American African: Can an African American Identify as African?
I drank the African Kool-Aid early.
I must have been around 10 years old when I saw Roots for the first time, but the effect on me… Kunta left me defenseless against anything that Africa was selling. In him I saw a warrior, a King. And when he held his newborn daughter, Kizzy, up to the sky and said, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” I saw a father figure that I never had.
Years later, when I read the book in junior high, I’d stay up till the wee hours of the morning devouring those pages, dreaming about the Motherland, sometimes weeping like a baby, sometimes plotting ways to avenge Kunta, to make wrong right. I stopped eating pork; it was the least I could do. This from a girl who grew up in a family dominated by pig’s feet, hog maws, chitlins’ and skins with hot sauce.
It would take an all-black college in Ohio before Africans would become real. My God, the first time I saw one in the flesh was surreal! His name was Badu, he was from Senegal, and you couldn’t tell me that he wasn’t a Prince. If you saw him dressed in his royal African garb, skin the color of night, eyes as black as coal, walking as if the sky would collapse if it weren’t for him, you would know. He taught me my first real things about Africa. No, he wasn’t a Prince (come on, you sure?), and his father didn’t have four wives. I also became friends with his two buddies. My girls and I would hang out with them just because they were so damn respectful! It was a welcome contrast to the guys we were used to seeing shooting dice outside of our dorm room, drinking 40s, in an area called “The Breezeway.” And calling me “African lover.”
I guess I was supposed to be pissed but it only strengthened my determination to be friends with whoever I wanted. It also made me more aware of what I had noticed to be a divide between African Americans and Africans. Well, that would never do. If they knew what I knew, that Africans were cool as hell, they might actually become friends and even learn something. And who didn’t want to know about Africa? So I organized a ‘buddy day’ where an African student would be paired with an African American student for a few hours to hang out and get to know each other. It was going to be wonderful! Or so I thought. Buddy day came and brought with it the reality that it wasn’t that deep for either side. It consisted of me and one girl from Cameroon who spent most of her time trying to cheer me up. “You tried,” she said a few times, and then, “I’d better go, I have homework.”
Years would pass before I would meet an African King. This dude was handsome in an edgy sorta way, a complete free spirit, and an artist to the bone. Plus he knew a few things. On the first night we met, he told me the story of Sundjata Keita, the founder of the Mandingo empire, and how the Moors almost took over Europe. That was it. We married a year later. And a few years after that, I was on my first trip to Africa!!!
Cote D’Ivoire Fall of 2010
Champagne poppin’, Jay-Z blastin’ till 10 a.m. in the morning. I drank so much bubbly I was afraid I would get alcohol poisoning. Ivorians can party! And I jumped right in. It helped that there was enough family around to take care of our one-year-old daughter, day or night.
In fact, help was everywhere. I didn’t have to cook, clean or bathe my own child if I didn’t want to. The first time I handed my dirty clothes over to someone else to wash (by hand) I objected because, like, how could I expect someone else to do that? But I was assured that it was the girl’s job. The girl being someone who came from the village to work in the city in exchange for a place to stay and a minimum wage. I would come to see many of these workers in different homes, sometimes with families so poor they couldn’t have been making much money. On one hand I felt guilty for participating in a system that didn’t seem fair, but at the same time I was thankful for the break. I was used to busting my ass in America, but in Abidjan a sistah didn’t have to bust a coconut.
Another surprising thing about Cote D’Ivoire was eating some of the best Italian food of my entire life. The restaurant, a place my husband had been going to for years, was nothing fancy, but damn, that seafood pasta rivaled anything I’d eaten in Venice. I would have enjoyed it more had it not been for a phone call my hubby received from a friend with connections to the government, right in the middle of our entreé. The Presidential election was coming up in a week and things were already starting to unravel. Now had my head not been in the Ivorian cloud, I would have sensed that something was brewing when I learned the sitting President’s slogan was “On gagne ou On gagne!” – translated “We win or we win!” The government was giving all foreigners two days to leave the country. My husband got off the phone and relayed the information to me, trying to sound casual, but saying in the same breath that if he couldn’t get his passport in time (that’s one of the reasons we had come to the Ivory Coast), my daughter and I would have to leave without him.
My mind started racing. I started thinking about what he had told me of the war eight years earlier when his father was tortured, leaving him with a serious heart condition, neighbors selling each other out, death squads kidnapping people at night, bodies left in the street to rot in the sun. I thought about the visa guy at the Ivorian Embassy in DC, who looked at me like I was crazy when I told him that I was about to go to the Ivory Coast. “You know, the elections are coming and it’s about to get hot, right?” I smiled and acted like I knew, but the truth was I hadn’t a clue as to what that could mean.
I also thought about Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone and almost chucked up my food. I was scared out of my mind and crushed by the realization that I wasn’t cut out for this. This was not the Africa that I had been dreaming about and nurturing since I was a kid. The one that I had been defending with all of my might every time the media tried to poison my thoughts with countless horror stories.
I felt trapped. Between my idea of Africa and the place that was staring me in the face, ready to eat me alive…
And just like that I became one of those Westerners who couldn’t wait to get the f*ck out! We stepped up our passport game, carefully crisscrossing Abidjan, going from one government building to the next, paying off everyone and their momma. I learned that in Cote D’Ivoire, too, when you want something done quickly, or at all, money is the universal language.
It came down to the wire, but we were able to get it and get out. However, it was bittersweet, because what would happen to the countless friends and family that were left behind to weather this current storm? People with whom I had popped bottles, broken bread, had deep conversations or, in the case of my sister-in-law, Sogana, shared many walks with warm smiles because her English was worse than my broken French. What were we leaving them to endure?
And it happened.
The elections caused an all-out war when the sitting President wouldn’t concede to the winner. Mercenaries were recruited from Liberia, Angola and Russia. Countless people were left dead; a million fled their homes; women were beaten, stripped, assaulted, raped and fired upon with a tank during a peaceful protest; mass graves were discovered; and my husband’s father died. His heart, still weak from the first war, gave out. I was grateful to have met him and happy that he was able to meet his granddaughter.
Back in America, in the comfort of my routine, I couldn’t stop thinking about Cote D’Ivoire. How could something so beautiful turn so sinister? It was hard to believe that the place I had experienced was capable of all that.
Was it the nature of war? Were my expectations too high? Was I naive?
That’s when I thought about a conversation I had a few years earlier with my friend Amy, a first generation American whose parents are from Haiti. Amy went to Haiti at age 20 and discovered that she never really knew herself until then. Seeing her people in their everyday environment made her understand why she does things the way she does here in America.
It was about a BOND.
A bond that could never be broken.
A bond that’s beyond space and time…
I could never disconnect from Africa.
Even if I wanted to.
Photo Courtesy of Assata Shakur/Clipart