What My First Trip To Africa Showed Me About My History
I am Black and proud of it.
On the final night of what had been an invigorating and adventurous three week trip across Nigeria, I found myself in a heated argument with a man I had just met at a house party; an argument that captured a sentiment I was struggling to articulate as it crept into numerous conversations along my journey and began to transform my idea about what it meant to be an African American.
The exchange started out cordially as he curiously asked questions about who I was and what I was doing in Africa. While my skin, hair and dress drew no attention, my accent and ignorance to the spread of food made me stand out. He asked me if I was "akata." I asked him what that meant and he said "Black American."
I replied yes thinking nothing of it. However, my Nigerian host and friend of ten years, along with another Nigerian woman who I had just met, jumped in and told him not to call me that. They told him that using that word to describe a Black American was just as offensive as a white person calling us the "N" word. A short argument ensued as the man insisted it simply meant Black American while my friend and others argued that it was much more negative. Akata, which is a word from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, literally means "wild cat", but in many contexts has been used in a derogatory way to refer to Black Americans including the translation to "cotton picker" in the Wesley Snipes' film "Sugar Hill". In an attempt to defuse the argument, I told him that regardless of the literal meaning, how it has been used, or what it has come to mean today, maybe he simply shouldn't use it at all. While this temporarily attenuated the contention, guards were up.
The man then asked me where I was from. I told him Michigan in the US. He then said, "No, where are you actually from?" I had been asked this numerous times during my trip. Many people assumed that I or my family was Nigerian and that I simply grew up and lived in the states but was home for the holiday. While it did bring a bit of discomfort, explaining that my ancestors were slaves typically ended any inquiry about where I was "actually" from. However, after explaining that I did not know where in Africa my family originated due to slavery, he said: "It is ignorance if you don't know."
It became clear to me that he had a limited if not totally inaccurate understanding of the history of slavery in the U.S. and abroad. His words were hurtful of course. The thought of what my ancestors endured which resulted in the erasure of family roots being reduced to "ignorance" was infuriating. However, something else became quite salient to me that had been slowly forming under the surface with every interaction; every introduction that started with "she's not African, she's here visiting" every inquisition into my family lineage that stopped on a southern slave plantation, every declaration that I did not look or act Nigerian.
When I landed in Africa 400 years after the first slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, I assumed that somehow I was still connected to it. I had a romantic vision of a land frozen in time at the moment whatever relative in my lineage was snatched from that place and put on a boat; a lineage never to return until I stepped off of a plane in Lagos, Nigeria curious and hopeful. However, throughout the trip, I was constantly reminded that I was not, in any way, a "real" African. It didn’t matter what my ancestry DNA said. It didn’t matter that my hair coiled, that my lips were full, that my nose was wide, or that my skin was brown. I was not Nigerian. I was Black American, and Africa, the culture, the language, the name, the identity, was not mine.
In many ways, I knew this – that Africa was not mine in the way that it was for those not subjected to the ills of slavery. If they were the children of Africa, I was only their half-sibling. One parent American. One parent African. Raised by the former. But if this analogy holds true, I was the product of rape, and whatever identity I did have would forever be tainted by that legacy, and whatever identity I could have had was taken never to be had again. This trip opened my eyes to the realization that no matter what I did, no matter what experience I got to have, that identity of pure Africanism was never coming back. I realized that what was taken during slavery was more than bodies and freedom. What was taken was more than children snatched from mothers and wives snatched from husbands. What was taken went further than the innocence of ravaged and abused young girls or beaten and murdered young boys. What I realized from this trip was that some manufactured connection to Africa would never replace what was taken. My identity was involuntarily but inextricably linked to the institution of slavery and the United States. Because of this, I am more American than I will ever be African no matter what I do.
The identity and title of the descendants of African slaves in the U.S. has evolved as fluently as our status within American society. From the different variations of the "N" word, to Black, to African American, this terminology has reflected the condition of the Black community, the persistent demand for civil treatment, and the reality of a plundered identity. While my genetic markers may indicate African ancestry, my reality reflects something much different and after spending 3 weeks on the continent, I never want to be referred to as African American again.
The term African American, popularized in the 1980s by Jesse Jackson, is the most commonly used term today to describe people of African descent living in the US. In advocating for the use of the term African American over “Negro” or “Black”, Jackson said: "Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base." This is true. However, every other ethnic group is here by choice even if that choice was heavily influenced by conditions at home. With the exception of Native Americans, no other ethnic group has the history of identity plunder that the descendants of slaves have and because of this, no connection to a native land. This is what my trip to Africa made me realize.
I am not African. That was taken from me and no Kente cloth, dashiki, or even the blood in my veins can reverse it. I am not against thinking internationally about freedom and building bridges with the African Union, but our identities will always diverge starting in 1619. That is our reality but it does not need to be our tragedy. I am proud of the lineage from which I come. Someone in my bloodline survived grotesque human behavior and fought for the relatively free and equal society I enjoy today. That specific identity, of perseverance and the refusal to believe the lie of inferiority, is something I am happy to ascribe to. I am Black and proud of it.
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