March 9, 2006

A Continent Celebrates

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Before the Coalition of Pan-African Scholars inaugurated its second-ever Africa Week last Saturday night, I had always thought of culture as occupying a unique extension, or at best, representation, of the collective ideology of humanity. Afrika Week teaches us that all the manifestations of culture – music, photography, discussions, cinema and cuisine, among others – are not the result of a lifestyle but rather its literal embodiment. The week illustrates the richness of Africa in every cultural respect, and the week successfully educates and inspires both its intended and curious audiences. One of the week’s organizers, Abena Sackey sat down to explain the reasoning behind Afrika Week. Although the group participates in several running projects, such as Computers for a Developing World, standardizing public education and work with Cornell Health International, Afrika Week is an intense period of celebration, education and reflection. Meant to inspire the leaders of our generation to fill the leadership gap that plagues Africa, the series also increases “our understanding of similar history with the rest of the world so that we can work together for a common good.” Sackey emphasized the goal on moving Africa successfully into modernity. “Progress is always important,” she told me, “but only if Africa is entrusted to the hands of Africans.”

Last Saturday introduced the week’s events with a gorgeous banquet in honor of Ghana’s 49th year of independence. The first African country to gain its freedom from a colonialist power, Ghana’s success provides both a reason to celebrate and a hopeful lesson in the future of Africa.

The packed house was treated to course after course of delicious dishes, ranging from an appetizer of jollof rice with spicy wakye and fried plantains to a main course deliciously marinated chicken and stewed beef, all served by servers dressed in the traditional garb. The music of Soulfege spanned the spirit of the African Diaspora, from traditional spirituals to Caribbean reggae. Gorgeous four-part harmonies backed by a tight band including two horns lifted the crowd from its post-feast stupor for an hour of vigorous dancing.

Monday’s presentation by historian, writer and world traveler Runoko Rashidi illustrated a plea for Pan-Africanism with photographs he had taken of the African Diaspora during his journeys. Here the politics of the week became much more personalized, as Rashidi chose to display neither hardship nor injustice, but rather the beautiful faces spread across the world by the dispersive Colonialist regimes.

From Indonesia and Israel to the Caribbean, these people, Rashidi argued, all share the connectedness of the African continent. He sometimes juxtaposed the face of an Egyptian pharaoh with that of a young boy, with the point that the unity extends into the past as well with the high culture of ancient Egypt, among other advanced societies. The effect was subtle but unmistakable, as it united the African community both in its rich culture and unique physical beauty.

The week will reach its intellectual finale this Friday when the award-winning poet and filmmaker M.K. Asante comes to Cornell. I was also lucky enough to speak with Asante, a first-year M.F.A. candidate at the University of California-Los Angeles who embodies the optimistic spirit of Afrika Week’s Pan-Africanism.

While studying abroad at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, Asante met a number of filmmakers and writers diverse in their experiences and geographic origin, though united by the “treatment and perception of blacks after slavery and colonialism.” They began to see troubling trends, and found that the trends were alarmingly prominent in the African Diaspora. Visiting twenty countries and interviewing hundreds of subjects, from renowned scholars like Nelson George to “brothers in front of the barber shops,” the result is the brilliant film 500 Years Later.

The “500 years” refers to the first interaction of Africa with European colonialists, a spark that set of centuries of horrifying slave trade and exploitation. The first half of the movie revisits this painful past. “We are going back and dealing with the horrors,” Asante said, “but only to move forward.” Asante asks the tough questions: Why is it this way? Where are we going? What’s the bigger picture, for both blacks in the Diaspora and humans everywhere, and how can we all move forward?

“I want the movie to affect change. People are going to be challenged by 500 Years; the material is extremely heavy. But you will absolutely leave inspired and hopeful, wanting to embrace others.” Asante told me the film’s reception has been entirely positive wherever it is screened and by whoever attends: Although the film is primarily intended for a black audience, any ethnic group can appreciate the film’s more universal lessons. Asante highlighted that the Paul Robeson quotations he inserted, brilliant aphorisms collected throughout the legendary performer and activist’s life, translate well into his own beliefs.

“What he had to say blew our minds. He taught us how to use Pan-Africanism and indigenous culture in general to create a universal appreciation of cultures.” Asante will bring real insight and incredible energy – even over the phone I felt elevated by his optimism – and the opportunity to see someone our age realizing such remarkable change will surely inspire our campus well.

Saturday will conclude Afrika Week with another banquet, this time the Afrik! Night of Textures and Rhythms. Adepeja Adeniji, one of the show’s organizers, explained to me the show’s format, which will be divided up into six scenes that depict a specific area of daily wear. Ranging from a simple wrapped cloth of the market to the traditional formal wear, complete with elaborate head-ties and meticulously-accentuated patterns, the show will also showcase Africa’s encounters with modernity. Adeniji explained to me the fashion of the university, where students wear the traditional printed cloth tops with American-style jeans. The duality faced by Africans today will be enhanced by music from the African Diaspora and traditional drumming. One of the show’s more unique aspects, Adeniji explained, is its the flag scene, where student designers took the colors of each country and created a top that harmonized the nationalistic pride of a banner with fashion sensibility.

Afrika Week’s journey, following the path of celebration, education, engagement in self-critique, the living example of M.K. Asante, and returning again to celebration, is one of the finest and most unique cultural events this campus offers. A gem that could easily be overlooked amidst a slew of other Cornell happenings, Afrika Week celebrates both a beautiful continent and the human creative spirit common in us all.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Arts & Entertainment Editor