Dear Upright African,
I am reminded of six years ago. I had just flown into Johannesburg from Kampala. I was in Johannesburg to do a screen test for a TV series about Botswana. Before the screen test was over I had already landed one of the lead roles. Of course I was elated, mostly because even though I was enjoying an award-winning acting career on-Broadway and off-Broadway in New York City, I still had the firm desire to do something at home. A week later I was in Gaborone, script in hand, and ready to film. Then an email from the series producers popped up on my phone saying that after “much careful thought and consideration” I had been dropped from the production for “not looking African enough.” The news was more infuriating than disappointing. I found myself wishing they had told me that I had been dropped because I had not been a good enough actor during the screen tests, or that I was asking for too much money. But to say that I did not fulfil some British self-styled Africanist director’s zoological notion of what an African looks like was to abuse even my ancestors. I tell you, Upright African, you and I must write and perform many-many stories about the Africa we know where my perfect teeth are not remarkable.
Internalized Oppression seeped into our young minds every time our teachers congratulated us for speaking well, “like a proper Brit” and in the same breath ridiculed us for having Afro-textured hair. British merchant John Locke, in 1561 wrote that Africans were “people without heads.” Trust me, Upright African, to pretend that I don’t have a head (even mind) would have been difficult thing for me to do in high school, or in that audition room in Johannesburg. Locke also describes Africans as people with “their mouths and eyes in their breasts.” Now that would be pure comedy if that sort of language and imagery had not animalized and thingified the African so profoundly in the West’s imaginary that it is partly how Europe justified (to herself and the rest of us) her brutal colonisation of a third of the world. Perhaps Locke would be hilarious if in 1829, European taxidermists had not exhumed the body of a Tswana King to exhibit it in the same way as a trophy animal in Spain for amusement of Europeans who had not seen a Black man before. Perhaps asking me to perform a zoological Africanness would not be insolent if Saartjie Baartman had not been trafficked from the Cape into to being a dancing sex-slave for Parisians at Palais Royal and Londoners at Piccadilly Circus simply because of so-called steatopygia, the “condition” of having a big butt, which apparently rendered her more like an animal and therefore inferior to the European.
When I predictably lived in Paris years after high school I almost-instinctively knew how to catch the metro from Villejuif to Centre Pompidou to Porte de Montreuil. I therefore found myself questioning my education almost obsessive- compulsively: what study of French history and culture (in a Botswana school) had this been that it almost-by-definition had to displace people who look like me and you out of story whilst the bloody Eiffel tower itself was built by enslaved Africans who died in the process and whose bones remain under the magnificent monument? What if in that high school class you and I had learnt not just about the great French singers Patricia Kaas and Edith Piaf but also about their equally great contemporary Josephine Baker and how she wrote a competing narrative with her body, claiming the agency of the black female body on stage, in Paris no less? How different might our consciousness have been at that age as products of “international” schools? Would we have spent so many disorienting years after high school apologizing for (not) being African? What if we had simply learnt about African empires instead of French history? You see, we also belong in history as protagonists and not just as supporting characters. Upright African, we must also make dolls that look like little African girls. Perhaps I digress but you get me.
When the grand story of David Livingstone’s peripatetic exploits across Africa is told in Big-British-Books-On-African-History used in African schools, private or public, it introduces us to his African aides, Susi and Chuma. We are told that Susi and Chuma were loyal servants to David Livingstone. We are also told that Susi and Chuma were so loyal to David Livingstone that when he died at a location described as “the centre of Africa,” Susi and Chuma risked their own lives by carrying Livingstone’s embalmed body for months from modern day Zambia all the way to the coast of modern day Tanzania so that the body could be shipped off to London for burial. Now, what if we dared to tell the stories of Susi and Chuma not just as servants but also as – to use that fancy term reserved for Europeans – ‘explorers?’ What if in our version of missionary history we also saw Africa through Susi and Chuma’s eyes? Would we not see that Ilala, the Zambian village where Livingstone died, is in fact not the center of Africa but simply a case in colonial cartography full of self-serving symbolism?
I wrote We Are All Blue because beneath the Grand Narratives of global history lie African stories waiting for you and me, Upright Africans in the world, to truthfully tell back into our Consciousness. With no apology. For our own humanity’s sake!
Donald Molosi is a classically-trained actor and award-winning playwright. He holds an MA in Performance Studies from UCSB, a Graduate Diploma in Classical Acting from LAMDA, and a BA in Political Science and Theatre from Williams College. Molosi is featured in A United Kingdom, opposite Golden Globe and Emmy award nominee David Oyelowo and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike. The film depicts the marriage of Prince Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams in the 1940s and the uniting of the people of Botswana. Molosi divides his time between Botswana and the United States. We Are All Blue has been named one of 2016’s most prominent African Books by several literary journals including Writivism.