By Leah Johnson
When I left the States I was angry. Openly angry. I was angry about the past, present, and future that America represents. I was angry about the wicked façade and double standard that America labors to maintain. The first time that I really came to understand the efficacy of this notion was after the first few months in West Africa. It became astonishing clear that just as in all of her previous days, America has continued to perpetuate a war of words and images which are used to assault the common sense of all suspecting and non-suspecting individuals. The world outside the States is many times given the impression that America’s race relations have dramatically improved with the evidence being that there are many “minorities” in public, prominent positions. Now that America has supposedly “grown up”, she seems to feel that she is morally qualified to lead the rest of the world into a new era.
Yet being born and raised in America had shown me that much has not changed. Even I, in the 1990s, thirty years after the Civil Rights era, had experienced racism and housing discrimination. I had been called Nigger… Spook. I had been followed around grocery and convenience stores by plain-clothes security personnel who seemed to be psychic and therefore had already had a premonition that without their presence I would surely steal some of their merchandise.
Anger had indeed been fed and nurtured in a deaf, dumb and blind society; which cherished illusions of grandeur and generosity. I felt that a journey to the land of my ancestry would automatically heal all wounds. To this end, I had a certain number of preconceived, idealistic notions about the Africa waiting to embrace me. For not only was I carrying myself, I was also struggling under the weight of my own and my ancestor’s baggage. Baggage, which, I later learned, that Africa was not yet prepared to comprehend or dissolve. But what Africa was able to do was infiltrate the years of miseducation, instill a sense of mental calm, which allowed my mind and soul to be at rest.
I learned that one must remove themselves from their perpetual surroundings before he/she can really formulate it’s true value, as well as put into perspective it’s disadvantages. What Africans born in the West can never truly grasp until they remove themselves from it, is the constant pressure that comes from being were you don’t belong. When one lives next to a people who, for the most part are in control, and will never fully see you as their equal, who still cannot distinguish between yourself and the next African, there will also be an unease. Added to this fact, I would venture to say that each decade that passes separates most of the Africans in the West from their original ancestry.
Shortly after having been brought to the Americas, we Africans struggled to remember our name. As time lapsed, we slowly began to loose what little we remembered and replaced all maternal notions with those of our captors. We accepted the names given to us from our Masters and lost the ability to see through our own spectacles. We accepted and became Negroes. Since the terminologies came from a European perspective, we later became known as Coloured folks; which meant that we Africans were the colored version of the human species, which was normally white. During the Civil Rights era we Africans defined ourselves as Black peoples and then proceeded to adopt the term...African-American.
Well, I personally do not want the last part, the “American” portion, because I do not believe that we Africans will ever be considered fully “American”. Furthermore, to call myself American also infers that I have claimed this as my national identity. I do not consider myself anymore of an American than those people in my childhood town did; the ones who, in the middle of the night, burned a cross (the symbol of the KKK) in the front yard of our home. Time and again, in small and large ways, we Africans have not been made to feel truly at home, nor, if we were brave enough to admit it, have we been made to feel 100% American.
And so it was an out-of-body experience to have my preconceived notions of Africa dismantled one by one. I fantasized that I, and any other African born in America, would be embraced as the long lost sibling finally returning home. I did not expect to be designated as “The American”; time and time again. I did not expect to debate my African identity with my fellow Africans. Many times I was asked about my origins since I spoke with an accent. I would say, “I am African. I am an African who was born in America.” “Ahhhh, so you are American then?” they would say with an impressed smile on their faces. “No”, I would reply, “I was born there but I do not consider myself American, I am first and foremost African.” An expression of utter confusion would come over his or her face and then would ensue the friendly debate over the greatness of America and why wouldn’t I want to be American.
I, also, never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be called mulatto; especially when I had always carried a self-image of being of a darker hue since I was the darkest in my family and neither of my parents are white.
I was dumbfounded a few days after my arrival, when I was told by a middle-class woman who owned a car and lovely home, “I don’t know why you would want to come here.”
But what my journey to Africa did offer was a new pair of spectacles through which to view my internal and external self, as well as a packet of seen and unseen seeds to take along with me. I have since realized that some of those seeds were sewn within because of my observations, experiences and interactions. The others were to be held in my hands, heart and mind, for future use.
The camaraderie, the lessons of humanity; what it means, feels and looks like to still be human and to treat your fellow man humanely. To greet everyone when you enter a room, not because you are forced to utter a pleasantry prior to requesting a service, but because it is the only thing to do when you meet another human being. To sit so closely next to someone, in a taxi, whom you’ve never met and to think nothing of it. For in America, it is unheard of to touch an unknown person and not immediately draw yourself away and say excuse me.
These are just a few simple examples; ones which may seem, to the person who has been raised in this environment, to be very mundane and unworthy of being mentioned. But for one such as myself, who was raised in a cold, mechanical, abnormal society, these are very real and tangible measures needed to bring the half-dead back to life. For we Africans born in America, have been experiencing a slow poisoning which occurs from living amongst a people who have created a society which values individual achievement, riches and glory over the promotion of a well-rounded humanistic society. We are a testament to the fact that all Africans have suffered and will continue to suffer from being in prolonged contact with a people who have forgotten how to be human. Considering the ups and downs, the highs and lows, Africa will always be treasured because she taught me the value of humanity and gave me a glimpse of the original concept of mankind and what mankind was supposed to look, feel, and sound.