Western Shores, Part I
“Mama Zora, please GO!” It is July 2006 and I am in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The words are from Happy, one of my husband’s cousins. She is smiling and shooing me away from my two-year old daughter, whom I had just picked up with the intention of feeding. Used to life as a stay at home mom, I was extremely clingy with my daughter, and followed her everywhere during the first two weeks of our trip. My husband’s family initially watched my behavior with amusement, but Happy’s words that day marked the end of that indulgence. My mindset was alien to them and out of place. For my daughter wasn’t just my daughter; she belonged to the entire clan. I wasn’t expected to be solely responsible for her well-being; providing and caring for children was truly a joint effort. Happy carried Zora inside to give her lunch that day. I grabbed a book and chilled in my in-laws courtyard to catch up on my reading, secretly relieved with Happy’s help. My life as a Mom in America was different, but as the saying goes this was Africa. My American life and experiences did not apply here; I had to learn to understand the culture of my husband. I share this story to illustrate the problem of taking ideas that apply only in an American context and expecting those from other cultures to follow them. I think this causes issues between Continental Africans and African-Americans. In this two-part blog series I’m going to share my views on this disconnect.
As an African-American who had a child with and married a man outside of her own ethnic group, the subject of relations between our people is one that is very near and dear to my heart. It isn’t simply an abstract idea; it is my life. Given that I am American though I am privy to the things that my own people say and think regarding our Continental family. Honestly at times the sentiments I hear make me cringe:
‘Africans don’t like us’
‘Africans think they are better than us’
‘They sold us into slavery! If it wasn’t for their betrayal we wouldn’t be here!’
Whenever I hear statements like this I freeze up. There was a time when my initial reaction to such ideas would have been subdued. However I now find myself doing what was previously unthinkable: suppressing my sectarian instinct and arguing with those of my own ethnic group over their perception and treatment of Africans. In a sense one might think of me as a traitor. I see no other way to be though. For when people make negative remarks to me about Africans, they aren’t talking about some anonymous folks I don’t know. They are talking about folks who have taken me into their circle. They are talking about those I limed with in Dar es Salaam and drank cocktails with in the courtyard. They are talking about folks who wrapped their arms around me in love and didn’t care that I was descended from enslaved Africans. They are talking about those I view as my family, the other side of my daughter’s DNA. Out of appreciation for my African family and all they have done for me, I have to rep them as well and work to increase understanding between our communities.
But before we can join hands we must first understand where we are coming from. When dealing with Continental Africans-well anyone within the African Diaspora to be honest-my people have to realize how our own views have been shaped and distorted by White Supremacy. We must also realize that our Continental peeps come from an environment that is drastically different from that of the United States of America. They come from nations where Black people are the overwhelming majority, and they have a connection to their lineage that we African-Americans do not. I mention this because I have often heard AAs accuse Africans of being arrogant, and I really think that is a result of cultural misunderstanding. I don’t view Continental Africans as arrogant; I actually respect their pride in themselves. In my mind that is how one is supposed to feel about their heritage. If it was not for the past four centuries of hell in the New World we AAs would be able to see that clearly. But we have been so abused, so beaten down, and so outnumbered numerically that we have a minority mindset. Continental Africans do not.
In my brief time in Tanzania(I stayed for three months) I was able to see and feel this difference. It was the only time in my life that I didn’t feel like a minority, like the proverbial fly in the buttermilk. Everywhere I went I was surrounded by people who looked like me. There would never be a need to celebrate the inauguration of a Black president with a song “My President is Black” , because having Black rulers is no big deal. All leadership is Black. All schools and universities are run and dominated by Black people. All forms of media showcase Black people-and not in the elastic, racially ambigous manner that Blacks are shown in the USA either! I can imagine that AAs would see the so-called arrogance of Africans very differently if we grew up in their environment. We have to keep this in mind when interacting with them. In order to better understand them-and the history of the African diaspora period-we have to ‘go East’. We don’t need to abandon who and what we are, but we do need to occasionally discard our American lens in order to see another perspective.