Alseny & Papa Yansane-Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series

On October 29th WACAI’s Executive Director appeared on Facebook Live with husband Alseny Yansane and son, Papa to ask some interview questions drafted by Emily Hartlerode from the Oregon Folklife Network, WACAI’s partners in creating the Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series. Even though all three Yansanes have experience performing and improvising in front of audiences, there is something slightly nerve-racking about the phenomena of Facebook Live where you know you have an audience, but cannot connect with them in the same way because they cannot be seen in real time. Also, unlike performing music and dance working with words as well as analyzing, then expressing deep concepts on the fly can be tricky. In the days that followed the live interview Alseny, Papa, and Andrea talked about some of the points that were brought up in the interview, how these points touched upon various moments in time rather than exemplified everlasting, one dimensional truths, and reflected on just how complex the issues of race and culture can be.

Andrea started out with an open-ended question asking Alseny to describe his cultural tradition from Guinea, West Africa. Sometimes in the midst of challenging times, like the Corona virus pandemic that we are currently experiencing, there is a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of a situation. In this vein, Alseny spoke of a time in Guinea during his artistic career when support for the cultural arts and artists themselves were at an all-time low. It is definitely worth mentioning that although the life of a Guinean artist does have the common thread of enduring a great deal of hardship due to national poverty and lack of resources, there have been distinct times of support for the arts and respect for the artists who carry out these traditions. Take the time from 1958-1984 when Guinea’s first president Ahmed Sekou Toure made the cultural arts a point of national pride in the dawning of the Republic’s newly won independence from France. Historically, this was a time when art and cultural appreciation and cultivation were at an all-time high and the training that artists received was rigorous and systematic. Artists had to compete on a national level annually as a way of moving up to higher levels of artistic status and these competitions were very well funded and broadcasted around the country for all to take part in this collective joy and revel in the unique and rich cultural arts tradition of Guinea.

Papa talked about the freedom that he experienced while living in Guinea, mainly of being allowed to run free through the neighborhood with his friends with very little direct adult supervision or structure to the activities he participated in, including some naughty antics, like pulling pranks on neighbors. Like Baba Wague Diakite, Malian artist and storyteller who was our first Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series featured artist said, “in West Africa we have an open society.” What that means is that everyone from infants to senior citizens spend their entire waking hours outside of their homes, in the outdoors of courtyards and compounds filled with other families or in open spaces, including lining the streets and directly in the public eye. Although a child may not have one single adult or parental unit looking after them there is this kind of communal surveillance that is in place and will swoop in to intervene if anything really awry goes down. Papa mentioned that “everyone gets into your business”, but that is really just the Guinean way of looking after everyone in the entire community. In comparison to life in Oregon, although this experience of existence has a lot to do with Guinean culture, it is impossible not to consider be how race factors into how Papa and other people of color must behave in order to not only fit into social norms, but ward off scrutiny, violence, and even death due to white supremacist indoctrination that occurs on every level of American society from systems of education to government to religion to housing to financial institutions to name a few. In Guinea, systems of white supremacy are not woven into the fabric of society so being discriminated against because of the color of your skin really isn’t a thing, like it is here.

Papa is having to integrate so many things that American born kids take for granted like English language learning as well as navigating the differences in the educational and social systems between Guinea and the US which is a lot to process on a moment-to-moment basis. Also, because he is an immigrant teenager who is developing his sense of self and individual identity this process can take up all of his bandwidth and obscure the understanding of how racism works. In speaking with Papa after the interview about his comment that he loves the fact that he is practically the only black kid in his community circles he acknowledges that he felt on the hot seat and gave the first answer that came into his head. Upon closer reflection Papa admits that there are definite drawbacks to being practically the only black kid in his school and sports community and that he has needed to endure comments that range from sheer ignorance, like inferences about his hair to outright racial epithets, like being called the “N” word. Like his Dad, Papa takes these micro-aggressions in stride, but is coming into a deeper understanding of the racist systems in place that can cause and even allow for well-meaning white people to say and do degrading things to Black people.

Alseny also shared that he has had to deal with racial micro-aggressions and harassment over the years, but the pressure to send money home to his family in Guinea has kept him focused and has helped him brush these instances off.  In speaking of the high expectations that family and community from “back home” have of him, Alseny emphasizes the great difficulty of being an ex-pat artist from Africa and the need to support artists like him who are required to help pay the family bills. These bills can include anything and everything from food, housing, medication, school fees, utility charges, to holiday celebrations. Despite all of the hardships that have been overcome, Alseny remains grateful for the opportunity to come to the United States, the grounding force of his family with whom he lives in Oregon, and all the support that he has received since his arrival in Eugene since February 2007.