The Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series presents Anna Mwalagho’s ‘Never Thought I Was Black Till I Came to America’

Anna Mwalagho – Photo: Wanda Sabir

by Wanda Sabir

Anna Mwalagho’s “Never Thought I Was Black Till I Came to America” performance was a fitting continuation of the wonderful conversations the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series, co-produced by the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center and the Peralta Community College District, has become so appreciated for. A free series, it was nice being at the Oakland Museum of California’s James Moore Theatre, an elegant and intimate venue, which was filled.

In an interview a week earlier, Mrs. Mwalagho called Mr. Harris “family” and, as the inaugural comedy show, there is great wisdom in her presentation, which is, given the federal immigrant policies of this present administration, quite timely. On the West Coast, immigration stories do not often include the stories of Diaspora Africans. So Mwalagho’s story is both fresh and funny as we travel the historic legacy she is connected to. Her journey connects all of us to what is important in our lives and how much we should pay attention to such values.

Martin King spoke of a “love ethic” and how singularly important and powerful it is. With all of Mwalagho’s historic and current examples, plus the people she names, like Rosa Parks and Harriett Tubman, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, and the gratitude she expresses, we are left with a validation, a practical validation of our singular and collective importance in this American story.

African people made this nation the great nation it is. As the artist recalls the MAAFA, a Kiswahili term that references “the great calamity, terrible occurrence,” known as the Black Holocaust, we are reminded of our singular greatness. African Diaspora people are mighty because of our ancestral legacy. My friend, Massingbe Kone-Cisse, an African business woman who has been here for over 20 years, agreed with Mwalagho on every point, especially the thanks owed to the Africans who arrived here in chains first.

Our ancestral lives reflect the difficulty in legislating human rights for a people deemed property. When Sojourner Truth asks the question, “Ain’t I a Woman?” she is asking for acknowledgement of her personhood, not just her labor. The idea is that whether a person is just recently off the boat or arrived generations ago, the orientation is similar. The systemic use of “othering” tactics based on linguistic acumen or how well one slips into the dominant cultural noose still remains a challenge.

Mwalagho talks about intelligence and how intelligence and accent are weighted. Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, author, scholar, spoke often of how he was underestimated because he had an accent.

She also says that in an appearance at a Washington, D.C., church (reference her DVD, which was available at the venue for purchase) that her faith in something greater than systemic and exclusive policies and politics helped her stay focused, keep moving and not give up as she navigated this foreign terrain.

Landmines in the form of racism and white supremacy were and continue to litter this landscape, yet Mwalagho triumphantly stands before us whole, beautiful and happy.

We are encouraged.

“Never Knew I Was Black Till I Came to America” is what happens when reparations work. It is what “400 Years of Return 1619-2019” looks like when both sides of the African Diaspora link hands.

Mwalagho’s “Never” is a Sankofa story.

Post-1865 African immigrants are so busy trying to melt into an American stew they don’t realize they are the value added. Immigrants – both willing and those whose ancestors were captured and brought to this nation unwillingly to build its capital – are the “extra” in the American wrapper or often discarded packaging.

It was so refreshing to hear Mwalagho honor our African Ancestors of the Middle Passage who died away from home. The specificity of her truth and the way she articulated it with grace and humor is and was illuminating.

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, playwright, director, has a similar story of her travel in Africa and Europe. Mwalagho’s work answers some of the questions raised. Barry “Shabaka” Henley, actor, playwright, director, also raises such questions of the reverse migration – how it feels for Diaspora Africans to return to their ancestral homeland, all tangible memories erased by distance.

Another Kenyan filmmaker, Peres Owino, in her “Bound: Africans vs. African Americans” (2015) starring Isaiah Washington and Joy DeGruy, convenes several conversations between Africans and African Americans which look at misconceptions on both sides of the same coin.

A funny aside is that Peres is also a comedienne. Historically, African American actors were only allowed certain roles on stage and that was the comic, especially a comic who made fun of her person and her community. However, African American actors embedded pride and worth in many of the stereotypical characters or popular caricatures. If it’s funny, it can’t be serious, is the thinking. It can’t empower the viewer, is the thinking. Yet, like the story quilts and the coded messages in the Negro Spirituals, often these public performances were a way to humanize “Sambo,” to give the caricature a perspective that is absent when embodied by white men in blackface.

This type of performance seen in the colonial context is a form of erasure, a disappearance into whiteness; however, comedy is a way to tease out the skeletons and Mwalagho’s “Never” gives the bones of these misunderstood and maligned ancestors a place to rest – for example, ancestor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1877-Nov. 25, 1949).

Immigration can be a form of erasure. The quicker the newcomer sheds her identity, the sooner she is accepted.

I love the story of the Yoruba man who says he is English when Mwalagho greets him with warmth. He denies the continental connection, yet his facial structure tells a different story.

We cannot escape our past, so we might as well embrace it. This is a choice. Too often what we see when we look into the mirror – another African face – is denial. In Western culture, there is no value added to a hero with an African face.

Another story Mwalagho shares is the African American practice of naming our kids African names without a connection to the people and culture. Her example is the parents who name their baby “basket.”

Anna Mwalagho and Donald Lacy – Photo: Wanda Sabir

She deftly sprinkles “Never” with references to African traditional culture through personal stories from online dating juxtaposed with her granny’s arranged marriage, to African chickens and the American franchise, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. I wonder if she knows the superhero Popeye, whose fuel is canned spinach?

I think it’s interesting that her food of choice, chicken, is from this franchise, not Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Colonel Sanders. I do not think African people are getting dividends from either entity. White men founded both food chains, one in New Orleans the other in Kentucky. Popeyes consumed Church’s Chicken before its owner went bankrupt.

(An aside, I learned the name comes from Popeye Doyle, Gene Hackman’s character in “The French Connection.” Perhaps the use of Cajun spices by the owner, Al Copeland, strengthens this link. Another funny coincidence is that Copeland was inspired by Col. Sanders’s KFC in New Orleans.)

Mwalagho steers clear of obvious colonial tras. However, she has to pinch pennies and has a few stories that illustrate hard times, while also showing how we get what we pay for. In a story about an early car purchase, a vehicle that only turned right, I was reminded of the Sherman Alexie collection, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” The collection is adapted into a film, “Smoke Signals.”

In it a young Indigenous woman has a car that only drives in reverse. What a metaphor. Similarly is “right turn.” In another story, shoes that melt in the hot sun leave the actor standing barefoot on the concrete. This example epitomizes the vanishing promises so many immigrants put in their suitcases on their way abroad. How quickly this empress notices she is wearing no clothes. All the great expectations and hopes vanish as the disappearing ink dries on visas and passports.

But, Mwalagho picks herself up. Shops at better stores after this experience. Invests in transportation that is a bit more reliable. Because she knows who she is, she can celebrate herself. She is a woman whose beauty is not delineated along a Eurocentric tape measure.

“Never” is a story of acceptance. Mwalagho recognizes and celebrates her tangible and intangible differences and what value she adds with her presence to the tapestry that is this nation. Her difference as added value, not something to be ashamed of or, worse, thrown away, is an important lesson of “Never.”

This lesson transcends person and place. The poison is assimilation. Assimilation is the bitter pill African Diaspora citizens here and abroad have been swallowing. “Never” confronts this and answers “never again.” I don’t need to be anyone except my beautiful African self – a big butt, dark skin, kinky hair – self!

Acceptance is an inside job. Belonging is another story. That is part two of a trajectory that is both hard and harmful – one that after 400-plus years, Africans indigenous to this land still face, still struggle with.

Donald Lacy’s “Color Struck” addresses this in his solo performance, which is why it was great to have him open for Anna Mwalagho. Africa is speaking to African Diaspora here, breath of African Ancestors a billowing breeze on sails traversing the circuitous triangular routes carrying precious cargo. The evening was a blessing. It was a balm, an affirmation, an Ashay to all that we are, past, present and future.

When Anna Mwalagho tells the story of the African American who goes to the African village and sees her relatives in the faces of the people … I could feel the audience resonate. We knew that story. If no one greeted us at the airport, if we made it to the village, we were home. I saw my grandmother crossing a busy street in Dakar. I wanted to follow her.

Learn more about Anna Mwalagho at https://www.annamwalagho.com/.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.