Bound by history, Africans and African Americans struggle to relate

Director Peres Owino (left) on set of her documentary "Bound: Africans versus African Americans" premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend. (Photo by Nyar Nam Productions)
Director Peres Owino (left) on set of her documentary “Bound: Africans versus African Americans” premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend. (Photo by Nyar Nam Productions)

Two little boys dig in the sand on an empty beach, the blue ocean behind them reflecting a dazzling sun. An off-screen narrator describes inseparable brothers in “the land of warm waters.” But the peaceful scene quickly turns frightening as one brother suddenly vanishes — disappearedexplains our narrator, “to the land of cold winters.”

This nightmarish evocation of slavery helps to open “Bound: Africans versus African Americans,” a movie premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival this weekend that explores the complex — and sometimes tense — relationship between Africans and African Americans in the United States.

“We don’t get to hear our history that much,” says Director Peres Owino describing her decision to explore the intertwining — but distinctly different — histories of both groups in the film. “In knowing our stories and knowing ourselves we can liberate and interact with each other.”

Encouraging that interaction can be challenging says Owino, an actor and filmmaker originally from Kenya who moved to the U.S. in 1995. She now lives in Los Angeles where she’s noticed a lack of contact between African immigrants and African Americans.

“I didn’t know any of my neighbors,” she recalls, “And I’m sitting there and thinking ‘What is this? What is this fear?’”

Owino decided to “explore” that fear by interviewing people from both backgrounds as well as facilitating on-camera conversations between the two groups.

The results, now in the film alongside history lessons and performance art, are intense. Topics range from the fear some African immigrants have of African Americans based on media stereotypes, to misconceptions about contemporary life in Africa and discussions regarding a “black identity” that can include all Americans from the African diaspora.

These are challenging conversations but ones people are eager to have says Owino, who jokes that she only had to present the topic and then “people would talk for three hours.”

And Seattleites are no exception. At a special screening of “Bound” at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute last week the audience was deeply engaged — gasping at moments of frankness, laughing at common experiences and even shouting at the screen during one particularly tense argument.

“I was really excited,” says Inye Wokoma an artist and media maker who grew up in Seattle “My father is Nigerian and on my mother’s side both grandparents are from Arkansas, so I have a duel heritage so to speak.”

Wokoma says as a kid he sometimes struggled to navigate misconceptions African Americans had about Africa — especially resulting from news coverage of the continent that overrepresented famine and political instability.

He says he’s seen attitudes shift as more African immigrants have arrived in Seattle, but feels the conversation is still relevant, especially for young people.

“All of these kids are going to have to figure out how to negotiate their relationships with one another,” says Wokoma “[This movie] is an opportunity to figure out how to understand one another better.”

Aida Solomon (third from left) on a pilgrimage of UW students to historical civil rights sites in the south. (Photo by Erica Thompson / UW Dept. fo Communication)
Aida Solomon (third from left) on a pilgrimage of UW students to historical civil rights sites in the south. (Photo by Erica Thompson / UW Dept. fo Communication)

Aida Solomon, 22is part of that generation. Her parents immigrated to Seattle from Ethiopia in the 1970s and she says she wasn’t always sure how her Ethiopian background fit in the larger African American story.

“Whenever there was talk about the civil rights movement or slavery [in school] everyone would look at me to see my reaction,” recalls Solomon, “And I’d be like ‘I don’t know, my parents are from Ethiopia I don’t have that history.’”

But a recent trip to civil rights sites in the south with the University of Washington’s Department of Communication where Solomon studies (and is a student of mine) has helped her think differently.

“There was a sense of gratitude I felt,” says Solomon who adds that the trip helped her understand how much the civil rights movement has impacted her life, I wouldn’t be in this country, I wouldn’t be in this situation if not for those individuals.”

As a result of the experience Solomon has decided to devote her honors thesis to exploring the relationship between Africans and African Americans in Seattle.

If you’re interested in exploring that relationship yourself “Bound” will be playing this Saturday at 5:30PM and Sunday at 2:30PM at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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