Thomas Allen Harris Biography


Thomas Allen Harris was born in the Bronx but raised in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania in the sixties. He would live in the Bronx off and on for 14 years and Tanzania for 2 years. Currently he lives between New York and South Africa. Harris has a brother Lyle who he has also collaborated with. When asked when he became interested in film he responded, │I've always been interested in photography, storytelling, art and activism, which inform my work. My Grandfather and the father who raised me were filmmakers and photographers as were cousins and uncles". His supportive family what a huge help to his success thus far. He is the first to venture into film officially as a profession. Harris attended Harvard and graduated with a degree in Biology. Yet from there began a career as a Broadcast journalist. He worked at WNET/ Thirteen producing public affair shows for 5 years. He then began to teach at the University of California as an Associate Professor of Media Arts for eight years beginning in 1994. When I asked what made him start and stop teaching he replied, "I started to have resources to continue to make the kinds of films I wanted to make. I stopped when I was able to find other resources to support my filmmaking. In some way it was a super 8mm film and finally on videotape. Whenever there was a colored person on television, we all went to see it and have our pride reflected in this rare moment when black people were starting to take control of their representation.

Although he celebrated Africa, Grandpa never liked the term "black;" he preferred "colored," which better reflected our mixed African, Indian and European ancestry. My mother, Rudean Leinaeng, embraced the term "black," however, seeing it as the extension of her embrace of Pan-Africanism. She was part of the new black arts generation that rejected all things Negro while striving to create new definitions of their selves based on the radical politics of the time. My mother left the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of her youth (and in which my grandparents were actively involved). Instead, she along with some of her nursing students, created a Pan-African environment in the Bronx where I was introduced to African cultures, languages, foods and religious practices. This included the Yoruba-based religions of Santeria and its Brazilian cousin CandomblÚ.

By this time, I was well aware of American racism through personal experience, conversations I had overheard among adults, and the history books from my Grandfather's library. In response to the hypocrisy I perceived, I stopped saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I saw our family really as Africans in America, rather than African-Americans.

My life changed in 1974 when my mother got a job teaching in the Ministry of Education in Tanzania. I was eleven when she transported my brother and I to Dar-Es-Salaam for two years. Like many African-Americans, she was attracted to the recently independent, socialist country because of its commitment to Pan-Africanism, championed by the then-president Julius Nyerere. Instead of attending the (American-led) International School, my mother offered us the choice to go to the national Tanzanian schools. I attended Forodhani National Secondary School where, in the former British colony, I learned to communicate in two languages, English and Swahili. Each morning, I proudly sang the national anthems of African and Tanzania:

Mungu ibarkik Africa
Wabariki Viongoz wake
Hekima Umoja na
Amani Hizi ni ngao zetu
Africka na watu wake
ibarkik Africa
ibarkik Africa
Tubariki wwatoto wa Africa
Mungu ibarkik Tanzania
Dumisha uhuru na Umoja
Wake Kwa Waume na Watoto
Mungu ibariki Tanzania na watu wake
God bless Africa
Bless its leaders
Let wisdom, unity and
Peace be the shield of
Africa and its people
Bless Africa
Bless Africa
Bless the children of Africa
God Bless Tanzania
Grant eternal Freedom and Unity
To its sons and daughters.
God bless Tanzani and its People

The Tanzanians welcomed us with open arms. There we were a part of a community that included Tanzanians, and expatriates from America, Canada, South Africa, Uganda and India. Ironically, living in Tanzania made me realize the extent to which we were Americans. After eleven years of exposure to the culture of consumption and individuality, my mind and my way of interpreting the world were unmistakably American, despite the good-natured efforts of my new socialist comrades. When I worked in the marketplace, selling chickens that I had raised, I learned to be a good capitalist and enjoyed making money for sweets and presents for my mother.

When we returned to the U.S., I realized that living in Tanzania made me something other than American. I had a much larger worldview. I had learned the power of working within and though a community to achieve progress for oneself as well as for one's neighbors. In seeing America from the perspective of a small nation struggling to build a modern vision of itself after decades of colonial rule by the British, I came to understand just how insensitive and frequently harmful the aftereffects of western domination can be, not only militarily, but more importantly on the spiritual, intellectual and cultural levels as well.

To make matters worse, I realized that this culture could only see Africa as a place of depravation and savagery. In classes, my schoolmates would often make fun of me for having "gone native," comparing me to some loin-skin wearing caricature from a Tarzan movie, whenever I tried to tell them about the new face of modern Africa, with its skyscrapers and universities of higher learning. Even the African Methodist Episcopal Church saw Africa as a place of heathen idol worshipers that could only be saved through the intervention of Christian missionaries.

As a result of my journey, even within the AME church, I could see beneath the patina of conventional Christian iconography and recognize a rich double life of African ancestral spirit worship, even though the parishioners mostly likely didn't recognize it and would probably be horrified if they did. I dreamed of a place where an African-American spirit tradition, with its fluid sexuality and overt sensuality, was openly celebrated. This dream led me to Salvador Da Bahia.

--Allison Noel, 2003

Thomas Allen Harris