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Posted under: Opinion

Thoughts on Claiming the "African" of My African-American identity while in Cameroon

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A Plate of Ndole, a Douala dish, with Fried Plantains (By: Victoria Massie)[/caption] Dani* and I had only met half an hour ago in Tsinga, at least in person. We had been introduced through a mutual friend on Facebook a few weeks earlier while I was still in the U.S. She had been living in Yaoundé for a while and our friend thought it would be a good idea to put us in touch. After about two weeks of settling in, acclimating and finally conceding to my desperate need to eat ndole, it was time to replace the virtual with a face to face interaction. Preferably, at a restaurant over a plate of my favorite Cameroonian dish. But before either of us had had the chance to make a dent in our chairs or submit our orders under the auspices of air conditioning, she demanded I explain myself. “Do they actually think you’re Cameroonian?” she asked. I am African American, a fact we both knew, one that defined us both and that I never denied. I, like her, am not the daughter of immigrants, but the offspring of Africans displaced and enslaved to build an entire continent’s empire. I bear the marks of a citizenship that finds every opportunity to deny I exist. This is further exacerbated by the fact that my country obliterated my history so that I’ll never definitively know I existed anywhere else. This is how I learned I was a “problem,” the kind DuBois talked about. [caption id="attachment_11088" align="aligncenter" width="410"]
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Lobé, Cameroon (By: Victoria Massie)[/caption] I came to Cameroon not through proximity of blood but through the transformation of a diasporic distance that defined me generations before I held the American passport that got me in. Dani was reminding me to remember that. To never forget, as if my memory of these circumstances were an option. It had never been before. Sitting there, dumbfounded, with a stomach too close to eating its own lining to respond, I didn’t understand why she expected that day to be any different. She clarified. While pouring Tangui mineral water into the wine glass, Dani recounted all the ways she found herself unable to escape her foreign, regardless of how hard she tried: her locs; her hesitant handedness with Maggi; a revolutionary tongue, wanting to connect, but not through French; the way she walked around the quartier. All of them giveaways, confounding her in their irreconcilability, despite her skin. “Do you get that?” she asked, the question almost rhetorical. “You’re lighter than me!” Despite the fresh box braids, I was the quintessential March residue of a D.C. winter because my melanin did as much hibernating as the sun. But I was also the structure sitting between a woman and her right to claim her home, burning in my chair as someone else’s sacrificial offering. For what? For resolution? The goal has never been to not be a paradox, but to dismantle the conditions that have made us into contradictions.
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That day, Dani sat across from me, disappointed, trying to make sense of how her blackness, proved inadequate to grant her the status of being Cameroonian. In her essay, “Learning from the '60s,” Audre Lorde wrote, “You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.” She and I, as African Americans, share with Cameroonians the experience of a global system of anti-Black racism wielded against people of African descent. But that experience shifts and mutates from one location to another. The search for home does not entitle us to collapse those differences. Whenever we deny this, a new battle is waged. A false sense of security is fostered for the sake of finding home in our skin. Under the guise of racial solidarity and historical consolation, the desire to come off as Cameroonian masked a hope to forge kinship through the mechanisms of appropriation through erasure. The historical, social and political economic legacies that have materialized into present-day Cameroon paled in comparison to the trauma of our ancestors’ enslavement. As if being African American gave us a right to ignore this, simply for the color of our skin. As if we hadn’t seen the effects of this stance before. Two thousand miles away from where we were sitting, in Liberia, stands a national capital city named after a US President, the only one other than D.C., where we returned and colonized our own kin.
Here we were, Dani and I in Cameroon witnessing history repeat itself for a veritable Africanness with more grounding in our imaginations than in the roads we were becoming accustomed to walking. Despite how relentlessly this new soil stained us, we found ourselves narrating the terms of our new relationship by referencing an old familiar script. Meanwhile, the same logic that made us both Black in the US was being deployed to frame how either one of us was more (or less) African than the other in a different country. In the U.S., we were told we were Black because we had at least one African ancestor, a technique used to erase the mixed ancestry of Black people to propagate the sanctity and superiority myths of whiteness that legitimized White supremacy. Here, on the other side of the Atlantic, the ghost of whiteness joined us at the table, now through a revitalized colorism. Skin color has been one of the primary means of denying us our humanity, only to have us clawing at each other’s throats by granting those with lighter skin privileges at the expense of those of us with darker complexions. Instead of words, Dani and I found ourselves exchanging identities. An American-defined Africanness for an African-American-defined Cameroonian one. But the price for this "new" authenticity was the same: erasure. This is how we met each other: seated, not quite ready to order, but no less prepared to eat ndole... and each other. *Dani is a pseudonym.
This essay is a part of Blavity’s #AyoFam Series, where we feature the essays of Black Folks of the diaspora where we check in to make sure we learn how to better take care of ourselves and each other.  

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