Why race remains a burning issue

Friday March 2 2018


I could not make it home to Kisumu for the historic premiere screening of Black Panther. But I have been getting my relatives’ and friends’ responses to the event and the film. Even from across the Atlantic, the effusive appreciation, from both African Americans (like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) and American Africans (like my family), is overwhelming.

Indeed, Black Panther is such a phenomenal success and an irresistible talking point that many of us may end up actually never finding the time to watch it. I mean, there is probably many times more footage about this unique movie than the whole feature itself.

If you get tempted into viewing the trailers, the fashion parades at the screening venues, the comments of the enthralled viewers and the flurry of talk shows, you will be video-weary long before you get to the real thing.

I will, therefore, refrain from regaling you with more details about Blank Panther. But the main reason why the film caught my attention is that it dovetails strikingly with several recent developments in Africa and the Black diaspora, which I have mentioned in these pages.

It all stems from this “black” thing, especially with reference to the colour of our skin. Obviously, Black Panther hints at the ethnic identity of the citizens of Wakanda, a fictive never-colonised, technologically advanced African country somewhere “on the western shores of Lake Victoria”.

Did I say I would remain mum on the film? But I suppose you can see one of the reasons why it is “wowing” the Black diaspora and the rest of us who have been subjected to colour politics or “colourism”, as it is increasingly labelled in current discourse.

I believe that the attitude of most of us black people (or “people of colour” as the others call us) is that skin colour does not matter. It is just that, skin deep, and should not be used as a criterion for judging or measuring humanity. Do you remember the late Lucky Dube’s iconic reggae croon, Different Colours, One People?

Unfortunately, many of the others — those who think that it matters that they are not black — will not leave it at that. Every time there is an encounter between different shades of humanity, the colour flag is raised, and most often to the disadvantage of the dark-skinned people. That is how, for example, many of our ancestors came to be subjected to systemic slavery in the so-called New World, with all its attendant complications.

Yet, despite all the colour obsessions of the racists, the Nazis, the supremacists, the KKK and their ilk, it is inevitable that wherever normal human beings meet, they do and will mix across all those insignificant lines. Racial purity and colour purity are absurd assumptions, neither tenable nor enforceable in any human community.

The Immorality Act, for example, in apartheid South Africa, tried to ban sexual relations across race lines. It failed miserably. The “Act” was widely satirised and exposed in literary and dramatic works, including a play, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona, by Murray Carlin, my South African lecturer at Makerere. In the play, Carlin poses the question of what would happen to a South African (White) Prime Minister if he were to turn black while in bed with his wife.

Anyway, the obsessions with colour still persist among some people. One of the most anticipated events of this year, for example, is the royal wedding, sometime in May, of Prince Henry, the grandson of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, and the American actress, Meghan Markle. Meghan and Henry’s romance evokes many emotions in those who follow these things.

America and Britain have always been “uneasily” together since 1776. Maybe this is one of the reasons Winston Churchill, whose mother was American, once observed that “the British and the Americans are one people divided by a common language”. (Incidentally, Donald Trump’s mother, too, was a Brit, a Scotswoman). So, a topflight Anglo-American romance is always noticeable. But we who were around in the 20th century also remember that Henry’s great-great uncle, King Edward VIII, was forced to abdicate from the British throne in 1936 because he decided to marry an American divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson. Meghan Markle, too, is a divorcee, but people are more relaxed about these things today. After all, Henry’s father, Prince Charles, is himself married to a previously married lady, Camilla Parker Bowles.

Incidentally, do you remember Henry’s mother, Princess Diana? She died in an accident when she was fleeing from the obtrusive paparazzi, who were haunting her and her African (Egyptian) friend, Dodi al-Fayed. So much for your racial separation obsessions.

Still, the one detail that some people seem to be fixated on in the royal romance is the fact that Meghan Markle’s mother is African American, with “black” blood in her veins.