I spent most of my life avoiding conversations about race. In grade school, we learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement but that was just a chapter in a textbook that I had to memorize for a test. I had to know dates. I had to remember certain figures and the roles they played in the events of history. I had to read the oversimplified chapters from McGraw-Hill and ace a test so I could move on to the next grade.
I sat in classrooms in sleepy suburban towns where I was more often than not the only black kid. I would feel uneasy as we read the chapters on slavery, feeling the eyes of my white classmates glancing at me to see if any emotion registered on my face as we learned about lynching and Jim Crow laws. I would sit quietly, hoping the unit would be over, that the eyes would stop boring into my skull, and that I could go back to existing somewhere between the margins.
My family came to the United States from Kenya when I was barely a toddler and we lived in predominantly white college towns. So, the only black people I knew were our Kenyan family friends we spent various holidays with. People who shared few similarities to the pop culture representation of the black community. The black people I knew had accents, spoke Kiswahili and were fiercely proud of their tribes. At home, it was Kenyan rules, Kenyan languages and Kenyan food.
I had always felt a sense of security knowing that I was Kenyan. I was different from my black peers, but at least, I had my cultural identity at home. However, that all changed when I was in eighth grade and a group of young black students at my sister’s high school published a list of students whom they felt weren’t black enough. The list included both of my sisters as well as a few of our family friends.
Suddenly, the outside world invaded my home and threw our collective identities out the window as we were faced with all the ways we had failed the black community in our town. I remember my parents trying to shield me from the conversation, but I wasn’t blind. They were angry, hurt, and frustrated. My father had that look in his eyes that he often got when I defied his authority, and it wasn’t pretty. I remember seeing my both my sisters cry in confusion and my parents being at a loss as to how they would explain this to them. I remember my dad on the phone with the parents of the other kids on the list, asking how they were going to handle this. It was handled. Sort of. But the pain I felt then and the confusion surrounding the whole situation has never left me.
It was one thing to be teased in passing by my black peers, but the act of publishing that list was so aggressively final. As if the judgment was now a fact to be read in textbooks by future generations. And so as I sit here in 2016 surrounded by news of young black men and women being killed merely for the color of their skin, I have to wonder where I fall in the conversation. As an individual who has been constantly told I am not “black enough," where does my voice come into play in recent race discussions?
I spent my life just wanting to know who Mwongeli was. Who I was within my Kenyan identity and the individual I was discovering every year of my young life. I knew I was different from the black peers I encountered growing up but there was an uneasiness in the pit of my stomach that began recently as I watched news about Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and LaQuan McDonald. It started to occur to me that it didn’t matter what my nationality was or how "black" I acted, my skin was still the same color as Trayvon and every single one of the countless black people who have been killed at the hands of racism.
No one asked Tamir Rice what type of black person he identified himself as that day. No one asked Emmett Till what kind of negro he was before they lynched him. And I’m absolutely certain George Zimmerman didn’t ask Trayvon any such questions before he murdered him.
We're all black.
It is in these hopeless moments of outright violence and injustice that I found my identity as a young black woman. I read one book here. I watched one movie there. I kept looking around me and seeing and hearing about all of the ways an individual is black. I heard different stories of people who grew up the same way I did. People who were told they weren’t black enough by their peers. Immigrants, kids from the suburbs, adopted kids. You see, what I never learned growing up was that there are so many ways to be black, there are so many ways to be a woman, my God, there are so many ways to be human. Perhaps I would have taken a step back to see that what was being said to me had nothing to do with me at all. Perhaps I would have known a little bit sooner that there are a million ways to be black. Perhaps I would have opened my mind and realized that my bullies were not representative of the whole.
Toni Morrison once said, “Definitions belong to the definers.” And all of these years later, her words ring truer than ever. I can never account for the actions of my peers growing up, I can only account for my own and I can only continue to define myself for myself within the beautiful black community I have the privilege of being a part of. I still have a long way to go in this journey to understanding race and all of the history behind it but I’ve made the choice to continue on no matter how hard it becomes. I want to learn from my peers and I want to see more representations of our community in the world and I want to have everyone as a part of the conversation because that is where the real work begins.
I don’t want children in future generations to be told they aren’t black enough. I want them to hear that they are black, and that is enough.
"Young-ish, Gifted & Unapologetically Black. I found my voice at a time when the world wanted to silence us. But here I am and I want to learn from you just as I hope you learn from me." Twitter: @mehllennial, Instagram: @mehllennial
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The Smithsonian Institution announced The National Museum of African American History and Culture would open its doors in September. Four years since President Obama presided over the groundbreaking ceremony, it's only fitting POTUS will direct the ribbon ceremony in the fall. Until then, here are several other options to explore American life from the African American perspective.
1. August Wilson Center/African American Culture
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is a multi-purpose facility hosting art exhibits, stage and musical performances, classes and lectures. Named after the famed playwright and Pittsburgh native, the center which houses a 500-seat theater is a main attraction of the city's Liberty Ave Cultural District.
2. The Studio Museum in Harlem
Location: Harlem, NY
The Studio Museum is unique in its efforts to support and foster the growth of artists. The first black or Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (1985), the institution focuses on art distinctively influenced by global African and black culture. It's currently housing several exhibits including Danielle Dean's video still True Red.
3. California African American Museum
Location: Los Angeles
The LA-based institution prides itself on curating for the public work inspired by the African American, with an emphasis on black history of the West. The Museum occupies 44,000 square feet which includes three exhibit galleries, a theater gallery, a multi-purpose facility and a research facility.
4. Stax Museum of American Soul
Location: Memphis, TN
Named after the storied record company, Stax totes itself as "the world's only museum dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of American soul music." The facility is an exquisite record of soul music's colorful journey, from it's deep Southern Baptist roots to the superfly styling of Issac Hayes. The museum houses the Stax Academy which educated middle and high school students through intense musical study.
5. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Location: Kansas, MO
The privately funded facility was founded to preserve the history of the Negro Leagues. Despite African Americans playing baseball since the early 1800's, Jim Crow laws forced them out of major league teams. With the Brooklyn Dodger's acquisition of Jackie Robinson, the Negroes League declined and folded during the 1960's. The museum is a time capsule of amazing athletes and men.
6. Schomburg Center of Black Culture
Location: New York City, NY
The research center is a part of the New York Public Library and specializes in studies of and about the African diaspora. It's a leading entity in research and preservation of African artifacts, recordings, literature and more. A current exhibit examines 300 years of female print makers and their unappreciated contributions.
7. Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum
Location: St. Petersburg, FL
Named after the father of Black History Month, the museum is an intricate part of the African American community in St. Petersburg. It was in Florida that many blacks established their own successful cities, institutions and livelihoods. Despite segregation and racism, the communities survived and display its rich history at this facility.
8. The African American Firefighter Museum
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Celebrating more than 100 years of black men serving when it was founded, the AAFM remains the nation's only free standing institution representing black firefighters. The museum is open to the public three days a week and is completely funded by donations.
9. The Harrison Museum of African American Culture
Location: Roanoke, VA
The Harrison Museum's mission is to cultivate education and awareness of African and African American culture for the Roanoke Valley area. Exhibits include IndiVisble - an expose on the lives of indigenous people; and, Tobacco People: Africa and the Americas, which details the integral part people of African descent play in the global tobacco market.
10. Muhammad Ali Center
Location: Louisville, KY
The multicultural center serves the Louisville community in honor of the sports great, Muhammad Ali. The center is guided by six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. Individuals of all ages are welcomed to participate in the enriching programs, which focus on gender equity and global citizenship.
11. LATIBAH Collard Green Museum
Location: Charlotte, NC
Regardless of it's namesake, the LATIBAH Museum is more than just about a soul food delicacy. But its choice of the collard green as a symbol represents African American's varied history from slavery, to reconstruction, Jim Crow and current day.
12. The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Philadelphia was the first major city to build an institution dedicated to the rich heritage of African Americans. Built in celebration of the nation's bicentennial, the AAMP strives to educate on the African American experience from pre-colonial times to present day.
13. IPS Crispus Attucks Museum
Location: Indianapolis, IN
Located inside Indianapolis' first segregated high school, the IPS Crispus Attucks Museum is named after the famed abolitionist. The museum recently documented the school's lengthy history with a digital yearbook spanning from 1928-1986.
14. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Location: Cincinnati, OH
Popularly known as the Freedom Center, it specializes in exhibits highlighting heroes of both the African American struggle and human rights as a whole. In addition to history of the American slave trade, it aides in bringing awareness on modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
15. African American Civil War Memorial & Museum
Location: Washington, DC
While the monument was built in 1998, both it and the museum serve as a tool to honor the untold stories of the United States Colored Troops who served in the American Civil War. In 2011, the facility relocated within D.C.'s "U" District as part of the Grimke building.
16. Tubman Museum
Location: Macon, GA
The largest museum of its kind in the Southeast, the Tubman Museum educates through various art exhibits, programs and initiatives. Its currently hosting famed documentary photographer Jim Alexander, showcasing over 40 years of life captured on film.
17. The Apex Museum
Location: Atlanta, GA
The Apex Museum, "Where every day is Black History Month," is the brainchild of famed Philly filmmaker Dan Moore Sr. and former Morehouse president, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays. The Apex houses two permanent exhibits: Africa: The Untold Story and Sweet Auburn: Street of Pride.
18. The Bessie Smith Culture Center
Location: Chattanooga, TN
The Chattanooga African American Museum focused in recognizing the many contributions blacks had made locally. Situated in Chattanooga's once famed 9th Street District, the museum and the Bessie Smith Performance Hall merged in 2009. It continues to serve the city of Chattanooga and is affectionately known as "The Bessie."
19. The National Voting Rights Museum
Location: Selma, AL
Since opening its doors in 1993, the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute honors the lives and work of those who played any role in the events leading to the writing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Located near the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, its exhibits highlight the Selma to Montgomery marches as well as the Civil Rights and Women's Suffrage movements.
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Over the past 20 years there has been a population explosion of Africans immigrating to North America. Children have followed and they have grown up in a radically different world than their parents. Naturally, these children soon ask the question, "who am I?" They walk into a legacy of being black without having the same historic experience as your average black/African-American.
As a Ghanaian-Brit, I think the African British culture is now emerging and is doing a good job in towing the line of being British and African, however, now that I am living in North America I am sensing a confusion that once besieged us Africans in Britain.
So from one child of African immigrants to others, I would like to present my 10 strategies for Africans in America to survive being an African, while also being black in America.
1) Africa is hated, and you will be mocked
The perception of Africa in the media has hit black America hard, as it once did with British Caribbean’s. Because of their historic link there is an embarrassment of being associated to the negative portrayal of Africa. You as a new African are the reminder to all the negative programming they’ve subconsciously eaten, and during school you will feel their wrath! Here you have to be like Jesus, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” But if you survive the storm, they will learn better and ask your forgiveness.
2) Don't become a victim to the negative perception of Africa
It is easy to want to disassociate yourself from the constant portrayal of impoverishment, aid, famine, beggars, war, child soldiers, evil dictators, etc., I completely understand when you say “I’m not from Africa, my parents are!” I used to say the same. But you must fortify your mind to block out and attack this perspective. You are an embodiment of African culture and your acceptance alone is a rebuke to the negative campaign throughout the media.
British-born Sierra Leonean Alim Kamara has embraced the Griot tradition of his culture. He is a storyteller, rapper and motivational speaker. He travels the globe sharing stories while also heads a charity named A-Scholar, which supplies educational material and scholarships for his people in Sierra Leone.
3) Being African does not make you less Black
It does, however, make you less black American, but your experience as an African is equally valuable to the multi-layered fabric of being black. Although you might not be the same as your family back home, you haven't stopped being an African because of where you were born. You are simply acquiring a new experience as an African on different shores. Embrace your duality; it will serve as a massive benefit in the future to new migrants, to your family that will join you in the future and to communicating to other Africans in different parts of the world.
4) Know your history did not begin with slavery
That does not make you superior than those whose ancestors did experience this tragic event. But it does say you have a different genetic experience that informed the journey of your ancestors. Those stories are no less valuable and provide an insight to children of the enslaved as to what their history was before slavery. It's your duty to get to know and share who you are, but never belittle or turn you nose up to the experience of black Americans. Their negative attitude to you is in large part due to their experience as Africans on these shores, which your ancestors were fortunate to avoid. Get to understand not undermine, for learning how to communicate who you are to who they are will challenge stereotypes and eliminate prejudices.
5) Artists have a special role to play
Artists are masters of communication and can stimulate constructive discussions. Your dual heritage enables access, experimentation debate and conversation. It creates new work and perspectives and encourages discussion. There is a beauty in sound and perspective that comes along with it. Mozambique born rapper Muhammad Yaya grew up in London and has artistically fused with British of Caribbean origin Sarina Leah to form a dynamic rap-singing duo, Native Sun.
6) Not teaching your children your culture is preparing them to be lost
Africans were ripped of their culture through enslavement. It is often lamented how “we lost our language religion culture and God.” Do not throw what you retained away. As your elders pass, it will dawn upon you that for centuries the ways of your people has been passed on to successive generations and you are the last surviving person to this link. It will equally be highly embarrassing when your children ask you who they are and you are not able to respond. They will endure unnecessary identity crises that can be completely avoided.
Your children will decide and invent new ways to straddle the cultures. Mi fri Ghana (I am from Ghana) was started by British Ghanaians as a way to remain connected to their homeland, enabling other Ghanaian children to be less confused about their culture and provide a tangible means to be a Ghanaian even if it is a different type of Ghanaian.
7) Infuse your historical traditions into your contemporary culture
Learn how to make you culture relevant. Use the advanced technologies that are in the West to make who you are tangible. This could lead to further joint exploration, joint development, cross-cultural projects, increase in trade and access. The Bollywood and Nollywood explosions are not based solely in those native countries but on countries their people are in. Check out FUSE ODG, a UK-born Ghanaian musician who introduced the Ghanaian Ga tradition of Azonto to the non-Ghanaian world.
8) You are unquestionably an African born in America
But so are African-Americans, just a different type. And just as they find their feet, you must do the same. You can be an American whose parents are African, an African who is born in America, an American who has an African background. Your contemporaries will decide to be elements of all of the above. It doesn't have to be either or; it is what you feel on top of who you are. Such diverse realities enable more authentic travel, and an exciting future. No one typifies this more than Idris Elba. Part Ghanaian, part Sierra Leonean, grew up in east London and has played characters from London, America, West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. Do you not think his rich heritage helped him in this? And with him now turning his focus to African films, who better to challenge the perception of Africa than the direct children of Africans?
9) Embrace the African descendants that claim Africa
Some African-Americans still feel an almighty connection to Africa and some don’t. Malcolm X once said “The American so-called Negro can never be blamed for his attitude to race, for he is merely reacting to 400 years of conditioning.” This is also true with Africa. After 400 years of being brainwashed against Africa, there is a differing view with who they are. Think about it, if you don’t teach your children the culture and the succeeding generations thereafter don’t do the same, it won’t be long that they will question who they are; so do not admonish those who are attempting to re-establish a meaningful connection. Their analysis might provide differing conclusions with some opting for African-American others as Moors, Blacks, Africans, Afrikans, Muslims, Christians, Hebrews, Pan-Africans, etc. We must allow for these conversations to happen. Stand aside, listen and learn. But recognize the reality of this discussion doesn't apply to you. You shouldn't claim their historical nuances as your own, but you mustn't refuse those that submit and seek access to African culture, for in essence it does belong to them and it is a small concession in them rebuilding their own identity and historical legacy.
10) When all is said and done we are one
Why on earth is it so easy for black people to look at different races and say “we are all the same underneath” but with people we share a visual connection and historical legacy with, it is an invitation for conflict and division. We all as Africans in America, African-Americans, African-British, African-Caribbeans, African-Latinos, etc. must begin to understand each other and propagate the slogan, “From many branches we are one!” You first generations are the best messengers for this mission.
TUGGS.T.A.R is a motivational poet and a Youth Engagement Practitioner that has been trained as a Facilitator under Jim Brown’s A-mer-I-Can program (UK chapter). To date he has two albums, The Africa E.P: From Here to There and Home Again and Season of Lost Love. He has just released his first book, The Secret Relationship Between Africans & Blacks, which is available on Amazon. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on his website here.
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I've had a lot of inquiries about the Kente fabrics we sell at Dziffa.com. Some ask why our prints are so expensive when other outlets are selling them for a quarter of the price we offer them for. I want to address this by first saying that most of the "African prints” you buy are not made in Africa. I'll use the picture below to address this topic.
The fabric I'm wearing on my body in this issue is called Kente. It's made from cotton by skilled artisans and hand-woven in the manner that spiders weave their web. It's very authentic. You can have them for decades and they will still look brand new. Six yards of Kente can take about one week to make, as every part of it is unique and requires a lot of focus, skill and manpower.
The headscarf I have on is an "Idea of Kente" stolen by the Chinese and co. and marketed to African-Americans as "African prints."
African prints have no connection to the continent whatsoever and they are destroying our local fabric industry.
To make matters worse, African market women are importing them and selling them to tourists as African.
Instead of being offended and educating non-Africans that the Chinese, Indians and a few local manufacturing companies are messing up our industry by stealing our ideas and marketing them as "African," we're just following the trend and not stopping to tell people that "hey, this one is Kente from Ghana and this other one is just an idea of the Kente that is depriving us of customers we need to grow our local industry."
If all the money sent to non-African manufacturers in the name of "African Prints" were channeled to the continent, our manufacturers would have the financial resources to innovate the way they produce, the sector would be more attractive to young people, it would provide jobs and contribute to the economy.
Let's all try and remember this the next time we are tempted to buy a colorful Chinese print marketed as African:
We're all contributors of this continent; we can either invest in its growth or contribute to its underdevelopment. No savior is coming and the bad guys don't exist. We are the saviors, we can choose to go with the trends or change the wave. The ball is in our court.
Dziffa Akua is the founder of Dziffa.com, an online shop for authentic African products. She's based in Ghana (West Africa). You learn more about her at dziffa.com or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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Recent controversy surrounding the use of African clothing and tradition by African Americans has sparked a debate questioning whether or not African Americans can appropriate African culture. Africa is an integral piece of African American history, which makes it impossible for African Americans to appropriate culture that was part of their historical formation. I believe this dispute comes from a lack of knowledge from numerous groups because of deliberate attempts from outside forces to disconnect the people of the diaspora. Knowing the power of numbers, it's vital to bridge the gap between the groups. Understanding our roots is key in shaping the values and identity that defines our community.
Born of West African immigrants, the opportunity to know and learn my people’s history has always been at my fingertips. Although I was not always welcoming to the idea, I am extremely grateful to have that option. This option isn't available for most African Americans. After being stripped from their land and of their cultural identity by their oppressors, it's unfair for Africans to repeat the same behavior. Just because it isn’t easily accessible, does not negate the fact that African history is indeed part of African-American history. Africans should be more open to African Americans exploring their culture and embodying African traditions, as passing on these values is necessary in keeping them alive.
Growing up in America, I always knew I was different. From the language my parents spoke at home to the food we ate and even the clothes we wore, I saw many differences between myself and my local community. Initially, my cultural differences weren’t an issue for me, as they were all I had ever known. That changed as I got older and more social. As a teenager, the constant need for approval from my peers caused me to hide my culture. In high school, claiming my African heritage wasn’t an easy feat. I was often teased about the food I would bring to school and the accent with which my parents spoke. Despite my negative experiences, my parents always reminded me that no matter what, I was African, a fact I should always be proud of. After college, I found myself both embracing and broadcasting my ethnic identity. The strong cultural affirmation of my parents gave me the foundation I needed to learn to love my heritage. Now I relish in the fact that I can go into my mom’s closet, have access to vintage African attire and live in the uniqueness of my identity. I’ve learned to engage in and be appreciative of my culture and know that it has definitively shaped the person I have become
In contrast to my story, many African Americans don't have the luxury of exploring their heritage. The dehumanization of slavery stripped African Americans of their right to legacy and the effects of this are still felt today. Knowing this reality, why would anyone try to take away African culture from them? As an African woman who has the privilege of direct access to my ethnic heritage, I believe that it's ridiculous for an African to say that our brothers and sisters are appropriating a culture that they were stripped of. Regardless of whether one's able to directly trace where they come from, the history of Africa is beautifully woven by the diaspora. That complex history did not just end in Africa, it traveled the world. Once we can collectively focus on our similarities instead of our differences, we will truly embody the intricate blanket that is Mama Africa.
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Earlier this month, I attended a poetry reading featuring five African women that was so good I almost passed out several times.
Well, it was probably more the fact that it was hot and I hadn’t eaten anything before rushing over to the Poetry Foundation in downtown Chicago, but regardless, the talent there did knock me off my feet.
The event was the third stop of the six-city series “A Celebration of International Poetry,” which, as the name implies, focuses on international poets from any era. The inclusive series was created and brought to the Poetry Foundation of Chicago by The Poetry Society of America, the oldest poetry organization in the nation. Their mission of building a more diverse audience, bringing a deeper appreciation of poetry to American life, and supporting the poets involved was certainly fulfilled at the event. The writers were all emerging African poets whose work appears in the recently published installment of the chapbook series New Generation African Poets. They were warmly introduced by the co-editors of the series, Chris Abani and Kwame Dawes, as well as African Poetry Book Fund Editorial Board Member Matthew Shenoda.
Because my experience was so good — from the quaint, garden-like path leading to the Poetry Foundation entrance to the captivating voice of each reader — I wanted to share a little about each poet and a piece or two that really moved me.
At the very beginning of the "About" section of her blog, Viola says that she writes for Cameroon, for Africa and for her hometown of Bamenda. This pride was very apparent in the way she read her poems. “Leaving Bamenda” was a particular favorite because it made me wish I could truly experience her home the way she did. I felt dreamy and closed my eyes during that one to really take in the descriptions. It helped me know a beauty that I hadn’t actually had the privilege of ever seeing in person. Luckily a video was taken of her portion of the reading, so you can hear and see for yourself what she read in its entirety.
Poems read from her chapbook Bird From Africa: What to Wear/Leaving Bamenda/Muddy Shoes/Skin Color/Journey to a Farm on Lake Awing/My Father's Lungs
Beginning her reading with the poem “Introduction” by fellow Zimbabwean Freedom Nyamubaya (one of Zimbabwe's great poet-freedom-fighter-feminists, who recently passed away), Tsitsi seemed very in touch with honoring others in her poetry. She went on to read an unpublished poem called “To Bless the Memory of Tamir Rice,” that had myself and the rest of the audience nodding in agreement and acknowledgment of the injustice and importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. She also read a poem called “Pause” dedicated to all the Madibas and wishing them blessed at the end.
You can read “Pause” and other poems in her collection Carnaval.
While I was able to get in touch with a few of the other poets to get some info about the poems they read, Amy was not one of them. I really regret this because she read a piece about female genital mutilation that I missed the end of (I was probably crouching down and trying not to draw attention to the fact that I felt faint again) and couldn’t find anywhere online. The last line was in another language and the audience made a collective noise signaling its poignancy. If anyone knows her and reads this, pass it along and maybe she’ll give the titles of the works she read. In the mean time, she has a new poem that you can read on Feminist Wire.
Now is probably a good time to mention how sensitive I am; I almost cried at least four times at this event. One of those times was upon hearing these lines in the poem "Silhouette":
“My voice is small as it asks,
What will it matter to them if I make a book?
I am one poet. Isn’t there space for me?”
It was a sentiment I’ve felt many times. Ladan also took me church reading the poem "How to Make a Shadow" (I have it open in another tab and I’m getting chills looking at it again). It was definitely my favorite poem of the night.
Read both of these and more in her chapbook Ordinary Heaven.
I’m out of the loop on a lot of things (I only just started watching Empire this week…) so I’m not sure how popular Warsan is. I see a lot of quotes from her poetry on Tumblr and she tours internationally, so I’m sure she’s a big deal. All the poets were warm and friendly, but Warsan especially felt like she was reading amongst close friends. I once saw a Tumblr post about how Nicki Minaj seems like the type of person who will make eye contact with you and listen to you while you’re in the middle of a story, even if everyone else starts talking over you. That seems to be a fitting description of the vibe Warsan gave me.
Her poems had a raw quality that, again, almost made me cry. Despite being the first poem she read, one called "Backwards" stuck with me long after the event was over.
Leaving the reading, I felt a little drained, but mostly I felt inspired and excited to write and look for more of the work from these poets. I hope you check these ladies out and feel the same way, too.
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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.
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.
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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Sources report that today in Ventimiglia, Italian police are rounding up mostly African migrants along the Italy-France border while European officials were meeting to discuss the immigration crisis. Police officers can be seen in photos dressed in riot gear and using brute force to haul the migrants into buses.
What crisis you ask? Over the last year thousands of migrants have been arriving into Europe in overcrowded boats, and Italy has been working with the European Union to try to rescue migrants from rocky seasides or those stranded at sea. Some migrants have shared that they have nowhere to go and nowhere to call home but find themselves instead at the mercy of the state.
As migrants fight for new homes and recognition, European countries are fighting among themselves over who should assume the responsibility of the growing migrant population. France has refused any accountability over them and insists that they are the obligation of Italy, while Italy argues that the European Union should be doing more.
This human rights issue comes alongside the crisis in the Dominican Republic that has threatened to deport persons of Haitian descent potentially leaving hundreds, maybe thousands of persons stateless.
These battles for recognition and defense of a state have left many questioning what started this wave. People are even referring to it as an attempt to provide an "ethnic cleansing" of various states and countries. ...
My last name is Mushimiyimana and I am Rwandan-American.
Growing up in the United States I must admit that when I encountered those with the last names of Smith, Jones, Andrews, or any other common last name I never bared shame for having such a drastically, different last name. Immediately, when people see my last name they know that I am African because of its long, tongue-twister like qualities, and because of my dark skin. However, even when I would tell people that I am Rwandan they would forget that there are countries within Africa and would simply refer to me as African. Don’t get me wrong I love being African, but what bothered me was the ignorance behind this label.
Africa is not a country it is a continent!
Eventually, as a little girl I gave up and told silly stories to my friends just to see how ignorant they were. One of the classic stories I told people was that I had a pet lion back in Africa. It made sense to them. This is a little girl who could obviously tame a dangerous animal because they are everywhere in Africa. Let’s not forget that Africa, you know that one little country full of huts, is where her family lives. Duhh. It was amusing for a 10 year old girl to say the least. However, now that I’m older it’s not a funny game anymore.
Undermining the complexities and diversity of a beautiful, large continent is not amusing. When people think of Africa in such small-minded ways it reflects their views on the way they see Africans who are complex, diverse humans just like any other human.
I bring this up because I thought that the fact that Africa is a continent was common knowledge by now, but apparently not. Last week in my reading prose class at Depaul University we were assigned to read The Case Against Babies by Joy Williams. Now what caught me by surprise was when Williams writes,
“Ninety-seven percent of the surge is going to take place in developing countries, with Africa alone accounting for 35 percent of it(the poorer the country, the higher the birth rate, that’s just the way it is)”.
Whether or not Williams is implying that Africa is a country, her wording makes it sound like it is a country. The interesting thing is that she later mentions other countries that are ACTUALLY countries like China and France, rather than labeling Asia or Europe as countries. In fact, she’s even capable of explicitly using the title “East Indian” when she makes further remarks (insert sarcasm). So, why couldn’t she say the continent Africa or give us examples of some of the many African countries rather than implying that Africa is a country?
Now I understand that this piece by Williams is old but what also surprised me was that I was the only person disturbed by her generalization of African countries. As a matter of fact, I was the only person in my class to catch that grave mistake. Therefore, if my class in 2015 with a size around 20-30 wasn’t able to notice that, then it shows that Africa is still not appreciated, considered, or noticed as a continent.
So here's my PSA:
I’m here to tell you all that yes indeed, if you haven’t already gotten it, Africa is a continent, and an underrated continent might I add. It is a continent full of countries that are vastly different from each other in terms of culture and beauty. Enlighten yourselves my friends.
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