-stereotyped (as an African and as a Black person) and manage the effect of being marginalized on one’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and success. For example, in one post, JMTY addresses the challenge of seeking a corporate job with an African name and an identifiable accent. Dumebi shares her story of learning to Anglicize her name to accommodate Americans struggle with non-English names. In another post, the ladies feature a follower’s personal message in which they are seeking advice on wearing braids to an interview. Not offering any direct advice or judgment, Kemi and Dumebi create a safe space for African immigrants to discuss their racial experiences, whether positive or negative, as well as be a community to one another Nonetheless, the ladies are grateful for the opportunities presented here in the U.S.

With all its injustice, we cannot deny that America is still a land of opportunities. America has allowed us to live at a much higher standard than a lot of us would have if we were in our various home countries. We have met some of the best people here, had some of the best experiences here, and as people who came here for school, we are better educated because of the U.S.

The ladies have pushed through the barriers and achieved their own personal success with Kemi working full time as a Senior IT Financial Analyst at a healthcare company and Dumebi working as a Strategy & Operations Associate at a financial services company. The duo were featured on the podcast “The Tales of an African Princess” hosted by Dr. Ozi, a Microbiologist who came to the United States from Nigeria to pursue her dreams. To learn more about Just Moved to Yankee or to support, you can follow them on Instagram, or LinkedIn. Click. Like. Follow. Share!

My American Flag

On July 2, MoveOn.Org launched a voting campaign called My American Flag in which they feature writers, actors, activists and other creatives against their immigrant back stories, and a newly created flag–one that tells their story.

Of course, your girl was ecstatic as the message resonated with my message and my mission for this blog and current projects. Here is one of our problems here. These socially constructed racial categories are limiting! So much so that it shuts out the plethora of expressions of cultural identity which enriches the U.S. immigrants and their children are not evil enemies, but contributing citizens.

The NaySayers

Of course the campaign is not without critique. Let’s briefly entertain them.

The campaign is divisive.

I’d argue that disregarding the myriad of immigrant stories and cultural hyridization is to erase–that is whitewash brown ethnic narratives. How much more divisive can one get?

The project is silly because the entire American experiment is wrong.

Yes, the Brits, Dutch, French and Spaniards who arrived here in the early 13th century literally stole this land and used menaical weapons of spiritual, psychological, and economic warfare to dominate people groups and subject them into the submission they themselves were fleeing. Still today whiteness persists to silence the voices of marginalized people, and brown people specifically around the world. And yes, the idea of democracy, though flawed in practice, didn’t even take into consideration people who were not the majority. Nonetheless when TJ and dem wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men were created equal” they started a firestorm that immigrants have continued to enflame. The project was honorable. The implementation of the project was disgusting and shameful. Immigrants come to set the U.S. on the course to becoming its aspirational self.

This campaign goads white supremacist nationalist

Yes, but it doesn’t take much to goad them. The premise of White supremacy is that no other culture is worthy or can claim rights to a land which they occupy and control. From my perspective, this moment says, Ef that. This land now belongs to all of us. This campaign bulldozes through the white supremacist logic and makes space for all the different ways to be American.

My American Flag not only offers a visualization for the diversity which exists here in the U.S, but celebrates the contributions of that diversity. This movement also finds a place for the inbetweeners, the hybrids, the people caught between multiple lands to exist. It doesn’t force them to choose but allows them to be all aspects of their cultural selves.

This approach to identity is crucial to deconstructing classifications and the stereotypes that come with it. Can you imagine how much stronger we would be if we respected and embraced all the ways in which we are a melting pot of goodness!

Check out what these cultural disruptors had to say.

A great America acknowledges our collective wrongs…to build toward a future that values freedom & equality for every person on American soil.

I was raised to be as proud of being from India as I was to be born in the United States. Identity has no borders.

Being American to me means standing on the backs of immigrant parents’ sacrifices.

Our country is a work in progress, a poem still being written.

To be an American who is Black . . .is to constantly ave your heartbroken but you manage to find revolutionary joy anyway.

The commitment to making America is great by celebrating and making room for its diversity is the heart of this blog and my current personal mission. I will always be proud of what being inbetween offers me, chief among them a revolutionary perspective. Vote unapologetically.

The Lovebirds

No I’m not late to knowing about the film. Just late to writing about it. The Lovebirds, starring Issa Rae (Insecure; The Photograph) and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick; Stuber) was released May 2020. As a stalker fan of Issa (we on a first name basis), I had heard about it through one of her IG Lives. I remember being shocked and thinking, Whaaat? A “Black” and “South Asian” couple?? How are they going to do this? How gangsta!

Kumail Nanjiani & Issa Rae Comedy 'The Lovebirds' Heading To ...

Before you judge me. It’s not that I thought Black people and Indian people could not be together. Far from it. I have an inexplicable connection with Indian culture. Maybe it’s all the Bollywood movies I grew up on. I just remember learning from a close of friend of mine who happens to be be from New Delhi, that ….how do I say it less bluntly than she did. . .Indian people would prefer their child marry a White person before a Black person. Yes. That dampened my dreams of marrying Samir, whoever he was and wherever he might be. Sigh.

This common cultural belief is also displayed in popular films like Mississippi Masala or Bend it Like Beckham. More recently my boy Hasan called out our the Indian community about the conversations they have about Black people. It was an unfiltered exposure of colorist ideology which perpetuate divides among people of color in the United States. So for me, this film was a visual and rhetorical weapon against cultural belief systems which demonize dark bodies and disjoin cultures which actual share similar ancestry. And I don’t even know if that was their intention.

No this story is not created by immigrants, but it features a second generation Senegalese-American and a Pakistani immigrant (possibly first generation). The film was written and directed by three White men. Arguably stories created by people of color are more likely to be as daring as this film. I know it’s just a comedy, but these roles could have easily been played by White B-rated actors. Furthermore, comedy can rhetorically address social issues in a more accepting way compared to other genres. Michael Showalter (director) Aaron, Abrams (story), and Brendan Gall (screenplay) managed to tell a love story featuring two marginalized individuals without further marginalizing them through simplistic tropes. They were human. They had their idiosyncrasies, Jabran (Nanjiani) was into documentary filmmaking, and Leiliani (Rae) was an adventurer. Like so many relationships, they didn’t get each other, but they wanted each other.

The setting of the film was about 48 hours of these two individuals’ lives. No time or little need to delve into their cultural distinctions or their backgrounds. However, just as omission speaks volumes in media representation, so does decisions about who is seen and how. While her name is Hawaiian, Lelaini is unashamedly black. Played by an actress who unapologetically roots for anyone Black, Rae’s improv signifies her blackness. She and Jabran are heading to a dinner party with her friends who are mostly Black. Her hair could be straight. It is in box braids. She articulates without reservation the implication of being brown and calling the police. Jabran could have easily been named Kartik–a typical Indian (read Hindu) name, but instead was given a common Muslim name. In subtle ways, these characters are more than caricatures. They are people.

In my research on whiteness in Black-context films, I have argued that people of color are the numeric majority or the centers of a story, it is probable that White majority characters will fall prey to stereotyping, especially in a comedy. I believe this is what we see here. The White characters in this film are villains, member of a secret society, or background characters. But no worries. Stereotyping of White majority people do not harm this group the way it has people of color for decades because of the diversity of portrayals of White people. When positive portrayals are limited for people of color, they are stigmatized by the negative representations. Nonetheless, there is value in the visual contrast in that it uplifts and humanizes people of color by offering a counternarrative to the typical dominant one.

Comedy is an acquired taste. Most may agree a movie compelled them emotionally or provoked them intellectually, but humor is subjective so people may be more critical. That said, The Lovebirds did not receive high ratings on imdb.com or Rottentomatoes. However, I enjoyed watching two brown people of different hues just be people who are trying to find their way back to each other. In a way, it works as a metaphor for all of US to connect with each other by trying to find our common ground. The Loverbirds is currently playing on Netflix.

The Successful Africans

To hear the term successful Africans might sound redundant if you have grown up in an African home with African parents who made success a requirement for their love (just kidding…kinda). Although Sub-Saharan Africans comprise of less than 5% of the immigrant population in the United States, research shows that their rate has increased over 40% in the past decade. While Nigerians have been identified as the most educated and successful immigrant group, collectively Africans “experience poverty at higher rates than immigrants overall” According to Abisola Shof, the host of the podcast “The Successful Africans” this shouldn’t be so. If even one African is thriving, the community can thrive alongside. . . if only we knew each other stories.

Continue reading “The Successful Africans”

Make Stallone a Verb?

Last night, I had a movie night with my husband. Admittedly, I normally dread when he asks me to pick a movie. I know he is being kind, but honestly the movies I really want to watch are the ones that make me think or feel. I like words. Contemplation. Connection. I think my husband generally prefers content with a little less dialogue and a little more activity. So when I saw Rambo 5: Last Blood (2019) in Amazon’s Prime Video movie list, it seemed a perfect choice. Action for him. Nostalgia for me.

Continue reading “Make Stallone a Verb?”

Yvonne Orji’s “Momma I Made It”

She did it!

The premier of Yvonne Orji’s first stand-up special which aired on HBO on Saturday was not just a celebration for the Black community, but definitely felt like a personal achievement for me—a whole me. (You will get it once you watch it or if you are familliar with Orji’s podcast with Luvvie Ajayi, Jesus and Joloff).

Listeners of the podcast became more acquainted with Molly‘s Yvonne’s personal journey as she shared about her faith, her career path, and being single–all of which is connected to her identity as a Nigerian-American. While her recent HBO special may have been an introduction for some, those of us who have been stalking following her for the past three years are familiar with her background. She was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, but came to the United States when she was about four years old and grew up in Maryland. “Momma I Made It” is a comedic review of the balance between her ancestral and assimilated culture. Appropriately titled, the special is also an ode to her parents, relaying a crucial aspect of first and second generation American identity. Our success is not our own.

From the onset, the color green (Nigeria’s dominant flag color) is prominent in ts marketing. In the promo pictures, the HBO typography, and the lighting on stage upon her entry, the audience is made aware that this comic’s perspective is coming from another land. The stand-up includes footage from her most recent trip to Nigeria where she engages with her parents and strangers in the community to illustrate many of the points she makes in her routine. The visuals of Lagos, the former capital city, in the first frame is an unabashed presentation of the country. Whereas, Orji could have only predominantly featured shots from the posh areas of the country like Lekki Phase I, Lekki Phase II, or Banana Island, the beautiful, yet rugged image of the mainland and her home in Ihiala Town was an organic and authentic revealing of home, signifying her pride in all things Nigerian.

She opens up with a popular stereotype of “the emails from the Nigerian prince” (If you haven’t heard about it or received one….I guess you’re lucky.) In Nigeria, scams or 419s, while rebuked, are as normal to the culture as eba and egusi. It could be an embarrassment for us, but it’s so commonplace that sometimes laughter is the only response. Even though the scams are indicative of a corrupt system (not a corrupt people), it certainly becomes fodder for shared storytelling at gatherings. In fact, Orji celebrates these tensions within the culture when she describes the country as “beautiful chaos” and its people as joyous. (Cue: Ayuba’s We are Happy People and let your hips follow the drum). In contrast to mainstream presentations of Africa which cultivate pitty empathy for Africans without “resources”, or leaders who refer to African nations as a”shithole countries”, Orji embodies an undeniable pride in her country and celebrates it, flaws and all. While there are shortcomings, there is no shame.

A large part of the special was about Orji’s relationship with her mother. She praises her mother’s hard work-ethic and success as a nurse in Washington D.C. This tribute to her mother serves as a subtle counter to negative narratives regarding immigrants’ value to this country. Under the current administration immigrants have become the scapegoat for the country’s economic and moral failures. According to the American Enterprise Institute, immigrants in the workforce actually boost the economy and create jobs for other US natives. While undocumented immigrants are more likely to take low-paying , low-skilled jobs, immigrants make up a meaningful proportion of professional services and high-skilled jobs.

Throughout the special Orji shares about her parents’ emphasis on education and encouragement of at least three career options. It’s a joke that almost any immigrant group can relate with. She invites us into a candid conversation among other Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans about parental pressure which from an American perspective might seem harmful, but for this group at least, the parental”shaming” and family scoldings were merely motivation. This might explain why children of immigrants are likely to excel above their parents in education, earning power, and asset wealth. According to Pew Research, ” . . .all (93%) of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now [2019]] and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children.” For many immigrants, a child’s success is their crown of glory. Orji captures this communal pride well.

It seems clear that Yvonne Orji has willfully taken up a mantle to rewrite the scripts written not just for Black people, but immigrants and their children. Like many first and second generation Americans, Orji utilizes her unique position to view socio-cultural interactions with a “dual lens.” She craftily engages tensions between Nigerian and American ideologies, American privileges and biases, or Black American and African identity with respect. From the stigmatization of Africans in the US to social comparisons in the African community, Orji comedically unpacks the duality of our cultural affiliations. Her identity as someone In Between, an Insider/Outsider allows her to share stories that makes us laugh at our differences and celebrate our similarities. Such stories also remind us of what makes the United States a land of opportunity. With her platform she is able to introduce a new visual of immigrants–one that we can all be proud of, not just her momma. I look forward to seeing more of her work as she develops her art and her message.

Stay tuned for my review of Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever