It Mean to Be Black in the 21st Century
Reflections on Senegal and Australia
By Danille K. Taylor
three centuries removed
the scenes his father loved,
grove, cinnamon tree,
is Africa to me?
"Heritage," Countee Cullen
I had the opportunity to visit Australia and Senegal, both
experiences made me reflect on what it means to be Black in the
twenty first century especially if you are a Black woman.
This has been a journey into history.
The United States, Australia, and Africa are worlds apart
connected by the kiss of mother Africa but also scarred by the
legacy of a racialized world where imperialism, capitalism,
sexism, genocide and slavery are still very apparent.
This complex legacy impacted my experiences; I could not
help but draw upon my understanding of the world in my attempt
to make sense of what I saw.
The visual can be seductive, enthralling, and humbling.
We exist in a world that manipulates the visual to sell
us things and to diminish who we think we are.
What is Africa to me?
May 2004 – Australia, fourteen hours from
Los Angeles, a day behind and a season reversed.
Arriving in Sydney with my son to visit my daughter who
was studying architecture at the University of Sydney the time
and climate shift were anticipated.
The city itself was beautiful well maintained with scenic
views. Its European
layout and feel belied how far away it was from England.
Yet as I, through the miracle of email in correspondence
with my daughter for the four preceding months, knew Blacks and
Aboriginals were rare on the university campus.
In one of her first class sessions a teacher
lauded the diversity of the university but as my daughter boldly
pointed out she didn’t see any Africans, other African
Americans or Aboriginals except her; diversity meant Asian.
As we toured the campus I found a postcard addressing
racism, there are racial issues on the campus but it was hard to
discern what these were precisely because the card was designed
to answer questions I did not know.
The card seemed to address a perception of an Asian
Asians are very visible on the streets of
are the Aboriginals . . . who are called “blacks.”
“Blacktown,” is a suburb of Sydney whose name has
been retained our proud tour guide noted on our trip to the Blue
Mountains. As he
told it Aboriginals insisted on keeping the name despite the
politically correct instincts of politicians.
I speculate that given how invisible
Aboriginals are in Sydney their intentions are more complex than
this. The Museum of
Natural History had a very good exhibit that depicted the
cultural and political history of Australia’s first people but
trying to absorb the material was difficult.
Terrorism – at the museum I endured the worst behaved
group of preadolescent schoolboys I have ever seen in a museum,
and if this is any indication of how these truths are received
then nothing is being learned.
The whiteness of Sydney became disquieting.
Where were the “blacks?”
In Redfern, the “ghetto” had recently convulsed in
protests over police brutality, a young boy was killed during a
police pursuit and Redfern erupted.
Sounded too familiar and sad.
It also became more and more apparent as I
toured that the history of Australia was frighteningly similar
to that of the United States.
In 1788 England needed to empty its prisons and a world
away became its dumping ground.
By the time of Australia’s colonialization the
ideologies of “black”/African inferiority and
savage/bestiality were well entrenched in English culture so an
indigenous group whose skin was indeed black were slaughtered
A sickening feeling settled in my gut with
this realization and I knew the rest of the story.
Where were the Blacks?
Not cleaning the sparkling streets or hotel rooms, and if
not here where did they fit into the economy of this world class
city? I found the
television to be another window into this culture. Sports everywhere, sports that are uniquely Australian where
men of color could be heroes.
It is amazing the worship of the physical yet fear of
those who are physically different.
The macho athleticism of a sports driven society combined
with a frontier culture makes it possible for men of color to
become heroes but the women are phantoms.
With this perspective we headed to the Red
Heart, Uluru, and Alice Springs in the center of not merely this
nation but continent. It
looked and felt like the southwest, New Mexico or Arizona, vast
stretches of land with few trees with a predominance of reds,
browns, and yellows splashed against blue vistas.
Alice Springs is a quaint town with an artsy
bohemian feel. And
here were the “Blacks.”
The housing of the Aboriginals looked like a Native
American Indian reservation /ghettos that might exist outside
Santa Fe. People
milled around, it being Saturday and they were black in skin
color - a full flat unabashed black. They had round fleshy
faces, deep set eyes, long torsos, thin limbs, lots and lots of
straight black hair, we had found the people!
But either from social custom or social
history there was no eye contact, no recognition. But should there be? We
visited a cultural center/shop talked a little moved down the
street to a bookstore. My
need to find something in print to help me decipher what I was
experiencing was part of my own academic baggage.
My daughter who had decided to do her senior architecture
thesis at Howard University on an Aboriginal issue after all
needed some books.
At a small bookstore the proprietor was an
elderly white woman who pointed out the difference between the
physiques of the current people and those seen in book.
“They were much healthier in the past,” she said.
“Look at their bodies their diets and lifestyles were
better.” I was
concerned and noted myself the emaciated calves of many of the
women who otherwise had round torsos.
A possible explanation but for a people who traditionally
walked extensive distances now they would not get very far on
those legs. In the
pedestrian mall we watched as we ate lunch two women with
several children settle in the middle with their painted
canvases. One woman
called out loudly to whom it was never clear to me, but you
could hear her. Soon
a patty wagon appeared; she was loaded up and removed from the
No disturbing the tranquility for tourists
shopping. My son
and I went out and purchased canvases from the remaining woman
who bargained through a child, her English being limited.
We didn’t bargain hard giving her the price she asked
for, we were comforted by the fact she would receive the money
directly. As we
walked around I believe I saw our boisterous lady outside the
mall so hopefully she did not have to pay any bail but it was
understood if you are too loud, more than a physical presence,
then you will be removed.
Uluru, the Red Heart, is approximately in the
center of the continent. It
is a magnificent rock formation of red sandstone whose massive
dimensions make it the “world’s largest monolith.”
The Aboriginals won a major court decision and have
reclaimed their land rights, but the caveat was access for
tourists had to be maintained.
We signed up for the Aboriginal tour because I had to get
closer to the people. This
was the break I needed to unlock the mysteries of down under and
who were these people. Our
guide Richard Kulitja, an Aboriginal, conducted the tour in his
Like nothing I had ever heard before it had a melodic
quality like the didgeridoo.
I was struck by the stories, the tales of the ancestors
whose adventures created the very contours of the land around
us. The stories were then abstracted into a visual language of
color and symbols that are for sale everywhere – these
canvases of riotous patterns now made sense to me.
I may not know all the symbols but there is a
language, a symbolic language.
And the guide noted that it is the women who create much
of this artwork. Here
is a voice of the Aboriginal woman.
Perhaps it is fitting that my first purchase was from a
sister that I didn’t understand.
The second piece I bought was from a gallery and was
created by a young man who was taught by his grandmother.
The women who I thought were so invisible were here, they
were visible everywhere but I didn’t perceive them.
Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, the last city
of our visit. A
beautiful town on the coast which reminded me a little of New
Orleans in its lushness, water everywhere stories of
crocodiles/alligators, and sugar cane.
My irritation with white Australians seeing
Blacks act “white,” that is do what they do, was alleviated
in Cairns. No more blue eyes caught in the headlights of wonder.
There were “folk” all around.
Folk integrated into the everyday economy and whites
reflected this in their nonchalant interactions with me.
It was no big deal to serve you, no smugness.
Then I spied one, a sister, not an Aboriginal, she had to
be a sister because she definitely looked more African.
Aboriginals look more like East Indians from
the southern India (the debate of their racial origins aside for
the moment) in the texture of their hair and skin color (which
again can be very black but is not as luminous is the best way I
can describe it as an African blackness).
The people I saw looked African.
This is a vast descriptor but they were browner, had more
narrow heads and noses, and hair that could readily lock.
So why no eye contact, no sisterly
I saw more people younger and older still no contact. Something else was happening but I didn’t know what.
Walking around I came to a mall and chanced upon a kiosk,
which featured products by “Brothers from the Bush.”
I am not making this up.
They were selling products, which were made by “Cape
York Aboriginals” as part of a reconnecting youth to
traditional knowledge to offset the effects of colonialism,
social dislocation, and self-alienation.
We discussed rap music –50 Cent, Tupac Shakur.
But the young man made a comment about his
“island roots” and I asked him to elaborate.
Islanders are those from the nearby islands many of whom
are obviously more African in appearance.
As I further learned Islanders were enslaved and brought
to this part of Australia to work on sugar plantations, my
stomach sunk again. Many of them apparently intermarried with Aboriginals and as
this young man illustrated identify with their shared historical
and cultural legacies.
At Tjapukai Cultural Center a dose of
militancy became apparent.
The Center is sophisticated in the way visitors are
exposed to indigenous culture and history.
There are the cultural exhibits with young people
explaining various plants and their uses, an Aboriginal
dwelling, the ubiquitous didgeridoo, and boomerang throwing
lessons. There she
was, very self-assured and strong, with long fierce hair,
straight back, muscled arms decorated in jewelry.
She silently communicated to me that though
white men will sleep with women all over the globe (and to be
fair not just white men) fathering children while demeaning and
brutalizing their bloodlines the women of these babies were
warriors. And like
the center which had lured us into feeling comfortable with the
Aboriginals the last exhibit was a movie which pulled no punches
I was proud: take our money and show us the truth!
July 2004 – Senegal, Dakar, Goree
was so excited about my first trip to the motherland, Africa.
As part of the Mellon/UNCF Faculty development program I
and four other faculty members from my university won coveted
slots to participate in a seminar on “The Transatlantic Slave
My research project on modes of cultural
expression for African American women brought me to Senegal to
hear traditional African women’s voices.
Dakar was like being awash in deep dark rich velvety
chocolate, it was a sensuous feast.
The Senegalese are black, a deep black: a shiny black.
They are tall and sinewy the women develop perfect
posture from the traditional walking with cargo on their heads.
The riot of colors and patterns, flowing robes and tight
tops assaults you in this complex city of western, Islamic and
The contrast of sky blue robes on black skin
entranced me. Spiraling
mosques and catholic cathedrals, winding streets and teeming
markets there was so much to see.
But everyone wants to sell you something.
What most of the small vendors do not realize is that
their brethren have flooded the fairs and festivals in America
with handicrafts, fabrics, and jewelry therefore we sought the
unusual. Thus we
were hardened to the entreaties of sisterhood from the infamous
African market women whose voices were loud and clear.
“Tina Turner” was one street vendor on Goree who
would appear at any moment night or day sometimes startling us
as we walked around Goree, our home for ten days.
In Australia I sought kinship here in Africa
“kinship” was too often predicated on a financial exchange.
We were Americans, tourists and therefore “rich.”
Nonetheless, it is demeaning to be viewed as an ATM,
making one insensitive and cold, a machine, unable to fully
empathize with suffering. The
seminar made us face our emotional need to be connected to
Africa. Most of the
participants were products of the 1960s and 1970s, the civil
rights and black power glory days when the image of “Africa”
was evoked and embedded in our psyches.
My own academic and intellectual journey as a
scholar in Africana Studies has established for me an
understanding that the roots of blackness are cultural not
merely color. Yet
color/race and its significance have been externally imposed on
us through our contact with Europeans.
“One three centuries removed . . . . What is Africa
to me?” Slavery
was an economic enterprise that benefited specific Africans and
Europeans; traumatizing Africa and enriching Europe, leaving us
on the other side of the ocean to fend for ourselves like
The tours around Dakar exposed us to a city
whose traffic was chaotic, streets teaming with energy, and
splendid architecture that had lost its gleam.
The markets are a focal point.
We visited the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, which we
learned from our interactions with various academics at the West
African Research Center was bursting at the seams. This university is based upon the French model where
attrition is a must and rewards for survival a given.
The result is a clamoring for space, inability to educate
all those who seek it, and an economy that cannot guarantee a
coveted slot at the top for graduates.
There was a sense of frustration, a drop of desperation
and a great deal of arrogance amongst the academics – not
unlike their American counterparts. But conversations and my observations lead me to detect a
pressure building, so much talent and beauty but how to fulfill
The Goree Institute sponsored our visit its
mission is to “promote self-reliant and open societies in
on Goree, an island off the coast of Dakar, which used during
the decades of the slave trade as a slave fort.
There are no motor vehicles on the island and the
architecture is French colonial very reminiscent of the French
Quarter in New Orleans. Pastel stucco buildings with hidden courtyards faced narrow
cobblestone walkways; it was a journey back in time. I became focused on passageways, windows, and doors.
As I walked in the tranquil air of early
morning I didn’t know where I was going, what awaited me at
the end of the narrow lanes that forced me forward.
When I gazed out my shuttered window at dawn the soft
shades of purple colored the ocean as I watching other early
raisers swim or prepare to go fishing.
But it was “the door of no return” in the Slave House
that sent chills down my spine.
A dark hallway leading from the dungeons where Africans
were held until the ships arrived. The blackness of the hall contrasts sharply with the
brightness of the exit. It
is a passage into blackness, a death of the old and rebirth into
the hell of the new world’s slavery.
It was at the Slave House that the unique
experience of African women in this history struck me.
My short tenure in New Orleans has made me very aware of
the complicated relationship between Black women, their enslaved
pasts, and their sexualized bodies.
Women are coerced into relationships with men who because
of male economic dominance women use their bodies as a medium of
exchange. The deep
roots of this phenomenon were revealed to me on Goree Island.
Goree was a slave factory a site where
Africans were warehoused until ships came to take them to the
Americas. Part of
the history of the one remaining Slave House is that those
African women who bore children for whites were permitted to
stay on Goree. Was
this a reward for their rape?
Was this a bargaining chip to make the coupling seem less
Were the resulting pregnancies less
humiliating and shameful because they saved the mothers from an
unknown fate? There
is a history of the resulting mulatto class on Goree and in New
Orleans. In New
Orleans this became institutionalized in decoupage and the
infamous Quadroon Balls.
There is still a silence but I hear the fear, despair,
cunning, and anger – the warrior spirit of the women who had
to navigate these treacherous waters.
Despite my irritation with being hounded as
tourist I found my voice “Trop chere! Too much!”
The Senegalese love to barter, the give and take of the
bargaining process. I
discovered that once I surrendered to it and decided on what
were my limits I was able to relax.
I listened to the Senegalese women’s voices despite the
linguistic barriers posed by Wolof and French.
I gazed and saw their beauty.
I marveled at the grace of the manager of the Goree
Institute and requested permission to take her picture, but I
felt that she did not see her own beauty.
Perhaps it was the medium of the camera, whose image
should be captured in the age of the visual?
Billboards, advertising bottled water, cigarettes, etc.
never captured the lustrous black of the skins I saw.
While the majority of people are black there are dark
browns, but why were the women on the billboards always lighter
than what I saw on the streets?
Photography is the art of black and white,
light and dark. The
technologies of photography have been developed for white skin
tones, and as my disappointing endeavors of photography
revealed, additional skill is needed to capture dark skin tones.
The blue sky against the dark skin tones so brilliantly
captured in Daughters of the Dust was the effect I
But I remember a friend remarking that a
white colleague of hers disclaimed the possibility of black
women in the film could be that beautiful.
She could not believe her eyes.
Ms. Sophie Mbodj was very self-conscious in the
photograph I took. No
wonder on the limited Senegalese television I saw most of the
programming was European a great deal of the local programs were
music videos- lighter women dancing to the tunes of dark male
here the poison of white supremacy is eroding Africa’s self
image especially that of the African women.
Racialization defined here is the impact of
superficial physical characteristics as the determining factor
for one’s social, economic, and political status.
Thus white is defined as superior and beautiful, and
black as inferior and ugly.
The twenty-first century will be even more shaped by the
global economy and age of media that relies upon the visual
therefore racailization becomes even more inescapable.
We are called black around the globe even if not directly
linked to Africa because of skin color.
This has created a common history of sexual exploitation
that still exists predicated on the economic marginalization of
But Black women are warriors and we refuse to
be silent or be confined to the roles assigned us.
We shout in malls, we travel, we glide gracefully, and we
shop in African markets without molestation.
Maybe it is best to be invisible in such a world where it
is easy to become a commodity.
If you listen you can hear us singing, laughing, crying
and hollering; haunting the world with our voices that cannot be
* * * *
Danille Taylor. Currently I serve as
Dean of Humanities at Dillard University, New Orleans, La.
I received my Ph.D. from Brown University in American
Studies and I have a M.A. in African American Studies from
Boston University. Prior
to coming to New Orleans last summer I was Chair of Minority
Studies at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind., and was
former chair of Women’s Studies.
I lived and worked in Chicago for twenty five
years having taught at Northwestern University, the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago.
My teaching areas are African American literature, Toni
Morrison and Black women writers, Black women in music, African
American folklore and material culture, minority literatures,
Native American literature and women’s studies.
I serve on the Ethnic Studies committee of
the American Studies Association and have served on the
Women’s and Minority Scholars committees.
I am the editor of
with Toni Morrison
Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves
Living in Indiana," and other publications.
My major research project is “The Saintly Blues” which
explores the impact of music on black women’s writing
especially Toni Morrison’s. The interconnectivenes of different art forms to inform and
shape one another is of particular interest to me.
* * * *
The State of African Education
Attack On Africans Writing Their Own
History Part 1 of 7
Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on
Africans writing and accounting for their own history.
Dr Hilliard is A
teacher, psychologist, and historian.
Part 2 of 7
3 of 7 /
Part 4 of 7
Part 5 of 7 /
Part 6 of 7 /
Part 7 of 7
* * * *
John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk
video chronicles the life and times of the
noted African-American historian, scholar
and Pan-African activist
John Henrik Clarke
(1915-1998). Both a biography of Clarke
himself and an overview of 5,000 years of
African history, the film offers a
provocative look at the past through the
eyes of a leading proponent of an Afrocentric view of history. From ancient
Egypt and Africa’s other great empires,
Clarke moves through Mediterranean
borrowings, the Atlantic slave trade,
European colonization, the development of
the Pan-African movement, and present-day
* * *
Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the
Making of the New Negro
A carefully argued,
nuanced presentation of the genesis of the
Harlem Renaissance. Foley's breadth of
knowledge in American radical history is
Foley's book is a lucid
and useful one... A heavyweight
intervention, it prompts significant
rethinking of the ideological and
representational strategies structuring the
of American Studies
does a masterful job of analyzing the racial
and political theories of a wide range of
black and white figures, from the radical
Left to the racist Right... Students of
African American political and cultural
history in the early twentieth century
cannot ignore this book. Essential.—Choice
current time of crisis, when ruling classes
busily promote nationalism and racism to
conceal the class nature of their
inter-imperialist rivalries, one can only
hope that readers will not be daunted by
Foley's dedication to analyzing the
ideological milieu of the 1920s that
contributed to the eclipse of New Negro
radicalism by New Negro nationalism.—Science
With the New
Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s
was a landmark decade in African American political
and cultural history, characterized by an upsurge in
racial awareness and artistic creativity. In
Spectres of 1919 Barbara Foley traces the
origins of this revolutionary era to the turbulent
year 1919, identifying the events and trends in
American society that spurred the black community to
action and examining the forms that action took as
studies of the Harlem Renaissance, which see 1919 as
significant mostly because of the geographic migrations
of blacks to the North, Spectres of 1919 looks at
that year as the political crucible from which the
radicalism of the 1920s emerged. Foley draws from a
wealth of primary sources, taking a bold new approach to
the origins of African American radicalism and adding
nuance and complexity to the understanding of a
fascinating and vibrant era.—amazon.com
* * *
* * * * *
Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All
By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that
wealth is rooted in much more than the
market. True wealth has more to do with
what's in your heart than what's in your
wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons
became one of America's shrewdest
entrepreneurs, achieving a level of
success that most investors only dream
about. No matter how much material gain
he accumulated, he never stopped lending
a hand to those less fortunate. In
Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare
blend of spiritual savvy and
street-smart wisdom to offer a new
definition of wealth-and share timeless
principles for developing an unshakable
sense of self that can weather any
financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy
can make you money, but money can't make
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 13 February 2012