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On Narratives

Posted by Robin Sirleaf on

On Narratives



First of all I want to say a huge hello and thank you to all my new folks! How much I appreciate your follow, purchase, review or support cannot be simply quantified in a few slides. I’m really looking forward to you guys joining us on this journey of changing the narrative on African people and goods through design, quality and craftsmanship. 

 

 

 

I started this business because as an African person, born in the United States and raised in Europe, for some reason, who I am, what I wear and what I do has been met with far more (repetitive) assumptions than my peers who don’t look like me. Based on their own perceptions, people have had no problem confining the meaning of ‘African’ to a few limited narratives. “That bag doesn’t even look African” is one of the repeated statements that I can credit to why Sarep + Rose exists today. Even for myself, it took years before I stopped and thought- “Do we make the same analysis for goods manufactured in the US? In Italy? In China? In Vietnam?” Look at the tags in your clothes, in your shoes, your sheets, your jewelry. Do we ever wonder whether the item ‘looks like’ something that could be made in that country?


I wondered about the harm this narrative causes. Its role in the larger narrative that African countries, people and things had to be centered around topics such as extreme poverty, civil unrest, continent-wide danger, ignorance and general strife. Qualities that nobody could value. Do we really believe that other continents or countries are the only places safer to travel to or that could be the origin of highly valued, well-made things-  or is it that we let our narratives about people and places get in the way of finding out the truth? 


Even in some of my own endeavours, I continue to learn to see beyond narratives. It takes insight, courage and sometimes experience-  after all, we have all been conditioned to believe they are fact to some extent. But it doesn’t make the need to unlearn them any less critical.. How are we supposed to experience the beauty, the heartaches, the growth and potential- in all its imperfectly perfect splendor that this world has to offer-  if we don’t make the conscious effort to look within and beyond our own narratives? 


I am often asked whether I run a charitable organization as opposed to a for-profit business. Do I support an orphanage, provide clean water, etc.? I could, but you know what creates less orphans and more funds to build clean water pipes? Gainful employment. That’s what allows you to pay your water bills and support your children, right? Or is charity only for Africans? How many white countries have developed through charity? Why is there a focus on giving as a form of survival in black countries? I wonder if it’s because it feeds a cyclical narrative that Black people are less capable, less hardworking, productive and according to the structure of our global societies therefore they are ‘less valuable’?


American citizens in Flint have been forced to consume poisonous water for years. Millions of children are in state care, subjected to horrifying abuse and funneled to prisons before their brains have fully developed. So where is it more dangerous for a black baby to live? A north American country or an African (black) one? Can we say for sure?  Is it really about the color of our skin, or is it really about the systems within the country we live in?


What I’ve been forced to learn about narratives is that people that look like me are burdened by many more persistent negative narratives than people who are lighter than me. The lighter the skin, the more freedom you’re afforded to write your own story. What’s more, is that you aren’t responsible for representing or being a spokesperson, for all the people that look like you. People from all backgrounds can be ‘good’ or, they can be ‘bad’. But how much of your assessment is based on this individual as opposed to what you think you’ve seen before? Better yet- how many ‘bad’ things have you seen before, from people that DO look and dress like you that you don’t pin onto your own son, mother, sibling, daughter, niece, cousin or nephew?


We’re not asking you to see us all as perfect, nice, shiny people. If it’s not too much to ask, we’re only asking you to see us as versions of you. Sure, you’ll never know all the things we keep with us and black out of our minds that help us continue on and navigate in our worlds. All of us have a right to deal with lifetimes of this baggage in our own ways.  Honestly, I don’t know all the reasons why it took this particular video of George Floyd for so many of you to begin to see us in some form. Were the same history books, documentaries, movies, articles, etc. invisible until now? I know that after the horrific point blank range shooting of Alton Sterling, the live-streamed shooting of Philando Castile within 24 hours of each other in 2016, or when George Zimmerman - a civilian- walked free after murdering a teenage boy - who looked exactly like little Black boys that I love- walking home holding skittles, I cried. I cried and I had nightmares for days. Because all the books, movies and documentaries I have read or seen in my life about just some of the murders, arsons, rapes and beatings perpetrated against Black people in this country without fear of recourse, was not mere history after all. I cried because it knocked the air out of my lungs that my little cousins, nephews, father, uncles, nieces, look no different to these people whose faces were now plastered over the news. Why should we have to prove our humanity, multiplicity and achievements so that you can see us a little bit more like yourselves...and maybe chip away a little bit at your narratives of us?  Painful scenes from movies such as ‘Detroit’ or ‘Mississippi Burning’ are not mere history after all. Think of all those cases where there are no cameras. My God. 


I could have been Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson or any of the countless women who were carelessly murdered because their lives were seen as less valuable. Less worthy of an effort to double-check. Unworthy of the right to be scared, to protect ourselves in our own homes. The woman who admitted she lied about Emmett Till decades later lived her life freely for many years, as did the men who beat him to death. We know not all of any type of people are bad -we’ve always known that. But the point is- there is a pattern rooted in the way power has been structured since this country’s inception. Why should we be concerned with ‘putting ourselves in the shoes’ of police, when the whole point is that they are supposed to be significantly better than the rest of us? The entire premise of a Government creating a subset of people who essentially have a legal exception allowing them to kill in the name of “serving and protecting” is that these people are supposed to be equipped with significantly superior reasoning and tactical skills compared to the ‘rest of us’. 

If justice means anything, shouldn’t this immensely powerful pedestal come with equal responsibility? If you are the CEO, do you get to pass the buck to your receptionist - or is your responsibility as CEO to handle the challenges that arise in exchange for the perks of being CEO? If life gave us and all of our predecessors no natural consequences for our actions, what would we do? Who would we be? The state of the justice system against minorities and especially Black people in America is precisely that, and has been since Europeans massacred indigenous people to form this country.


I’m going to try and not dwell on why now, why this, what will happen next. None of us are genies or have crystal balls. What I do know is that for several generations, there has not been such a seismic shift in the conversation or consciousness like this one. Good or bad, we needed something. Though this is nothing new to us and I try not to cringe or be confused by statements that start with ‘what is happening now’. We’ll tell you -  It’s always been happening, it’s just now you’ve decided to see us. Let’s see where this next chapter takes us. Thank you for starting to open your eyes. Now, let’s go together. 

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