We Wouldn’t Be Here If They Just Told Us the Truth About Great Zimbabwe

An unambiguous exploration of how intellectual towers promote racism within the design umbrella and throughout popular culture

felemaye
felemaye
Jul 20, 2020 · 26 min read
Black educators at work to teach their youth in Los Angeles, 1995. Image Courtesy of Author

Cute picture, right?

This is me (in the white dress) as a young girl at Knox Presbyterian Nursery School in Los Angeles. At the tender age of three, I learned my ABCs and 123s. I moved my body to emulate the wonders of Debbie Allen and Lula Washington. I learned how to plant food here. It was here, too, that I first mouthed out the word “abolition.” Glossy pictures of W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Fannie Lou Hamer were mounted on the classroom walls. My favorite teacher was this beautiful African-American woman named Yolanda. She always dedicated extra time after-school to help me with my English since I spoke Tigrinya at home. We wore bright red and yellow uniforms. The parents always joked around and said we look like a ketchup and mustard assembly line. Every so often, we would also wear traditional African attire. We gathered around to dissect the patterns, colors, and textures of each student’s outfit. Reflecting on that time, it was truly a special place where a gradient of brown children would come together to learn about their roots.

Image Description: Photo of me on a field trip in Long Beach with Uncle Berhe and Teacher Yolanda in 1995
On a field trip in Long Beach with Uncle Berhe and Teacher Yolanda, 1994. Image Courtesy of Author
Image Description: Photo of classmates dressed in colorful traditional African attire gathered at the table
Classmates gathering to discuss African attires and traditions, 1995. Image Courtesy of Author
Vinyl of Gill Scott Heron- “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”(1971) Courtesy of Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi
Courtesy of Author

Here is my matrix from Cornell University.

A certain amount of credits under the history department need to be fulfilled to obtain your architecture degree. 15 credits — that’s it. At this time, we studied many civilizations. Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia- just to name a few. And then there was Africa — a continent that roughly covered eight pages in the entire textbook (excluding Egypt, but we will talk about that later). That semester, Africa was discussed in less than one class session. The big Africa lecture” was one of the few times when we even got to leave thirty minutes early. Three points were discussed that day: Great Zimbabwe, the Great Mosque of Djenné, and the adobe used in Senegal.

Great Zimbabwe Still Standing Strong (2017) Courtesy of Simon Chihanga
Excerpt from Atlantis Rising Magazine, 2012
Excerpt from Atlantis Rising Magazine (2012)
“Sorry I hoarded all the Black books from the library. They needed to live on my studio desk to protect me from the oppressors’ spirit” (2013). Image Courtesy of Author
A clip of African parents displaying their academic expectations for their children, “African Booty Scratcher” (2016), Video Courtesy of Damilare Sonoiki/Youtube
Longitudinal Section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Longitudinal Section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. Drawing Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
Floor Plan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana/Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois, Drawing Courtesy of James G. Hollis, and George J. Krassas/Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
Animated Stereograph of a Black Man atop the Gizeh Pyramid, circa 1920. Courtesy of Paul Ewbank/Flickr
Section of the compressed egress paths throughout the Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, Egypt.
MGM’s Luxor Hotel was built in 1993. Design education has warped the legacies of Black civilizations. Image Courtesy Guide Travel/Flickr
Moving Image from Steve Martin’s Special Edition Saturday Night Live, 1978
The Godfather of Nubian music, Ali Hassan Kuban, performing “Yah Nasma Yah Halina” (1990),
Released by Piranha Records

To be frank, you can go on Rap Genius, listen to Nas’s discography, dissect the lyrics, and learn more about Black empires than what is currently offered at these treasured institutions of higher learning.

Lyrics analysis of Nas’ “I Can” (2002), Courtesy of Rap Genius.com
Miriam Makeba or Mama Africa, backstage at the Grand Gala du Disque Populaire, 1969, Anefo Photo Agency/Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Devon Rodriguez
Still of Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, Courtesy of Make it Kenya/Flickr
Karen Blixen’s former home in Nairobi, Kenya is a monument of its dark colonial past. (2004) Image Courtesy of J. Martin/Flickr

We need to be honest.

There is a part of the creative industry and academy that simply doesn’t care about what is going on in this heightened time we are living in. The desire to return to business, as usual, has been evident in either their silence or their tone-death “theatrics” of wanting to do better by Black people. But I’m not here to talk to them. The hierarchy of knowledge distribution must be aggressively reviewed — and reviewed again. One of the most problematic practices I encountered at school was this notion of “breaking to build back up.” Whose guise were we being built up for? If Black curricula were genuinely taken seriously by the academy, it would be injected into different branches of the larger ivory tower. The result of this would not only produce ameliorated designers but better citizens and consumers of culture.

If architecture could host an Honesty Hour, Photo Courtesy of Dank.Lloyd.Wright
Mapping Curricula, Courtesy of The Black School
Courtesy of The Community Planning & Design Initiative, Africa
Image Courtesy of Hood Century
Notes from a lecture included in the ASWAD Conference that took place in Sevilla, Spain, 2017, Courtesy of Author

Atonement is required.

If this can come in the form of “inclusion” into institutions that are already in power — fine. Some might feel more optimistic and have enough mental energy for yet another effort to convince western spaces to unlearn their racist lines of thought. All actualizations toward independence should not be criticized. Supporting separatism from the sidelines, not fully giving up society’s comforts, and showing up every day is still a valid form of resistance. We must identify where we each stand individually on the detachment spectrum and proceed accordingly.

Still from Nas’ “I Can” music video, 2003 / Ill Will/Columbia Records/Youtube
How much longer will the Black Arts movement continue to use pain and violence as her muse? Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, “Slave Mill”, Republic Records, 2017, Courtesy of RapGenius

Wouldn’t it be nice if all people had the luxury to create (sans) inhibition?

What is the common privilege that every commanding design icon keeps in their pocket? Freedom. I want Black designers to have the same type of leisure as Rem Koolhaas when he was injecting Berlin Wall-like infrastructure in London or the “visionary” Superstudio when they were producing those fantastical drawings that are globally worshiped to this day. Design boundaries cannot be broken if we (Black people) are busy fighting to exist in a sunken place.

Archives of Leisure: A Fictional Flag for the European Union, designed by Rem Koolhaas, 2002
Personal Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University (2012)
Personal Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University (2012)
Notes on Peter Eisenman from a theory class at Cornell University, 2012, Courtesy of Author

Seeking answers to fully understand (anybody’s) personhood should not be contingent on scholastic gas-lighting.

Learning the truth about Great Zimbabwe messed me up forever- in the most necessary way. I am here to rock the boat until these negligent curricula (permanently) capsize. Now that we have gone through all this, can you still tell me with a straight face Eisenman’s theories on building infrastructure must be studied to be a renowned designer? Is it more fundamental than the story of a man from Gando and what he could do for his community with minimal resources at his disposal? Can we highlight the work of the great Ashanti people now? The Afar people? The Gurunsi people? The list can continue, but I invite you to do that research. Maybe after all this, I won’t have to show people where Eritrea is located on google maps every time someone unabashedly asks to give me a moniker because they can’t seem to fix their pronunciation gaffe. For anyone who has seen my little country presented somewhere, please do not try to mention all the modern jewels that Mussolini built for us as a means of small talk. I guess it’s one battle at a time. I look forward to continuing this exchange — perhaps over a listening session of Distant Relatives? Let me know — I’m here.

“Black Subjects, Black Lens“, 2011, Image Courtesy of Author
  1. Frederikse, Julie (1990) [1982]. “(1) Before the war”. None But Ourselves. Biddy Partridge (photographer). Harare: Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe with Anvil Press. pp. 10–11
  2. Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. Ukraine, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.153
  3. Atlantis Rising Magazine — 94 July/August 2012. N.p., Atlantis Rising LLC, 2012., 28–31
  4. Urban Policy in Twentieth-century America. United States: Rutgers University Press, 1993.,139
  5. American Egyptomania Historical Sources.
  6. Nicholson, Paul T, and Ian Shaw. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
  7. Rego, A. Da Silva. Portuguese colonization in the sixteenth century: A study of the royal ordinances(regimentos). 1959. pg. 12.
  8. cosmiccrat. “Miriam Makeba Interview 1969.” YouTube, uploaded by cosmiccrat, 3 Mar. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wONkMpbl7N8.
  9. Brantly, Susan. Understanding Isak Dinesen. United States: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. pg.81
  10. Dietz, James L, and Cypher, James M.. The Process of Economic Development. The United States, Taylor & Francis, 2008.,73–106
  11. Interview with Joseph Cuillier III of The Black School
  12. Interview with Nmadili Okwumabua of CPDI
  13. Interview with Jerald Cooper of Hood Century
  • Atim Oton
  • Ezra Kebrab
  • Cory Henry
  • Mikaela Randolph
  • Habib Konate
  • Leelai Demoz
  • Karen Grigsby Bates
  • Shani Peters
  • Dexter Thomas
  • Reverend Reginald Ragland
  • Joseph Cuillier III
  • Jerald Cooper
  • Nmadili Okwumabua
  • Mama + Daddy
  • Black People in general — I love us ❤

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felemaye

Written by

felemaye

la native | harlem habitant | architectural+interior designer | african culture hound | well-rounded creative | thoughtful troublemaker | say merhaba @felemaye

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

felemaye

Written by

felemaye

la native | harlem habitant | architectural+interior designer | african culture hound | well-rounded creative | thoughtful troublemaker | say merhaba @felemaye

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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