Africa doesn’t hold the secrets of Salvation for Black Americans
I don’t usually read biographies. Mrs. Obama’s story, however, was a must-read: we’ve heard so much about the history of the President, why not learn about the best First Lady in history? As I dove in over Festive season, I felt like I was reading my mother’s story in a parallel dimension: living in a big city, around a strong, loving black family, learning to navigate the world around her as a force of nature.
Some stories she told, however, resonated more deeply than I expected. If you’ve read, you might remember the story she told about visiting the President’s home village in Kenya for the first time.
“I hadn’t been expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness. But Africa, of course, owed us nothing.”
- Michelle Obama, Becoming
Striking. I felt the same way.
During a discussion with one of my cherished friends, she told me her mother finally took her 23andMe test to find out where she came from. They originally found a DNA match between her and Cote D’Ivoire, and she was ecstatic by the results. A couple of weeks later, the company reported they needed to make a correction; in fact, they found more of a connection with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Interesting, that your history could be changed by the simplest of statistical percentages.
Generations of Black Americans have been enthralled with the concept of returning back to the land of their ancestors, in order to connect to their roots and to develop an understanding of where they’ve come from.
Remember when Erykah Badu discovered her African Ancestry?
Remember when half of Famous Instagram — Diggy Simmons, Jidenna, Boris Kodjoe, and many others- celebrated New Year’s Eve in Ghana?
Heard of the controversial “Right of Abode” program, which gives black people across the globe the ability to gain permanent residency in the country?
Now, I’m a severe advocate for African Diaspora connecting, collaborating, and revitalizing spaces of culture. There are clear economic, social, and personal advantages of Black Americans connecting with African countries. But there’s an underlying narrative that has to stop: that most of our problems will be solved by coming back to the continent.
This definitely wasn’t my experience.
It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.”
- Michelle Obama
When I touched down in Botswana for the first time, I definitely felt excited for what was to come, and it was clearly overwhelming to finally be among a place imbued with the DNA of Blackness. However, that kinship people instantly talk about? Conspicuously absent.
I don’t look like a Motswana. Batswana stare at my beard and light skin like they’re looking at an alien they can’t place. Nearly everyone in the country lets me know every time I get groceries or drive down the freeway.
I don’t speak the language. I drove with UB college students down from the top of the country — the Okavango Delta — all the way to the capital city in the South — and they spoke Setswana most of the trip. They didn’t mean to isolate me, but when you can’t take part, the isolation is bound to happen.
No matter the space, the event, or the activity, I still don’t quite…fit. Even after two years coming in and out of the country, I’m a bit too loud, a bit slower on the uptake, a bit behind the times of any cultural event in the country.
Because of this, the endless tensions between Black Americans and Continental Africans are constantly discussed. When I discuss this urge of Black Americans with my Botswana enclave, and how they feel compelled to define themselves by their relationship with Africa, some get confused.
My girlfriend, distilled the point this quickly: “But, what about the culture that Black Americans already have?”
Black Americans need to grapple with their feelings about how their culture comes from trauma.
All Black people do, of course. But many Black Americans connect with an intergenerational shame because Black American culture arose from an immensely complicated cultural genocide. Somehow, because it’s history has an endpoint, it’s not as valuable.
But, that’s why Black people are such innovators.
American cultural artifacts have become the engine for the modern world, and its presence in Africa is no different. Why can we build museums that herald the impact of black people on culture, even today? A part of the reason must be because we’ve been doing it for all of Black American history.
Black American culture has an indelible impact on the continent in ways that have yet to be quantified. This is why this story isn’t a sad one.
Across the pond, Black Americans are taught to go back to the continent. The inescapable truth, unfortunately, is that there might not be a home you expect to go back to. As a researcher, I make sure to do two things in the field to ground myself:
(1) learn to respect the culture of a place, and
(2) remember the bias I bring when entering that place.
It was my decision, and my privilege, to come live here in the first place. As a US Citizen, I have the privilege to be considered an esteemed expatriate, and I’d rather experience the real community and culture than be exposed to a false projection.
There lies a community, a way of life, and a culture in the roots of every African country; but that’s also true in America and the black people who reside in it. Yes, there are definitely cultural artifacts that we share from the past; like the food we eat, the music we play, how we dance, and the stories we tell. What’s important is understanding how you fit in those cultures, so you can understand what you bring to your slice of life.