Wednesday, October 7, 2009

African or American: What does your ancestry mean to you?

Earlier this year, as part of my ongoing research into my family's history, my father and I took DNA tests to try to pinpoint our African ancestry. My test, which analyzes the DNA passed from mother to daughter over centuries, revealed matches with Balanta and Fula people in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka in Senegal. All matches to my patrilineal line were Balanta from Guinea-Bissau. Since this discovery, I have worked to learn more about these countries and cultures. I cherish this knowledge, like the other genealogical facts I have gathered that render my ancestors more real and less abstract. Knowing this has helped me rediscover customs, histories and stories lost to the cultural genocide of slavery. It has bonded me more closely to my sisters and brothers on the other side of the world. It has made me smarter about the continent the world too often treats as a country. It has allowed me to demonstrate to the young people in my life, with hard facts, that we are from somewhere and that our history is about much more than servitude. This new knowledge has indeed informed my present identity. But still, I call myself a black American woman not an African one. This is not because it is better to be American than, say, Senegalese. It is not. I call myself a black American because I am removed from the countries of Africa by hundreds of years. Because my family story, while rooted in Africa, has been tempered by our uniquely American experience and by the blending of cultures in America. Because, though the majority culture wants us to think otherwise, the African-American story is a rich one, full of triumphs and contributions that we can be proud of; we needn't reach across the ocean to salve our self-esteem. It is because my ancestors built this country and paid with their blood, their culture, their children, sometimes their very lives, earning me the right to be an American as real as any angry sign-waver at a 9/12 rally.

But plenty of folks will argue that my point of view is wrong.

A couple years ago, a minor skirmish broke out among some people that I followed on YouTube. One group, though American-born black people all, heavily identified with "Africanness." The other did not. There were many impassioned videos posted. There were the obligatory accusations of sell-out and "don't want to be black." There were tearful protestations that our ancestors would be offended by contemporary black Americans' failure to embrace the Motherland. There were videos from brothers and sisters in African countries forcefully asserting that black Americans are anything but African. There was a whole, heaping helping of self hating (I mean,!). It was one of those online "discussions" that turns quickly into a cluster fuck where everyone takes sides, digs in, turns up the anger and finger pointing, and ultimately resolves very little. But it did make me think about where I stand on this debate. And when a similar-sounding discussion occurred on Twitter this weekend, I could articulate my thoughts.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with pan-Africanism and the way some black Americans embrace Africa. Too often, interest in the African continent seems too rooted in American ignorance--references to "African culture" as if African people are one big monolith without separate customs, governments, histories, problems and cultures; mix some mud cloth and Kente with cowrie shells, red, black and green print, and Swahili and voila. Other times it seems rooted in desperation. We reach back hundreds of years to an African identity, however vague, because as black Americans whose African ancestors were brought to America in chains, we feel our story begins and ends with slavery, Jim Crow, racism and marginalization. With this ideology comes vague stories of nameless African kings and queens and an implication that we used to be somebody, long ago in a land far away.

Both ways of thinking have seemed offensive to me. The first seems offensive to African peoples who live and work and survive and raise families in their home countries, who speak the languages that were handed down from their foremothers and fathers, who embrace the religions and beliefs of their ancestors, and who have been personally invested in the successes and the challenges of post-colonial Africa. The second seems offensive to my black ancestors who knew no other home but this one and who constributed mightily to the country's beginnings, whose customs were a blend of influences--African, European and Native American; and indeed, whose very identity was often a mixture of these influences due to the legacy of slavery, immigration and race mixing throughout American history.

Africa holds within it many rich cultures, many of which laid the foundation for what we know today as black American culture. But black American culture is its own unique thing that is also rich and worthy. I needn't hijack the identity of brothers and sisters in a country (and continent) in which I have never set foot--even though I may seek to learn more about our mutual heritage.

I think it is very important to know who black people were before American slavery. It is important to know how our African heritage informs our present lives. It is important that we stand in solidarity with African people who continue to struggle with the after effects of colonialism as black folks in America struggle with the after effects of slavery and hundreds of years of racism. It is important to understand and appreciate African cultures as something more than the "dark continent" fantasies of the mainstream.

It is equally important that black Americans embrace the unique culture that is ours. Our unique struggles. Our unique triumphs. Our unique DNA. We can be allies without giving up our own identity. I can be unashamedly of African descent, while embracing my identity as black and American.

How do you identify your African ancestry?


Nia said...

I identify my African ancestry by:

1. Learning and following as much as I can about my African history PRE-slavery. The more I learn about my history pre-slavery the more I realize there is to learn because so much has been left out;

2. Understanding that my history and culture did not begin and end with transatlantic slavery;

3. Embracing and identifying with my present-day culture, which for me is UK and Caribbean. I am UK-born of Caribbean descent;

3. Accepting that it is ok for me to have an identity that is somewhat mutable. Using various artistic mediums to express this flexible identity;

4. Keeping fully abreast of what goes on in my parts of the world - the UK and the Caribbean - especially their economic, political and social power structures.

5. Educating myself as much as possible about the present day African continent and what continues to shape and impact it, including Western influences;

5. Staying away from ALL Black people and ALL conversations where Blacks of one ethnic group resort to insulting and putting down Blacks of another ethnic group for whatever reason. I don't want Black people like that around me anymore, I don't care where they come from;

6. Choosing instead to focus on the many differences between ethnic Blacks as a positive, as a chance to learn and to grow - not to insult, demean and fight with one another.

7. Doing whatever I can to contribute to the advancement of persons from African descent around the world.

- That's how I identify my African ancestry.

Black Diaspora said...

Wow, you bowl me over! And that's not easy!

Yours was a thoughtful essay, measured and fair.

I would that many get to read it. If you don't mind, I'd like to provide a link to it from my blog.

Tami said...

Thanks for the comments, all!

Nia-I love the steps you laid out.

Black Diaspora-Please, link all you want.

kristine said...

i don't know how to say this well, but all americans have african ancestry. i'm white. european ancestors. but i'm american. and that fundamentally changes me from the people living in europe right now. one of the ways is my own african heritage. we, every one in this country, are changed when a poet such as langston hughes writes something uniquely his own, and therefore american and therefore mine. our food, our music, our language have all been led in onto a new path, a new stream diverted, that is uniquely african-american as well as other cultures, but probably more african than any other.

my son is 6 years old and black. his feet are firmly placed in the african american culture. partly because of his looks and then because of the school he attends and the church we attend. he does not stand out in those places, until i show up. and then there is an obvious marking of difference.

we tell him, he's a child of the world. grown up here, which makes us happy, but destined to travel the globe and make it his home. i hope he can always know that america is african, even if it looks like me.

Gail said...

My parents and I arrived to this country from the Carribean. I sneaked past the immigration officers nestled inside my mother's womb. My parents desperately wanted to give me the gift of US citizenship. I have only visited my country of origin (conception?) a few times. There I can only snatch bits and pieces of the creole spoken. I am a black American. And yet, my ancestors never experienced American slavery. They do not hail from the South and never drank from a colored water fountain. My ancestors survived the middle passage and colonialism, but those were different devils. And yet it is with Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass I identify. It is their speeches I memorized. When the white teachers and students turned to me during the "slavery unit" in grade school, what they didn't realize ws that it was and wasn't my history. I knew that then, but couldn't explain it to them then or now. My sister and brother married a Nigerian and Zimbabwean respectively. My African in-laws share a culture more similar to each other's than ours. And yet there are similarities. We are inextricably all connected to another. Similar and yet different. Familiar and foreign. I am a black American whose life story has been shaped in ways that I am only beginning to understand.


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