Today at work I sat discussing heritage with three of my coworkers: a Haitian African, a Jamaican and a Dominican. They all conversed about revolutions, events and people from their homelands who are stapled into their histories. They spoke with such pride because various people and situations have helped to shape their people’s identity and culture. Whatever happened on their land happened in their history. I sat a bit envious, for though they are like African Americans in which most of them were brought to their respected lands; they and their lands are one. They are tied to their old-new homes. They love it, and it claims them. These thoughts led me to ponder what land do African Americans associate themselves with? And what land claims the African American? From my experience, it is clear that African Americans are not deeply connected to any land.
When I consider each of my coworkers land heritage, I am troubled with my lack thereof. In African American history we have many heroes who have, on American soil, fought for us, descendants of slaves, to attain many freedoms. In a land where we were brought to as slaves, we now have rights, liberties and representation in the highest office in the free world. But does America really claim the African American as his brother, or are we simply overstayed visitors? From slavery to lynching and the countless murders of minorities throughout the years among other things, I presume that the land of the free hasn’t truly accepted the free slave. When so many injustices are allowed against us, it’s hard to feel like America is really our home. Well, I know that’s how I feel. So, if America seems unsure of our kinship, where do we call home? Where are we connected to?
At times, it seems like nowhere.
Both my parents are from the south and came north to escape the tumultuous south of the 50’s. My mother was born in Savannah Georgia, and my dad was born in Lee South Carolina. Neither of them, nor I, have ever traveled outside of the country. We don’t go visit cousin so and so in Nigeria. When we go visit family, we go down south. When West Indians or Africans ask me where my family is from, I often say the south because I have no other point of reference. I was born and raised in the New York; I have no connection to the south or Africa. I tried reconnecting with my family from the south, and as pleasant it was it left more questions. Who are we really as a family? Where are we from? I learned that one of my great grandfathers was a musician and that excited me. I felt a sense of rootedness.
I realized that I wasn’t an island, but that men who came before me excelled in similar ways and shared similar pains. Still, questions like where certain relatives got specific strengths haunt me. Not having a home land that is filled with my people, my heritage and my culture leaves me a bit misguided about who I am. It also concerns me of who we are as black men and women. Does our legacy end with jazz and the civil rights and a certain black vernacular? Or is there more? Though my parents are from the south, we are so much more than southerners. My parents themselves do not claim to be from anywhere else but the south. They have, like many of our parents and people, no connection with who they really are and where they really from: Africans from Africa.
Many attempts have been and are being made to mend the lack of identity and culture that resulted from slavery. Kwanzaa, created by an activist and scholar named Maulana Karenga, was conceived to give Afro-Americans their own holiday: a sense spiritually individuality. The Pan-American Flag was crafted with a similar intent: to give us culture and identity. With all these attempts, the thirst for a home hasn’t been quenched within blacks. Recently, many celebrities have begun to participate in DNA analysis that traces back ones genealogy. African American Lives, hosted and narrated by Henry Louis Gates Jr that premiered on PBS in February of 2006, is an example of this. It is a documentary that explores the history of men like T D Jakes, Chris Tucker, and Dr. Ben Carson as well as women like Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Dr. Mae Jemison through genealogical research. It married these Africa Americans to various countries and tribes in Africa which us remarkable.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm. Most blacks, if not in financial constraints, are at least misinformed about their access to such options. Many black men like me live either in the state of creation or in a state of assimilation. We either try to create an identity and culture for ourselves or we simply put on the American self. We align ourselves with American values, belief systems and ambitions ignoring any connection or reflection to our damaged past. We are a people whose culture continuously changes, for we have no foundation. Land-heritage brings foundation.
Going back to live in Africa can prove to be problematic, for we have no trusted relatives there. However, finding out where our families originate from, give each of us a better context than what many of us have as African Americans. We are able to associate with outstanding music, attire, and spiritual practices that outdate our Kwanzaa, jazz, hip-hop, pan African flag creations. It is not a matter of better or worse but context. I believe saying to be extremely true: “you don’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you come from.”
On February 6, 2008, African Ancestry posted a video on YouTube of Judge Hatchett discovering her roots and she told this story while speaking to a young man:
I went to Africa with my sons last summer. And there was a Massai warrior who’s a little bit older than you are. And he said ‘where are you from?” And I said, naively, I said I’m from the United States. He said ‘nah nah nah nah nah no! Where are you from my sister?” And I didn’t know. And so when you got tested I got tested, so you have my results which I have not said I have been dying for this to come back today so I can have my result because never ever do I want to say again I don’t know.
Ask African Americans where they are from, and they will tell you some state or county, but the truth is most of our answers are like Judge Hatchett’s: we don’t know.
For black history month, I want my African descendant brothers and sisters to consider going home. Consider investing in these DNA genealogical tests because with land-heritage comes a stable culture and identity and most importantly wholeness which our people so desperately lack. Imagine finding out that your people are from Morocco, Egypt, Kenya, Namibia, Cameroon or Liberia, not from Savannah Georgia or Boston or Mississippi but Africa. Wouldn’t that be something? One real way that we can begin to rid ourselves from the evils of slavery is by reconnecting. It is by going back home. With the new advancements in science we can at least know where to start. It’s better to be a man a long way from home than a man with no land.