On Sunday June 8th, I went to the International African Arts Festival in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Thousands of Afrocentric black folk; men with long dread-locks, women with afro-puffs walked the maze of tents. They were my neighbors. Even if most of us never set foot on Africa we shared it as an ideal.
The fair was a classic scene of commodity fetishism; our relationship to each other was materialized in cowry-shell bracelets, bright African dresses and sculptures. We came to buy our blackness. Each purchase committed us to our color, our hair and to Africa because Africa’s past guaranteed an ancient glory that would someday shine in our lives.
As I asked a seller about a dress my cell phone sang. It was Delia, a friend at the international aid agency CONCERN. I told her of the festival. “You know most African clothes are made in Indonesia or the Netherlands.” I stood hand on hip, “Delia no.” She laughed, “I’m serious. Even the DRC where I’m going, Mobutu banned Western clothes so more people dress traditionally but none of the clothes are actually made there. It’s fucked.”
We laughed bitterly. “So what’s real here,” I asked. “Maybe the people” she said. We hung up and I looked around. Hard faced Nation of Islam men stood silent as a video of Minister Farrakhan spoke for them. Black Israelites in Lord of the Rings costume sold books “proving” we are the original Jews. A Nuwabian in a turban held a book to a woman, “It tells the truth about our Egyptian origins.” In stall after stall the fantasy of Africa was sold and black Americans could buy into it but the fact was Africa couldn’t afford to buy itself.
In the crowd a woman with “Save Darfur” scribbled on her shirt, clip-board in hand studied people. If someone lingered at a stall, she asked “Hi my name is Herlena Lewis, will you help stop the genocide in Darfur?” Sometimes guilt made them sign. Sometimes they waved her away.
We talked under a painting of Samson asleep as Delia cut his locks. “When I heard about the genocide in Darfur I couldn’t ignore the emergency.” We shared known stories of women gang-raped, of boys with guns and men thinned by AIDS. It was an Africa concealed by the romantic images that floated in the Afrocentric mind.
As I left the festival, my friend, Rocky Stagger called. “Can I ask you something?” She worried for a friend. “He’s really Afrocentric. We were out and Hasidic Jews walked by. He yelled, ‘You’re not real Jews. We are!” She quietly pulled her breath into words. “He has so much hate.” I knew his anger. I followed the Nation of Islam to be among the people chosen by God to redeem the world through pain. I let go of that need because the price of it was hatred of whoever else claimed that title. The rage her friend vented at the Hasidic Jews was the other side of the silent indifference to the Save Darfur stall at the festival. The most important commodity we have is our innocence and history, anyone who questions either is ignored or attacked.
How can suffering in Africa be meaningful to us who use its myth to numb the suffering in our own lives? Black Brooklyn was not alone in pretending to be a neighbor to Africa. On Monday June 9th I went to “In Darfur” a play written by Winter Miller a research assistant for New York Times writer Nicholas Kristoff. It was at the Public Theater at Central Park West. Theater workers wearing Save Darfur shirts guided us to our seats. They reminded me of Lewis and her homemade shirt, except these were professionally designed. Here sympathy had a budget.
The audience was mostly white and earnest. The play began with three characters; the reporter Maryka, an aid doctor named Carlos and the English speaking refugee Hamida. They are in a car racing away from the Janjaweed toward a checkpoint.
Maryka came to Darfur and heard of Hamida, a refugee who witnessed the Janjaweed pound her husband’s skull into a pulp with the butts of their guns. They raped her over and over. After they left, she stumbled through desert to a camp. Maryka knows this story could break the front page but if she uses names Hamida will be killed. The editor refuses to print the piece without a name. Maryka gives up Hamida for “the greater good”.
In revenge the Janjaweed rush the village. The characters escape to a checkpoint where Carlos pretends Hamida is his wife. The guard doesn’t believe them until she recites a passage from Edith Warton’s The House of Mirth. Afterwards, as Maryka files her story helicopters surround Hamida, who is alone again in the desert. Machinegun fire echoes in the dark stage.
After the play, Nicolas Kristoff, Samantha Power and others gathered on a panel. They recited the grim facts and hopeless history of American indifference. Against the despair an earnest young man told the audience, “You can be Oscar Schindler, you can be a moral giant.” His strategy? We enlist on a website and call our politicians a lot. The audience applause thundered. It seemed too loud for such a small act. No direct action was called for.
I realized he gave the audience what they wanted; the self righteousness of a witness with the comfort of a shopper. Like the African Arts Festival we were encouraged to consume empty signs of our moral identity. At the end of the panel, actress Mia Farrow held up a melted child’s shoe she found in the ash of a burned village. “This shows how real it is,” she said, “If you want to touch it come see me afterwards.”
As I left, I met Reverend Spencer of Concord Baptist Church. He, Representative Charles Rangel, Reverend Herbert Daughtry were arrested for chaining themselves to the Sudanese Embassy in Washington D.C. On the way home to Brooklyn, I asked him why are there so few black people at the official Save Darfur rallies?
“If you cut our community,” he says. “half are Christian and half are Muslims who don’t get involved saying Jews use the Save Darfur campaign to smear Islam.” His hands wheel in the air as he draws into focus the reasons. “I’m like whatever your suspicions are keep them in the closet because people are dying.” He speaks faster as if catching up to people on the edge of turning away. “I hear brothers say, ‘Why should we do anything for them? They don’t help us.” His voice shoots out. “I say, it’s not about if they love you but can you love them.” Why, I ask, is altruistic love so hard for us. “We bought into capitalism. It a I-got-mine mentality,” he said then sighed “We got too much hate in us.”
I get out of the subway and walk down Nostrand where long robed Muslim Africans share the sidewalk with bearded Rastafari, where sisters in tights swagger past women in long black hajibs. We share the street but we are not neighbors because we don’t share a vision. It was a fact made obvious after seeing Afrocentric blacks at the festival and liberal whites at the stage reading of “In Darfur” both posing as good neighbors to the estranged African. Yet they did not even share the same idea of Africa. Is it that we can only love a neighbor who is too far away to be anything but a reflection of our own goodwill?