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​​​“Å falle mellom to stoler”: Africans in Norway 

In February 2023, I joined a Zoom call organized by my friend, Jelsen Lee Innocent. A conceptual artist working across different media, he had invited a small group to work with him on a project about the experience of being African or a person of African descent in Norway. I was in Accra, Ghana, for my field research at the time, and the other participants were located in Oslo, Norway. It had been a while since we’d connected, and after we finished our life updates, Jelsen lifted a small green and orange object into view, a plastic container of cinnamon (kanel) with the words “Black Boy” printed across it. “Black Boy” was the name of one of Norway’s most widely used spice brands until 2010. Cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, allspice, curry powder, and more—marketed by parent company Rieber & Søn with a blackface character whose wide red-lipped grin and gold hoops bears a striking resemblance to the visual tropes found in some renderings of “Mammy” caricatures in the United States or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands. However, this illustrated woman’s tall straw hat seems to hint instead at Norway’s involvement in plantation slavery in the Caribbean, in particular during its union with Denmark (1524–1814).  

Credit: ‘å falle mellom to stoler’ (2023) Jelsen Lee Innocent. Images included with the artist’s permission.
A deconstructed, surrealist black-and-white image of the “Black Boy” cinnamon container unfurling to show the whole label, including the barcode and a picture of a bowl of Norwegian rice porridge with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

The woman effortlessly balances a wooden bowl of fruit in one hand, on which she wears a small stack of gold bangles. She also wears a thick gold chain around her neck and peers up from under her hat, her bare shoulders and chest implying that she may be nude. Variations of these caricatures, including some that featured an illustrated South Asian turban-clad and cross-legged figure, appeared on “Black Boy” packaging from the 1950s. By the 1980s, the blackface caricatures had largely been removed from packaging, but the moniker “Black Boy” remained until 2010, ​​when steady criticism by the community organization Afrikan Youth in Norway (AYIN) led to the name being changed to “Toro Krydderiet” (Toro Seasonings)—a decision met with some backlash about political correctness gone mad.  

Jelsen had saved the cinnamon container from a Christmas breakfast at his young son’s school several years ago, likely placed on a table along with sugar, butter, and raisins to be eaten with hot rice porridge (a Norwegian Christmas and weekend breakfast staple). Taken aback and concerned with the impact it might have on his son, Jelsen took it off the table and held onto it. For the project, inspired in part by the canister of “Black Boy” cinnamon and a plethora of other anti-Black imagery in Norwegian advertisements, he invited us to think together about the experience of being Black in Norway and the Nordics and the homegrown forms of white supremacy that Black people encounter in this context. How do you write about Blackness in a place that tries to deny its existence? How do you study Blackness in a place that denies its local history of anti-Indigenous and anti-Black structural violence? How do you write about Blackness while trying to resist the insidious pull of cultural and racial assimilation? These were some of the questions that guided “å falle mellom to stoler” (to fall between two chairs)—the collaborative, multimodal project that emerged from our conversations around these questions—exploring race, belonging, and social constructs that shape the lives of African Norwegians and Africans living in Norway. 

Credit: Emballasje © Solstad, Kjell Roger / Sverresborg Trøndelag Folkemuseum, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
A gold and teal “Black Boy” sachet of ground black pepper with black and red text and a blackface caricature of a woman/person with red lips and a wide grin wearing a tall hat, a gold hoop earring in one ear, gold chain around their neck, two gold bangles on their wrist. They are balancing a wooden bowl of fruit in one hand. The sachet has been torn open, and a piece is missing from the top right corner.

One of the challenges we face as African Norwegians is that our history in the country we have come to call home often is not well known, both within and outside our communities. We ourselves often do not have access to (or the time to explore) information about the tangled webs of Euro-American imperialism and the interests of transnational global elites that, over centuries, pushed many of us out of our homelands and into immigrant life in the West. As Black Nordics, we live in countries that top “Happiest Nation in the World” lists yearly, lists that often make cursory mention of racial-cultural homogeneity as a key contributor to national happiness. Though our existence and experiences trouble these neat narratives, we are considered far too few in number for this to be of consequence.  

Black Norwegians are also routinely reminded that we do not “make sense” in this geographical context, a practice that Katherine McKittrick describes in her writing about Blackness in Canada as “allowing the idea of the cold land to determine the natural place or placelessness of black diaspora communities.” We are often made to feel that we should be grateful, for we have been welcomed into a land in which Black people are “unacceptably impossible or geographically inappropriate”—among a people who purportedly have nothing to do with why we are displaced, why we have come to be here. The emphasis on Black Norwegians’ supposed biogeographic incompatibility with the Norwegian landscape works to cover historical tracks by erasing Norwegian and broader Scandinavian involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade, colonization in the Caribbean, and in missionary branches of colonial projects across the African continent. It also positions us as new visitors who must sing for our supper. We are imaginable only when we yield to the pressure of assimilation, which, in turn, renders us to the margins and then renders us altogether invisible—in the present and in the past.  

Credit: ‘å falle mellom to stoler’ (2023) Jelsen Lee Innocent. Images included with the artist’s permission.
A picture of an orange, green, and white container of “Black Boy” cinnamon placed on its side on a mount high up on a white wall.

Thanks to the work of writers and researchers like Ivorian-Norwegian Yacoub Cissé and Franco-Cameroonian historian Olivette Otele, we now have books like 400 Years of Black Norway and African Europeans: An Untold History. We hope that “å falle mellom to stoler”—which includes a physical exhibition with sculptures created by Jelsen and two publications (one forthcoming) featuring archival images, interviews, and critical essays by collaborators—can contribute to this vital work. With this project, we wanted to work against the impulse to write and create for a gaze outside the African Norwegian community​​ or in a bid to translate our experiences as people of African descent in Norway for a non-Black audience. We wanted to explore how African Norwegians are impacted by and respond to the structural and emotional force of integration and assimilation politics and the implicit hierarchies that can emerge within Black Norwegian communities in the face of these state projects that encourage immigrants of color to draw closer to whiteness and exile their non-Western and nonwhite cultural and racial heritage. We wanted to consider how young Black Norwegians of different backgrounds are impacted by the obscuring of our long histories in and with Norway and the sense of displacement that blooms as many of us grapple with questions of (non)belonging in the Norwegian context as well growing alienation from our homelands on the African continent and other corners of the African diaspora.  

The components of the project, through different media and from different perspectives, offer some historical context for Black African life in, and in relation to, Norway. We wanted to place ourselves in context by “unearthing that which the colonial experience buried and overlaid, bringing to light the hidden continuities it suppressed,” drawing on the work of Stuart Hall. While we wanted to reckon with intra-communal sameness produced by our shared histories and joint marginality in the Norwegian context, the difference that “persists, in and alongside continuity;” and the varied ways we negotiate our layered and ever-changing identities. Both in the texts and physical exhibition, we worked to privilege difficult and restorative conversations among Africans and people of African descent in Norway. In the first publication compiled for the project, Jelsen and another collaborator, Mwauke Bana Bempe wa Tshiyoyo Mufoncol, interviewed community elder and culture worker Monsieur Barthélemy Imboua-Niava. Monsieur Barth founded the African Cultural Institute (Afrikansk kulturinstitutt) in Oslo, which has held space for African cultural education for almost 50 years. The institute, which is the oldest African organization in Scandinavia, recently lost its state funding and is facing closure. In response to a question from Mwauke and Jelsen about the institute’s future, Monsieur Barth replied: 

We are not only a people of today, but also a people of yesterday, and it is always necessary to have an African center in Norway because we cannot all, nor should we all, assimilate and disappear. The essence of life is to recreate it and procreate life in sync with the universe, and we are all dependent on diverse ways of knowledge to do so. Organizations like ours cannot, and should not simply stop existing. Our mission has always been to communicate knowledge, highlight African contributions to the world’s cultural heritage, and to create. We will reorganize, regroup, and keep fighting. As we’ve always done. 

Credit: ‘å falle mellom to stoler’ (2023) Jelsen Lee Innocent. Images included with the artist’s permission.
Two sculptures – a tall black piece with books draped onto it and a grey cement piece with etchings and a black-and-white blackface caricature painted onto it – from the ‘å falle mellom to stoler’ exhibition by artist Jelsen Lee Innocent at the House of Foundation in Moss, Norway.


The “å falle mellom to stoler” exhibition by Jelsen Lee Innocent—curated by Jessica Williams—was mounted and open to the public at the House of Foundation in Moss, Norway, until July 22, 2023. 

“å falle mellom to stoler” is an ongoing community endeavor. Endless gratitude to Jelsen Lee InnocentMwauke Bana Bempe wa Tshiyoyo MufoncolMonsieur Barthélemy Imboua-NiavaNana Grace Kwapong, Chimaobi Ahamba, Foad Dahir Mohamed, Ayesha JordanAssata Activist Library, and Jessica Williams.  


Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 

Cissé Yacoub & Ann Falahat. 400 Years of Black Norway. Oslo, Norway: Norsk Kulturråd and Fritt Ord, 2012.  

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference edited by Jonathan Rutherford, 222—237. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 

McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 

Mufoncol, Mwauke Bana Bempe wa Tshiyoyo, Jelsen Lee Innocent & Barthélemy Imboua-Niava. “Why Can’t We Have Nice Things.” In ‘Å falle mellom to stoler.’ Moss, Norway: Hverdag Books, 2023. 

Otele, Olivette. African Europeans: An Untold History. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2021. 

Riber Sparre, Martin. “Bye, Bye, «Black Boy»,” Dagens Næringsliv. July 1, 2010.–1-1500795 (accessed February 7, 2023). 

Treitler, Vilna Bashi. The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2013. 

Wendelborg, Heidi Brandt. “‘Kom over og hjælp os!’: Bilder av afrikanere i norske misjonsblader, 1850–1950.” Master’s thesis, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2018. 

Wendt, Selene. Beyond the Door of No Return: Confronting Hidden Colonial Histories Through Contemporary Art. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2021. 

Meryleen Mena and Annika Doneghy are section contributing editors for the Association of Black Anthropologists.


Dubie Toa-Kwapong

Dubie Toa-Kwapong is a cultural anthropology PhD candidate at Duke University. She was born in Norway to Ghanaian-British parents and raised between Accra, Ghana and rural Western Norway. Her dissertation explores nostalgia, transnational constructs of belonging, material realities, and return migration to Accra, Ghana. She is also enrolled in the African & African American Studies (AAAS) Certificate Program.

Cite as

Toa-Kwapong, Dubie. 2024. “​​​“Å falle mellom to stoler”: Africans in Norway .” Anthropology News website, January 24, 2024.

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