Reconnecting roots: ‘Coming to Africa’ as an African American in the age of Obama
In July 2015, President Barack Obama embarked on a historic trip to Africa — becoming the first sitting American president to not only address the African Union, but also the first president to visit Kenya and Ethiopia. Although last year’s trip was Obama’s fourth tour of sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, his visit to Kenya specifically rendered a more commemorative, ancestral sentiment — as the country is the birthplace of Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. At this point, the unique story of President Obama’s familial lineage is all too familiar to not only the American public, but to the world. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a white American woman of Irish descent born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She later married Kenyan national, Obama Sr. at the age of 18, while she was pregnant. Dunham and Obama, Sr. met during a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii.
Throughout the course of his campaign trails and presidency, Obama has continuously acknowledged the profound impact his mother had on his life, and how through her successes, sorrows and struggles, she was the person who influenced him most. It was a sight to see, as Obama, in a jam-packed Nairobi gymnasium with thousands of Kenyans excitedly chanting his name, pridefully affirmed the other inescapable aspect of his ancestry — his African heritage.
“I’m the first Kenyan-American president to be president of the United States. That goes without saying,” Obama said to the jubilant crowd.
And although Obama is no prince — unlike Prince Akeem, Eddie Murphy’s comedic character in the 1988 film Coming to America — his visit to Kenya was surely a royal affair. The first African-American president of the United States would return to his father’s native land in 2015 to have his ‘coming to Africa’ experience. From my eyes, Obama was home
A year from Obama’s visit to Kenya, this past July, I would finally have my ‘coming to Africa’ experience. I traveled to Tanzania and Uganda. As a black American woman visiting the continent for the first time, I was scared. And no, I was not fearful of the stereotypical rhetoric, such as war, famine and poverty, which historically and contemporarily in academics, politics and media alike, has encapsulated the continent and thus attempted to render it and its people inferior. No, my apprehension stemmed from the fact that I was finally visiting a continent that I was intrinsically tied to, where my ancestral inheritance stems from; a stolen and unknown piece of me that I so desperately, through my education, writings, conversations, and even my socio-political stances, tried so hard to return to — to reclaim
And upon my arrival to Tanzania, I could not shake this holistic feeling as if I were home. Or was I?
There is an inescapable, elemental void for many African-Americans, who are in search of finding their “African identity” — a semblance of some sort of cultural relativism, political ideology and even spiritual connectivity to the continent. Like myself, not knowing the nuances of my African ancestral and hereditary ties, it takes more than just a simple payment on Ancestry.com to fill this longing to understand the proverbial, black existential meaning of what it truly means to be an African in the Afro-Diasporic paradigm. Like W.E.B. DuBois explored in the 1903 publication The Souls of Black Folk, there is an internal divisiveness which manifests in the African-American; a “double-consciousness” of “two warring ideas” in understanding what it means to both black and American in a society which the egregious onslaught of chattel slavery was the racist catalyst that undergirds the foundation of our citizenship. There is a daily angst – and even psychological turmoil – of comprehending that for the African-American, American citizenship and access to its amenities came at the expense of physical and cultural genocide of enslaved black bodies, while the fundamental bedrock of American nationalism is reserved for whiteness and the maintenance of white American cultural aestheticism.
In the context of searching for and reclaiming African identity, many African-Americans invest in uncovering their ancestral state prior to forced assimilation and by attempting to lift the “veil;" a concept in which DuBois references as not only the blurred perception of how whites see blackness, but how African-Americans in turn see themselves, outside of how white America has described and ascribed us to be. So in efforts to try to find ourselves and tear down the “veil,” many, in search of our African selves, attempt to literally and figuratively go home.
We take African-based language classes. Don African attire and clothing, such as dashikis and kaftans, and wear our hair in natural styles. Attend historically black colleges and universities, which extend their academic curriculum to that of Afro-political ideologies and philosophies, such as Black Studies, African-American History, African and Africana Studies. In this process, we unlearn single-story educational narratives which so ubiquitously uphold white supremacist idealism. We listen to music of the Diaspora, and we assert and insert African Diasporic solidarity messages and elements within music genres such as hip-hop and rap — just as Kendrick Lamar did during the 58th Grammy Awards in February, when he emblazoned the words of his hometown of Compton, California in the middle of map of the African continent. Many reject Christianity and render it as a tool of “the oppressor,” and thus convert to traditional, indigenous African religions such as Ifá. We look to our historical predecessors, like Marcus Garvey, who advised us, in Pan-African fashion, to “go back to Africa” and take stake in what is “ours.” And many African-Americans like Imahkus Okofu, a native New Yorker who left for Ghana, go back and make Africa our home.
But can we really go back? Can we really reclaim “African identity” or are African-Americans too far gone to rekindle socio-economic and political kinship to Africa?
Many African-Americans, like myself, have been criticized within and outside of our communities for our intense racial and genealogical romanticism with the African continent. Just as Dr. Jon Michael Spencer proposed in his 1992 article ‘Blacks’ Romanticism with Africa,' “there is little doubt that Africa–as many African-Americans know it–[indeed as the world knows it], is partly an ‘invention’ evolving from emotional and ideological sources.” In our quest to revivify a purposefully dimmed African perspective and persona, some forget that “shared complexity does not guarantee racial solidarity,” as journalist Tracie Reddick’s article in The Tampa Tribune reads. Our romantic inclination for the continent might be steeped in stereotypical notions of African cultural and political traditionalism, unrealistic fictive kinship ties and Western ethos.
I watched President Obama make a speech in his father’s birthplace — what I thought was home for him — but that maybe wasn't home for him either. He, too, as the first black president of the United States, has an estranged relationship with his African identity, as his father would later disappear from his life a few years after he was born. Questions left unsaid and customs untold, in spite of investment in the cultural, artistic, scientific and philosophical African presence, still might not be enough to access an African selfhood.
Although Spencer acknowledges “there is something romantic and perfectly legitimate about reconciling a severed relationship with the homeland of one’s recent ancestry,” here, at this stage, I can't call Africa, my home.
During my time in Uganda, I visited a friend’s village in Busia, not too far from the Kenyan border. Upon meeting me, his first encounter with a black-American, he paused and looked at me intently and said, “Wow, you look like me.” From that observation, I realized my ‘coming to Africa’ experience in the age of Obama is more than just finding my quintessential, African heritage. It's recognizing that although I can't call Africa home, I can hold stake in knowing I'm an extension of a continent that's rich in resources, cultures and history, but too, just like any other place, is riddled in its own internal and external issues. There is power in knowing that across continents and cultures, there are people who look like me. And as Obama’s presidency comes to an end, the symbolism of having a president and a first family that also look like me, has been all the more paramount.
All in all, in the face of racial injustice and racialized state violence, I can rest assured in my “two-ness” and that my position as a black American will never be in vain; for it's because of my African ancestors, who fought and died for freedom on all fronts, that I can identify with being American and African.
“I stand before you as a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of an African,” President Obama said during his speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“Africa and its people helped to shape America and allowed it to become the great nation that it is,” he continued.
“Africa and its people helped shape who I am and how I see the world.”
Jaimee A. Swift is a Washington, D.C. based journalist, who is passionate about social justice. Her works have been featured in various outlets including The Huffington Post, Salon.com, For Harriet, and Blavity. She is currently a PhD student at Howard University, studying the intersections of race, gender, and politics of the Afro-Brazilian Women’s Movement. You can follower her on Twitter @JaimeeSwift