by Jenna Gray ’19
[Content note: use of racial slur]
“You identify as African American, right?”
He was trying to prove a point: although from different continents, he and I, an African and an American descendant of involuntary African exports, were, at least partially, the same.
I paused. Should I let him have this one?
“…no, actually. For political reasons, I identify as black.”
I never liked the term African American, in large part because of the way people say it. Throughout my youth, people always said it in that other-izing tone to let me know that I wasn’t like the rest of them. I’ve always heard white people say “African American” when they’re trying to be politically correct. People don’t want to call me black because it’s not polite—because black is dirty and uneducated and undesirable and ghetto. Black gets spit or hacked out the mouth. African American, however, flitters about the tongue and whispers, “I recognize your identity, and I’m being respectful while keeping my feelings about it to myself.”
I learned I was African American when my grade school teacher announced it was Black History Month. My classmates turned their heads to stare at me as if to say, “This isn’t for us. We don’t really care. This is for you. That’s you.”
Some people can list off their ancestral origins like baking ingredients. Meanwhile, Ancestry.com can’t tell me shit. All my classmates could talk about their Irish freckles and Italian olive skin. I had no idea where my wide nose or big lips came from. My grandmother knows everything but she doesn’t know where we came from. The homeland, Mother Africa, is a distant and far removed ancestor. I know about her from stories and fantasies, but I’ve never seen or talked to her myself.
I know my ancestors were the ones whom they were talking about in history books, but I don’t know whether they were house slaves or field negroes. I can only be sure that the crack of their master’s whip was hard enough to uproot my family tree.
Throughout my youth, I yearned for a culture so badly—a home so badly—so I would know why I felt like I didn’t belong. I wanted a scapegoat for my difference, a place, a home I could dream of returning to, where everyone looked like me. Where people didn’t ask to touch my hair and where my history isn’t separate from what we’re taught in schools and what we celebrate. Where I wouldn’t have to serve as a disrespected ambassador of Africa America.
Back then, kids were making fun of me and adults were judging me because I appeared to be implanted from a foreign land. But I knew that these signs of difference were marks of royalty. My Martian kinks and curls are remnants of this place. The sun shines brighter and deeper in Africa America; my melanin is my god smiling upon me. The sun in Africa America loves its people so much that it leaves a permanent mark, hugging their bodies and saying “I love you and you are mine forever.”
In reality, you’ll find Africa America in prisons and ghettos and inner cities. You’ll hear unanswered calls for justice in Ferguson and Baltimore. You’ll feel the want of our people in Flint praying for clean water for baptisms and being born again, for drinking and for just trying to survive. You’ll also find it under surveillance and in search of the American dream that wasn’t meant for us. Black people speak of black kings and queens while in reality we remain servants of a racial hierarchy. We’ve moved from the plantations to failing public schools and the prison-pipeline.
However, you’ll also find hope in Africa America, even though the country we are told to be proud of doesn’t give hope to us. Africa America has a generative culture of its own. Africa America is wobbling and in formation. Africa America is in hair salons and barber shops, in mosques and temples and churches. Raising fists and wearing locks and braids. Barbecuing, throwing shade, and spitting bars.
I found Africa America while on a bus in North Africa this summer. I was listening to Kendrick Lamar, wondering exactly why “Momma” was my favorite song. I thought about how I often feel a sense of ownership of and pride in rap music and feel the rhythms of R&B in my soul. I realized that this was the music of my people, a continuation of the tradition of passing down story, soul, and heartache through song.
For a long time, I thought having a culture to celebrate and take pride in required being able to point to your ancestry on a map. I thought it required having an adjective ending in -an or -ese imported from another country and an other-than-American flag to hang on your front porch.
In that moment, however, I realized that although my ancestors may not have chosen to come here, they created a spirit and identity of their own, one of resilience and joy and excellence that lives within me.
I met Africans of a different route to America, whose customs made me realize what it meant to be “slave black.”
College was the first time in my life I met people who claimed heritage of countries of the African Diaspora, countries I knew more than just members of a monolith but did not really understand. They bonded over immigrant parents and debated over whose jollof rice is best. They joined the African Student Association, but there was no African American Student Association for negroes like me. I didn’t want organizational separation, but meeting Africans of a different route to America made me realize what it meant to be “slave black.” However, we all came together under the Black Student Association: Although our histories and experiences may be different, bullets don’t care where your black comes from. In institutional eyes, all black people are considered unworthy of protection and full personhood, no matter their history. A nigger is a nigger just the same.
To find and claim Africa America is to learn and to have your identity contested and invalidated constantly. I find Africa America in always having to prove myself to be more than just an uppity negro, an affirmative action case, a token black kid. Living in African America is a gratuitous education in the many shades of hatred and intolerance. To live here entails being stereotyped and questioned and profiled, and consequently learning how to walk and speak so that you are not perceived as a threat or a nuisance.
Inhabitants of Africa America live amid unknowns. We wonder how we find and follow our roots. We wait for our leaders and fellow Americans to tell us that our lives matter and to act accordingly. We wonder when three centuries of cries for freedom and for the acknowledgement of personhood will be heard and answered. We survive by being everything mainstream America and political leaders don’t want us to be—enduring, demanding, and proud. We have cultivated our culture, claimed our home: Africa America, land of those who fight to be free. Home of the black and brave.