I can't help myself, it's just too complex and juicy an issue. Right after I posted that last bit on nationality, in between cleaning a turkey and chopping up salt pork and tons of garlic, yet another discussion hit my radar on origins, culture, and what you most relate to. This time we're examining the African-American identity, in Malik Washington's writing titled "Embracing the Africa in African-American," part of Michael Martin's Tell Me More blog series on NPR.org. The bit that gets to the heart of this matter, and obviously resonates with what we've been discussing:
"Are you black Americans or white Americans?"
That was the question put to me and other African-Americans, in a junior high classroom in Accra, Ghana.
For some of the visitors, it was utterly offensive. For others, it was simply shocking. How could we, black people, be confused for white?
For me, it was utterly simple.
The question came as no surprise since so many African-Americans don’t see themselves as African. That, by default, just leaves them identified as just “American”. The very term “American”, after all, implies “white”. Everybody else gets a hyphen.
Many African-Americans, in fact, don’t know what to think of themselves.
African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.
Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America – either consciously or sub-consciously.
This brings me back to thinking about the era not so long ago in American politics, when slavery was the thorn in the government's side, and politicians just did not know what an America with free whites and blacks living alongside each other would look like, or how it would function after such a system ended. One of the popular ideas was to send freedpeople "back to Africa," to a population that would theoretically understand or relate to them better. Obviously absurd to us now, what is most absurd is thinking that African-Americans who had been born and lived their entire lives in this country could possibly be considered not of this country. Certainly the African-American fused culture had taken on a life of its own by this point, creating a large minority of Americans whose customs and food ways and stories and religion had distinct African influences; that is what scared white politicians and many of their constituents.
But there is no returning to sender, no reversal of time when whole lives have been founded in new and divergent societies, and indeed, when new cultures are created from the fusion of others. This is another thing I have been trying to illustrate. Because someone's ancestors were not like ours, it is all the more important that we take time to understand cultural nuances that exist side by side in one singular, yet multicultural, society (and, incidentally, world).
Once the African-American identity had calcified, it could neither be ignored or removed. While some slaves had seen Africa, it was a very low number by the time abolition became a seriously debated political issue, and even fewer African-Americans today would probably identify as precisely with the African continent as they did then. Yet they are not, do not consider themselves, that "white American" that was mentioned in Washington's musing. That nationality is distinct from white American, yet an immovable part of the larger national identity.