Growing up in Freetown Sierra Leone some of my favorite movies were Indiana Jones Temple of Doom, King Solomon’s mines, Tarzan, and the likes. For books, it was The Merchant of Venice, all 16 volumes of the junior world encyclopedia, and the last of the Mohicans. These were my go-to escape. We didn’t have cable then. we had a national TV that came on at 4 pm and ended broadcast at midnight. Then again the power supply wasn’t nearly constant. Just a quick digression. I can vividly remember going 8 months without a power supply and out of the blue, the power came on. The entire Freetown was ecstatic. The good old days… so you had to be creative to entertain yourself or go to the cinema or read books.
But as I grew older and because of the civil war in Sierra Leone we had to escape to Nigeria, I started having a paradigm shift. I went on to study mass communication in college and realized that these very books and films I loved were the most powerful tools in cultural imperialism. The storyline in most of these productions was as follows, the natives were terrible people who were evil and engaged in all sorts of despicable acts, and here is this educated and cultured archeologist who had moral justification to wreak havoc.
It was a very straightforward storyline, white ex-pat is the protagonist, brown and black locals were the antagonists. And there we were rooting for the protagonist to succeed. It didn’t occur to us that he was stealing from the locals, disrupting their economic life, and killing a few in the process. That is the power of a story. That someone can show you how they came to your land, stole your arts, artifacts, cultural symbols, killed your people and you pay 14.99 to see it on the screens or keep it on your bookshelves. That is the conditioning we’ve received from literature and entertainment for decades. It has made us insensitive to the plight of some groups while we root for the success of another.
Most religious texts are replete with stories because stories arouse deep emotions from us. Stories are powerful tools that can stir empathy or hate. More people will pick up chess from watching The Queen’s Gambit or Queen of Katwe, than if someone told them chess will help their critical thinking. In other words, stories, especially fiction, help us to remove our defenses for a moment and go on a journey with the subject. The human journey we all embark on.
That is where the problem lies. For a very long time, the success of many entertainment offerings relied on the dehumanization of particular sets of people. To make them as human as the protagonist was to risk a backlash. You can just steal somebody’s property? You can’t wipe out an entire village. But call them barbarians, uncultured, primitive, godless and then you can justify whatever comes to them.
So how do we begin to put back the humanity in these societies? It is by actively engaging with the people. The history of black and brown people is not just their history? It is the history of mankind. It’s by reading their stories. It has been said that stories help us see with the eyes of the storyteller. That means, those who have been victims of this mischaracterization must begin to tell their own stories and those who have perpetrated these acts, whether deliberate or out of ignorance, should be brave enough to read these stories thereby connecting with our common humanity.
My name is Chike Anreti John.