Rooting and re-humanizing in the African diaspora with Inye Wokoma

May 19, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7
Rooting and re-humanizing in the African diaspora with Inye Wokoma
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Rooting and re-humanizing in the African diaspora with Inye Wokoma
May 19, 2021 Season 1 Episode 7

Guest host Felipe Contreras talks with artist, journalist, filmmaker, and co-founder of Wa Na Wari Inye Wokoma (Kalabari/African-American) about what it means to be Indigenous and  part of a diaspora.  We hear Inye's essay about the intersection of Black home ownership and Indigenous land sovereignty, originally written for the South Seattle Emerald and read here by Inye's brother, hip hop artist Yirim Seck. 

Featuring music by Yirim Seck. Produced by Jenny Asarnow and Julie Keck; hosted and mixed by Felipe Contreras.

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Show Notes Transcript

Guest host Felipe Contreras talks with artist, journalist, filmmaker, and co-founder of Wa Na Wari Inye Wokoma (Kalabari/African-American) about what it means to be Indigenous and  part of a diaspora.  We hear Inye's essay about the intersection of Black home ownership and Indigenous land sovereignty, originally written for the South Seattle Emerald and read here by Inye's brother, hip hop artist Yirim Seck. 

Featuring music by Yirim Seck. Produced by Jenny Asarnow and Julie Keck; hosted and mixed by Felipe Contreras.

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Felipe Contreras.: [00:00:00] From Coast Salish Territory, this is Seedcast. I'm your host for today, Felipe Contreras. Jessica Ramirez will be back next month. Here at Seedcast, we support the rights and traditional ways of Indigenous peoples. We share stories from around the world. We honor guardians of the land, those who've lived in relationship with their traditional territory since time immemorial.

[00:00:26] I'm originally from Los Angeles. I'm Puerto Rican and I'm Salvadorian. And I'm exploring my own identity. Constantly exploring and thinking through the complexities behind Indigeneity as a diasphoric person. Rooted in my experience, growing up in Los Angeles and my connection to mi isla of Puerto Rico. And en pais de El Salvador.

[00:00:47] Today's episode is for those of us living in the diaspora. We're going to hear a story written by Inye Wokoma. It's a story about the transfer of traditional knowledge and values and how that knowledge can directly affect how you steward land when you're living away from your ancestral homelands. [singing]

[00:01:16] Inye's values and knowledge were passed down to him from his, Ijo, Kalabari father from Nigeria and his African-American grandfather. I love how this essay goes into depth about what it means to be part of the African diaspora. It goes into the nuances behind Black Indigeneity, how that impacts the work he does today, how that relates to who he is. And for me, it gave me deeper understanding of what it means to be Black in America. There are a lot of lessons and teachings within this essay.

[00:01:49] And Inye is brilliant. Just sitting down and listening to this is an experience in itself. Inye is a Nia Tero grantee, a filmmaker, an activist, a journalist and a land steward for the Wa Na Wari Project. Wa Na Wari is an immersive community art project located here at Coast Salish and Duwamish Territory. Their mission is to create a cultural Black space, a statement, a statement about the importance of Black land ownership in gentrified communities. And we're going to listen to this piece in a few minutes, but first I had the opportunity to sit down with Inye, and we got to explore the commonalities between our family's journey that is tethered in reciprocity.

[00:02:40] Okay. All right, Inye, I'm really excited for this. It's a pleasure to be here with you in Talk Story.

[00:02:48]Inye Wokoma: [00:02:48] Yeah. Yeah. I'm glad I'm looking forward to having a conversation with you.

[00:02:53]Felipe Contrera...: [00:02:53] Yeah, me too. And to keep things traditional, I was thinking it might be best if we just started this conversation by introducing who we are and where we come from. From Los Angeles, California, born and raised. I grew up in a multiracial family household on my mother's side. My grandparents are from the Island of Puerto Rico. They moved in the 1940s to New York because of the exportation from the US Government that was going on on the Island, and having to flee because of survival.

[00:03:26] And on my father's side, he was born in El Salvador. My grandma fled 10 years prior to the civil war. One of my uncles, his name was Saul Santiago Contreras. He was, he was murdered by the government because he was associated as a communist. All he was really trying to do was get better access to education for kids. And those are where my people come from. And for me, that's where it starts.

[00:03:57]Inye Wokoma: [00:03:57] Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. It's deep. There's a lot that resonates in your story with mine. I was born here in Seattle. I am also a mixed heritage, mixed ethnicity. We, I don't always use those terms to describe myself, but I think here it's an important part of the conversation. My father's from Nigeria, he's Ijo, otherwise known as Kalabari people, which are from the Niger River Delta Region. My mother's people are African-American. So folks whose ancestors were brought here during the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:04:35] Um, and so, you know, when I say I'm of mixed heritage and mixed ethnicity, and you know, we're talking about what does it mean to be Indigenous? I think it's important for us to reframe how we think about ourselves, right? A lot of times, if I were to say, "Well, I'm Black," there's kind of a white gaze. It's a colonized framework, which takes all of us and lumps us together.

[00:04:58] You know, I understand that there's something very specific about my experience that has to do with my father being Nigerian and my mother being African-American. My mother's parents, my grandparents, uh, came here to Seattle from Arkansas during the great migration. A lot of that was driven both by the desire to find better economic opportunities, but also fleeing the violent repression of the Jim Crow South. A part of the country that was violently wanting to, uh, maintain a social order as close to slavery as possible.

[00:05:38] Even though we don't talk about it, those, those folks as, as being political refugees, [laughs] there is an element of that in that experience. So, I mean, you know, I, it's interesting when we, when we really start to, to look at, you know, who we are and where we come from and, and s- try to understand all this stuff. There are all these points of connection when we're talking about what does it mean to be Indigenous in a global context, even if on the surface, it looks like, "Well, he's El Salvadorian and Puerto Rico, and you're, African-American and Nigeria, which y'all got to talk about." Right? [laughs] But there's actually a lot to talk about.

[00:06:27]Felipe Contrera...: [00:06:27] You touched on this in your article, well, like what it means to be Indigenous and what it means to be part of a diaspora. And as part of the Latinx diaspora, I really resonate with that. Similar to you as someone who comes from people who were exploited and had to flee their ancestral homelands, I'm having to constantly do so much work to weave and tie and place myself within my own Indigenous experience, an experience again, that was forced to conform in the [Sibley 00:06:53] in means to survive. How do you and I locate ourselves inside Indigeneity when there's so much noise and gate keeping framing it?

[00:07:01]Inye Wokoma: [00:07:01] Right. Right. Well, you know, I think, you know, Indigeneity has a lot to do with a sense of collective coherence in your identity. A lot of times that is very much rooted to place and informed your traditions informs your worldview, informs how you interact with the universe. Not just the world or other people, but how you interact and understand the universe and your place in it. For me, that's a broader definition of Indigeneity that I think is a lot more functional, you know, for folks who are on the diaspora. Because we're all living as people in a political body that was designed to extract from us. Right?

[00:07:40] And kind of one of the first things it extracts from us is our connection to those cultural lineage. I think, you know, there's, uh, a sense of Indigeneity that is all about connecting to who you are as a human being. And so when I say that, right, even for me to say that, connecting to who you are, connecting to who I am, I'm speaking in a singular first or second person, but I'm also speaking in a collective sense. But when I say I, I'm thinking about my entire ancestral lineage as embodied in me. And so then how do I connect to that and be able to push all the way through, as an African-American all the way back through that lineage through all of that experience here in the United States. What can I connect to that predates our experience with Europeans, right?

[00:08:30] I tend to think about Indigeneity as particularly in the current global political context, as, uh, ways of being that predate our current Western epistemology. You know, th- the current Western way of viewing the world and the universe that has at this point is beginning to saturate the entire globe. And that's why I say it's not always a geographic thing. The best I can say on my mother's side is that my folks were Indigenous to Arkansas. Because actually I'm identifying ourselves as African-American, understanding that even that identity of African-American means that they are a combination of probably Wolof, Yoruba, Ijo, you know what I'm saying? Like a whole host folk, you know, who, who came from various parts of the West African coast.

[00:09:23] And so, I mean, it, it's just, it becomes a really complex, you know, sort of dance to engage in. But I think that there are, there are some really rich possibilities. And, and I think that's really what my article is about a lot of times when I'm interrogating something, you know, I'm posing more questions that I am trying to present an absolute answer.

[00:09:41]Felipe Contrera...: [00:09:41] Yeah. I was the, again, well, there are a lot of parallels between our stories. You've spoken in the past, this idea of resocializing. Can you explain what you mean by that?

[00:09:51]Inye Wokoma: [00:09:51] Right. So, um, I riffed on that in borrowing a phrase, the documentary by Raoul Peck called Exterminate All the Brutes. And so he just sited, you know, um, an author and I can't recall the author who said that, "Slavery was one of the most effective tools of desocializing a human being." And when I heard that I was like, "Boom, that's it." To desocialize someone is to disconnect them from everything that makes them, an fully actualized human beings. And human beings we're defined by our social interaction. A baby can't actually grow without social interaction.

[00:10:28] Slavery was designed to deconstruct all of those mechanisms and have that person serve one function only. And that is to work, and to work without rebelling. So that's the process of desocializing somebody. And so when you have generations of that, you know, what happens is that human beings are intrinsically social. So it's not like we were totally a social human beings in that experience. We were still social. We were socialized inside of that construct. And so now when we're at this moment where we have the opportunity again, to have some agency over our resocializing process, you know, collectively we're attempting to resocialize ourselves.

[00:11:11] What does that mean? How do we do it? You know, where do we go as a source to understand what's the best way to do that? Do we pull from the ideas and the systems and the world views of the people that oppressed us, or did we attempt to say there's value in the ideas in the worldview and the culture of who we were prior to that context? And, and those ideas are still relevant and probably more relevant today in terms of the, the urgency and immediacy of those ideas, because, you know, our world is in a spiraling state and s- I'm talking about the entire biosphere of the planet.

[00:11:51] What I see is that, um, some of the keys to turning the planet around, rest and reinvigorating and reanimating a lot of the ideas that were set aside marginalized, and in some cases were attempted to be entirely eradicating by the Western colonial projects. So for me, that's a part of what it means to, to really attempt to understand what it means to be Indigenous. And, and that is a part of resocializing ourselves.

[00:12:21]Felipe Contrera...: [00:12:21] Yeah. And here in Nia Tero, we have a, we call it the open heart working group where our job was to really think through internally how we can decolonize our workspace. But one of the things we kind of determine, and, and it hits that what you were just talking about is that this idea of decolonization, it, it gets, again, it comes from this like Western colonial structure. And again, it really takes away from the essence of what we're really trying to do, and w- we call it rehumanizing, and it, it, it pretty much goes to that same point of like how we're connecting to each other as people.

[00:13:01]Inye Wokoma: [00:13:01] Absolutely. It's, it's the same thing. It's the same idea. I think the biggest thing is, I think one words matter because words, you know, um, the words that we use both indicate and proceed, um, the, the ideas and concepts that we are either working for, and that we can work for. And so I, I'm more interested in if I were to say, resocializing and says, oh, you know, to me, the re part of that means that there was something there before. There was something of value there before that we wanna reconnect with.

[00:13:32]Felipe Contrera...: [00:13:32] That's great. Um, again, there's just so much here. Is there anything you want your listeners to know before listening to the article?

[00:13:40]Inye Wokoma: [00:13:40] I just say it's, it's always good to listen with an open heart. Say that more so than an open mind, uh, obviously both are important, but I think that a lot of what our mind does is, is proceeded by our heart's ability to, you know, to receive. And like I said earlier, when I'm talking about things that I'm thinking about, you know, it's always in a question format. So I, I encourage people to listen to it with that ear. I think that, you know, we're far better off as human beings when we understand that we are [crosstalk 00:14:13].

[00:14:12]Felipe Contrera...: [00:14:12] Yeah. 100%, I agree with you. I'm excited for people to listen to it. Inye, it was a pleasure just sitting down and talking to you, Talking Story.

[00:14:24]Inye Wokoma: [00:14:24] Yeah. I, I enjoyed it. Yeah.

[00:14:32]Felipe Contrera...: [00:14:32] Here's Inye's article titled, On Home and Belonging for Black and Indigenous Peoples. It was published in the South Seattle Emerald in February, 2021. And we're going to hear it read by Inye's brother, hip hop artist, Yirim Seck.

[00:14:58]Yirim Seck: [00:14:58] One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather waking up every morning before the sun came up. I was born in 1969, and in my early years, before my mother married my father, we lived with my grandparents. By the time I was maybe four or five, my grandfather had retired. He had served in World War II in the Motor Pool in the South Pacific.

[00:15:21] And then when he came to Seattle, he got a job at the Naval ship-yards down on the piers here on the sound. Later, working with the transportation department until his retirement in the early '70s. He came from a family of tenant farmers who migrated to the Northwest from the South, who were used to working on the land. Their work ethic never left him. Before he retired, and even long after, he'd be up before the crack of dawn. Getting up, moving around the kitchen or the dining room, finally driving off in his truck.

[00:15:55] These are not vague memories. They're very clear. If the little soft around the edges, the way memories from that part of your life always are. I remembered those sounds seeping into the living room where I would sometimes sleep on the couch. It was that time of morning when it was still dark between night and day. And I was in that liminal space between asleep and awake. It left me with a sense of being in a dark cocoon. I now live and work in the homes that he bought owned and fixed himself. I'm raising a family here, among his books in mind, his tools and my tools side by side.

[00:16:35] On my mother's side, as the new phraseology goes, I am ADOS, which has African-American Descendants of Enslaved Africans. Part of my work is framed by the past 500 years of folks being taken from the continent, being put on a path of never ending migrations. The first starting with the forced migration from the continent, and then the perpetual migration of folks whose humanity was disempowered as they were legally reduced to the state of property, which meant that they could be traded back and forth, or perpetual moving around to people.

[00:17:10] Then of course, there's the almost century long, Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and the West. Which was as much folk seeking economic opportunity as fleeing the outright and overt systems of terror maintaining the social and economic order of the Southern States, yet another phase of migration. Then you get to the North where folks are sequestered into ghettos. Two and three generations later, that land becomes desirable to folks setting up another phase of migration. As people have been pushed out of these new urban homelands, where they were attempting to create something new and meaningful.

[00:17:49] My father's Nigerian, Kalabari Tribe. So I have a direct lineal connection to the African Continent. There is a story of migration here as well, and a new nation formed out of the colonial adventures of Great Britain. Often the brightest and most promising children were sent overseas to pursue advanced education in the West. For Nigerians, this has most commonly been the United Kingdom in the United States. This has everything to do with the lingering political, economic, social, and cultural effects of colonialism. It has everything to do with the very present reality of neo-colonialism, and all the ways it suppresses any kind of collective aspirational movements of African peoples.

[00:18:35] My father came to America to attend college in the 1960s. He never returned home to live. Even now, in my ancestral town of Buguma in the Niger Delta, members of my family are displaced by the twin ecological and economic holocaust brought on by the oil extraction industry. An industry that almost wholly benefits the West through petroleum companies, such as Shell and British Petroleum. Not withstanding the few complicit Nigerians who benefit from this neo-colonial arrangement.

[00:19:08] My relatives are spread out across Nigeria and the world. Many want to return to their ancestral home, but can't. It's too dangerous. All of these movements of African people in the 20th century are stories of Black Migration. These two historical trajectories, my mother's and my father's, each embody seeing their own unique stories of migration and dislocation are bound together in my story, in my body, in my blood.

[00:19:39] When I'm talking about the importance of Black home ownership in Seattle, as I often do on my work and art, part of what I'm doing is asking, "How do we do disrupt the process of never ending migration?" I'm asking a global question, imagining what it means to intentionally route ourselves to place again, as a means of reconstituting our fractured humanity. This brings me to yet another aspect of this migration story. That of Black people intentionally choosing to leave the Northern cities of the United States and move back South. This started in the 1990s, as an act of will.

[00:20:18] Over the last 15 years, it has mingled with the active gentrification of Black communities in Northern cities to become something much more complex. People compelled to uproot from their homes. Some taking it as an opportunity to rediscover something older, more essential to their sense of identity. Then there are the growing number of Black American experts living in various African countries. They are seeking in similar ways, to reconstitute themselves by establishing new roots in an adopted ancestral home. These stories are complicated. They are never just one thing or another. How do we find ourselves again? And when we do, who will we discover ourselves to be?

[00:21:07] I hate to use the anti-frameworks, because I prefer to be more pro than anti. Existing within the realm of dreams, visions, possibilities and creative action is the most natural state for me. So what does it mean to be pro-Black or pro-liberation? For me, it stems from an African diasporic context. Being brought up with a Pan-Africanist outlook on life and the world is very much about the fact that your life is dedicated to the liberation of African people all over the planet.

[00:21:49] For me, there's no conceivable way to talk about Black liberation and isolation from Indigenous land sovereignty with any level of integrity, unless you're just trying to play for your position on the hierarchical ladder of white supremacy. These are the only two choices. That you're either pro-liberation, which means you've got to account for the whole dynamic of the situation that you're in, or that you just want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and get to a higher position than anybody else is in.

[00:22:21] Practically, this means that I can't talk about the importance of Black land ownership without also acknowledging the fact that I'm talking about land. Particularly in Seattle, that was never seated. Even for land that was seated in treaties, we now know that many of those treaties were never honored or valid in the first place. Even if there was an exchange that was agreed upon, that exchange came after three generations of constant warfare and the defamation of social networks, ecological systems, and cultural ways.

[00:22:55] You have people who have been facing continuous onslaught, who are looking for a way to stop the never ending warfare. If we're working on the principles of justice and equity, then you have to go back and look at all of it. As I mentioned before, my father came to the United States from Nigeria in the mid 1960s. I was given a Nigerian name and I had both a Nigerian and a Pan-Africanist upbringing. I've never been inclined to use the word Indigenous in reference to myself. I think the word Indigenous has a kind of political framework that for me, is tied to geography, tied to culture, tied to a sort of live epistemology. Some continuity that informs a sense of coherence that predates contact with Europeans. A global cultural and political hegemony.

[00:23:49] Black American culture of course is in itself not monolithic. But, there is a kind of coherence to Black culture despite class distinctions, regional distinctions, and so forth. A kind of cultural coherence that allows us to communicate and have affinity no matter where we are in this country, because of commonality and our collective experiences as people. I think beyond that, there is something deeper, something specific in a people born of an amalgamation of nearly every West African culture, touched by the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:24:25] Something born out of the specific conditions in America, where the system of chattel slavery sought to strip every vestige of our former identities. Attempting in every way to reduce us to the bare elements of what makes us a human being. It is born out of those parts of our former selves that we fought to retain. Despite the systemic trans-generational onslaught. What we retained was a kind of meta-African-ness. These were the things that couldn't be stripped away by force, confounded by the smashing together of people from across Africa speaking in strange tongues.

[00:25:03] Things that couldn't be lost in the midst of time because they were encoded in our blood, and the ways our eyes gaze up at the stars. This meta-African-ness undeniably connects us to the continent, and is at the same time specifically American. The peculiarities of our experience here makes us distinct from every other culture on the African continent. Each with its own level of Indigeneity rooted in their own sense of history in place. So, as to the matter of Indigeneity, the fundamental question for me is, are not Black Americans Indigenous to Turtle Island? To me, that's a very provocative philosophical question, but it's also a legitimate philosophical question.

[00:25:50] Black peoples in the United States are cultural, epistemological body of humans, who have a kind of coherence in the way that we exist in the world. An existence that is not rooted in any other place, any other social context, any other political concept, any other context. An existence specific to here, that's not to displace, of course the original Indigenous inhabitants. Even in my advocacy of Black land and home ownership, I am not saying that it means that we have any land rights equal to the first peoples. Instead, this is a philosophical question that has utility and understanding where we go from here.

[00:26:31] How do we see our history as it truly is and begin to imagine creating entirely new things, rooted in the best of what our ancestors have to offer us, and also forward-looking. Even now we're having this conversation as if African peoples who landed here, and Indigenous relatives who had been here since time immemorial don't have a shared history. As if there isn't a deep and rich history of the two communities being together, marrying together, producing children together. This is where the lines get further blurred.

[00:27:05] It's important that we honor boundaries and have these conversations with intentionality. I explore these ideas in my multimedia installation piece, This Is Who We Are. What I learned listening to the sounds of my grandfather preparing for his day in the pre-dawn hours all those years ago, getting ready for work, getting ready for church, getting ready to build and learn and thus, to teach, was ultimately about service. Service doesn't always mean sacrifice, and what it does call for sacrifice, that is not always a negative. Sometimes sacrifice is not even sacrifice, but rather simply a thing you choose over some other option. The option of not doing, not knowing or not building.

[00:27:56] In my work in art, I imagine what it means to be rooted again, to stop moving and to begin to be whole again, to build a new human beingness based on a healthy relationship to the land we live on. This is an Indigenously African way of being that I learned from my family on my father's side. It is one of those things retained in our ADOS beingness, that I learned from my grandparents and their lifelong work to build a new communal home in Seattle Central District. A home they intended for their great, great, great grandchildren and beyond. It is a truth held up for us by the First Nations People of Turtle Island. By supporting Indigenous sovereignty, we build. Let's build.

[00:28:54]Felipe Contreras [00:28:54] Nia Tero is a Seattle based foundation where both Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship of all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally, who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for all humans and other species for generations to come. To learn more about this podcast and our work at Nia Tero, please visit our website,, and follow Nia Tero on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

[00:29:32] This episode was produced by our senior producer, Jenny Asarnow and mixed by me, beats by Yirim Seck. Inye's original essay was produced by Julie Keck and edited by Sharon Chang for the South Seattle Emerald, a nonprofit hyper-local Black led media outlet on Coast Salish Territory. Our fact checker is Roman Lee Johnson, our social media manager is Hannah Pantaleo. Julie Keck is our consulting producer and marketing manager. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector, theme music by Mia Kami. I'm Felipe Contreras, filling in for Jessica Ramirez. We'll be back with another episode soon. [singing]