I Do Need a Man: A Feminist's View on Why Women Need Men

Last year a friend of mine called me out on wishing my single mother a Happy Father's Day. As a father I think he felt his one special day in the year to be honoured as a father was being hijacked. 'You don't see anyone wishing father's a happy Mother's Day,' he said. In my defence, if I had been raised by a single father instead of a single mother I'm the kind of person that would be wishing a Happy Mother's Day. But it turns out that I, along with 9/10 of the other single parent families in the UK, was raised by a single mother. He did go on to explain how as a man, especially a black man, he gets a lot of slack for the stereotypes of black man being womanisers, irresponsible and abandoning their kids. In 2007 approximately 50% of the black kids in Britain were raised in a single parent household. This was ten year ago - I couldn't find recent figures for the UK, only the US - but, with the consistent rise of single-parent households over the past ten years, I'm pretty sure that figure has at least stayed the same if not risen. So, with an eye-roll, I get his point that men - especially black men - who have stuck around should get the same recognition on Father's Day that women get on Mother's Day and single-mother's shouldn't hijack their day but, having had an 'absentee father' (to put it kindly) I will keep my eye-roll.

I write this post with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's extended essay We Should All Be Feminist on my mind and I am reminded of her humorous approach to her friends' disapproval of her calling herself a feminist. Her response is to call herself 'A Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men' or 'A Feminist Who Wears Makeup'. There are many conceptions aligned with the word feminist but what being a feminist really comes to is an expectation for men and women to be treated equally and/or to be treated as equals. Feminism does not mean that men and women are the same. Feminism does not mean women are better than men. Feminism does not mean that women do not need men.

The feminist stance is often portrayed as 'I am a strong, independent woman. I do not need a man, I want a man'. If that is you, then boo, do you. That is not me and I personally do not think that is healthy. In 2017, the truth is that women do not need men in the same way we did twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Women can support themselves financially, can stand for themselves socially, heck, we can even have kids without a man. But without men in our lives we lose a very vital part of the human experience. Men and women are vastly different; all you have to do is look at our brains to see how differently we are wired. The brain of a black man and the brain of a white will look basically the same. Not so much with men and women. Men have larger brains, women have more connections between the neurons. Both have equal capacity for intelligence. And these differences in our wiring affect our emotions and how we see the world and deal with different situations. To misquote Chinese philosophy, men are the yin to our yang (or vice versa). We complement each other. They have strengths where we have weaknesses and we have weaknesses where they have strengths. We have the potential to bring the best in each other and to discover things about ourselves we wouldn't learn from people of the same sex.

 A friend of mine told me the world would be a better place if women were in charge. Call me a bad feminist, but I disagree. I think that if all the men in governments were replaced by women we would have different problems but they'd be just as bad. My opinion is that the world would be a better place if men and women had an equal standing in running it. I suggest we give that a whirl and see what happens?  Any takers?

Also, when I say, 'I need a man' I don't necessarily mean as a husband. Don't run around men, I would like a husband, but I just mean in any capacity or relationship. Women need men as fathers, uncles, husbands and friends. Your friends are the people that challenge you, and teach you and love you. I believe that a well-rounded person is one that not only has friends that are like them but also has friends that are unlike them and, like I said, there are no two humans more unlike each other than man and woman.

So, on this very happy Father's Day, I, Enobong Essien, an independent feminist, do declare that I do need a man.

boys need not apply ;)

English Never Loved Us

I learnt the phrase 'English never loved us' from my South African friends. If you're a follower of this blog then you'll know that I've just finished a four year stint with the Hamburg production of The Lion King, where I had the pleasure of working with people from a number of different countries around the world, including South Africa, France, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and a fellow Nigerian (we are everywhere). Apart from feeling sorely inadequate as one of the few people in the company that spoke only one language in a company with an average of three languages per person (I can tentatively add German now), I also learnt a lot about the English language, the difficulties in learning it and the different varieties of it that are spoken around the world. I also learnt a lot about the different attitudes towards the language that, let's be honest, I kind of love.

First, let me give you some personal context. I am a first generation Brit. As the daughter of a Nigerian expat, and a former English teacher at that, I was brought up with a colonial, middle class view of the English language. Basically, my mother is of the camp that there is right English and wrong English; good English and bad English and, until recently, I too was of that camp. As well as many other activities, I have been studying for an English literature and language degree with The Open University. One of the most eye-opening parts of my linguistic module has been learning that linguists, the people we rely on to tell us about our languages and how they work, do not believe in right or wrong versions of any language. They believe in different varieties and dialects and all varieties and dialects are equal. It is the average Joe on the street, the writers, the teachers, the upper classes, the people who think they know a lot about what they have never studied, that insist on imparting their own preference as the norm whilst those with the academic knowledge say what's most important is to be understood. I have often heard West African Pidgin English referred to as 'Broken English' and wrongly assumed that, as a native speaker of English, I would be able to understand it. I naively tried to read a play written by Wole Soyinka in Pidgin and soon realised my folly.

I took it for granted that my mum and dad had an English medium education in Nigeria, not thinking about why they would or whether this was right. I've taken for granted that most Africans speak English, thinking that to assume they don't is racist - because civilised people speak English and Africans are civilised - not thinking about what this says about their mother tongues. You see, English isn't a bad language and the spread of English isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem with the spread of English is that it was done under an oppressive regime and has left us all with a biased assumption regarding the English language and how to use it. The result is that English is now used in an administrative capacity - and is often an official language - in over 70 countries in the world, and it is taught as a second language in an additional 100. In each country in which English is widely spoken the language has grown and added new terminology and new meanings to words to suit the accent and culture it is being used in. Here's food for thought: English no longer belongs to the English.

Linguist use the phrase 'world Englishes' to describe the many different varieties of the language around the world. These include; British English, American English, Australian English, Singlish, Hinglish, Jamaican Patois, West African Pidgin English, South African English, Indian English and South African Indian English, to name a few. These all have their different traits regarding vocabulary, grammar and, according to linguists, are all valid in their own right. What often happens is that as society we pit one English against another giving authority and prestige to British and American English, enjoying Australian English as harmless and looking down at the other 'hybrids'. But each English is formed within a community of speakers who have taken a language forced upon them by a foreign nation and made it into a language they can relate to and, therefore, as long as they are valid within the community in which they are used, then they should be valued worldwide.

British English involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of idioms; something I wasn't aware of until I started speaking to second language English speakers who just didn't understand me. I am not fluent in South African English but I learnt a few 'isms'. I learnt that if you are coming 'now' then I should be prepared to wait and if you are coming 'now now' then you really are on you way and that if something surprises you then you were 'never ready'. I say South African English but of course within SA there are many different Englishes just as with the UK a Scottish person will speak a different English to an Englishman who will speak a different English to an Irish person; just as in America, African Americans have African American English.

African American English gets a lot of flack for being 'ghetto speak' and I remember reading a while back a quote from Bill Crosby where he berated young black people for using it, but the reality is that African American English has a history, a vocabulary and a grammar. African American English is a legitimate dialect or variety of English and deserves to be treated as such. Instead it is looked down on. Why? Because the people to whom it belongs are not the people in power. American English was legitimised by one person and one person alone: Noah Webster. He is the reason why British people run to the Oxford English Dictionary for verification and Americans run to Webster's. After winning their independence from the British, the Americans wanted a way in which to unify them as a people and so they created a new way of spelling, a slightly altered grammar and legitimised their alternative vocabulary.  Essentially they formed a language for their community and, because they now held the power, they legitimised it and we all know call it Standard American English.

Let me tell you something about British English, the English often touted as 'real' English. The English in Britain today is a convoluted language of Germanic decent with a splash of Latin and French thrown in for good measure and the odd Gaelic word that survived, plus any other loan word we thought to 'borrow' from other languages. The 'correct grammar' we use today was made up by a small group of snooty rich white men who decided to borrow Latin grammar rules in order to try and regulate English usage, instead of seeing what the usage of the language actually looked like and going from there. These grammarians decided, for example, that double negatives are not good English. However, the giants of English literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer, both used double negatives. Chaucer we can excuse because he was using Middle English but Shakespeare is legit Modern English and a fan of the double negatives. He was also a fan of the word 'ain't'. The reason learners of English find so many discrepancies within our language rules is because English is a language of discrepancies. English allows us to say 'I ain't done nothing' as well as 'I didn't do anything.' It is our societal values that forbid the former. 

You will often find that those who feel the need to correct another person's English are those that have the most insecurities about their own. When they speak of what is correct and what is incorrect, what they mean is, how I speak is correct and everything else is incorrect. Rather that add or take away anything from a language that continues to evolve, as all living languages do, all this way of thinking does is belittle one group – or groups – of people and elevate another.

The linguist, Michael Halliday said, 'A speaker who is made ashamed of his own language habits suffers a basic injury as a human being.' Language is a personally thing deeply connected to who we are and the communities we belong to. All I ask is that you think twice about your reaction when faced with an unfamiliar form of a language you thought you were familiar with. Maybe the problem isn't with the speakers but closer to home. Here's another thought, maybe you're not supposed to understand the particularly variety of English you're criticising because you're not a part of the community of which it belongs to. The English language is like a virus the British unleashed onto the world. Do you know what viruses do? They evolve.

A Good Religion?

You may or may not have noticed but we are going through somewhat of a black people revolution. The revolution isn't been fought with guns and bombs but it is fought with self-love, self-appreciation and self-knowledge. The Ancient Greek aphorism 'know thyself' has always been the maxim for Africans in the diaspora and never more so than today. From the natural hair movement to the rise of African fashions and African music to the revelations of previously buried Black history, black people are no longer willing to believe the impression of ourselves put forward by those who do not know us and do not wish to know us. We will discover our own history, we will know it and we will grow from it.

In the mix of all of this comes the question of religion. A friend of mine said something very important to me the other day, she said: 'they came to our nation and they took away our culture and gave us a bad one; they took away our education and gave us a bad one; they took away our religion, what's to say they didn't give us a bad one?'

Full disclosure, I am a Christian so my bias is towards Christianity but I think that any person of any religion or non-religion should regularly be questioning what they believe and why they believe it to learn more and to grow. Europeans came to Africa and imposed their Eurocentric ideals to diminish African culture and, by effect, the African peoples. Was one of these Eurocentric ideals religion? Yes and no.

By the time Europeans 'conquered' Africa it was officially a Christian continent. Education was church based, laws were church based, societal morals and ideals were church based. Those in the church or associated with the church had the highest education and power and the idea was that by introducing the Christian religion to Africa, Europeans could import their biases there and therefore have an easier rule of the continent. However, although Europe has been a Christian nation since the 7th century it is important to remember that Christianity did not originate in Europe.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have similar routes. We share the first five books of our holy books and all have Abraham as our founding father. Where Islam split off from Judaism is the rightful heir to the Abrahamic lineage. Where Christianity splits off from Judaism is Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God become man and that he died on a cross in Jerusalem and rose again three days later. Jesus is the foundation of Christianity. Without Jesus there is no Christianity.

Here are a few facts about Jesus:

- He was an Israeli man born in modern day Palestine.

- He never went 'overseas'. He whole life was conducted in modern day Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon. He never went to Europe.

- His ministry was for the Jewish people first

There is a passage in Matthew 15:21-28 where a women comes to Jesus seeking a miracle and he lets her know that he came first for the Jewish people. He heals her, but he lets her know this. So if anyone were to have dibs on Christianity then it would the Jews but they don't want dibs and that's not how it works anyway. Although he came first to the Jews, he came for everyone. As he ascends to heaven in Matthew 28 he commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Then later in Acts we see more examples of how Christianity is not just for the Jewish people but for everyone, if they want it.

Because it is such an old religion, Christianity is steeped in a long and complicated history, not all of it positive. The religion, the church and the bible have all been used to justify evil acts such as slavery, and this is one of the biggest problems black people and Africans - especially displaced Africans - have with the religion. This isn't a problem with Christianity the faith but with certain Christians who profess to follow the faith. You can twist any words to justify any means if you take them out of context and misinterpret them. I am not just a Christian who believes without thinking, I have read the bible cover-to-cover several times and studied both the bible and the history of my faith. The more you read the bible the more you realise it cannot be taken apart and each section used as you please; that is when it begins to sound contradictory. However, when you take the whole book as a whole and read what has come before in relation to what is coming next, then it makes sense.

Christianity is the religion of the oppressed. It's a religion that both humbles and uplifts you because it isn't about you but about God. It's a religion that lifts up the oppressed because it says all people are equal and a religion that humbles the oppressors because it says we are all equally sinners. It's a religion that says love you neighbours and also a religion that proclaims God's justice and vengeance and that evil people will be repaid for their evil acts. It's a religion that says you will suffer in this life but that you won't suffer alone. It is not an either/or but an and, which you will never see unless you take the bible as a whole. 

Christianity is about Jesus. Without Jesus there is no Christianity. He is the beginning and the end of our faith. And he did not come from Europe.

So the Europeans may have been how Christianity came to Africa but they didn't bring it because it wasn't their religion to bring. With Christianity they brought the bible, the first book to be translated into indigenous languages so that all peoples of all tongues can explore the written word and get to know God themselves. Maybe the Europeans brought a warped version of Christianity but with the gift of the bible they gave Africans the chance to discover true Christianity and I personally do not think that was a bad gift at all.

Just Another Word

I hope we have all come to realise that the old playground trope, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,' is absolute rubbish. Someone throws a stone at you and it will hurt for that moment then pain will go away. Someone hurls hurtful words are you and that hurt will keep coming back again and again, every time you remember that encounter, as the words slowly sink into your spirit and your soul. Words are weapons. Why else would we describe a hurtful comment as a 'cutting remark' if we weren't aware of the danger in our words? 

To quote children's TV, the word of the day is 'nigger' - sorry to those with more delicate sensibilities. I will refer to it as the N word at times, not for fear of the word but simply because I do not need it see it plastered all over my blog post. 

I shouldn't need to spell this out but I will. The word nigger is a derogatory word.  It stems from the word negro, meaning black or black person, and is steeped in a dark and twisted history of prejudice and oppression in which the black African person has been viewed and treated as sub-human or, to quote the Nazis, an untermensch.  It is a word that symbolises centuries of hatred aimed at one racial group.  It has been appropriated by black culture, particularly rap culture, in an attempt to reclaim the word but that doesn't mean it's open season.  If you understand the full meaning of the word (and you're not racist) you would never want to use it, and if you think it's harmless to use it then you don't understand the true meaning of the word.

I have heard many excuses for non-black people's use of the N word. I heard them say that it only means 'black' so it's not derogatory, I've heard the excuse that rappers and comedians use it, I've heard the excuse that 'my black friends use it', I've heard a plethora of excuses and frankly, when you have to defend your right to use racist terminology I think you have to reevaluate your intentions.

Words are defined by the way in which people have used them historically. So, for argument's sake, maybe the N word wasn't always meant to be derogatory (it was). Maybe in a hundred years time it will no longer be derogatory. But right now, in 2017, the word has a racist history and therefore it is a racist word. There are no two ways of looking at it.

Being the only black girl in most of my classes at school I remember when we would watch movies or read books that would have racial slurs in them and I would feel so uncomfortable despite the word not being aimed specifically at me.  (But of course every time the word was said the rest of the class would look at me to gauge my reaction). I've been fortunate in that I've probably had the word thrown at me spitefully less than five times in my life - imagine calling that fortunate - but it still makes me feel beyond uncomfortable to hear it said.  Sure, it has spread into popular culture and is now the word of the streetwise. Chris Rock and Chris Tucker use it, Eddie Murphy was always 'nigger this' and 'nigger that', Denzel Washington's character in 'Training Day' uses it frequently... but you'll notice something all these men have in common.  They are all black.

I remember in college I met a girl who referred to Chinese food by using an old racist term for Chinese people.  When I told her that was offensive she argued with me that it wasn't and that it was just a word everyone in her area used.  The girl was white and she wasn't purposefully racist, she just didn't understand how offensive she was being, which is almost as bad.  You may not mean to be offensive with your usage of the N word, you may just be having a laugh with friends, but the laugh is had at the expense of black people everywhere. And no, there is no white equivalent. It is not the same as 'cracker' or 'hillbilly' or  even 'white trash'. Yes,, these terms are offensive but they are not the same because there are not based on skin tone. They do not deem you worthless because of the colour of your skin. It wasn't that long ago that the N word was used as an adjective to describe something bad. People used to use terms like 'N-lazy' or 'N-dark' and these were not meant as compliments.

If you wouldn't call your black friend then N word then you shouldn't call your white friend by it and, word of advice, don't call your black friend the N word. Can black people use the word? Yes we can. Why can black people use it and non-black people can't? For the same reason why I'm not going to call my gay friend the same thing we call cigarettes in England. (Begins with an F, rhymes with bag). Marginalised peoples use the words that have been used to marginalise them in order to reclaim them and use then ironically. You cannot be ironic if it isn't glaringly obvious that you're using the word in the opposite way than its intent. A black person calling another black person the N word is not offensive because they are essentially offending themselves. It's like throwing a 'yo mama' insult at your sister. She's yo mama too!

Now I know that some racist terms are contextual. For example, lots of my South African friends whom I would refer to as mixed race, call themselves coloured. For South Africans this is apparently not offensive, go with it. For a Brit they might smack you in the face if you call them coloured. Another example is that my French, Spanish speaking friend calls herself a mulatta. It makes me cringe every time she says it but she sees no problem in it. However, the N word is universally unexceptable..

And I know there's this whole fashion of calling people who you like by derogatory terms, like girls calling each other bitches or the old *See you next Tuesday*; call me old fashioned, but I'm not into that.

So one last time, just to be clear, if you are not black in any shape or form, leave the word alone.

P.S. sorry for my frequent use of the word I have advised you not to use and for any other expletives that may have filtered through. There are two reasons for this: 1) I am black and therefore allowed to use the word – sorry, not sorry – and 2) I was torn between using the word and using 'the N word' so I have used both. As much as I resent the word, avoiding it too much almost feels like I'm giving it respect it doesn't deserve. It deserves to die from our vocabulary so that in a hundred years times you'll only be able to find it in historical dictionaries under the heading 'obsolete'.

 

The Legend of the Strong Black Woman

Last Sunday was Mother's Day in England or, as we also call it, Mothering Sunday. Geeky historical fact: England has a different Mother's Day because Mothering Sunday in England is the third Sunday before Easter and traditionally the time when everyone goes back to their 'Mother' Church – the church they were christened in. 

My mother is an amazing woman. She raised four children by herself in a foreign country whilst getting a masters and a second degree and all of her children went on to higher education and managed to reach their twenties without giving birth to any illegitimate kids (I come from a county with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in England so that is an achievement). My mother epitomises what it means to be a Strong Black Woman and for years I have openly referred to her as such.

One of the great gifts about getting older is gaining perspective. Because my mum did everything, I grew up believing she can do everything. She was invincible, like an armour-plated Amazonian. My mum turned sixty last year – you wouldn't believe it to look at her – and, in my eyes at least, she became human. She came down from the pedestal of superhuman that I had placed her on and became a human being that it was my duty to support. It sounds sad but I don't mean it to. For me it was a good thing, a great thing, because my relationship with my mother has never been more open and honest than it has been from the moment I accepted her as a woman, not just my mother and not just a Strong Black Woman.

My mother is strong and she is black and she is a woman. She is also weak, she is also fragile and she is also human. I have spent my life wanting to grow up to be a strong black woman but what does that even mean? Where did this title and stereotype, that at first glance sounds like a compliment until you realise how debilitating it is, come from?

The history of the black woman is one filled with persecution, torture and the the tearing apart of her family. From slave masters justifying separating a black mother from her child by telling themselves that black women are not as sentimental or attached as white women to fearing for the lives of their sons and husbands every time they leave the house, knowing that law-enforcement is not always on their side, life has been tough for the black woman and so she has grown tough to survive.

I have heard about the myth of the strong black woman but I do not think it is a myth. I call it a legend because there is a basis of fact that has been manipulated and turned against us. The reason black women are strong is because they've had to be. We live in a world where the colour of our skin and our sex have been deemed inferior. We have gone through a history of our men being taken away from us and yet we have had to survive. But it is important to remember that the black woman is not strong because of some innate super-human power but because there was never anyone to be strong for her. That doesn't mean that she doesn't feel the struggle or that she never has moments of giving up or that she doesn't go through emotional turmoil. She still weeps, she still feels defeated, she still needs, at times, people to hold her up. She may have Michelle Obama arms and be ready to cuss you out if you disrespect  those she loves but that does not mean that she does not feel the weight of the burden she carries. If you prick her, she will bleed. 

We look to the Strong Black Woman to support us all but who is supporting her? Whose shoulder does she cry on? Who does she turn to for help?

My mother raised four young girl by herself working nights and putting herself through university. People hear that and applaud her for being a Strong Black Woman. People tell her often that she is so strong, that she always manages to remain positive and that she is an inspiration. Women come to her with marital problems and tell her they are leaving their husbands because she raised her children alone and she survive. Do you know what my mother tells them?  She tells them her strength comes from God. She tells them in her weakness, he is strong. She tells them that she has cried, that she has gone through depression, that the smile on her face is not always a reflection of what she is feeling inside. She tells them that if they can make it work with their husbands then they should stay because it isn't easy doing it alone. And she ask me, if they could see how hard it was for her for all those years, if they saw enough to come to the conclusion that she must be strong to have survived it, then why didn't they help her?  

The danger of the legend of the Strong Black Woman is that it excuses everybody else from responsibility. Oh, she can handle it because she's strong. It suggests that she doesn't need help; that she doesn't require support; that she not only can but should be able to handle it all without a word of complaint. 

It also puts pressure on young black girls aspiring to be Strong Black Women to feel that they must be able to handle anything at all times without help.

One of my biggest flaws is that I find it very difficult to ask for help. When I struggle I think of all the Strong Black Women that went before me and wonder why I have failed to reach the expected standards, not thinking about/not being allowed to know how the women before me have broken down and have been crushed. We cannot admit to weakness because then the oppressors win, right? But strength doesn’t come through never feeling defeated; strength comes from admitting defeat and then trying again. And strength in numbers is far more powerful than strength alone.

Maybe it's time to stop expecting black women to be strong and to start allowing them to be human.

Content loading...

Happy Valentine's Day.

So... I'm very conscious of what I write right now because I know my mum reads this but here goes. 

A while back I went on a date with a non-white male.  He was Turkish but he clearly identified himself as being white.  Quite early on in the date he asked me if I liked white men or black men.  I told him I don't have a preference.  The conversation moved on, we questioned each other about our families and jobs and the like and then somehow the conversation came back to our dating histories and he asked me if my ex-boyfriend was black or white.  I said he was black.  Then he asked me what colour the boyfriend before him was.  I said he was white.  "Oh so you like white guys." He says.  I almost wanted to go against everything I believe in and scream, I don't see people like that.  Of course I see people like that, I'm not blind. What I mean to say is that I don't judge people like that.

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children might someday be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.  What King didn't ask for was no judgement.  We have to judge.  You make judgements about the people you trust, the people you depend upon and the people you listen to for advice.  The problem isn't making a judgement, the problem is what we base that judgement on.

Everyone quotes Jesus saying 'Judge not, so you may not be judged' forgetting that he also said, 'Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgement.' In order to live in this world without getting fleeced and trodden upon by everyone, we have to make judgements.  The key is to be mindful of what we make those judgements on.  Several years back a woman by the name of Susan Boyle became a household name in the UK because she dared to be unattractive and talented. The judgement that was made about her based on her appearance almost made people ignore her talent.   The Voice is supposedly based on the concept that contestants are judged blindly so the panel can judge them solely on their talent.  At least for the first round anyway.

Human beings are aesthetic creatures.  We seek out beauty and create beauty but our eyes are deceiving. It's said that up to two thirds of the brain is involved in vision.  Sight is not truth.  What we see is our brain's interpretation of the stimulants from the outside world.  Don't believe me?  What colour is a tennis ball?  Now ask a friend what colour a tennis ball is and see what they say.  Or do you remember that black and blue dress that blew the internet up?  Or wait, was it gold and white?

Author and Entrepreneur Isaac Lidsky gave a Tedtalk about the unreliability of sight that you can view here.  In the talk he lays out how we cannot trust our sight to show us reality.  We can't trust in our sight to make judgements. So how do we judge?

We need to stop judging looks but we need to start judging character.  Character is not how a person looks or dresses or how rich or smart they are.  Character is when what someone says aligns with how they act.  Character is what a person does when they don't think anyone is watching.  Maya Angelou said, 'when a person shows you who they are, believe them.'  Don't excuse them, don't apologise for them, believe them and make your judgements based on that.

Martin Luther King said to judge by 'the content of their character' so why are we continuing to put our lives in the hands of people whose content is still loading?

I Am Moana

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

New year, new opportunities.  I've been seeing "365 new opportunities" trending on social media ever since 1st January.  I'm writing this on 3rd January having already squandered 2/365 in duvet days.  Oh well, can't win 'em all.

So for Christmas last year (feels so stupid saying last year when it was mere days ago) I was blessed to be able to go home.  I often say that I'm an introvert stuck in an extroverts body and I similarly feel like I'm a home-body stuck in a travellers body.  I feel like my personality type manages to strike an equal balance between all personality types.  I hate meeting new people.  Hate it.  It gives me anxiety.  Yet because I know and am aware of the stress it gives me I try to approach the new person in the room because I don't want them to be suffering in the corner alone as I know I would be and then people think I'm outgoing.  I hate being the centre of attention and yet I love show-business.  Love being on stage.  My personality clearly didn't get the memo to just choose a type and stick to it.

I love home.  I love being with my family.  I hate that we don't all live in the same city.  At this rate the same continent would even be nice.  I love eating my mum's cooking and hanging out with old friends.  And yet I have the travel bug.  I love exploring new places and eating new foods.  I have a desperate need to see the world.

Over the break I had the pleasure of watching "Moana" at the cinema.  I forgot that when you go to the cinema to watch a kids film unfortunately you have to tolerate kids in the auditorium but even with the crying baby and the toddler that decided that running around in front of the big screen was more fun that watching it I had the best time.

Now if you've lived under a rock for the past year or, like my mother, have been seeing adverts for "Moana" not knowing it's a film, here's a quick low down of this movie.  No spoilers.

"Moana" follows a young Polynesian girl, Moana, daughter of the Island chief, on her quest to save her Island and the world, kind of.  She has lived on her island her whole life and obeyed the island rule to never cross the reef.  She has followed in her father's footsteps and has begun to prove she will be a great village chief.  But there's a problem: the island is dying.  Maui the demi-god stole the heart of the creation goddess Te Fiti and unleashed darkness on the world.  Moana must find Maui and take him across the ocean to restore Te Fiti's heart.

There are several reasons why I love this movie: 

Firstly, I heard about this movie last year when my friend and colleague shared her excitement that Disney have created their first Polynesian "princess" (Moana is not a princess she is the daughter of a chief and she specifies this).  My friend is of the Maori people of New Zealand and could very easily be Moana's mum.  I swear they based Moana's hair on her; this woman has the most incredible hair.  Now don't get me wrong, there is not a one-size-fits-all for oppressed and marginalised peoples.  But, because I have a close and personal understanding of being underrepresented I can join in the joy of others when they finally get their time in the sun.  Moana, like Tiana, Jasmine and - tentatively - Pocahontas, shows a change from the traditional pale skinned, euro-centric Disney princess and I'm all for it.  Diversity is beautiful.

She is Moana

She is Moana

Secondly, Disney got the casting right.  For the most part they used people from the Pacific Islands - ranging from Hawaii to New Zealand, not falling into the trap of using big names to sell box office tickets.  We'll let them have Dwayne Johnson.  And they did their research.  I thought the story was beautiful and the representation of Pacific Island legend and the people was respectfully done but it's not my culture so what do I really know?  However I talked to my above mentioned friend and she said it was spot on.  Well done Disney.

Thirdly, Moana is a role model I can in good conscience allow my three-year-old niece to look up to.  She is young at sixteen but she is respectful to her parents.  She doesn't run away to marry a guy she's never spoken to (Ariel) but she leaves her island because she feels called to a higher purpose.  She leaves to save her people and she leaves after asking her dad for help and being rejected (he was just scared).  And she leaves with the blessing of her grandmother and the knowledge of her mother.  There is no love interest.  Not a single one.  Don't get me wrong, I love a love interest, but Moana is sixteen.  Also, and don't think me crazy, Moana is not sexy.  She wears a boob tube and her midriff is on show but she is not even slightly sexy.  No heaving Jasmine bosoms, or heaving Ariel bosoms, or heaving Pocahontas bosoms for that matter.  She is a sixteen-year-old Island girl and she looks like a sixteen-year-old Island girl.  TBF at least Pocahontas wore more clothes than Ariel and Jasmine.

Fourthly, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote all the songs.  Halfway through Maui's song "You're Welcome" when he started the rap break I thought to myself, "This sounds a little Lin-Manuelly" and low and behold there's his name in the credits.  Lin-Manuel, of Hamilton fame, is kind of the name of the moment and rightfully so.  Not only is he amazingly gifted, he's inspirational.  He's created musicals that celebrate diversity.  Hamilton is basically blind cast.  He's amazing and my talent crush of the moment.  If anyone wants to gift me with Hamilton tickets I would be eternally gratefully.

But most of all it was just a beautifully written story.  Yes the story is about finding yourself (as many stories are) but in my opinion I think it's more about knowing yourself more than finding yourself.  Moana is called by the ocean to restore Te Fiti's heart when she is a toddler and she carries this mission, this longing to journey out on the ocean, in her heart for many many years before she is able to own it.  Maui the demi god has spent his whole life trying to prove he's worthy of being a demi god.  Both Maui and Moana have found themselves they just don't know themselves.

The featured song of the movie is "How Far I'll Go" and it's a beautiful song, but my favourite is "I Am Moana" (basically a reprise of "How Far I'll Go).  There's this moment at the climax of the song where Moana stands at the bow of her boat and belts "I am Moana".  You don't understand how my heart leapt at that moment.  Cue tears.

Remember that part in The Lion King where Mufasa tells Simba to remember who he is?  "You are my son,"  he says.  "And the one true king."  Powerful stuff knowing who you are.

Moana is a girl who loves her island.  She is a girl who loves the sea.  It calls her.  Turns out, the call was inside her.  We all have that call inside us and sometimes it's hard to hear because we're not simple personality traits on some psychologists scale but we are complex human beings who love to party on a Saturday night as much as we love to curl up on Sunday with a good book.  And things don't always work out the way we want to them.  It feels like more times than not they go wrong.  But as Gramma Tala sings in "I Am Moana", "The journey may leave a scar/but scars can heal and reveal/ just who you are."

That call inside you is inside you for a reason.  It's your call.  It was meant for you and only you can answer it.  May this year be the year you follow that call deep inside you and may it help you get to know just who you are.

I am Enobong.

Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal

It's the most wonderful time of the year... shall we see how many Christmas songs and carols I can fit into this post?  You might want to kill me by the end so maybe not.

Christmas is one of my favourite times of year, as cliched as that is.  It's the time of year that brings out the best in people.  Stories like How The Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol work because being a miserable old sod is bad enough but being a miserable old sod at Christmas is the absolute worst.  If you can't be happy at Christmas then when can you be happy, right?

This year Mall of America welcomed their first black Santa in 24-year and the racist backlash was so intense they had to take down all internet advertising. Meanwhile is the Netherlands – the country that is so forward thinking they invented Dementia Village – white people are fighting for the right to do blackface for Christmas under the guise of "tradition".

Meanwhile is Syria...

And this just happened in Germany...

The fact is that stories like The Grinch and A Christmas Carol resonate with us because, as awful as the Grinch and Scrooge are, there is truth to their sentiments.  Oftentimes the world is a hard place to reconcile yourself with, especially at Christmas.  You want to be full of Christmas cheer, roasting your chestnuts, listening the silver bells, drinking you eggnog latte (those things are vile) but then a truck rams into a crowd of people and you left thinking, what's the use?  Bah Humbug,

But Christmas...

We learnt from the Grinch that "Christmas... doesn't come from a store.  Christmas.. perhaps... means a little bit more" and we learnt from Jacob Marley that in death we shall "wear the chains [we] forged in life" but what do we do with that information?  What is the more?  What does Christmas mean?

Some of my favourite songs are Christmas carols.  They are deceptively simple.  You sing a catchy little tune you've known since you found a voice the powerful lyrics just wash over you leaving you with a warm glow and now recollection of its source.  Take for example Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.  The lyrics, "Hark, the herald angels sing, "Glory to the new born King!  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.""

I know Christmas doesn't just belong to the Christians anymore.  It's a universal holiday.  In America they love to say "Happy Holidays" and in England we stick an X over the Christ.  I know Jesus wasn't born December 25th.  I know the early Christians "borrowed" the date of the winter solstice celebration.  But what I also know, very well, is that the root of Christmas is the birth of the Christ child.  Yes the date is stolen but the point of the holiday is to celebrate God coming to earth in the form of a baby.

Here's the story of Christianity in 100 words or less: God makes man, man turns back on God, a rift is created between man and God, God tells man he basically has to be perfect to cross the rift, man fails (many times) as perfection, God becomes man, God as man is perfect, God as man dies anyway to make up for all of man's imperfections, God as man is resurrected, man and God are reconciled.

My point?  The point of Christmas.  The reason Jesus was born was to reconcile God and man.  the point of Christmas therefore is reconciliation.  Reconciliation, forgiveness, grace and mercy.  Christmas isn't about tradition, it isn't about Santa - be he black, white or Asian – it isn't about presents, it isn't even about family and friends although they are great bonuses.  Christmas is about that rift between God and man being filled.  And even if you don't believe in God Christmas is still about forgiveness.

I have a tendency to veer towards the petty side of things.  As a child reading The Grinch and Christmas Carol I was happy for the Grinch and Scrooge's change of heart but that didn't make up for the bad things they'd done before.  They'd still done horrible things, especially Scrooge.  What about all the hurt they'd caused and all the horrible things they'd done.  Did the people they'd hurt just let it go?  Yes.  Maybe the story isn't just about how even the coldest heart can be melted.  Maybe the story is also about how the people of Whoville and the citizens of London had the ability to forgive.  

This christmas I'm giving the gift of forgiveness because forgiveness presses the reset button and allows us all to start again.

Merry Christmas everybody 🎅🏾🎅🏾🎅🏾 

 

I Believe the Children are our Future

My sister and brother-in-law have been contemplating a move for some time.  One of the main matters of contention, and a very valid question, has been where will they move to if they do move?  One of the issues that has been weighing on my sisters mind more than my brother-in-law's is the potential ethnic demographic of whichever place they decide to move to.  Currently they live in a big city in which every neighbourhood is ethnically diverse. The vast majority of the children that make up my nephew's classes at school come from mixed ethnically backgrounds.  There isn't an ethnic norm because everyone is different.   Recently my 7-year-old nephew approached my sister and asked whether a decision had been made as to whether they were moving or not.  When my sister told him that she was indecisive because there was the potential for them to move to a place where everyone would look the same except for my nephew and his brother and sister my seven-year-old nephew's response was that looks don't matter.  

I've mentioned several times that my sisters and I grew up in a community where we were basically the only black kids.  Whilst our childhood was hardly traumatic we did learn, eventually, as everybody does, that even though looks shouldn't matter, to a lot of people they do.   But my sister didn't tell my nephew this.  She didn't warn him that to other people his looking different to everybody else might be a problem.  She didn't say anything because, as naive as the sentiment may be, it is also very wise and the hope is that if my nephew can continue believing looks don't matter and the other kids he meets continue to believe the same things and adults don't come along and tell them otherwise then maybe, eventually, we can enter a world where looks really don't matter to anyone.  Or maybe now I'm being naive. 

The other day I was listening to a Ted podcast on NPR about the power of optimism.   The podcast features a TedTalk by an American public school teacher named John Hunter who in 1978 created what he calls the "World Peace Game".  This game began as one simple 4x4 plywood board and has evolved to a multi-layered plexiglass system.  Around the board seat the complex parliamentary systems of four fictional countries - the parliaments are made up by the students - and upon the board are all the problems of our modern world.  The game deals with war, money, poverty, random acts of God, ethnicity, global warming... if it is a world problem then the game deals with it.  In order for the students – the 4th Grade, nine-year-old students – to win the game they have to solve fifty world problems and each country, both the poor and weak and the rich and powerful, must increase in monetary value.  The kids always manage to win the game.  But the point isn't even about winning or losing, the point is about the discussions and getting the children to learn diplomacy and compassion and the realties of warfare in a way that you can only learn through living it.  If the kids can take the skills they learn from this class and apply it to their business ethics as adults then there is hope for us.

https://www.ted.com/talks/john_hunter_on_the_world_peace_game?language=en#t-1182544

Ten years ago Al Gore gave a TedTalk on global warming where he basically laid all every which way in which we are destroying our world with global warming.  The outlook looked bleak.  Ten years later we are smashing the goal set in place for renewable energy and even China is getting on board to join the pursuit of clean energy.  We have exceeded our own expectations.  Al Gore, in his most recent TedTalk uses the case of the American moon mission as his reason for optimism.  During his term in the White House President Kennedy stated that he wanted to land a man on the moon and bring him back successfully within ten years.  Most of the adults at the time were skeptical and said it was a waste of US resources to pursue such an endeavour but eight years later Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.  The average age of those working in NASA at the time was 26. That means that whilst their parents were busy scoffing at President Kennedy eighteen-year-olds were figuring out how they could make this dream a realty.  In other words, whilst some adults are still unconvinced global warming is even a thing, their children are busy figuring out ways to reduce the damage we have already caused and prevent doing more damage than necessary.

I recently finished reading "Go Set A Watchman" by Harper Lee, it's a kind of sequel to her classic "To Kill A Mockingbird".  I'll leave no spoilers here except to say that I didn't enjoy it.  It just wasn't a well structured book and felt very unfinished, which I found out later that it probably was.  But one of the harder pills I had to swallow was the charge in Atticus Finch, the white Southern lawyer who defended the one-armed black man in the rape case in "To Kill A Mockingbird".  At the end of "Go Set A Watchman" it's clear that Atticus may have been "revolutionary" for his time but his thinking is decidedly flawed.  In the end he had inadvertently taught his daughter Scout to be better than he is. The future through his eyes is bleak but the future through hers is hopeful.

Millennials have a bit of a bad rep.   I should know, I am one, kind of.  Maybe I'm more of Gen-Y as I just missed the 90s birthdate.  Millennials are apparently impatient, have a minute attention span and can be found catching Pokemon on our phones and avoiding gluten like the plague.  But Millennials are also changing the world for the better.  Millennials are building electric cars and innovative waste disposal units.  Millennials are building business relationships in developing countries instead of just handing out cash to ease our consciences.  Millennials are not voting for Trump or for Brexit or for any other bigoted politician you throw our way.

Sometimes I see what is happening in the world and I can be led to despair but then I watch kids playing or have a conversation with my niece and nephews and hope begins to flood back in.

Gods Among Men

I don't often watch sports on TV.  I am that person who will only willingly watch football on every four years during the World Cup and even then only when my teams are playing (Nigeria and England).  But I am a sucker for Olympic season.  I count it a privilege that I lived and worked in London during the 2012 Olympics (especially as I moved to Hamburg the following year).  I don't think I've ever felt more patriotic.  I basically walked around that summer with a "best of British" badge on and it was Team GB all the way.  I remember the panic that preceded the Olympics, how busy London was supposed to get, how people were advised to work from home if they could and how all of us theatre workers anticipated needing to add an extra hour to our commutes.  But then everything was fine.  Everything was better than fine; it all went smoothly.  the volunteers on the London transport service were impeccable, everyone smiled for two weeks, the trains were basically empty and ran on time (I still don't know how the tourists were getting around) and the weather was beautiful.  The whole experience was basically magical.  Then, to top it all off, Team GB came third in the medals count.  Not bad at all.

I love the Olympics because they show us how incredible the human body is.  We all sit in awe and watch athletes achieve what we thought was impossible.  I watched Simone Biles's floor routine with my mouth agape at the fact that this young woman can fly.  She can actually fly.  And I like to overthink things so I'm that person who thinks of the dedication and determination that it takes to become a gold medalist.  You don't just wake up one morning an Olympian.  Being the best requires years of dedication and training and a countless amount of disappointment.  I used to run in middle school; I was a sprinter.  I did the 100m and the 200m (my favourite) and I always won, every year, minimum effort.  Then I reached high school and ran a race and lost (came in second) and quit because I realised that to maintain my position at the top I had to actually put some effort in and train.  

In over 100 years the Olympics have only been cancelled three times: in 1916 because of WWI and in 1940 and 1944 because of WWII.  The world has gone through numerous disasters and wars but it has taken the biggest and worst wars of our time to constitute a cancellation.  Don't you wonder at that?  Don't you wonder that through all of our disappointments and differences both culturally and political we still manage to come together peacefully every four years in the Olympic games?   I wish we could focus on that.  I wish we could focus on athletes who run 100m in less than 10 seconds and athletes who win almost every medal there is to win in gymnastics and athletes who break world records year after year.  Instead there are people focusing on hair and attitudes and body language.

Because we stand in awe at these athletes it's very easy to forget that they are only human.  The Olympics were created to honour the Greek god Zeus way back in ancient times by competing in god-like feats and we can often be sucked into the illusion that these athletes are god-like.  They are incredible but they are not gods.  They are people and they have feelings.

I gave up running because I didn't love it enough to bear the disappointments of failure.  I love dance, which is why I have been dancing for 14 years despite countless disappointments.  It's easy for us to judge the conduct of the athletes we are watching on TV forgetting than half of them are kids and all of them are human.  Nobody mentions it because we are all in awe with our new toy, Simone Biles, but how must Gabby Douglas feel to have gone from a gold medalist in the individual all-round competition just four years ago to not even being able to compete for a medal this year?  I'm sure she's happy for her teammate but it's still got to hurt.  It would hurt me but maybe I'm just petty.  Then on top of that she has to deal with people calling her out for "bad" hair and a "bad attitude"?  Are you kidding me?  Take a video of me losing at a game of monopoly with my family and you'll see a bad attitude.  Losing sucks and being an Olympian doesn't make it suck any less.  It probably makes it suck more.

I understand that we hold our Olympic athletes to a higher standard because they are out there representing our countries.  They should be held to a high standard.  But you can't call a person out for feeling disappointment or having an opinion.  Call a person out for committing acts of vandalism and then filing a false report of armed robbery in a foreign country - Ryan Lochte.  Oh but they're just kids and we should give them a break, right?  (spot the sarcasm).  Would they say the same of a team of Brazilians in America?  I think not.  And a 32-year-old man is no kid.  These athletes, as incredible as they are, are not gods and should not be judged as such or excused as such.

As for me I'm going to celebrate all the ways in which the 2016 Olympics have been great already.  The fact that this is the first Olympic games to be held in South America (big up Brazil), and that this year's games has the highest percentage of female competitors ever (45%), and that black people are breaking records and dominating this year.  I will be in awe as Jessica Annis reclaims her gold for the heptaphalon after having a baby and proudly supporting the team of refugees who persevered despite the odds and refused to let something as little as not having a country get in the way of competing.

 Let us smile at their victories and allow them to cry in their defeats and remember that we all put our trousers on one leg at a time, Olympian or not.

 

http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-oly-rio-2016-three-of-ryan-lochte-s-u-s-swimming-1471525979-htmlstory.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/these-black-athletes-are-powerfully-dominating-the-2016-olympics_us_57ade44de4b071840410eb19

 

A New Story

I have spent the best part of this week re-reading parts one and two of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers).  I intend to spend the best part of the weekend reading the final book of the trilogy The Return of the King.  I first found and fell in love with The Lord of the Rings trilogy when the first movie came out way back in 2001 (15 years ago - feeling old).  Up until then I was not a fan of fantasy.  I've been an avid reader my whole life but kept far away from fantasy, only dipping my toes in so to speak with the Harry Potter books.  I watched that first movie with the crisp New Zealand scenery, the Hobbits, the Elves (my long-held crush of Orlando Bloom began here), Gandalf, and the masterful storytelling.  I was so crushed by the fall of Gandalf and too impatient to wait two years to watch the next two movies and find out the conclusion to the story that I rented out the three books from the library and read them in the space of two weeks.  Most Christmases since the trilogy came out on DVD I have watched the full trilogy, the love of the story never fading.  Fifteen years later I'm rereading them as if it were the first time all over again and the joy remains unchanged – maybe even heightened.

There are some incredible minds in this world.  Minds that I would love to tap into and spend a few moments seeing the world as they do and imagining as they imagine.  Being a ardent book-lover I am drawn to the minds of writers.  I can appreciate good story-telling in any book and authors of many genres from Stephen King's horror to Jane Austen romance, but with a mind such as J.R.R.Tolkien's I am floored by the expanse of the world he has created.  Worlds with maps, languages, histories and legends.  But I do have one question to pose to Mr. Tolkien, why do all the good guys have to be white and the bad guys black?

The Elves, the brave men of Gondor, the kingly men of Rohan are all described as white, with pale skin.  Some have dark hair some are blonde; all are white.  The Hobbits, sometimes described as ruddy, always white.  Then the bad men from the East come along in The Two Towers, the men who have sided with the enemy and the forces of evil and they come riding creatures similar in description to elephants from Africa or India and with their dark, brown skin.  As a brown person that jars me.  It's jars me because, although I'm not looking for it, I'm attune to it.  It's one of the parts of white privilege that many non-brown people do not understand and take for granted.  They don't notice when they are in a room of only white people, they don't notice when there are no people of other ethnicities in a TV show/movie/play, and they generally don't notice when the good guys are all white and the bad guys are all brown.  They don't notice because they don't need to notice.  There is always a plethora of white representatives in media but we brown sometimes have to search them out.

I'm a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's, not least because she is a fellow Nigerian but because she is an incredibly talented writer.  If you read nothing else this year please read Half of a Yellow Sun, and if you don't cry then I question your humanity.  Adichie gave a TedTalk on the danger of "The Single Story".  In the talk she speaks of how she also loved reading as a young child and would write stories in her youth.  Because all the books she read were about pretty white girls with blond hair, Adichie also wrote about pretty white girls with blonde hair.  It was only in growing up that she began to discover there were more stories out there for her to write.

Tolkien grew up in a different time writing for a different audience.  As a wealthy, white man living in the early 1900s he probably didn't meet that many black people and therefore knew very little about the black man except what he was told and led to accept by society.  We are past that time and we know better and must do better.  Tolkien wasn't writing for me, a Nigerian-English girl in the 20th century.  He was writing an adventure epic for little boys like himself and he wasn't to know how wide a reach his stories would have.

I mentioned Harry Potter briefly above but the Harry Potter books are another series that shaped my childhood.  I devoured those books for seven long years and would happily do so again.  J.K.Rowling, a middle-aged white woman, has done better.  The Potter books have a scattering of black, Chinese and Indian characters, good characters who go to Hogwarts and fight against evil, but of course Rowling writes in modern day England and her cast of characters roughly fits the ethnic diversity of modern day England.  Rowling wrote her books for British children and has opened her eyes enough to see that British children come is all shapes, sizes, colours and races.    

We are no longer living in Tolkien's time.  The civil rights movement in America happened and Jamaica got its independence in the 1960s; Apartheid ended in the 1990s; apparently we are living in a world where people of all races can live harmoniously together and our literature and visual arts need to start representing that.  It's no longer good enough to read books or watch movies or TV shows in which black people or people of any other ethnicity besides caucasian are not present because that is no longer a representation of the world we live in.  It is also no longer good enough to only write stories in which black people are bad and white people are good.  That is one story but it is not the only story.

In her talk Adichie said, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story."

A friend of mine was at an acting workshop and as an exercise the group went round to each person and said which roles they would be most suited for.  He, as the only black male in the group, was told he would be cast as a gang leader, drug dealer, the bad guy.  In response to my shocked face he quickly added that everyone in the group was stereotyped.  The blonde girls were the princesses and the love interests whilst the brunettes the best friend.  I don't accept that.  I refuse to accept that.  What year are we living in?  The brunette can get the guy and the black guy can be the good guy.  Human beings are far too complex to buy into stereotypes.

As racial talks continue to become the hot topic of the moment I've had comments from white friends saying that to them skin colour is not a big deal.  They don't see that the bad guys are black and the good guys are white, they just see bad and good guys.  They don't understand tags like #blackgirlmagic or the sense of identity associated with a skin tone because they are neither white supremacist nor black.  They don't understand why it matters that Simone Manuel is the first black (African American) female to win a gold medal in a single-swimming event because why does her race matter?  But gently I tell all my friends that they don't see it because they don't need to.  We acknowledge in a positive light what has for long been given a negative light.  These achievements are milestones of how far an oppressed people have come.

My white friends haven't been told that they are beautiful despite their brown skin or that for a black girl they're alright.   Instead they are praised for their tans.  They haven't had to study works in the literature cannon such as Heart of Darkness  by Joseph Conrad or Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë in which black people are depicted as savages and dark skin is synonymous with evil.  For centuries white has always been right and so it's going to take more than just passively letting that assumption die away to encourage black people that black is right too.  It's going to take active promotion and an active celebration of "the black man" to set us back on the right track of celebrating all races for their many virtues.  It's going to take centuries and many, many stories to counteract the one that has been prevailing and keeping black people oppressed for so long.  

 

 

I Am Not My Hair

In the words of India Arie "I am not my hair, I am not my skin, I am the voice that is within."  Hair is just hair.  In the grand scheme of things it's not all that important and yet somehow it is.

My hair journey has nearly always been complicated.  I was born bald and when my hair finally started to grow in it only grew round the edges leaving me with the Franciscan Monk look. My mum kept shaving my hair to encourage growth so I was bald up until I was about four-years-old.  When my hair did finally begin to grow it was a given that it would be relaxed. My mum's hair was relaxed and my sisters' hair was relaxed.  It's far easier to comb the knots out of straight hair than curly and my mum had four heads of hair to care for including her own.  Even with the relaxer detangling almost always brought tears and threats of our heads being shaved ( hashtag Nigerian mothers).  And my hair was always in braids/plaits/box braids (whatever you chose to call them).  Again, it was more manageable, it's also pretty and neat and having braids allowed me to wear a ponytail that swung from side to side like the ponytails my friends had.  

My TWA (teenie weenie afro)

My TWA (teenie weenie afro)

I never liked my own hair growing up.  I liked my braids but I wore braids to hide the hair underneath, not as a protective style like I do now.  When my hair was out of braids and relaxed it still didn't lay like european hair does.  If it was windy my relaxed hair would blow up and stay up.  It didn't have enough weight to fall back down thanks to all the chemical damage.  And I hated the process of relaxing my hair because it hurt when the chemicals would burn my scalp, but I thought it was necessary.

I started contemplating going natural in dance college when in my second year a black girl with a larger-than-life afro joined the college.  She was mixed race with a Nigerian father and had never relaxed her hair.  That was the first time I saw beautiful, unprocessed, healthy black hair in person.  I think I always had a love for the Afro but I never thought I could grow one.  I used to look at old pictures of my mum from the seventies rocking her massive Fro and wished I could start again with my own hair but was never brave enough to take the plunge.

Throughout dance college I wore my hair in braids.  I experimented with weaves a few times but weaves aren't practical for a girl who needs to put her hair in a ballet bun everyday.  Braids worked.  Every semester I went home and my mum redid my hair.  My mum is a superwoman btw, she used to do four sets of single braids back in the day.  I remember one time, it was show term, I had my hair braided with one kind of extensions and my contemporary teacher wanted my hair done the way I had it the previous semester in a different style.  In front of the whole class she told me that my hair was ugly and I had to redo it.  I explained to her that I couldn't redo it because my mum did my hair and she lived in Norwich and I lived in London but, unsatisfied, she demanded I find a way to get my hair redone.  I was a poor college student so there was nothing I could do about the problem except accept the humiliation and move on.

The Essien queens - two sets of crochet braids, one set of twists, one set of braids and one au naturale

The Essien queens - two sets of crochet braids, one set of twists, one set of braids and one au naturale

After college my professional work and distance meant I was without my hair dresser.  In theatre you are required to wear wigs and hair pieces for many shows so I could no longer fall back on box-braids.  It was then that I figured out I had to find a way to work with my own hair.  My decision at first was to cut it short and relax it, with varying degrees of success.  But I didn't love it.  Everything was conspiring to set me on the natural hair course.

At twenty-three I met a Ghanaian woman with a beautiful Afro and had my first real, honest conversation about my hair, my insecurities surrounding my hair and my ideal hair.  Her hair was beautiful and I confessed to her that I wanted my hair to look like that but didn't know how.  She was patient and kind and talked me through her own hair journey and slowly things began to slot into place.

I wasn't brave enough for the big chop.  I gradually grew the damaged, chemically processed hair out (much to the chagrin of the wigs mistress when my thicker roots meant we had to find new ways to make my wigs fit) cutting away at the damaged hair as the new, healthy hair grew.  I've been natural now for three years and for the first time in my life, I love my hair.  Not my braided hair or my hair in a weave but my own, natural hair.

But why does it even matter when it's only hair?

It matters because for too long we've been told our hair is ugly.  For too long we've been told that there is only one form of beauty and it is European.  For too long our hair has been described as coarse and difficult and wiry.  We have been told that in order to be accepted we have to change.

It's only hair and it shouldn't be such a big deal but when young children are made to feel ashamed of the hair that grows out of their head then it is a big deal.  Black people naturally grown Afro hair in varying degrees of textures.  To managed this hair we have invented (yes, black people invented these styles) certain styles like braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, twists etc to maintain health in our hair and to save time.  Just this morning I woke up to yet another report of another school (this one is Kentucky, USA) that has banned these hairstyles and mandated that Afro's been no longer than two-inches.  The school says they want to be these mandates in place to increase diversity.  So they're increasing diversity by alienating the every black student in the place, or at least by alienating their culture.

Afro hair becomes a big deal when it is used as yet another tool for discrimination.   When young men and women are told that the hair that God gave them is unprofessional for school and the work place it's a big deal.  When people are unable to appreciate my hair from afar but feel the need to touch it and pet me and count the number of braids and study my hair like it's going to be on quiz, all without asking me first but as if I'm there to be examined like a specimen on the laboratory table, it's a big deal.  

Not every black person you meet is going to have an Afro.  We live in a world where you can however you want to look, regardless of your genetic makeup.  You can make your curly hair straight and your straight hair curly and your crooked nose straight and your saggy boobs perky and you know what, if that's what you need to make yourself feel beautiful then go ahead.  Some girls like a weave and some girls like relaxer and every now and again a wig is just easier and that is fine.  I'm not here to shame anyone's game. Beauty has many different faces.  But the world needs to realise that Afro hair comes naturally to black people and so the world needs to stop being surprised by it.

It's only hair.  It shouldn't be a big deal but I felt compelled enough to write a blog post on it so obviously I think it is.  But here's the thing, when we can finally stop judging people and discriminating against people for such frivolities as hair, especially the natural hair that grows out of their heads, then maybe we can start focusing on the more important things like the voice that is within the person.

Current Hair length

Current Hair length

What's in a Name?

My name is Enobong E Essien.  The extra E stands for Essien.  My name is Enobong Essien Essien (so good they named me twice).  In Ibibio culture (the Ibibio are a Nigerian Tribe - one of hundreds) when a woman gets married she takes on the first and last name of her husband as her middle and last name and her children do likewise so myself, my mum and all my sisters are Essien Essien's (at least we were before the two oldest got married).  You wouldn't believe the number of forms that have either changed my name or come back to me corrected because they think I made a mistake putting Essien there twice.  I'm not stupid, people, I know my own name.

Growing up a pretty much the only black family in the city was interesting.  Either through naivety or the grace of God it wasn't difficult per se but it was interesting.  What was  difficult was growing up with my "unusual" name.

At school the problems always began with class registration.  My advice to teachers, young, old, seasoned or novices is: when teaching a new class read through the class register before you meet your class for the first time and if you come across any names that are unfamiliar to you ask a friend or colleague for pronunciation.  The boy or girl to whom the name belongs will appreciate the effort, I can promise you that.   

My experiences of the register always went a little something like this: 

Teacher: Abigail, Brian, Cassandra... (Pause) Eee... Ee-no... ( pauses again and looks up helplessly at the class). 

In first and middle school, when I was still shy and retiring, I would put my hand up and kindly let the teacher know that I was the owner of the awkward name.  In highschool I would put my hand up and kindly say my name out loud for the teacher and repeat it back however many times the teacher attempted to say it correctly until they finally either got it right or gave up.  In university and thereafter I just sit in silence and watch them struggle.  If they ask for help I will help but they have to use their words and not just flounder there waiting for assistance.  For them it's just one moment of awkwardness in their life; for me it's a whole life of awkwardness.

Heres where I have to confess something; depending on who I'm talking to there are two pronunciations to my name.  If I'm talking to Nigerians or sometimes Africans in general my name is pronounced (correctly) Eh-nor-bong with the emphasis on the middle syllable.   To everyone else I use the "English" pronunciation of Eh-no-bong with the emphasis on the first syllable.  The emphasis is never  on the last syllable.  Even when I give the correct pronunciation the western tongue ends up with the "English" pronunciation so I just roll with it.  The confusion comes when my friends hear my mum or sisters call my name and they're like, "what did they call you?" and I'm like, "yeah guys, that's my actual name".  But I'm fine with Eh-no-bong; that girl doesn't offend me.  I'll tell who does offend me: Anabel (yup, that's the most common mispronunciation, believe it or not), Emmabong, Ebonong, Annabong... The list goes on.  In the words of The Ting Tings "that's not my name".

The irony is (is it irony) that my name is one of the most common names in Nigeria. Walk the streets of Uyo and you'll bump into an Enobong Essien every five steps.  But I don't live in Nigeria.  

One of the best things about moving to Germany and joining the cast of The Lion King (Der Koenig der Lowen and Deutsch) was that I no longer had the most "unusual" name in the room.  Not only was I met with a plethora of Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana names but also the German names that my tongue sometimes feels it has to do somersaults around to say correctly.  Finally I can stand in the shoes of all those that have massacred my name and experience their struggle.  But do you know what valuable skills I've learnt in my many years of being a name-martyr?  I've learnt the art of listening and patience.  Hear what people say, not what you think they've said.

I write all this because my name is an important part of who I am.  It's an important part of who we all are.  It's our first introduction to the world and how we will be remembered.  A person's name can tell who where that person is from, who their family are, how they grew up... My mum can hear any Nigerian name and tell you which tribe or which part of Nigeria they come from.  And my name means something.  Enobong means "gift of God".  Anabel means "gracious or lovable beauty" which is cute but not my name.  Emmabong and Ebonong don't mean anything.  I am Enobong and my mother named me Enobong because I am a gift from God. 

We all know how important names are.  Names are part if what makes us human.  Why else would we be so invested in awful celebrity baby names?

I have friends called Jessica who are Jess, not Jessie, and friends called Jessie who hate Jessica.  Why does Isobel with an "o" specify it's an "o" not an "a" and why is it suddenly difficult to slaughtered that turkey you were fattening up for Christmas after you name it?  Because our names are part of who we are and therefore must be treated with respect.

So here's a short list of what not to do when you meet someone with a name you are unfamiliar with: 

1. Don't guess.

If you know you didn't hear what was said correctly ask the person to repeat themselves.  Don't just make a blind guess or assumption. 

2. Don't stay silent  

Ask the person to repeat themselves, to spell it out, to say it slowly... I will personally keep repeating my name until you get it.  I'll even give you a powerpoint presentation if need be.  I want you to succeed and I want to help you.  I understand you're unfamiliar with the name, that doesn't offend me.  I get offended when people don't at least try.  All I ask is that you try. 

3. Don't change the name  

Don't shorten the name, don't give the person a nickname... like why would you?  It's so disrespectful.  If I introduce myself as Enobong then call me Enobong.  Especially if you've only known me for like 5 seconds.   Don't ask me about a shortened version of my name or a nickname and don't just give me a nickname either.  As an introvert I won't tell you not to call me by my false name if you do but know that each time you do I will resent you in my heart.  By changing my name all you're showing me is that my name isn't worth learning and therefore I am not worth knowing.  Once we have a relationship, once you're my friend, then and only then can we discuss variations on the theme.  The operative word being discuss.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet but I don't think so many of us would be quick to brag about the dozen Poop flowers we received on Valentine's Day.

#saytheirnames #dontrehamilton #ericgarner #johncrawfordIII #michaelbrownjr #ezellford #danteparker #tanishaanderson #akaigurley #tamirrice #rumainbrisbon jeramereid #tonyrobinson #philipwhite #ericharris #walterscott #freddiegray #philandocastile #altonsterling #sandrabland  and many more.

(In four of the cases the perpetrators (police officers) have been charged criminally)

Disney Magic

I’m a massive fan of Disney.  You only have to spend a few minutes with me to realise this.  I don’t class myself as a "die-hard" because I haven’t seen every Disney movie (just most), I don’t have to go to a Disney resort every year (but I’ve probably been more than the average person, not through any fault of my own) and I don’t know the words to every Disney song (just nearly).  But I do love Disney.  If I need to have a good cry, I’ll put on a Disney movie.  If I need to have a good laugh, I’ll put on a Disney movie.  If I need to be reminded that there is good in the world, I’ll put on a Disney movie.  There's just something about Disney that reminds you of how special life it.  It's that Disney magic.

I was recently at Disney World Florida with my family with high expectations considering this place is supposed to be the "happiest place on earth".  Aside from all the crying children, I could see how this could be true.  One big flaw, the number of gift shops all over the place, especially the at the end of every ride.  I understand that Disney needs to make a buck but our experience would have been greatly improved if we didn’t have to tell my niece and nephews that they couldn’t buy yet another new toy every twenty minutes.

But aside from the crying, there was the magic and wonder children’s faces as they met their favourite film characters and walked through worlds they knew from the movies.  My niece begged all day to meet Elsa and stared in wonder as she appeared mere feet away from her.  My too-cool-for-school seven-year-old nephew couldn’t stop laughing at the antics of Winne-the-Pooh and Tigger when they stole his hat and played games with one another as he waited to have his picture taken.  My three-year-old nephew was speechless when he met his favourite character of all time, Woody from Toy Story.

And the customer service is on another level.  Whatever school of customer service the workers at Disney train at needs to train every single person that has to interact with the public ever.  In the three days we spent there there wasn’t one employee whom I suspected of having a bad day; the same cannot be said of the employees of Universal Studios in the one day we spent there.

But in my time at the resort something became glaringly obvious to me.  I love Disney movies but I only really love the Disney movies from about Beauty and the Beast onwards.  My reason, because if the old movies weren’t a little sexist, then they were definitely a little racist.  

Granted, I haven’t seen all of Disney’s back catalogue.  There’s like over a hundred movies in that thing.  But I went through a stage of watching and sometimes rewatching some of the old stuff and I eventually had to stop.  Maybe I’m a child of my generation because Ariel giving up her family, her voice, her life at sixteen all for a hot guy does not sit well with me and I’ve never been a fan of the whole “Cinderella” story, at least not the Disney-fied version, but those movies don’t even make my worst list.  Let’s not forget the racist crows in Dumbo or Songs of the South in its entirety (just because there’s a black man in it, doesn’t make it inclusive).  And even as a young girl the idea of Snow White being beautiful because her skin is “as white as snow” never sat right with me.  Even now I’m still wary of any portrayal of Snow White, even the strong, independent, motherly version in Once Upon a Time.

Maybe I’ve always been an overthinker and maybe I overthought it all but I’m glad I did.  I’m glad that at a young age I realised that I was not represented in the Disney franchise.  There was never a Disney Princess I could dress up as for fancy dress and there was never a Disney Princess I related to.  Until Belle.  Belle is white but Belle likes to read and I like to read.  It’s Belle that saves the Beast not the other way round and Belle is the only one who is different in a small town where everybody is exactly the same.  I wonder why I related to her so much.

Disney has done better since those old days.  It gave me The Lion King, still my all time favourite animated movie, they tried with Pocahantas to give me a brown princess but Disney-fying that story is still questionable in its appropriateness, and they gave me The Frog Princess.  I'm a fan of Tiana.  She is a hard-working, independent woman from a loving family.  Sure she's a frog for most of the story but at least she's not a slave.

Then there’s the other flying elephant in the room.

As my younger sister and I were taking a selfie with the Walt Disney bust at Hollywood Studios park she turns to me and says, “didn’t Disney hate Jews?”

Walt Disney has been accused (and his grandniece pretty much confirmed it http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/walt-disney-s-grandniece-backs-up-meryl-streep-s-racism-claims-anti-semite-check-misogynist-of-9064138.html) of being a misogynist and Anti-Semitic, and prejudice against any race in my opinion is pretty much synonymous with prejudice against all races, which pretty much confirms all my misgivings about the earlier work from the studio and makes watching Saving Mr Banks a completely different viewing experience.

But for all Disney was in the past, I believe, and can see from their more recent work, that they are about so much more.  All you have to do is look at the The Princess Frog, A Bug’s Life that encourages standing up against your oppressors and Zoopolis, a film about breaking racial stereotypes, to see that the studio is about so much more now. 

Maybe Walt Disney is rolling in his grave to know that his studio is producing the type of work that has helped to empower this little black girl to believe in her dreams.  But he was the one who chose the theme:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

So he can't be mad that his studio is finally living up to it.

p.s. I'm excited for my Maori brothers and sisters to get in on the action too in the new Disney movie Moana http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3521164/

The Bey-Train

I’ve been slowly slipping off the Beyoncé train ever since she became Sasha Fierce.  She didn’t do anything wrong I just tired of the hype.  I thought she’d lost me for good after the self-titled, surprise release audio-visual album “Beyonce”.  It was at that point that I began to agree with my brother-in-law's suspicions that Beyonce could sneeze into a microphone and her fans would still throw money at her and call it her "best work yet".  Then “Lemonade” happened.

I did everything I could not to like “Lemonade”; and then I listened to it.

Personally, I don’t  think she’s the best singer out there right now and I don’t appreciate her using domestic violence for entertainment purposes ("eat the cake Anna-May"?  Really?  See, What’s Love Got To Do With It if you don’t get the reference)  but most of all I have issues with what I call the cult of Beyoncé and what social media calls the Bey-Hive.  No human should be worshipped and the worship of any human-being makes me uncomfortable.

But here’s the thing about Beyonce; whether you like her or not, whether you enjoy her music or not, she is making a stand.  It’s bizarre but, even though I have personally fallen out of favour with the superstar (and I’m sure it keeps her up at night that I have) I still feel the need to defend her when white people speak out against her.  Beyoncé to me is like an annoying sibling or like England to the English: I can insult her all I want but once a white person does then suddenly I’m the biggest member of the Bey-Hive.  When my sister told me that it happens to her too I began to wonder why?

For one thing she is an incredible performer and she has worked very hard to get where she is.  The girl knows how to put on a show.  But I think it’s more about what Beyoncé stands for.  She is a strong black woman who has made it in this world.  She is not the only strong black woman but she is probably the most famous right now.  She broke the mould, she broke into mainstream, people of all races and nations love her, and she's black.  Beyonce is a symbol to young, black girls everywhere (myself included, although maybe the “young” is debateable) that we can make it, so when you put Beyonce down, however valid or not, I feel like you’re putting me down.

And then there's “Lemonade”.

In “lemonade” I’m meeting the mother-Beyoncé, the wife-Beyoncé and the activist-Beyoncé, and I like her.

If we can just get past discovering the identity of Becky-with-the-good-hair (a commentary in itself on black culture) we can see and hear a woman fighting for a better future for her daughter.  I didn't see the mother-Beyoncé in "Beyoncé" and was unconvinced when she claimed to be a feminist during that season in her life.  In "lemonade" I'm meeting the mother-Beyoncé, the wife-Beyoncé and the activist-Beyoncé, and I like her. 

I will never be a worshipper of "queen Bey" and I am gladly not a member of her “Bey-Hive” but the woman is drawing back my respect one performance at a time.  First there was the "Formation" video in which she reminded every single one of her fans that she is black, she is proud to be black, and she intends to stay black.  Then there was the “black panther” superbowl performance that had white people in arms because Beyonce was once again celebrating her African American culture.  Then there are her moments of silence at her Formation tour concerts in which she displays the names of every single black person in the past year that has died as a result of police brutality.

Beyonce created a platform for herself after years and years of hard-work and dedication and now she is using that platform to speak up against injustice and to fight for human rights despite the loss to her fandom and the backlash from people who still misunderstand the #blacklivesmatter movement.  I can respect and appreciate and stand behind that.  Not to mention that the album is also kind of good too.  It almost, I repeat, almost  makes me want to get in formation.