Smaller Than Africa

How Netflix brings us Yoruba ethnonationalism in the guise of a larger African perspective in ‘Bigger Than Africa’

On May 13th Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye’s documentary Bigger Than Africa appeared on Netflix in the US. It first premiered in 2018, and has since been lauded as an African perspective on the African diaspora. That is what it is, to be sure. However, there are certain severe shortcomings in such a perspective, especially in the one Adekeye presents to us. Adekeye’s vision is one in which one ethnic group, the Yoruba, can claim as its own all African progeny in the Americas. The many established facts, which the film’s narrative intentionally ignores, complicate matters significantly.

The Yoruba Oyo Empire profited considerably off of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet, the documentary makes no mention of this. The Yoruba shared common cultural traits with their neighbors, and you can attribute their influence in the New World to their imperialism in Africa. The film, however, prefers to implicate innate Yoruba superiority. The modern ethnic concept of the Yoruba is a recent invention dating from the 19th century, stemming from relations with neighboring peoples in the post-colonial period and the fierce competition for resources among them in the newly formed states of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.

While it begins with the subtitle “a documentary on the Yorubas,” the film ends with Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo asserting that Yorubaland ought to be the Israel of the Black diaspora – “Yorubaland”, that is, and not the multi-ethnic states of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo themselves. The intended message is that Yoruba equals African. A cherry-picking of select groups and interviewees reinforces this idea. First, we visit Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina, a product of neo-Yoruba religious nationalism which arose in Harlem in the late 1950s.

The interviewees acknowledge that their movement was the product of a specific place and time. Their founding assumptions about a lack of Black religious identity and the prominence of Yoruba influence in the Americas are eminently contestable, and in fact, have been since their founding. That the Detroit-born founder of the neo-Yoruba Oyotunji group, Oseijeman Adefunmi, officially belongs to the Yoruba priesthood is neither here nor there from a historian’s perspective. If anything, it only further indicates the investment of today’s Yorubas in propagating their domestic ethnonationalism through international channels.

Scholarship today suggests that discussions of African American origins have historically overrepresented Yoruba roots. They also likely stem from those abovementioned post-colonial contexts, wherein representing Yoruba as inherently superior to their neighbors served British and American commercial interests in the fledgling nation. The product of that commitment to supporting the Yoruba within Nigeria’s fragile political ecosystem of intra-ethnic competitions would be the genocide against the Igbo, inhabitants of the oil-rich Niger Delta region, during the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1967-1970. Discussions around the historical memory of these events are everywhere in Nigeria and are precisely the motivation behind works such as Bigger Than Africa.

The film takes us on to Bahia, Brazil, where groups championing the Yoruba-ness of candomblé, traditional Afro-Brazilian religious practices, also have depended on shoddy, ahistorical readings. Scholars indicate that candomblé was given a Yoruba makeover by outside interpreters assisted by the internal politics of the tradition. Many of those interpreters were likely influenced by the prominence attributed to Yoruba in the Black Power Movement abroad and wanted to disregard what they thought of as overly “creolized” aspects of the tradition. Taking us on to Cuba, the film uses Yoruba deities, orishas, indicate the strong continuity between Afro-Cuban and Yoruban religious practices. But it ignores the overlaps between orishas and deities of neighboring peoples.

Orisha dolls in Cuba. (Bigger Than Africa).

Meanwhile, the film celebrates Yoruba “creolization”, or syncretism with Catholic beliefs, while it assumes any supposed syncretism between Yoruba and non-Yoruba beliefs to be indicative of the latter’s inherent inferiority. Of these superior people now posited as Yoruba Valerie Taylor of Trinidad and Tobago’s National Trust suggests that  “the fact that they were able to influence non-Yorubas to behave in ways that reflected Yoruba culture […] I get a sense that there was a strength in the Yoruba culture, a very deep understanding of what was being done.” All this, again, without flinching at the anachronisms involved, and without suggesting that the Yoruba (to what extent we could have called any enslaved persons by that name) may have understood what was being done because they were doing it themselves.

Perhaps the greatest irony is when, by way of the Oyotunji group’s presence in the New Bethel Incident in Detriot in 1969, we now attribute the Black Panther Party and nearly every other aspect of Black American social movements to Yoruba ethnic superiority. While the Black Panthers came to the defense of the participants in the national convention of the Republic of New Africa who police assaulted in that incident, you couldn’t have called them zealous Yoruba supporters of any kind. Many of the Party, especially Nigerian Panther Obi Egbuna, condemned the Yoruba in particular for their collusion with the British and American governments in the genocide in Biafra. Beyond anything else, however, the Panthers pushed for a Black diaspora that would promote unity in Africa…definitely the opposite of Adekeye’s intentions in this film.

It seems like insofar as there is a commercial thirst for Black-interest Netflix items like High on the Hog (2021), there is little to no interest in understanding the realities of Africa today. The first episode of that series, in fact, gives us another example of Yoruba ethnonationalism. The series host, African-American food writer Stephen Satterfield, travels to West Africa to investigate the African origins of American cuisine. He interviews historian Gabin Djimassè in Abomey, Benin. The majority in Abomey is of the Fon ethnicity, a people who once competed with the Yoruba for dominance of the slave trade. As they walk along the old slave route, Djimassè is frank with Satterfield that Africans must assume responsibility for participating in the slave trade.

Later Satterfield visits Yoruba artist Romuald Hazoumè in Porto-Novo. Hazoumè has a very different take on things… the Yoruba ethnonationalist take, in fact. “Don’t forget, we were so strong,” says Hazoumè, “That’s why people take our people, the Yoruba people, to go there for the farmer because we were so strong.” With a sleight of hand, Hazoumè gets Satterfield to acknowledge Yoruba superiority in the guise of acknowledging the vitality and strength of enslaved African peoples – many of whom the Yoruba enslaved and sold to the Europeans.

In her book Lose Your Mother, based on her own experiences walking the slave route in Ghana, American Saidiya Hartman wrote, “I came to realize that it mattered whether the ‘we’ was called ‘we who became together’ or ‘African people’ or ‘slaves’, because these identities were tethered to conflicting narratives of ‘our’ past, and well, these names conjured different futures.” Anytime a narrative confronts us with a simplistic rendition of the past we must ask ourselves what future it hopes to conjure. Certainly, neither Netflix nor the myriad of historically uninformed critics waiting to hang their hat on the first thing presenting itself as nominally “African” is going to be asking such difficult questions on anyone’s behalf.

‘Bigger Than Africa,’ with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

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Jeremy Ray Jewell

Jeremy Ray Jewell is a frequent contributor to Boston’s The Arts Fuse (artsfuse.org). His critical essays have been published in multiple languages. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.

One thought on “Smaller Than Africa

  • June 23, 2022 at 11:35 am
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    Thank you for this historically honest critique. There were many factual problems with this so-called documentary.

    Reply

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