*Originally published on ABelleinBrooklyn.com, Sept. 9, 2010*
We are not Africans... I say this all of the time. It would be like white people saying they are European-American. That is totally stupid. I was born here, and so were my parents and grand parents and, very likely my great grandparents. I don't have any connection to Africa, no more than white Americans have to Germany, Scotland, England, Ireland, or The Netherlands. The same applies to 99 percent of all the black Americans as regards to Africa. — Bill Cosby
Shortly after my college graduation, I hopped on an Amtrak train and headed North to see my boyfriend (at the time) who lived in New York. He told me to arrive dressed to go out, so I did: a polka dot a-line skirt, neon green wedges and a white wife beater. It was a take on Lauryn Hill’s look from “Everything is Everything” and it was uniform of the time. I wore a variation of that outfit everyday for years.
He took me to SOBs, a city venue known for its live shows. It was a dead prez performance in a room full of White people. You could count the Black people on one-hand if you excluded me and the BF. I thought of the now legendary ‘60s clip of James Brown performing “I’m Black and I’m Proud” to a room of White people who sung along. Forty years later I was watching a group of second or third-wave revolutionaries, devotees of Black Panther, Malcolm X, and George Jefferson rhetoric, perform “I’m an African.”
Ayo my life is like Roots it's a true story
It's too gory for them televised fables on cable
I'ma a runaway slave watching the North Star
Shackles on my forearm , runnin with the gun on my palm
I'm an African, never was an African-American
Blacker than black I take it back to my origin
Same skin hated by the Klansmen
Big nose and lips, big hips and butts, dancin,
Am I an African? I wondered.
A few months earlier, I’d been sitting in a plaza near the Spanish steps in Rome with a Jewish roommate, Stephie, who looked Italian. I was living overseas in London and we’d skipped our Art History classes about Italian art to actually go see the works in person.
We were sipping cappuccino like MC Lyte, pretending to be cosmopolitan when a few native Italian men asked if they could sit and chat. Going through the pleasantries, the men asked where we were from. Stephanie rattled off a few generations back tracing her family back to her great- great-grandfather heading to America on a boat from an Old World country I can no longer recall.
I’d cringed listening to her rattle off her family tree. From what I know, my people go back as far as North Carolina and Georgia. Before that, it’s a plantation, which one is anybody’s guess. I claim American because it’s an actual country and to say “African” like it’s a country when it’s a continent (and one I’ve never seen) sounds ill-informed.
“I’m African-American,” I say to the guys when it’s my turn to explain.
It’s the term American Black people use when they talk to non-Black people because it’s PC now. Few Black people call themselves or other Black people “African-American” in unmixed company. We just say “Black.” I have a deeper reason for defining myself "just" that way. Blame all those African-American studies classes where I learned the meaning of Diaspora. To say “Black” is more inclusive, connecting me to my Brothers and Sisters everywhere, not just in American. I’m all for the national pride over country of origin, but too often Black folks use it as a way to divide than just another way to define.
The guys cock their heads curiously, the universal symbol for “huh?”
“Are you African or are you American?” one finally asks.
I explain in so many words that the American South is my version of the Old Country. I should have just said Black and given them my reasoning.
“So you’re American?” the Italian deduces from my background, or at least the part I know.
I roll it around. Despite the connection between crunk dancing and the traditional dances of some African cultures highlighted in Rize, I don’t have a connection to Africa other than color. It’s a place I know less about than I do England or Spain or Italy since I’ve actually been those places to see the culture and soak up some.
“Yeah,” I say after a few beats. It’s more to myself than to my Italian and Italian looking companions. “I’m American.”
Funny how I had to leave the country to get defined as “just” that.
I am... yes I am... the descendant (yes, yes) of those folks whose, backs got broke who, fell down inside the gunsmoke (Black people!) Chains on they ankles and feet I am descendants, of the builders of your street (Black people!) Tenders to your cotton money
— Mos Def " Rock N' Roll"
How do you define yourself?