I am African American. I was born into an afro-centric family that celebrates Kwanzaa and recognizes Black History Month as a time to be grateful of the courageous African Americans who fought so that one day I could find myself saying things like, “My president is Black.” Recently, I was privileged enough to return to the motherland, Africa, through my university’s Study Abroad. I approached this opportunity with excitement. I was going home, to the birthplace of my origins. I felt that this place is where I would find myself. Unbeknownst to me, however, returning to Africa would mean questioning the identity I had grown to celebrate.
There are so many layers that need to be debunked in order to have a serious discussion on the topic including, but certainly not limited to the stereotypical ways in which African Americans are seen by Africans and vice-versa, the rift between the two, the similarities and differences between apartheid and segregation, the Eurocentric-standards of beauty that are hailed as being superior, and so much more, but this piece will serve as a personal reflection of my experiences as an African American in southern African countries.
FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK WHO CAN’T HEAR ME
THIS IS MY PERSONAL OPINION…LET ME LIVE
My Study Abroad was comprised of thirteen phenomenal students attending universities all over the US, from different walks of life, and took place over 119 days. The first 19 days were spent in South Africa, 93 in Namibia, 3 in Zambia and 4 in Botswana. During this time, I had 3 homestay experiences with my 1st in Gauteng, South Africa, my 2nd in Wanaheda, Namibia, and my 3rd and final homestay in Outapi, Namibia. During our time in each place, the student group and I had the amazing opportunities to take trips to museums and universities, visit homes of figures who played pivotal roles in the end of apartheid, heard from heads of informal settlements, and so many more incredible activities that I am overwhelmingly grateful for.
While abroad I was made aware of two things: that community and togetherness was a large part of the culture and that the African American identity is not always acknowledged. In regards to the
sense of community, it could be seen through handshakes (some that reminded me of a dap I
would get in the states), asking people how they were before asking anything of them, and through the allocation of funds to friends and family without a second thought about when you’d be paid back, what it’s for, or any other details.
(some call my lack of wanting to give money freely “stingey”, but I know that if I can’t give something knowing that there is the possibility of not getting it back, I shouldn’t give it in the first place – so I opt out of offering to do so because my financial situation is just not there at this point in my life #collegeloans)
Like I noted earlier, something else I quickly learned was that my identity as an African-American was up for question. If I had a dollar for the number of times I had conversations that lead to drama and arguments revolving around the topic of my “blackness” I could pay off the rest of my college tuition. When I speak about my blackness I am referring not only to how I identify as an African-American, but also my celebration of Kwanzaa, the fact that I didn’t know what tribe I came from and several other factors.
What must be understood is that in the case of African Americans, identity and culture can be difficult to define. During slavery, Africans were forced to forfeit their culture and to instead take on the identities of their white masters. Stripping an entire people of their heritage is one of the most diabolical ways of creating disconnect and discourse. It is therefore understandable that after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves, or African Americans, were left to rediscover and recreate their culture and heritage, which resulted in the merging of what was left of their known culture from Africa and their current lives in America. Today, for many cultures, ethnic groups and races that have experienced cognisant cohesiveness it may be difficult to understand the disconnect of a people that has been systematically culturally dismantled, and decimated.
The first and most memorable experience, however, where I was confronted about my “blackness” and made to explain why I identified as African-American was over the weekend by my host mother in Gauteng, South Africa. I remember her asking one night while I was telling her about my family and where I live in Philadelphia. I described how my mother and father raised my siblings and I to see ourselves not as just Americans, but as products of generations of hardships, displacement, unbroken spirit, and an unwavering will to live, prosper, and thrive. That because of the color of our skin we would have to work twice as hard just to get to the same place as our white counterparts. We were taught that we came from Queens and Kings, that black is beautiful, that we were dipped in chocolate and bronzed by elegance, enameled with grace and toasted in beauty and that all life originated from Africa.
But all that came to a screeching halt when my host mother asked me, “How can you call yourself African-American?”
Dumbfounded I responded, “Well, I’m more than just American. What history am I claiming if I only call myself American? My ancestors originated from Africa, and therefore I claim that part of my heritage.”
She responded with, “But I still don’t get it. You’re not African. You ARE American.”
At that time, what she said struck a chord. I had NEVER IN MY LIFE been questioned on my identity in that manner, to that degree. To be told by a South African woman, in her country, in her living room, that I was wrong about my identity was a wake-up call. In the moment it was a bit hurtful to hear someone tell me I was wrong about who I “thought” I was and being that she was an African woman, I believe I registered her as having more say in what is and is not African. I was putting too much of an expectation for “finding myself” into the experience, without realizing that I do know me, but I was relying on this woman to reassure me in who I was instead of believing in me all along.
Now looking back, I know that she meant no harm in what she said and was simply stating her opinion, however she did open my eyes to see that no matter where you go or what you do, people will question who you are down to your very core, whether it is warranted or not or intended as malice or simple curiosity. It is up to you and you alone to be so unshakably strong in who you are that no one can tell you different.