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I’ve always felt like I had to carry this huge weight on my shoulders.
A huge weight of responsibility.
It’s been years of feeling this way. Years of metaphorically hunching over that kind of weight.
And then, it all changed.
Black Panther happened. Wakanda happened.
At least in my world it did. I no longer have to cart around that huge weight on my shoulders. Now, I can just be.
I’ll explain how the “huge weight” business began. I might ramble on here and there but stay with me. Each piece of head-scratching information ties up to something. Something that will link all the craziness together in beautiful vibranium fashion. Oh, yeah, I’ll do that too. I’ll take every chance I get to drop in Black Panther references.
Now, back to that proverbial huge weight on my shoulders. I’d say it all started when I began traversing the world early in my twenties.
The first time I left the continent of Africa, I had a tiara on top of my perfectly done hair and a sash written “Miss Commonwealth Kenya 2005” on top of some fashionable African attire.
Think Okoye at the casino. Red outfit and a wig to go with it.
Ok, mine was a clip-on wig but - same thing.
It was July 2006. I was barely twenty-one (thanks! I really needed someone to calculate my age).
Earlier that year, I had postponed my University exams in order to spend an entire month in Tanzania representing Kenya in the Miss Model of the World pageant.
Five months before that, I had been crowned Miss Global Kenya 2005. It was much to my surprise because I had applied for it out of curiosity and pretty-much just for fun.
That “fun” landed me a title and a what-the-heck-did-I-get-into conundrum.
I really wanted that year to poof away as quickly as it had come. So I figured, if I worked on a few important things, it actually would.
All I had to do was hide the tomboy tendencies, camouflage that shiny “cockroach” scar on my left knee, laugh like a civilised person, smile with a lesser percentage of teeth, sneeze like an actual human being and in general, pretend I knew whatever the hell I was doing.
That’s all I had to do.
And everything ended up going pretty well. I eased into my role, and lived an Oscar-award winning double life.
I was a shy down-to-earth flat-shoed University student by day, and a high-heeled (*cringe*) “beauty queen” by night. Those were pre-Instagram days, so it was easy to play Clark Kent. Not that I was superwoman - but those heels, some of that over-the-top makeup and some of those ridiculous hairstyles forced on me, deserved some superhuman endurance.
The Airport Stuff
So, back to that day in mid 2006. This twenty-one year old hugs her mother at the airport in Nairobi and gets on a plane to a far-away land. She lands at Heathrow Airport. Tiara-d, sashed, all dressed up in African print with maasai beads around her neck.
To this day, I have no idea why I still had that damn tiara on! The pageant officials who had ordered me to wear it were not there to check if I was following their instructions. But I still did what they said. Sigh!
So there I was. In the gigantic Heathrow Airport. In my first out-of-Africa country. On a foreigners’ immigration queue that had us waiting for what seemed like 3 hours. With me trying to hide my embarrassment by pretending I didn’t care that people stared or if they wondered whether I was some lost Princess from some African Kingdom.
If that was 2018, I’d be endlessly scrolling social media sites on my phone pretending to look busy. And if someone stared creepily or got too close, I’d say “Hi, I’m Shuri”. That would evoke smiles, maybe even some laughs. Perhaps I’d even inspire some epic selfies.
But it was freaking 2006. Phones were still dumb. Selfies were not a thing. Facebook was something I had never heard of (until later that month). And Black Panther was just some story revolving in the comic book fanatic’s inner circle.
All I could do was stand there. Stand there doing nothing but revel in excruciating embarrassment. Probably the longest 3 hours of my life!
It wasn’t just the unwanted attention, the seemingly glaring stares and the stupid tiara that annoyed me. It was that huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
That huge weight of responsibility that commanded me to walk for, stand for and speak for an entire continent. And not just any continent. A largely misunderstood one.
Please take some time to notice how the stars aligned so that it’d be me. Me who concocted this huge responsibility in my shoulders. Me coming from a very Commonwealth country. And me carrying that weight gracefully into what just so happened to be the United Kingdom.
Where did this weight of responsibility come from?
Had someone sat me down and told me about it? Had someone left a trail of clues for me to find in a closet? Had I received a message from the ancestors that this was now my burden to bear?
Well - not quite, no, and probably not.
It mostly likely just Big Bang-ed inside me.
Probably from the fact that my first out-of-Africa experience came in the form of a pageant.
The Pageant Stuff
I wasn’t just representing my country and continent. I was also striving to live up to the term “beauty queen”. An extremely loaded term.
In this new reality, beauty wasn’t just in the eyes of the beholder. It was also an entire topic of discussion and a regular agenda item in the Pageant Up committee. Please note that I was sometimes part of this committee.
According to the Pageant Up Committee, I had to ditch my flat shoes for heels, banish any thought of ever considering the okayness of having a bad hair day, splash some makeup on my face every damn day, wear only bright colours because they are great for my skin tone - and of course, hide the tomboy tendencies, camouflage that shiny “cockroach” scar on the left knee, laugh like a civilised person, smile with a lesser percentage of teeth, sneeze like an actual human being and in general, play like I knew what the hell I was doing.
“Beauty queen”, huh?
What happened to beauty existing in your authentic self? What happened to beauty being in the eyes of the beholder?
It seems my beholder had become that Committee. And there was hardly any room for back and forth. Their word was final. Every single day.
So, give me a lofty ideal of beauty as an aspiration, put me on a plane that's taking me to Commonwealth ground zero to compete in a pageant, pep-talk me about how to be a flawless representation of the country and - oh yeah - casually add that I’ll do great.
What do I do when I land?
Pure, unadulterated panic.
To what percent should I act on the Committees’ beauty ideals? To what percent should I act on the flawless representation of the country? Is any percentage left over for me to just be myself? And to what percent should I balance all three in order to do great?
There’s clearly no app for this. It’s 2006, remember?
So, I make up my own percentages.
And I end up with a big fat weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
The same exact weight that could have also originated from one in-your-face fact.
The fact that I’m an African.
The Africa/n Stuff
Yes, I'm a Kenyan. But once you’re out of the continent, colonisation borders seem to fade away.
Everyone sees you as the person from the Africa they’ve always heard about. The person from that largely misunderstood continent.
That weight of responsibility you carry gets a tad heavier each time someone displays their ignoran--sorry-- misunderstandings.
Those questions about whether you live in trees, whether you ride a lion to work, whether you have face-licking rhinos roaming around in your backyard, or even whether you flew to that other country (I mean, how else would you get there? Swim?! Ski? Teleportation? Slave ship?!).
That weight gets heavier when international media focuses on the bad that’s happening on the continent and hardly the good.
That weight gets so much heavier each time the media, society, and life hold up a beauty standard that’s to be aspired to by- uhm - everyone in the world?! A beauty standard upheld by what I call the Beauty Up Committee.
This committee decrees that - oh no - you cannot so much as attempt to show your authentic self. No! All you need to do is strive to look like what they think is beautiful. This committee is the beholder of your beauty. Your beauty is not yours, it’s theirs.
This beauty standard is part of a grand school of thought perpetuated a long long long time ago. By philosophers, scientists, and all manners of “intelligent” scholars.
This same standard found legs to stand on with slavery. And it found strength to sprint and reproduce with colonialism. It’s a standard that’s been left to roam free for so long that we hardly recognise it for what it is anymore. It’s a standard that’s gone so viral, it’s spawned its very own fiends. Fiends like colourism within races.
We’ve been brainwashed to question the darkness of our skin on a racial level, and at the same time, question it within the race or our country or our tribe.
And let’s not even get started on the alleged curse of African hair. The Beauty Up committee promotes this as the law: the straighter, the flatter, the longer the hair is, the better.
If you have thick, course, coily, kinky, not-at-all-flat natural hair (pretty much what’s on my head right now), you are in for an uphill battle. That uphill battle will include weapons of afro destruction, chemical warfare that'll tame disobedient hair follicles, intoxicating smoke from constantly burning hair and violent physical torture performed by salonists that are intent on making you cry into a pillow.
We have been brainwashed to question the coiliness/curliness of our hair on a racial level, and at the same time, question it within the race or our country or our tribe.
Now think about that big fat weight of responsibility once more. With all these other things packed on top, it’s damn near breaking my back by now.
A weight heavy with expectations from the Pageant Up Committee, the Beauty Up Committee and my very own expectation factory.
But even with that weight up there, I’m not hunching.
I cannot hunch.
Pageant Up Committee has its omniscient eye on me.
The Responsibility Stuff
Right there at Heathrow Airport, I am standing up straight. Even with that huge weight on my shoulders, I’m standing up straight exactly like I was taught - exactly how a model is supposed to.
I’m also maintaining a pretty decent poker face as I endure the embarrassment of unwanted attention, seemingly glaring stares and that stupid tiara.
But I can’t focus on that for now. I have to focus on my responsibilities.
Though I’m adding onto my rap sheet every single day in the Pageant Up Committee’s eyes, and I’m lacking in the Beauty Up Committee’s standards (except for the straightened hair + clip-on wig), I can still do something, right?
I can make up my own percentages.
I can make it so that I’m the best damn person to walk for, stand for and speak for my entire continent.
I have to be the best version of Africa they’ve ever seen. That’s my responsibility.
If they don’t expect intelligence, I will have to blow their minds.
If they don’t expect relatability, I will totally put them at ease.
If they don’t expect funny, I will certainly crack them up.
If they don’t expect epic, I will leave them wondering why.
It’s my responsibility.
It was my responsibility on that first trip out of Africa.
I thought about it while I stood on that long immigration queue, and every other moment after that while I was in London for that pageant.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get a title or commendation of any kind. The pageant just breezed by.
There was no recognition from that judging committee but I certainly deserved some for my efforts in being the best version of a Kenyan and an African that I could possibly be.
That’s where it all started.
That’s where this whole responsibility thing began. And it’s something that stayed with me way after my pageant days were over.
The Aftermath Stuff
Years after that trip to London, I would head out on missions as part of a special group of leaders known as AIESECers. AIESEC allowed us to mould our young minds into globally-charged machines.
During the global conferences, you’d have 600+ young people from all corners of the world in one place for about 10 days. In such a situation, it became necessary to stand out if you wanted your country to make a mark, to be heard or to even be remembered.
In such moments, I didn’t just feel responsible for my country. I felt responsible for my continent. My largely misunderstood continent.
I would put in every effort possible to dispel any widely accepted beliefs about the Motherland.
In this scenarios, no one dictated how I dressed or how I existed. I had said good riddance to the Pageant Up Committee years before.
Of course, the Beauty Up Committee was still in action. It followed me around like this creepy evil force. It’s recommendations rang loud and clear - harmonizing with the voices in my head.
It loaded beauty ideals on my back and shoulders. It took over the percentages that the Pageant Up Committee had left over in terms of expectation. It jammed on me an amalgamated mound of percentages that I had to meet.
And then there was the responsibility of representation. Representing Kenya and representing Africa. A lot was expected here in terms of percentage too.
It was my responsibility to be the best damn African they’d ever meet/met. It was my chance to educate this group of young people from around the world that Africans can operate on the same level (and even higher) intellectually. It was my moment to show them that Africans are a force to reckon with. That we don’t just have to be at the table, but that we deserve those seats at the table.
Enter Black Panther
Dozens of countries later, I still carry with me this heavy weight of expectations that I have packaged in the form of responsibility.
Or rather, I used to.
I carried this heavy weight of expectations to every new continent up until...
Black Panther happened.
And everything changed.
I’m serious. Everything changed.
I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the time of its release. A few days after it was out, I did what any self-respecting friend would do. I forced and brainwashed everyone around me who hadn’t watched it to add it to their schedule.
D-day came and four of us found ourselves in a cinema hall.
A Kenyan, a Cambodian, an Indian and a Filipina in a 4DX cinema hall.
If you don’t know what 4DX means, just know that it’s a step of an eXperience above 3D. Every movement that happens on screen happens to the seat and to the air around you.
When I chose the movie’s date and time, I was oblivious to what 4DX was. But it turned out to be pretty epic. Especially since I seem to get motion excitement instead of motion sickness.
While all my attention and imagination was hooked on the full experience, the heart, mind and soul of me was hooked on the movie itself.
Apart from executing an entertaining storyline that was refreshingly new to my comic-book ignorance, the movie gave me this amazing vibe. And honestly, that’s an understatement.
Watching Black Panther made me all kinds of proud. As I sat there, negotiating the dancing seat and gravity’s maniacal pull, I felt extremely proud.
I felt proud to be African.
I felt proud to be a person born of Africa.
I felt proud to be a person showcasing afro-textured hair.
I felt proud to be a person flaunting melanin-filled skin.
I felt proud to be a woman with a good head on her shoulders (on most days).
I felt proud to be a person attempting to live an authentic existence.
It was a sort of bloated sneakily-growing pride. The sort that obliterated any other weighty thing around it.
Once I was able to enjoy this overwhelming pride, I no longer had space left for that huge weight on my shoulders. There was no need for that huge weight of responsibility I’d been carrying with me for years.
The Black Panther Stuff
For me, Black Panther is a sort of zeitgeist of our times.
From the astounding Afrofuturism that acts as the fabric of the story, to the intricate stitching of cultural elements from all over the continent, to the eye-widening patterns of African and Afro identity, to the complex folds of philosophical ruminations by people of African descent, to the literal adorning of beautiful African designs - to me, this movie did what no other generational landmark had done before.
It made it enviable to be a person of African descent.
I remember telling this to Nikhil, my Indian friend who watched the movie with me in Cambodia. I used slightly different words at the time.
I used the phrase “being black”.
Personally, I’m okay with this phrase. I have no problem calling myself “black”. But weeks ago I discovered that this labelling (and its historical connotation) offends some people. These people gave me reasons that seem understandable to me so in this post I’ll be using the phrase “person/people of African descent”.
When I told Nikhil that Black Panther has made it enviable to be a person of African descent, he replied saying there’ve been times when this has happened before in our lifetimes. He mentioned the NBA. He probably also mentioned soccer or so.
At the time, I replied with some weak argument claiming that the NBA does something but that the effect we’re talking about doesn’t last.
Maybe I was on to something with that line of thinking.
And very honestly, as I write this sentence, I’m tempted to go with that lane. I could steer this long journey that way. I could take that lane and veer us off to some other place. But I figure going that way would warrant (and deservedly so) an entirely different piece of literary art or an extremely complex and abstract masterpiece.
The Heavy Stuff
I’ve since ruminated on what I should have said during that conversation with Nikhil.
It’s become a thing for me to hold back when a topic feels a little heavy. Even when “heavy” is all there is to the story or it’s all that’s needed for the story.
I naturally handle “heavy” better when I’m writing.
So if you're reading this, you are either going to feel like the fortunate audience to my gift of gab, the unfortunate spectator to my verbal diarrhoea or a formidable witness of me writing for a total audience of one.
Here’s what I should have said to Nikhil.
Having travelled and interacted with different cultures quite a lot over the years, I have seen, heard, felt, smelt and tasted all the brands of racial discriminatory conditioning that the world operates on.
The world is conditioned in a way that makes people of African descent feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal.
I’ve repeatedly heard people directly or indirectly express their own form of dissatisfaction with any facial features they have that resemble or are derivative of people of African descent.
In my time in Latin America, I repeatedly heard people around me express their distaste for darker skin, coily/curly hair and a nose with (as Beyonce would call them) Jackson Five nostrils.
In South East Asia, I noticed a running theme that promotes a strong preference for lighter skin and perpetuates the determined steps people are willing to take in order to avoid having darker skin.
In Africa, I have witnessed the constant and unapologetic exaltation of lighter skin, I’ve seen people ambitiously morph into paler versions of themselves in their quest for “beauty”, I’ve heard people announce and execute their plans for self-initiated miscegenation in order to dilute their “strong” genes.
It’s the world we live in.
It’s all a type of conditioning we now find ourselves in.
I was born into all of this. I grew up around all of this.
The Growing Up Stuff
Growing up, my development was guided by a confusing state of mind that oscillated between sturdy self-loathing and aleatory self-love.
The Beauty Up Committee was working overtime to sell a beauty standard that was engineered to repeatedly whisper sweet nothings of unworthiness in my ear.
In the same hour that someone from school would imply that I was actually pretty, despite my skin tone (a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing kind of compliment), someone close to me (usually of a lighter skin tone) would make a condescending joke about darker skin tones. In the same day that I would think about how stupid it is to be insecure about my skin tone, someone I know would matter-of-factly comment about how “beautiful” or “handsome” the lighter person in any random group was.
I recall one of my sisters even creating a categorisation of beauty that was free from the chains of the skin tone. You’d hear us say things like “that girl’s pretty but it’s mostly tied to her skin tone”. We would say things like this to make ourselves feel better about being darker.
Maybe one day someone would call us “pretty” or “beautiful” at first impression. And not because they specifically go for dark girls as their preference. We needed to feel that, regardless of preferences, we could one day compete on the same level of the beauty game with whatever skin tone that stood next to us.
But, it mostly came down to versions of: “you are beautiful - for a person with chocolate skin”. It's much like being told “sure, you qualify to play the game” but “I’m afraid you never actually get to win the tournament”.
Much of this craziness has led me to question a lot of choices and self-esteem battles in my past. Particularly when it came to romantic relationships. Perhaps I had chosen some exes because of their skin tone? Perhaps I had dated white because I’m colour-struck?
I mean, you’d have to go over all the stats and data analysis from my past to figure this out. Do it and let me know what you come up with.
The Beauty Up Committee really got me up in arms. Inside every moment of me articulating affirmations of self-love in silence, a wave of self-loathing was automatically generated from the world’s noise.
Now take that scarred mindset and superimpose it in a world where the ultimate greats and the heroes - from Jesus to Superman - are not people of African descent. And if they are, they somehow change themselves.
I mean, the age of reason for me was marked by my honest efforts to try and make peace with the idea that Michael Jackson was now white.
Growing up in all this can do some crazy things to your psyche.
In time, self-loathing and self-deprecation somehow shift towards becoming your default status.
Any efforts made by people who love you to call you “beautiful”, “talented”, “pretty” or “special” somehow feel like idle flattery Scooby snacks baked with bullish bullshit on the inside and sinister sugar coating on the outside.
From time to time, likely somewhere between two extravagantly self-created and exclusively-attended Pity Parties, I would look in the mirror and eat the idle flattery Scooby snacks by myself.
I’d realise that maybe I should get to liking that person looking back at me more. That maybe I should get to loving her too.
What Black Panther Taught Me
Black Panther literally took everything the world has ever made me feel unworthy about and put it on a pedestal - for all to see.
It reminded me how to be unapologetically proud to be African.
It showed me how to savour being a person born of Africa.
It glorified the idea that men need not feel threatened by the badassery of strong women around them.
It displayed a world that includes afro-textured hair in its beauty standards.
It showcased melanin-filled skin with way more grandeur than the average NBA game would.
That’s what this movie was to me. That's what this movie will be to kids who look like me.
I totally wish I had seen it as a kid.
It would have made a lot of difference in how I would have handled my inner demons from then on.
While it’s important to have a world where every difference and eccentricity is accepted and is indeed acceptable (hallo Utopia), I believe it’s way more meaningful to acknowledge and appreciate your own personal differences and eccentricities unconditionally - regardless of whether the world appreciates them.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to accommodate the whats and whos of my being in a shaky building of self-love.
Black Panther was the benevolent angel investor that came in to build reinforcements. Wakanda became the place I’d go to for more building material. I mean, in the kind of noisy world we live in, I need my building of self-love to be made of nothing but vibranium.
Heck, with such a building up, that heavy weight of responsibility is done away with.
I would just need to be my authentic and constantly becoming self. I don’t need to be the someone that I think people should see when I leave the continent. I only need to be the someone that I truly am and let the chips fall where they may.
No more crazy percentages of meeting crazy standards and crazy ideals. No more of that. I meet my own damn total percentage. No one else gets to contribute to it. It all gets to be authentic. It all gets to be me.
I get to slip up on those tomboy tendencies, I get to flaunt that shiny “cockroach” scar on my left knee (shine on my child!), I get to laugh like the most uncivilised person you know, I get to smile with all my teeth (well, unless it’s for Instagram), I get to sneeze like a non-human being (sorry, mum).
If I’m out there travelling and people happen to see and experience too much African-ness from me, I cannot and should not be embarrassed. I will leave the burden of sense for them to make on their own.
If they have questions, I will gladly answer. If they don’t have questions but I feel I should give some form education about where I’m from, I’ll gladly do it. But I cannot and will not constantly water myself down or pretzel myself into a form I think they will get. I need to get busy just being me.
I will only become the best chosen person to walk for, stand for and speak for my entire largely-misunderstood continent if I’m being authentic.
That’s my responsibility.
That’s my only responsibility.
Anything else will be a self-created huge weight on my shoulders which I really have no business carrying.
Like the one I was carrying back in 2006 at Heathrow airport while standing on that Immigration line.
I carried that weight gracefully alongside a poker face that was meant to mask the embarrassment of unwanted attention, seemingly glaring stares and that stupid tiara.
If I had watched Black Panther or had gone through an enlightening nervous breakdown before that flight, I believe I would have acted differently.
Finally Handing Over Responsibility
This is that moment where I lie down on the reddish soil and get buried alive with the purple elixir in my mouth. I see the ancestors and they, in their infinite wisdom, tell me that it’s true. I would have and should have acted differently back at Heathrow.
I was so embarrassed to stand there at the immigration line and be stared at because it felt like everyone was seeing my inner doubts, inner fights and some intended fakeness.
Here’s the theory.
It might not be psychologically sound or philosophically mind-blowing - but you know what? Ancestors can say whatever they want. They can defy some of the laws and schools of thought found in psychology and philosophy.
Their theory states that the huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders that was born on that day at Heathrow Airport was more like a weight shrouding a lot of self-loathing and shame. I kept carrying it to every out-of-continent experience after that because those are the times when all my insecurities (personal and acquired) found a spotlight.
I kept focusing on what I should become out there due to the fact by default I was feeling unworthy because of what I am.
On that first trip, I had the Pageant Up Committee directing my every move. Do this, don’t do that. My entire life, I had the Beauty Up committee showing me how I didn’t meet most of their ideals. Hence me despising the entire year as a beauty queen and me living a double life.
Now sprinkle a generous topping of my own personal insecurities on all that and you have a recipe for huge imaginary-weight-carrying disasters.
The ancestors, being as smart as they are, finished off by saying that I needed to hand over my imaginary weights of responsibility to Black Panther and to Wakanda. Shuri will probably figure out what to do with them.
I need only focus on the singular responsibility of unapologetically being my authentic self.
Anything else is a waste of my existence.
I smile and say “thank you”.
The ancestors disappear and the beautiful monochromatic purple sky disappears.
Suddenly, my head jerks up from whatever weird position it was in. I feel someone grab my arms and pull my entire body up. I’m gasping for air as the reddish soil slides down my face and down every exposed part of my skin and clothing.
I look around. I look at everyone around me.
It’s a whole new world.
It's not just the movie that lit up my world.
These two women who grew up in Africa light up my world every day and I believe they pave the way for the rest of us. Here are their stories: