The Skin of Pop Culture
I grew up in Africa, in an impoverished suburb of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Like many who have spent their formative years in Kampala, I had to make an effort to find beauty. Sometimes it was in the street food, somewhere between the savoriness and the spice; other times, it would creep up on me as I basked lazily in the warm, golden glow of the late-afternoon. But one place was reliably like no other in my search: books.
I received a special kind of education that came in the form of smuggled books. Early in my mother’s career as a kindergarten teacher, shortly after becoming a widow, she secured a job at one of the nation’s finest schools, the Kampala International School. This was not a place that she could afford to send her own children, it was a school for the children of foreign envoys and the one percent of my country. Although my siblings and I underwent the standard education common to those somewhat impoverished Kampala suburbs, we also had the books that my mother would bring home after class.
It all started with my mother’s sonorous voice reading Rudyard Kipling‘s “The Jungle Book,” at my pre-ripened age of four. I was taken by Mowgli, the young boy and protagonist who was raised by animals. The impact of that story was so significant that I began a pursuit of literature.
I read other books for young children, like “Peter and Jane,” and then continued my exploration by delving into the world of fairy tales. I had a real collection going: “Rapunzel,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella,” “Humpty Dumpty,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Peter Pan,” “The Gingerbread Man,” and many others from that sea of popular stories.
When I entered high school, the roots of the literary pursuit that had taken hold in my mind soon sprouted, then sprung, becoming a sapling. My sunshine, my breath of air, the water that rained down in translucent drops to nurture the nature of my pursuit came in the form of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Bertolt Brecht, Aristophanes, Henrik Ibsen, and Samuel Beckett. While they had an immeasurably lasting impression on me, no rays came from the literature that Africa had to provide.
I found it difficult to read and appreciate any of the books that were local to Kampala or to the region, which were seemingly boring and poorly written. Perhaps non-surprisingly, my earliest attempts at writing stories included characters whose skin was “white as snow,” akin to the characters that I’d been exposed to time and time again in Western books. Nowhere in my imagination did I conceive even the possibility of writing about strong, independent and self-sufficient African characters, like myself. As I set out to begin a story, never did I think, the hero will be African.
My narrowed exposure to Western art did not stop with literature; most of the movies that made their way onto the fuzzy screen in my house were mostly of British or American descent, while the few local television channels had little capacity for creating “our own” content. For the films that were shot in Africa, the heroes remained white. Just like in my early stories, it was inconceivable for Hollywood that a native African could hold that role. This pop culture reality further propelled my mind in the direction of thinking that my race was inferior and that I had to aspire to be white in my mannerisms and my way of life. Tragically, this complex affects millions of young people in Africa today, and many have chosen to emigrate to the U.S. and Europe and leave their homelands in the past, abandoned and forgotten, to chase an unattainable sense of self. I have finally defeated the toxic notion that I inherently measure up as less than white society, but the power of Western pop culture may explain why some will go to the extent of bleaching their skin, the ultimate submission to the impression that being black means being inferior. As my quest for knowledge pushed me away from Hollywood and the bone whiteness of Europe, I came upon art from places much closer to the Kampala suburbs. Through African authors like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya, Senegal’s Mariam Ba, and Uganda’s Ogot P. Bitek, I finally discovered the heroism of blackness. Through their writings, these authors uncovered what had recently been festering in my mind: they brought the evils of colonialism and its devastating effects on Africans to life on the page; they exposed the lie that African culture was inferior to that of the white man and his God-given right to the world. Deep in my conscious, my inner child began to rethink the fairytale world of “Neverland” and Prince Charming. Eventually, the stories that I crafted began featuring black characters. The pop culture that had always influenced the imaginative world that I drew from finally transformed. But getting there had not been easy. It took years of deconstructing the mindset that had been instilled within me from an early age. I still am called out for a emulating a certain kind of “whiteness” in the way I carry myself, the way I speak. But if my writing serves as a representation of who I am, I believe that it reflects not only a world that’s expanded past the confining influence of Hollywood, but a world that continues to expand within Africa and beyond. My quest has led me to read books from every continent on the planet, to seek proud voices with diverse identities.
It’s obvious that the cultural influences from Western pop culture did not only affect me. People in my country have been majorly influenced by leading films, soap operas and telenovelas to the extent that they’ve named their children after such characters, but also after English Premier footballers, and Western musicians playing on television in stylized music videos that conform to the American doctrine of MTV. This makes for a culture that turns away from the pride and beauty of its own traditions in exchange for a vulgar pursuit of shallow mimicry.
But there has been a kind of cultural revolution bubbling in Africa. The success of “Nollywood” has established Nigerian pop culture as a much more dominating force across the continent than perhaps it’s ever been. Its films and music fill our libraries and populate our screens. Traditional Nigerian “Kitenge” wear has become a popular staple in our market; Nigerian dance has made its way into night clubs, and the general Style has been redefined. This is likely just the beginning of a continent-wide movement that results in not only Nigeria breaking out of its cultural chains, but many African nations as well. And the world is ready.
The tremendous global success of a film like “Black Panther,” for example, even with its origins being in Hollywood, is clear evidence that the hero identity in popular culture is changing. I’ve never seen so many nations unite around a film like they have around this one. I, like many people back home, felt that I was part of the story of mythical “Wakanda” in a way that the past could never accommodate. I’ve watched this movie several times, each time with different friends or relatives so that we could share the experience of finally watching a story that was about us. Months after “Black Panther” shattered box office records, I was flying from Los Angeles to Boston when I saw a dozen screens showing “Crazy Rich Asians.” I eagerly sought out to learn what this film was all about. I was incredibly proud to see that there was already another blockbuster featuring a race that’s been so historically brushed to the side. As humans we are all yearning to see someone like us, show us a capacity for greatness, so that we can follow our own ambitions. This is the power of heroes in pop culture.
The success of Nollywood is only an example of how self-determination supersedes forced narratives of Hollywood and Europe. While my fellow countrymen and women may not view themselves as defined by poverty, hunger, and war as much as they used to, there’s still much more pop culture can do to inspire our self-actualization instead of retraining it and beating it down. Today it is still easier to access American and European literature, music and film for someone living in Africa than it is to receive works of art created in Africa by Africans. The call for diversity must continue to louden and in turn be heard. Can you imagine a world in which pop culture grew from a multitude of cultures rather than a conglomerate of media companies that cater first and foremost to the streaming-subscribing masses of comparative affluence? A world with a more diverse collection of heroes would be a more empathic world, and an empathic world is a world closer to equality. In a world like that, young girls and boys living in the suburbs of Kampala will be able to always find beauty, even beyond books, perhaps in the smile of a friend whose skin is the skin of heroes.
Jerry Sesanga is a Ugandan author, journalist, filmmaker, and human rights activist.