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?


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