I’m upset. I went to bed feeling disturbed after watching a video of Philadelphia born, African-American psychologist, author, lecturer and self-proclaimed community leader, Dr Umar Johnson tearing down British actor Daniel Kaluuya, for playing African-American activist and former Black Panther Party Chairman, Fred Hampton in his latest film release – Judas and The Black Messiah.
The trailer for this film gives me chills. It brings me so much joy watching a fellow Black Brit rising to fame in Hollywood, with accolades to his name including Black Panther and the highly-acclaimed Get Out – a film that had the world talking at the time of its release. A film made by a Black director, with a Black lead. Something I had hoped to see in my lifetime. A film that proved to us that talent transcends countries and showed us what the diaspora can do when we create together.
But beneath the successes of Black Brits in Hollywood, lies a murky truth; there are some African Americans who are just not happy about it.
I can’t seem to get my head around this notion. For me, being Black can be such a heavy and hard road full of twists and turns that only we can understand. So when I see my Black brothers and sisters shining in Hollywood, I couldn’t care less what their background is. Whether they’re from Detroit or Paris, Lagos or Rio de Janeiro – I feel happy for them, and I also feel represented. Hollywood has a historically racist and sexist past (and present), with movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite putting these issues on blast. Change is in the air, despite how long and slow it may feel. So why are people mad at Daniel?
“He is biologically African….is he psychologically a Pan Africanist? I don’t know. Maybe he’s on some British tribalism, I don’t know. If he is, he don’t need to be playing no ancestors of mine.”
What exactly does Pan Africanism mean to Dr Umar? The Collins dictionary defines the adjective Pan-African as of or relating to all African countries or the advocacy of political unity among African countries and the noun Pan-African is defined as a supporter of the Pan-African movement. I hate to break it to you Doc, but both you and Daniel are children of the diaspora. Your versions of Pan-Africanism would, in theory, be totally unique to one another. Daniel’s parents moved to London from Uganda before he was born, making him British by birth and Black British should he wish to identify as such. Of course, his accent will be British, much like Dr Umar’s is American because of where he was born and raised – America. To have any other accent would be absurd and preposterous. It is impossible that Daniel could be making up his accent, as Dr Umar claims.
Let’s get into this British tribalism he speaks of. I had never heard of this phrase before, nor do I wish to entertain it. As a Black British woman who has travelled to, lived in and worked abroad in many cities around the world including North America, I can recall several times where certain people refused to understand my Black British heritage. I’ve been told that there is “no way” I could be British, three times when I lived in France and was even told that it was “impossible”. I was asked several times which parts of the States I was from when I worked in Canada, followed by a look of confusion when I said that I am English. At work, I deal with international clients who simply refuse to believe that a Black woman can speak with the accent that I have. So why is it so hard for people to wrap their heads around our existence? Are we failing to educate the world about what it means to be Black and British? Are we still seen as a subculture?
Through in-depth research, Historian and writer David Olusoga states in his incredible book Black and British that Black Britons have existed since the 3rd century, informing us that some form of multiculturalism has existed in Britain for literally ages. The ignorance around a whole culture leads me to believe that a lack of representation is the only answer to this confusion. This is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important, particularly in the UK – not only is it enough to be actively anti-racist, but we simply call for inclusion and equality. We are not invisible.
“If he has a Pan-African spirit, I have no problem. But if he is just a Black British coming over here making some money playing Black heroes, I have a problem”.
Echoes of that line racists have used time and time again, “they come over here, and steal our jobs”. To hear this from a fellow Black man is worrying; what exactly is the problem with a Black British man playing a Black hero? If I dared to say that the Black Panthers are heroes of mine – would that not be allowed because I am not American?
When the Black Lives Matter Movement accelerated around the globe last June 2020, I felt for the first time as though we as Black people, were one community – regardless of where we lived or came from. The Pan-Africanism that I know of symbolises unity, a unity which is strongly lacking in Dr Umar’s rant. Instead, I see baseless, false claims which further perpetuate a division in a Black community that fundamentally needs to be united as one in the face of racism.
“That’s not an African tongue, the reason you speak that tongue is because the British came into your ancestral homeland of Uganda [mispronounced in video] and colonised it”
In comes the hypocrisy with full force. Is the American accent not one of a “coloniser”? Does being a Pan Africanist involve tearing down other people from the diaspora? I suggest a strategy rethink, sir.
“I’m just concerned that he might be a Black British negro, making money in Hollywood. I hope that’s not the case, I hope he has a Pan-African consciousness. I have no problem with Africans in the diaspora playing my heroes, if they consider themselves to be one of me”.
Is the real root of Johnson’s frustration the fact that he believes that Brits should play Brits and Americans should play Americans? This makes me think of that sad phrase “not all skin folk are kin folk”, a phrase dating back to slavery, used by African Americans to state that although a fellow black person may share your racial identity, they do not share your community. Again this is a strong contradiction to the Pan-Africanism movement, which aims to encourage and strengthen bonds between different ethnic groups of African descent.
“I’m a little concerned because I am not seeing no ‘American Africans’ being cast in ancestral roles….starring ‘American African’ Heroes”
Denzel Washington as Malcom X, Will Smith as Muhammed Ali, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer in “Hidden Figures”, Chadwick Boseman as baseball hero Jackie Robinson in “42.”, Kadeem Hardison in Panther, Queen Latifah as jazz legend Bessie Smith, Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker…..shall I carry on?
I tried my best to unpick the most shocking parts of the 5-minute extract I watched of Dr Umar’s long rant. What stands out to me, are the contradictory and outlandish statements he makes, kicking off with Umar – a self-proclaimed Pan African – incorrectly pronouncing Daniel’s Ugandan surname, a mistake that I feel was intentionally left in the video either as a form of disrespect or left in haste as he was so, damn, furious. I am concerned that a Black community leader, would release such a video to the public. Confused almost.
If I were to psychoanalyse Dr Umar from this rant alone, I would say that he is suffering from an identity crisis and needs to brush up on his knowledge of the diaspora, along with what it means to be a Pan-Africanist.