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Blacks in China

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Claudine Housen

Black Gen

 

If you are a non-African black person living in China, you have no doubt been asked: “So, what part of Africa are you from?” and have either seen the disbelief or shocked embarrassment on the faces of strangers when you reply that you are not African, but are black British, black American, Caribbean or some other black identity. Situations like this speak to the lack of awareness in China about the many complex variations, identities, and cultures that exist within the black diaspora, despite having a similar skin color. Since early 2017, a group of young black people in Beijing has made a concerted effort to address this gap in understanding through the creative arts. Its name is BLK GEN (black genius), and its founders, Leroy Adams and Nayyir Shareef, are from the U.S. The two met in China through work but became friends over chess. They both describe a lifelong desire to bring value to the community they find themselves in, wherever that may be. It was not long before the two, having observed their new home, hatched a plan to create some “opportunities for dialogue” between the local black and Chinese communities. And so, BLK GEN was born. “Our events are for the black community and the African community first and foremost. One of our guiding principles is to engage and inspire and impact in a positive way in our community, but we also live in China, and we want the people around us to understand who we are because the images they receive are generally negative or misrepresentative and they are not being told by us,” Adams says. As an edutainment brand that plans and executes events relevant to the black diaspora, BLK GEN has gathered more than 30 poets and writers to make that communication possible. “We are here,” Adams continues. “We want them to understand who we are. We want them to learn why we are the way we are. Having them come to one of our events and listen to the artists is that way to further engage with the local community.” So far, the response from the community has been positive. The group held its first event, Sankofa—which means “go back and get it” in Twi, the language of the Ashanti people of Ghana—on February 25 to a sold-out audience. Their second event, MUJAJI—named for a South African rain goddess that represents cleansing, balance, and restoration—was held March 25 with more than 200 people crowded onto a cold Wudaokou rooftop to see the show. For their third event, BLK GEN partnered with Peking University’s (PKU) Yenching Academy to mark Diasporic Unity day on March 31. The group also teamed up with another three black community-centric groups over the Dragon Boat festival weekend to stage UMOJA, which means unity and openness in Kiswahili—a language spoken in East Africa. The group also enjoys a modest but active presence on WeChat where its main group BLK GEN Beijing has 131 members, and their talent group has 56, which is no mean feat given that the group is barely six months old. Sandrine Nduwimana, a student from Burundi pursuing her master’s in public policy at Peking University, applauds the sense of community the group makes possible. “BLK GEN is unique in the sense that it brings black expats from all over the world, namely Africa, Europe, North America, the Caribbean and South America, to celebrate our history and diverse cultures through live performances of spoken word and music,” she relates. In her 10 years here, she hasn’t found another group like it. “An initiative such as this is to be celebrated for its positive impact on our community and the unity that it brings among ourselves as a black people in a foreign land. [It] is also to be celebrated for the impact on the non-black communities as it offers a platform of knowledge and understanding for those who are curious about black people and seeking to understand more. This is a really good way to break the negative perceptions and stereotypes.” Zhao Liyuan, a Chinese entrepreneur in Beijing, attended MUJAJI in March after hearing about it from one of her black British friends. “I liked the spirit,” Zhao tells us. “It was very inspiring. I would attend another one if I am not far away and free. It is good to meet black people.” Similarly enthusiastic is Miatta Momo, a Sierra Leonean born in the UK pursuing her MBA at PKU. “They are relevant in Beijing’s overall community landscape, and not just

the African diaspora community. I love their organic rise and how they provide a positive platform for those who actively love the black diaspora in China and beyond.” Despite its quick success, BLK GEN faced some challenges early on. As Adams and Shareef discovered, the black community in China is small but incredibly diverse—one even recalled feeling at times that his efforts were thrown back in his face. “[They challenge us] but it is just like your family. They can be your biggest supporter, but they are the ones that are stealing your electronics because they got some ailments going on,” says Shareef. He said changing people’s mindsets is not always easy but was confident that over time and through creative methods, it can be achieved. “People are conditioned. People have habits. There are people who have elevated their dialogue, and I think that is where progress really lives. [We want to] nurture that dialogue to grow beyond the stuff that don’t matter,” he says. “I see the community here just like I see the community anywhere. We are patrons of the diaspora. No matter where we are, we are patrons of the diaspora. Who can represent us better than us? Good or bad, we are patrons of our own culture. I see an opportunity for enrichment, an opportunity to enhance the culture and bring a more progressive nature.” “The black community here has challenged me, has encouraged me and has helped me grow into a stronger man and black man than they will ever know,” Adams reflects. “They will challenge your sense of black identity, sense of nationalism, how that relates to your black identity, your sense of culture and how that relates to your black identity on all fronts. “They will challenge your idea of what is black love, interracial love. So, I have had my moments when the black community and me, were like … ” and here he verbalizes the sound of conflict. “But I still love them.”  Claudine Housen

 

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