Yrneh Gabon Brown Joins Mama at the Round Table

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A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of being in L.A. and headed to the CAAM (California African American Museum). By chance, it was the final day of an exhibit called Visibly Invisible, by artist Yrneh Gabon Brown. As it turned out, Yrneh was there talking to visitors and greeting some acquaintances with a big smile on his face and a charming Jamaican accent.  After taking the time to move through the exhibit, which was brilliantly designed, I went over to say hello and tell him how much we’d enjoyed the artwork. The pieces were so varied, from multimedia incorporated in sculptures to bronze pieces that made me think of the amazing ancient bronze work of Benin. This piece, called Out Cry, is something I’ve quite literally dreamt about since the show…

The art was beautiful; but what I found most memorable, was the message it conveyed. Subjects like this one make people want to turn and run rather than face it head on. After all, it is depressing to think about the fact that such atrocities can happen. Facing the details of the torture, abuse and maiming of people suffering from albinism in Tanzania are so difficult to discuss. Who wants to come out on a sunny day and bring their children to encounter what could be such heavy information to digest?

You might be expecting me to say something about how the suffering of others ultimately affects us because we are all human. The thing is, you already know that; so I won’t insult you by giving speeches and standing on a soapbox.

What I will say is this: Yrneh’s work has certainly inspired many conversations. His sophisticated, yet simple ability to tell the story of so many through his art was moving. The pieces are done in a way that cause people to do what matters most: Dialog.

It is my prayer that museums worldwide will see the merit in inviting Yrneh to exhibit his work in their cities and nations. Because just as we see albinism in species of plants and animals; so too do we see it in peoples of every nation and culture on Earth. Perhaps (and fortunately) most don’t face the prospect of being hunted, abducted and killed like in Tanzania. But, many face discrimination and ill treatment due to their lack of pigment; as if facing the physical and economic challenges of the disorder aren’t already enough to bear.

If we trace our roots back far enough, we are all Africans. The fact that our skin is black, white, yellow or red is simply a detail. So, to all of my brothers and sisters across the world, no matter what your quantity of melanin… be safe, be well and be blessed.

Your comments are welcome below. After all, the motto of Mama’s Round Table is “Dialog matters!” So, let’s talk…

To learn more about the Endangered White project, follow the link at the end of our interview.

If you’d like to learn more about the Visibly Invisible exhibit, I highly recommend the catalog which you can buy on Amazon or heading over to see a video of the exhibit

You can support Yrneh’s efforts in another way, by helping him continue his training and research by funding him on GoFundMe.

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Celebrating the 4th of July with Alexis La Pollo at Mama’s Round Table

I am so incredibly proud to have a guest at Mama’s Round Table that I can honestly tell you I love dearly, my daughter, Alexis La Pollo. Only 18 years old, she is a self-published author, president of her graduating class and someone you will certainly be hearing more about in the years to come.
As a member of the first generation of African from our family born in the United States, it seemed fitting that she be the guest at my table this 4th of July. I am her mother, so of course, there are lots of other things I could ask her about which are fun and interesting. But, this is Mama Afrika’s table; so don’t worry, we will stay on topic.
Hello Alexis and welcome to the Round Table. I know that you have read other interviews conducted at this table and I’d like to begin by welcoming you to this space which is so important to the future of Africa: A place where all viewpoints are welcome and respectful dialog is encouraged.
So, let’s get started:
1. Who are you? Can you describe yourself in a couple of phrases?
I am a daughter, sister, friend, and leader. I am African, Italian, French and American, all at the same time.
2. What does it mean to you to be African?
It means the world to me to be African, even though I may not look African in appearance it is a big part of me. Growing up I met plenty of Africans both in the US and in Europe and the bond that Africans share, whether you are from Senegal or Madagascar or whether you now live in Sweden or China is undeniable. Africans have built a strong community and a bond worldwide and I am privileged to be a part of that.
3. What does it mean to you to be American?
America, to me, is one of the greatest countries in the world. It is a beacon of freedom and hope to many around the world for good reason, it is a nation built on hard work, equality and diversity unmatched throughout the world. I feel proud when I tell people I am American, our nation may have made mistakes in the past, but we have overcome them and set a wonderful example for the rest of the world. I am proud to live in this land of opportunity.
4. Do you think that members of the African Diaspora, especially those born abroad, have a greater allegiance to their nation of birth or the nation of their ancestors’ roots?
In many ways I feel that it greatly depends on how close the person has remained to their roots; however, I also know that no matter how detached a person becomes from Africa while living abroad they still consider Africa their home. In this way, there will always be an allegiance to Africa that runs a little deeper than the newer bond they have with their adoptive country.
5. How do you imagine your life if you’d have been born in Eritrea instead of the U.S.?
I can truthfully say that my life would not be as great as it is not. Living in Europe and the US has given me the freedom to follow my dreams and forge my own path in the world. Living under an oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea would not have allowed me to voice my opinions, continue with my education the way I wanted to or even to be able to write my book. On top of this, living in Eritrea would mean being in fear of my government instead of being able to vote and give my opinions like I can here. Just being able to take part in the political process is not something I could have done in Eritrea.
6. What are some of the things that you think any young African can do to contribute to the betterment of Africa without necessarily dedicating their life to politics or running a non-profit organization?
One of my favorite quotes, by Margaret Mead, reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” As cliché as it sounds, small thoughtful acts done by everyone could really change everything. Donating your time, talents, or funds to an organization that you can see doing good in the world is a great start. Even spreading the world to your friends about the issues facing Africa today is a great help. The more people know about an issue, the easier it is to be solved. We cannot count on the media to spread the word for us, we must do it ourselves; and in this age of media and social networking it isn’t even difficult. Share a link, like a page, re-tweet something powerful, it is as simple as that. You may never know who will see it and be able to also contribute their time, talents or funds.
7. In what ways do you feel your African heritage has driven your goals for your own future?
I think that the main driving force in my choosing to major in International Relations has been my background. Being African in particular has made me really want to make a change in Africa through the political arena. I want to see the day that all countries, especially Eritrea, see the freedoms that I had the privilege in growing up with in America and I now plan on working towards that every day.
8. If I say “tiger mom” many think of high pressure Asian mothers which push their children to attain success in all things academic. If I say to you “lion mom” what do you think of?
Immediately I think of African mothers, though Asian mothers get a lot of the attention, African mothers are just as fierce. I grew up, as I’m sure most members of the diaspora have, hearing all about family that still lived in Africa. Every time I brought home a bad grade or misbehaved in some way I heard all about this cousin or that aunt who would kill to have the opportunities that I do in the west, and how it was wrong and disrespectful to them for me to squander those opportunities. I have not met many Africans, especially in my family, who have not risen up to every challenge and met every goal they set for themselves; not just for themselves but for those back home who never could.
9. OK, my signature question: “If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change any one thing for women and children, what would it be?”
I would stage fair and just elections for all oppressed countries so that the voices of the people, the ones who really know best for the country, can finally be heard.
10. Finally, please tell us all about your book and what made you write it.
My book, Patchwork, began as a school project in my senior year and grew into something bigger than I ever thought it would be. I, and many others, struggled with my identity as a child. Where was I really from if I had so many cultures as part of me? I was filled with questions, what really makes a person American in a nation comprised of immigrants? How strongly to others feel connected to their home countries? So I set out to interview immigrants to the US from all over the world. My journey, along with their interviews are what became the foundation for my book Patchwork.
Thank you Alexis for showing us a glimpse into that shadowy space where cultures blend.

I often talk about how important our youth are and how necessary it is to invest in them if we want to see a strong Africa. I hope that today as many Americans of African heritage celebrate freedom and liberty in this nation; we are able to take a moment to think about how to create a generation of African youth who have the ability to express themselves and their vision for their respective countries in a productive way. Our children, be they in Berlin or Boston, Beijing or Bamako… all have something to contribute to the future of Africa. Let us raise those living in the Diaspora to take what is good from where they live and find a way to incorporate it into Africa’s future in a way that respects our indigenous traditions and heritage.
Happy 235th Birthday America! And thanks most of all for giving me a safe place to raise and educate my children and for having provided me with opportunities that I’ve been blessed with during my time here. The U.S. has welcomed me and despite the glitches and needed improvements I see in this nation; I must say that today, along with millions of other people of African heritage, I am also proudly American.

Facing Our Fears

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot to my family and friends about fear.  I don’t mean those fears we all have as children of things which are under the bed at night waiting to get us.  I mean the fears that we are all called to face from time to time when we are looking something in the face that might hurt us, even gravely.  I mean the fears that come with knowing that no matter which decision we make, something will be lost.

It is in those moments that we have the real opportunities to grow, inspire others and create our futures.  It is the decisions we make in those moments which create heroes, legends and saints.  It is also in those moments that we create our own future regrets, sadness and suffering.

Until now, my words might sound a little theoretical or dreamy.  After all, we aren’t all intended to risk our lives trying to save a lady from a burning building right?  I mean, the fact that we call these people heroes means that we elevate them above ourselves.  They are like fleeting superheroes, wearing capes for an hour, or only for a moment.  But these people… they are not us.

Let us leave the concept of super-people for a moment.  Let’s not focus on people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Joan of Arc … Let us instead discuss every-day heroes.  After all, we can open a newspaper and read about them all the time.  Just this morning, during a 10 minute period of browsing the Internet, I came across stories a family who decided to donate their house to a charity which helps children suffering from cancer, a high school girl who decided to start a foundation to put water wells in for poor African villages, a man who decided to be the whistle-blower on corrupt government officials… the stories are endless.

Given that so many people do these things, the things that 50 years ago we might have found normal to do; why is it that we hear so much more about the negative?  After all, no matter your place on the planet, no matter your religion, or ethnicity or nation there were certain basic codes to live by: fairness, dignity, and honor.  It seems to me, that the good news wasn’t headline news because it was expected.  The corruption, lying, cheating, etc; well, that stuff was interesting because it was rare.  Now, it seems we’ve swung in the opposite direction.  We think that good deeds are rare and that the negative garbage that we see (held almost on a pedestal) is what is normal and usual.

I spent a period of my life, like most people, looking at all of the things that go wrong, that are abusive and hurtful to others.  After “bathing in” that sub-culture for a while, I can see why so many people tell me that it’s overwhelming. But in the end, it’s simple.  It comes down to choices, individual choices which add up to build a family, a culture, a society.  These are the choices that build our reputations, our character and our lives.

Do we donate to a cause because we want to do something to help; or do we go the extra step to research what the organization actually does on the ground with the money?  Do we send money home to our family in Africa; or do we work to pool our resources with others so that we can build something larger which will benefit those who don’t have family living abroad?  Further still, do we help those most in need, even if they are from a different ethnic group, region or country?  Do we upgrade our car or keep the old one and use the difference to put a water well in a remote village because we know that it will serve a greater good?  Do we opt to keep our mouth shut so that we can remain on good terms with our home governments or do we give up the ability to buy land, build a home or even visit our home nation… because that is the price of speaking out for the basic human rights of those who live “back home” without a voice.

We can publicly pretend to not know there is abuse of power, corruption and fraud.  We can tell our Western friends and neighbors that Africa is not only filled with dictators and corruption.  But we know, at night in the silence of our bedrooms… at that moment that we place our heads on our pillows and pray to God to bless us… if we are doing what we can to ensure that there is less corruption, less polarization, more opportunity, more hope.  We know in our hearts if we are a part of Africa’s solutions or if we are living in fear of speaking out because we don’t want to ruffle feathers, be ostracized within our own communities in the Diaspora or out of sheer pride.  We know if fear rules us, or if we walk through it like our ancestors did.  We know if we are too afraid to walk against the grain.  We know and God knows, even if no other soul has a clue.

As a woman who was born in Africa, I love my continent as most Africans do.  I am not special.  But as an honest and fair woman, I must take the road of facing my fears.  It isn’t popular to tell people that they are supporting corruption for their own political or financial gain.  It is natural to hesitate anxiously before saying “The leadership is selling off our natural resources to China with little hope of the poor gaining anything from it.”  It is no easier for me than it is for anyone else to risk being misunderstood, pointed at or called names.  But I invite you to join me in the dialog.  We’ll agree on some things, we’ll certainly disagree upon many others.  But, if we sit in our corners in fear of the exchange… all of Africa loses.  Maybe we won’t get permission to build our vacation house in Nigeria or Eritrea; maybe our cousin will tell us that we are crazy for airing our national “dirty laundry”.  But in the end, I promise you that there is such joy in knowing that we have answered the call of our consciences…. Come what may.

I look forward to hearing your views!

Love,

Mama

Becoming an African Ambassador:

I am a member of the African Diaspora.  For the majority of my life I have lived in either Europe or the United States and I have enjoyed the privileges that many people don’t even think about: access to clean water, a free education, a safe place to raise my children without being concerned that they will be abducted to serve as slaves in a mine or cocoa field or be forced into military service at the age of 15.

I happen to have been born in a small country that most people I meet don’t even know exists.  They certainly can’t be expected then to know its history or culture; much less what its people need today.  How then could I expect people to care about my homeland, or Africa at large, if they can’t identify the average African nation on the map?

During a dinner party a few months ago, I was speaking to a good friend from Cameroon.  He and I were exchanging stories about the questions we have been asked by complete strangers.  Now, I don’t include questions I’m asked sometimes while travelling on business or when I’m invited to speak at an event.  Frankly, I think that in those situations, people feel safer to ask questions that they might otherwise think would be ridiculed.  After all, I’m fairly approachable (or at least I try to be!)  But I digress.  That evening, my friend and I were talking about those things that people have completely unexpectedly said to us or asked.

One of the reasons I love this friend of mine so much is that he is a natural teacher.  He has no formal training; but he does have what counts: a passion for his people and for Africa in general.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he is a pan-African at heart.  He moved to America as an adult and felt an immediate kinship with Black Americans.  We often discuss the similarities between the two cultures.  He’s travelled a bit and he has met many people.  But like me, he is still occasionally surprised by the regularly displayed lack of basic knowledge about Africa.  Rather early on in the discussion, we both learned that we’d been asked those basic questions like “Do you speak ‘African’?” “Are you glad that you get to wear clothes now?” or “Was it weird the first time you put shoes on?”  And before you let your imagination run away with you, these questions weren’t asked by people who were trying to be rude or racist.  You could tell in the moment that they were asked that it was sincere.

I don’t mention these questions because I want to make fun of those people who asked them.  On the contrary, I appreciate the fact that they dared to ask.  Some of my friends are offended by such questions or become irritated; if not with the people asking, then with the image that they have Africa and Africans.  The fact that the media’s images tend towards coups d’état, famine and diseases like malaria doesn’t help the issue.  That is a given.  But what of us: the Diaspora?  What role do we play?

I know that it isn’t our role to act as educators per se.  Sure, one could point to the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in cities like Washington DC, London and Los Angeles (many of which are owned by Eritreans who opt to hang signs that say “Ethiopian” in order to identify themselves to potential customers).  Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply explain the fact that the foods are incredibly similar in flavor and style so that people could learn more about Eritrean culture and heritage? What is the balance between trying to make a living successfully and our obligation to teach the world about our continent?  I choose this example mostly because I love food and think of it often 😉   I could just as easily have mentioned another profession, another age-group or situation.  It applies to each of us in our own way: we are individuals as well as Africans after all.

To answer the question before it is asked, “Yes, members of the Diaspora clearly have the right to live and exist as individuals.  We are more than our nationality.  We are more than African.”  But, I would like to also argue that we should find a certain balance between whom we are as individuals and whom we are as Africans.  After all, we are able to be many things and wear many hats.  You may be a daughter, a mother, a businesswoman and at the same time; yet, you are also the president of the parent-teacher association at your child’s school, a member of your church choir, an English citizen and an Angolan by birth or culture.  Isn’t it important that people know that the latter plays no less a role in who you are and why you want to serve your community while running a race to raise money for cancer research?  We are like stews, every ingredient plays a vital role in our flavor, in why people love us (or not).  I am only asking that once we leave Africa, we remember that core part of us which links us to our perspective “home”.

I have often told children and young adults to remember that they are ambassadors.  Be it young North Africans acting loud and obnoxious on the train outside of Paris or my own children out for the day with me.  “Remember,” I tell them, “that you might be the only African that some of these people will meet.  So, for the sake of others that they won’t meet… be respectful, intelligent and hard-working.  Show them not only who you are; but what Africa is.”

It might sound like a lot of responsibility for one person to take on.  After all, most of us living in the Diaspora are reminded on a daily basis of our individual rights; since the vast majority of us live in Western cultures now.  We are reminded of our freedom to choose who we are and for many of our youth, how tough it is to get ahead when one feels they are an outsider.  There is certainly discrimination on some fronts. Yet, when I see our children burning cars in France, signing up for jihad training in the Middle East or disrespecting elders at the grocery store simply because they are not their own grandmothers; I ask myself who is to blame?  Where has the disconnect come from? We must remain Africans, even when outside of Africa.

African culture is diverse; there is no doubt about that.  But, I think that most of us would agree that there are also many commonalities.  Respect for elders, a deep desire to maximize opportunities in education and striving to pull up your family and community when you attain success individually.  We have a common thread that runs between us regardless of language or region.  I know this is true because I can see it when I meet a woman from Ghana or Uganda and we instinctively call each other “sister”.  I know it because of the hundreds of tales I’ve heard of Africans travelling in other regions who were met with such hospitality and kindness.

I had a conversation with a woman from Mali once who told me of a visit she had made to her uncle in Ghana.  It was her first time visiting that country and when she asked the local bus driver what stop was closest to her uncle’s address; he replied with a smile: “This man exits daily at the same stop, he will show you how to get there”.  That alone didn’t impress her (although she found it to be a kind gesture).  Her face lit up though when she told me of how that stranger walked for quite a distance out of his normal route to not only take her to the doorstep… but that he wouldn’t leave until her until he saw her uncle personally greet her.  He didn’t want to leave her there alone in case they weren’t at home.  That, my friends, is African kindness.  That is the Africa that I want my American neighbors to know.  That is the Africa that I want them to think of when they meet someone from Burundi or Tanzania.  And one day at a time, I’ll build that image of Africa… will you?  I hope so; because each member of the African Diaspora, whether in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Vienna or New York is an ambassador for Africa.  Like it or not, you already have the job.  I challenge you all to make our ancestors proud in the way you do that job, one day at a time.

Blessings,

Mama