George on Georgia – Bark cloth and D&D – Decaturish

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Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter titled “The Atlanta Objective”. If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paid subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

Let me tell you about New Black Wall Street in Stonecrest.

No wait. Let me first tell you about Ugandan barkcloth.

But before that, let me tell you about my Dungeons and Dragons game.

Digressions upon digressions. I exercise a privilege today. Only once. I’m fully aware that unless you’re Matt Mercer from Critical Role, hearing about someone else’s D&D game is totally on par with listening to someone describe their last round of golf or his last fishing trip.

It is relevant. Believe me. Nerd together.

When I’m not writing about politicians or people getting shot, I’m almost certainly adding to the world-building for my internal Dungeons & Dragons campaign, which takes place in a near-13 fantasy.and century in Africa. Think Wakanda meets Game of Thrones. Akamara’s campaign imagines what Africa’s development might have looked like if some of the continent’s physical and economic obstacles had not made things more difficult. A magical adjustment here or there and the “Guns, Germs and Steel” problems of malaria and sleeping sickness, the spread of cultivated species and the concentration of population disappear.

I’ve been writing this as an obsession for about three years. It’s an anxiety reaction to all other write what I need to do for a living. But I also want black nerds like me to see themselves better in the heroes they embody. But it’s also to help everyone see that there are some truly excellent and universally applicable Dungeons and Dragons stories in African folklore that have long been ignored because hardly anyone in the history of racially blind production from D&D only bothered to look.

You don’t have to be black to appreciate the role-playing possibilities of the abatwa – tiny hunters from Zulu folklore who ride ants and are extremely sensitive to their size. If they take offense, they’ll shoot you with their poison arrows… and you’ll die.

Or the Nigerian egbere, which you might think of as a forest gnome or pixie. He carries a sleeping mat. If you steal the carpet, you’ll gain riches…but the egbere – a fairy that can’t be killed by normal means – will follow you moaning loudly all day and night until he gets his mat back.

The walking dead frankly aren’t scary enough because everyone’s got a good look at the standard lineup of skeletons and zombies that go up the chain of vampires and liches. But no one here knows what a Malagasy kinoly is.

The idea that a man, on horseback, wearing chain mail and shielding a sword was perfectly normal in 14th-century Ghana seems to have escaped role-playing writers. (Spears are better weapons, but put that aside for a moment.) The usefulness of canoes as a weapon of war, the establishment of the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu in the 14th century, the shields of the tower of the ethiopian empire, the shotel sword designed to curve around these shields…the deeper I dug, the more interesting things emerge. The idea here is not an implicit orientalist mystical otherness, nor an allusion to a suppressed black superiority. It is equality. The stories are equally interesting. And everyone should experience it.

It’s Black History Month. As I have said. It is relevant.

One day I will publish this campaign. I promise. It is a 200 page book with two thousand extra search pages on my hard drive right now. But it’s not ready. Foolishly, I insist on a game economy that makes sense. To this end, I sometimes went to absurd lengths looking for more general information about 13and African folklore and culture of the century. I consulted with faculty at Harvard, UCLA and Berkeley, exchanged e-mails with historians in Rwanda and Nigeria, and was one of 30 people to read graduation dissertations on obscure subjects. I’ve blasted timelines — I actually have one right now — by building spreadsheets modeling iron weapon production and crop yields… and textiles.

Like barkcloth. From Uganda.

I found myself at the New Black Wall Street market a few weeks ago waiting for the Civic wagon to be repaired. Things were dead that day. The food was a rumor; I finished with an ice cream cone. And then I came across the African Textiles Museum. The nerd was on.

I had never smelled authentic raffia fabric. It’s a bit like someone has woven nylon fishing line into a dress. Kente is wonderful. But I had never touched barkcloth before, and they didn’t have any. But as it happened, a Ugandan delegation, including the Ugandan ambassador, had planned an event at the museum in a few weeks, and they were bringing barkcloth with them.

The barkcloth is made in southern Uganda by the Baganda tribe. It is peeled from the Mutuba trees and pounded flat for weeks by local artisans. Witches and spirit mediums wear it, as do the royal families of Ugandan nobility. Barkcloth is the burial cloth of the Ugandan dead. And the production process hasn’t changed for 1,000 years.

It’s Dungeons and Dragons stuff. I made a commitment to come back.

The new Black Wall Street has been under a fire for the last few weeks. Vendors have complained of leaks in the roof damaging their wares and that the market owner has not been accommodating. When you read a quote in the AJC like “They’re going to set themselves on fire…It’s only a matter of time,” you start to wonder what’s going on.

I have been a market skeptic in the past. New Black Wall Street is designed as a place where black-owned businesses can thrive. But basically it’s still a mall with extra steps. It faces the same economic problem that every other US mall faces in the age of online retail – additional overhead for a physical facility. Artificially undercapitalized businesses trying to sell into an artificially underpaid market segment is one of the reasons that the efforts of black entrepreneurs have not yet been able to level the economic playing field with the White America. Add to that the market’s connection to the administration of disgraced former Stonecrest mayor Jason Lary, and concerns about his future arise.

After another visit on Saturday, I think I can safely say that Stonecrest got the job done.

The market was packed. I had trouble finding a parking space. It’s no wonder to me that owner Bill Allen felt no competitive pressure to address supplier concerns. I’d bet there were more people in New Black Wall Street on Saturday than in the gigantic Stonecrest Mall next door.

Black History Month programming has helped. Lou Gossett Jr. was visiting, as were other TV stars. A comedy club set performed on the main market stage. Performers dressed for Mardi Gras — or, really, Rio Carnival — paraded through the halls. The arrival of the Ugandan delegation was almost fortuitous.

I hung out with Stonecrest councilman George Turner for a bit. “I think everyone wanted to come out and see if there was a problem themselves,” he said. “We are all rooting for this place.

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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