• Alicia Dianne

“How does Africa and it’s History affect me as a Black Cartoonist Today?”: Introduction


My grandfather, Robert C, Chapman

When I first decided to create a project evolving around a modern poor family in rural Kenya, I had no idea what I what I was getting into. I only knew I had to go with it. I knew nothing about Kenya, or for that matter the entire continent of Africa. Oh I knew, what most American kids were taught in school; which was a vague summary about millions of black slaves being brought from Africa to the Americas some 400 years ago, and if we were black- or part black that those were our ancestors. I also had a partial understanding, based on what I saw on TV, that many areas of Africa were in poverty, but I had no idea why nor did I see another any resolution. Catching glimpses of the news as a young girl, I also saw violence throughout Africa that I did not understand. War in Rwanda, refugees in Uganda and some man in South Africa named Nelson Mandela. Most of it was beyond my comprehension. But one thing I did know about Africa was its beautiful landscape and it’s wildlife.

Africa is famous for its rich wildlife; and as an awe-struck child, I was all in. I watched hours and hours of National Geographic, learning and loving the lives of great and strange creatures from Africa. My family knew I had a love for these animals, and my grandfather in particularly, would share in watching all the David Attenborough narrated adventures. When I was five; my mother, sister and I moved in with my grandparents in Brooklyn, NY. I recognized very early that my grandfather was a very important man. He wore a fancy suit to church every week, which was all black with a white collar. He was the Reverend Cannon Robert C. Chapman who ministered to a large congregation at the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My grandfather was very well respected in the church as well as adored and respected at home. He would watch the wildlife documentaries with me. And as I would try to draw all the animals; my grandfather would share an occasional story about his ventures in the 1950s as a Civil Rights Activist. How he’d walked along the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., protested for change, and marched with one million other black men in Washington, DC.

Unlike me, my grandfather knew a lot about Africa and the History of African Americans. He even taught African American Studies as a University professor. He also experienced first-hand the aftermath of slavery in America by facing extreme racism, like I would never see. Such as being chased by a lynch mob as a young man in his 20s and being punched in the face as a boy by a white police officer in Brooklyn, NY. He also had seen with his own eyes the whipping marks on his great grandmother’s back from a slaver.

When I was old enough, I watched other things on television with my grandfather. We watched film called “Roots” and another called “Alex Haley’s Queen.” It was only then that I really felt I was beginning to understand African American History. But I didn’t still didn’t know where I fit in.

When I first began going to school in New York, I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. I went to a Catholic School in Crown Heights. My sister and I were much lighter than the other kids at school, who were of mostly Afro-Caribbean descent. Many of the children at our school were Haitian American and spoke French Creole as a first language. Which to me, felt further isolating. I remember hearing questions like “What are you?” a lot. It got easier, as time went on and after a time, I started to feel more accepted. Especially when I began to get noticed by my peers for making funny comics. However, I believe it is at this time when a seed of doubt had been planted in me that “Maybe I don’t belong in the black community.”

In the 6th grade, I experienced something entirely different. My grandparents had retired and moved to Florida a few years earlier. And I had just transferred to a very different Catholic School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Bay Ridge, if you are not familiar, is a neighborhood consisting of largely Italian American and Irish American families. There, I wasn’t light anymore. I was black… and I felt it. This time, it was more than not fitting in. This time, I felt unwanted. A lingering uneasy sense of not being welcomed. Which I felt more and more until I refused to go back.

“I do remember being teased by my cousins on my mom's side for not being black enough. And then I'd spend the summer with my dad and be sent to all white summer camps where I was 'that black girl.” -Lauren London, American Actress

From there I began going to inter-mixed schools and finally felt like I found a place where I belonged. However internally, I continued to struggle with my identity. I still got asked questions like “What are you?” from time to time, which I found frustrating. More frustrating than the questioner asking, was the fact that I did not know. I wasn’t really sure anymore. I knew my family was mixed with other races, but for the most part, we identified as black. However, that can be confusing when another black person asks my ethnicity and I say “black,” and they say back, “No, you’re not!” I questioned my identity a lot. Until I didn’t think of it at all. I became race-less. None of it mattered to me, and I was content to check the “other” box.

However, there is no identity in the “other” box. I enjoyed learning about other people’s cultures, but it was not my own. I saw beauty in Latin cultures, Asian cultures and Native American music and storytelling. However none of it was my own, I was only observing as an “other.” I wanted to talk to my grandfather again, but when I was nineteen he passed away at the age of seventy-nine after a long struggle with lung cancer. His loss devastated my family. And at a time where we might have all drawn closer, we drifted apart in isolation. Looking back at that time, I can remember sitting in his office alone. Looking up at woven art piece over his desk in the shape of Africa. He also had near his desk, the portrait of a lion, which I often associated with him. His large library flooded with Afrocentric books. It was subliminal then and I kept on living as the “other.”

Little by little, I would see a pattern show up in my drawings and paintings. The image of a lion, or the image of an elephant, an African baby. Sometimes I drew African women, with little thought to why. I drew other things to, so it didn’t much stand out to me. I wanted to be part of the animation industry and took most of my inspiration from the big box office hits that impacted me. Films like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” those were the films that stood out to me, and I wanted to draw like artists who made them. An interesting occurrence happened while I was in art school as an undergraduate at the School of Visual Arts in New York. My classroom was visited by an artist named Dan Haskett. Dan was an amazing artist who would awe us instantly with his drawings and sketches. We were all impressed by the major television animations he had worked on like “Scooby Doo," “Animaniacs” and “Tiny Toon Adventures.” You could imagine my esteem when I heard he had also worked on films like “Toy Story,” “The Prince of Egypt,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and even “The Little Mermaid.” This was really amazing to me because not only was Dan Haskett an amazing, accredited and successful artist, he was also black. Up until that point, Dan was the only black artist I had ever seen in professional animation. And in that moment, I just felt like seeing him and all that he had achieved made it a little more possible for me to achieve similar things in my own career.

A few years later, I became heavily involved with my church. Now living in New Mexico with my husband and our children. Occasionally I would hear the pastor mention missionary from time to time without paying it much attention. I was already involved in volunteering and bible studies so I didn’t pay it much mind. However I knew I had a heart for giving back, and had been involved with charities like Direct Relief and created artworks for their cause. I felt stagnant however, and wanted to do more. I just didn’t know what. I didn’t know for some time until I was inspired by a Christian movie director named Roma Downey. I heard Roma in an interview I’d seen that she’d asked God to use her for His purpose. I thought, that’s an interesting concept. I wonder what it would be like to ask a question like that and would God even answer? So I tried it, I prayed in my own way, to the greater presence, I call God, and asked to be used for His purpose. That night I had an incredibly intense dream like I had never had before. It was of a girl, a black girl, an African girl. And I could feel all of her feelings. It was a deep pain, like a mourning and a sense of helplessness. The pain was so heavy that it woke me up and my face was filled with tears. I had never seen that girl before and I drew her instantly. I even took a picture of myself in the mirror with my tearful face because I had never woke up that way before, nor have I since. I didn’t know what the dream meant at first not until the following Sunday when I arrived back at church.

I remember the room full of people as our paster and his sons spent the entire service speaking about their missionary plans. There were two cites- the first of which he mentioned was Kenya. Instantly I knew the connection to my dream. The second cite was in Mexico, and the pastor went on in explaining how they selected the locations to work with and the pastors in those cities who wanted to work with them to expand their ministry. I felt in my spirit that this is what I needed to be a part of.

I quickly contacted the Missions team and was connected with the leader. I asked him to tell me everything about the project and expressed my interest in creating an art project based on their work in Kenya. He was excited to hear and welcomed me in with lots of information, pictures, and plans for future trips. The missions leader told me about the basic needs for clean water, medical care and educational material which they were helping to provide. I wanted to help, and quickly began creating paintings and imagery inspired by Kenya and several folktales I had read from around the continent. I called the collection “Inspiration from Kenya.”

I had to wonder, however. What the people felt. The people of the small town of Kwale, near Mombasa where the missionaries were visiting. How do the people of Kwale feel about a group all white people coming into their homes and neighborhoods to “save” them? I quickly realized that I just didn’t know enough. I didn’t know the culture, the history, the government policies. Nothing. It was time for me to learn what really happened in Africa and why are so many areas in need of help.

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Hi everyone, I wanted to introduce my all new set of workshops that is just being launched! I'll be hosting workshops in character design, figure drawing, anatomy, animation software, and fun events