Diaspora wars are an especially tedious for me. The constant compare and contrast of the African, Caribbean, Black British and African American experiences is tiring because I am a black woman who was born in London and raised in Zimbabwe by Jamaican grandparents before moving back to Britain to be raised by my immigrant mother. I find it impossible to take sides during these mammoth social media debates all while white people are running off with our things in my periphery. Diaspora wars are draining because they offer little room to listen, to apply nuance and activate independent thought lest you be seen as a traitor.
With the announcement that British Tony, Emmy and Grammy award winning Cynthia Erivo had been cast as African American abolitionist, spy and political activist Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic Harriet, the Diaspora war raged onto a new battle front.
I have written before about African American solipsism and the ways in which support has not traditionally been reciprocal. Samuel L Jackson’s comments about Black British actors being cheaper to hire than their African American counterparts were disappointing but in my rush to condemn what I considered a disrespect to Daniel Kaluuya’s seminal role as Chris in Get Out I failed to recognise a truth in Jackson’s rhetoric. There are times when it might be more appropriate to cast African American actors in roles. Harriet is one of those instances.
Don’t get it twisted, I stand by everything I wrote and know Daniel Kaluuya was the only man for the job. But no one wakes up woke and we must do the work to evolve our thinking with every new advancement. Where Chris was a fictional character that represented a common sense of black anxiety when in white spaces, Harriet Tubman was a real woman who represents the lived experiences of the ancestors of African Americans. There is a specificity to that experience that cannot be denied. I want Cynthia Erivo to go on to become the first Black British woman EGOT but not when the cost is the erasure of African American women.
I abhor when the oppressed appropriate the oppressor’s language “these foreigners coming here stealing our jobs” but I cannot pretend I wouldn’t feel wronged if an African American actress was cast to play Doreen Lawrence, Diane Abbott, Mary Seacole, Fanny Eaton, Zadie Smith, Evelyn Dove, Malorie Blackman or the whole host of other Black British women heroes who have paved the way for me.
As a television professional, I can attest to it being especially hard for Black British actresses to thrive here. The reason Britain haemorrhages talent like Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, John Boyega, Cush Jumbo, Delroy Lindo, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Marianne Jean Baptiste and countless others is because of the dire state of affairs in this country still unwilling to truly recognise our value and invest in us. However, in our pain we cannot be blind to the fact that African and Black British actors often have an advantage over African American actors. We must recognise these truths and not attempt to silence one another.
There is no way Cynthia Erivo has won a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy without unimaginable hard work. She would have worked hard to be cast in Harriet by director Kasi Lemmons, whose impressive filmography inspires confidence she knows what she’s doing. Harriet is going to be amazing, Erivo is going to do a stellar job. And yet, I feel a pang of sadness. There was an opportunity to cast an African American woman in this role. I’m under no illusion Erivo’s awards make it easier for her to get roles. We understand that winning even the most prestigious of awards does not open doors for black women (see Mo’Nique and Halle Berry). But your character is based not on what you choose to do when it is easy but the decisions you make when you have something to lose.
*sigh* Diaspora wars are the product of systemic global racism and sees black people fighting over crumbs while white people run away with the whole loaf. Because this discourse is between us I hope for more nuanced language, genuine listening and a commitment to better understanding how we can help one another. We have to do better because our little sisters are watching and need to know we will be able to hand them blue prints for how to navigate this world.