Connecting African Diasporic Peoples Through Documentary Film and Storytelling

By Michele A. Johnson, Funke Aladejebi & Francesca D’Amico

On February 4th a group of academics, students and community members came together to explore the intersection of the past and the present in making African identities in the Americas. The “Contemporary Griot” event, organized by the Performing Diaspora project, combined a public lecture, documentary screenings, discussions and performances. As you will read below, the event was a profoundly moving experience for many of the undergraduate students in attendance.

Over the past four years, Performing Diaspora has worked to showcase the experiences of Africans and their descendants in the Americas through performances, including art, dance, and music. This public history project has grown out of the major research project entitled “Slavery, Memory and Citizenship” which is housed in York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples. Among other things, Performing Diaspora explores the ways in which Africans understand “belonging” and “citizenship” in Africa and the African Diaspora.

“Contemporary Griot” was a public history event intended to highlight how complex individual stories can, and do, disrupt the overwhelmingly homogeneous representations of “Africa,” “Africans” and “Blackness” that dominate in the mainstream media. The event featured a keynote address from York University professor Dr. Pablo Idahosa and two documentaries, In-Between Stories by filmmaker Roda Siad and War Child which focused on the life of former child soldier, Emmanuel Jal. Each film was followed by a riveting informal discussion that included members in each of the films and performances by Kae Sun, Jeff Gunn and Emmanuel Jal.

The students of York University’s African Canadian undergraduate history course reflected on the evening. They each agreed that documentary films do offer an extremely beneficial lens into understanding the complex stories of Africans and African diasporic peoples. Here are some of their thoughts:


Soroya Rowe explains,

First off, the event was one of my first at York [University] and I was so happy that I made the decision to attend. The film was heartfelt amongst everyone in the room. I was able to get a real sense of the experiences of Emmanuel [Jal]. Upon watching the movie, and trying to understand the life of the former war child, I began to wonder, where are the experiences of women? … [that is], until he shared the story of his sister. Most often when we hear the story of a war child, it is the experience from a male perspective. I was glad to see that Emmanuel touched on the story of his sister, and explained the huge amount of respect that he has for women. I believe that being a war child does not dealsolely with gun violence, it is also psychological, emotional, social, physical and sexual. As a woman, I guess I was able to relate to his sister, and I truly felt her pain. As I saw Emmanuel in the flesh, it was hard to hold back the tears of happiness. Interacting with Emmanuel, was truly an experience; I almost broke down in front of a crowd of people. My own experiences were coming to life in an entire room of strangers. I never anticipated that I would be so moved. The room almost became my own therapy session and Emmanuel was my counsellor! He has a HUGE heart and he is a walking example of what it means to give back. Before the event, I had expected to see a long boring documentary in which I had absolutely no interest . . . But after the event with Emmanuel, it has definitely showed me the importance of bringing history to the public. I am thankful that I was able to be a part of the experience, and I look forward to many others in the future.

Anna-Kay Tate reveals,

My experience at the Performing Diaspora event was an uplifting and a memorable one. Mainly due to the fact that we were able to converse and engage with the main character of the film, Emmanuel Jal. To watch his film sent me on an emotional roller coaster of despair and hope because it gave insight to what Jal had to go through at a very young age and the conflicting and unstable environment he was in put him in unforeseen circumstances no child should experience. However, through that he was given hope for the future by embracing kindness from Emma and keeping the memories of his mother close to his heart. I could not help shedding a few tears at some parts because I could feel the pain and suffering that was endured. Through all of this, he was able to take it a step further to use his music as an outlet to tell the stories for the voiceless which is encapsulated with messages of hope, peace and reconciliation. This film and his words motivate you to want to spread the word and help others.

Shivana Misir believes,

Attending the Performing Diaspora Event featuring renowned Sudanese Hip Hop artist and humanitarian, Emmanuel Jal, was a life changing experience. His captivating documentary film “War Child” highlights the ways in which oral history illuminates aspects of struggle and injustice. His film also serves as an effective way to teach individuals about imperative historical issues such as ethnic war and its affiliated repercussions on individuals. The most captivating aspect of this film is that it employed the voice of children, and highlighted their views and experiences within that era. The voices of children are often unheard of and are deemed irrational due to socially produced ideas regarding the intellectual capacity of children. However, his story is one worth being told, as it demonstrates the experiences of African peoples, particularly the experiences of child soldiers, which [are] often silenced. In addition, Jal’s use of Hip-Hop as a way to enlighten and politically advocate for revolutionary change [in] ethnic conflict and division is a remarkable approach, as it illustrates his hardship on a global scale through a world-music audience.

Finally, Mary Woldemichael reveals,

Being given an opportunity as an audience [member] to participate in the Performing Diaspora event was for me a very moving and significant experience. Since the day I came to Canada as a young girl from Ethiopia, I’ve been culture shopping, negotiating my identity with my peers and surroundings, [and] searching for a place to belong. I felt that through this event, through connecting and talking to incredible young artists in their own element who had similar experiences as I had growing up, was what I had been looking for. I was inspired to hear their individual colourful journeys of negotiating their ‘blackness’ and identity within the African Canadian narrative. Through these young artists, and most particularly through Emmanuel Jal, I was finally able to see myself in the African Diaspora, and my narrative was made visible and my voice was finally heard.

The event was recorded and will be transcribed and housed at the Harriet Tubman Institute as part of its commitment to making the stories of African descended peoples available to the public.


Michele A. Johnson, Funke Aladejebi & Francesca D’Amico are members of  Spotlighting and Promoting African Canadian Experiences S.P.A.C.E. project at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples. Dr. Michele Johnson is an Associate Professor and Funke Aladejebi and Francesca D’Amico are PhD Candidates in the History Department at York University. This post market the beginning of a new partnership between S.P.A.C.E. and


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