It did not take me long to realize that while I was seeing more blacks in a given place than I had seen on a regular basis in six years, I was still alienated from those I thought of most often as "my people." We did not seem to share the same culture, the same way of understanding ourselves. On their part, there was a great deal of suspicion of me, of my motives, and intentions, which may have stemmed largely from the fact that I was teaching at a school that rarely hired black faculty and that--despite being a "public" institution--was seen by those outside the academic community as white. Many would confess to me later that they had questioned my "credentials" as a black man even to have been employed by such an institution.

By Kwame Senu Neville Dawes

I arrived in America acutely aware that I was a stranger. It was not so much the landscape or the details of living (shops, roads, clothing), it was my own sense of America, a kind of myth that made the country loom above me, dominate me, and in some ways bring out the "alien" in me. My own father had vowed never to set foot on American soil, a Marxist act of discipline that evolved into a complicated obsession, which he passed on to me. But I did visit America in my twenties--once as a pilgrim to the Student Christian Fellowship conference at Urbana, Illinois, and then as a writer with a well-funded fellowship at the University of Iowa. During each trip I felt a strong sense of guilt and made nervous jokes about my father turning in his g rave. In truth, I was working out a way to define myself in this space, a way to reconcile the history of American culture, of America's presence in the rest of the world, of Hollywood, of American literature, with my own history as a black African, my own politics, and my own values.

So when I came to South Carolina after living in New Brunswick, Canada, for almost six years, I was walking into the grand myth. This was the Deep South, the world of Dixie, the site of lynchings, the launching point for the Civil Rights movement. I was m oving there because I had been offered a job teaching English at one of the state's major universities; and a Southern white woman had charmed me with the notion that South Carolina was a place for me to grow, to discover myself, and to be appreciated. In truth I already knew a great deal about the South and yet nothing about it.

It did not take me long to realize that while I was seeing more blacks in a given place than I had seen on a regular basis in six years, I was still alienated from those I thought of most often as "my people." We did not seem to share the same culture, the same way of understanding ourselves. On their part, there was a great deal of suspicion of me, of my motives, and intentions, which may have stemmed largely from the fact that I was teaching at a school that rarely hired black faculty and that--despite being a "public" institution--was seen by those outside the academic community as white. Many would confess to me later that they had questioned my "credentials" as a black man even to have been employed by such an institution.

But I had decided that my own indebtedness to people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, and Spike Lee, who had given me a sense of possibility and social consciousness in the face of racism, even while I li ved outside of their worlds, was enough to justify my desire to regard their people as my people--to regard all of the African diaspora (including America) as part of my world. In truth, living as I had in a predominantly black society, the nuances of rac ism were often lost on me, and there did not exist in Ghana or Jamaica the intense crucible of oppression that caused, in black America, powerful and articulate expressions of social justice and racial consciousness to emerge. These African American activ ists, artists, and intellectuals offered me a chance to understand the meaning of oppression, but more critically, they reminded me that I could connect, empathize, and identify with people who lived oceans away. I was determined to embrace that world, re gardless of what that world said to me.

This was a conscious decision by someone who was born in Ghana, West Africa, to an Akan/Ewe mother and a Jamaican father born in Nigeria to Jamaican missionaries. My father, as far as I was concerned, came from that other black place on the other side of the Atlantic, and for him, the two worlds were inextricably linked. He showed us a famous poster of Angela Davis--huge afro and face of sweet defiance--dangerous; she was black. He made us listen to Billie Holiday while he floated around his sturdy reel-t o- reel muttering, "Lady Day, Lady Day"; and we heard him read his jazz poems to the music of Thelonious Monk--that man whose brooding intensity on the jacket of his records filled me with a strange mixture of awe and disquiet. Later, growing up in Jamaica, I found myself listening to reggae music chanting about going back to Africa (from where I had come); I saw the Maroons in the hills of Jamaica pouring libation to ancestors who traveled across the Atlantic as slaves and planted life in that island. Through these experiences and others, I began to understand the frightening power of history and memory in the writings of Caribbean authors, in the music of its artists, and in the stories told by the elders of that community. I was a boy who listened and took to heart Bob Marley's message that Africans are a people that span many worlds and that share a common history of suffering and survival. Quite frankly, it was clear to me that the people I saw walking the streets of Sumter, South Carolina, were long a part of my imagination, my sense of self, and I had to truly understand them if I was to survive and thrive in their community.

This is no small thing, because people from the Caribbean and Africa are not always willing to risk the shame and alienation that can accompany attempts to embrace a history of immense suffering, a history of humiliation and abuse, and a history of homele ssness and rootlessness that weighs heavily on the Southern black experience. But I chose to embrace that reality because I had accepted Roots as my own narrative as a boy; slavery and the history of segregation were a part of my own sense of suffering an d shame; and the triumphs of dignity, intelligence, resistance, and the pride of the Black Power movement were instrumental in the shaping of my own sense of racial pride and identity.

In this way, I came to see the older black people who lived and worked in Sumter--as I did all those ancestral voices that had lived ahead of me--as the keepers of my understanding of myself. I wanted to know how they felt, how they responded to segregati on and racism, and how their feelings and thoughts had evolved since that time. I wanted to understand the daily realities of segregation in the very town in which I lived; the town I seemed to take for granted--I could go anywhere, sit in any park, drink from any fountain, enter any library I chose. What, I wanted to know, was it like not to be able to do that twenty, thirty years ago, and what impact did that have on the present?

Lana Odom, the director of a community health and education center called the South Sumter Resource Center, agreed to introduce me to some older people who would be willing to speak into a microphone and tell me their stories. Over the space of about a mo nth and a half, I interviewed seven people--five women and two men, most in their seventies. They spoke frankly, with wit, with grace, with humor, and with the reverence for history that I came to admire. They told me stories, struggled to recall details, laughed and joked and admonished me all through the interviews. I listened, and I felt the pain, the anger, and the incredible resilience of these people. It was impossible to hear these stories and not be driven to write about them. And so I started to write poems inspired by these conversations, for poetry has always been my way of processing information. And, in fact, I was working through some of my own pain even as I wrote these poems. The patronizing attitudes of some of my employers, the bigotry and ignorance of some students and colleagues, the obvious anxiety felt by those who found me too outspoken, the random instances of racially driven incivility around the city, those hard-to- articulate instances of discomfort that made me have to second-guess my own judgment-- evaluation of people--that made me sometimes want to choose silence and withdrawal rather than be seen as someone with the proverbial "chip on the shoulder"--all these moments found a home in the stories I was told by the men and women of Sumter and in my own imaginat ive recreations, where I filtered the images and emotions that I sensed through my own mind and soul to create poetry.

I have come away from this project with a strong sense of home. I feel at home in Sumter because I think I understand the place better now. I am still listening to stories, writing them down, writing poems that emerge from that world. I still have difficulty trusting this sense of home, but the challenge of trying to discover home through writing is still compelling. I was reminded of this feeling when my mother (a Ghanaian living in the Caribbean who did not take the Marxist vow of never entering the United States) came to visit Sumter. My mother, an artist and a social worker, was herself immediately drawn to the Resource Center and began painting portraits of people at the center and teaching classes. For her, it was no wonder that I could call this my new home. The stories of struggle and hope, of survival in the midst of hardship, and of celebration were as familiar to her as they were to me. These stories belong to all of us, and in their contradictions, their confessions of weakness, their statements of strength and triumph, they welcome each of us home.


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