Africa, My Motherland (Not)


When I was growing up, my father referred to himself as African, before that became standard. This was a little strange to me, because my father was really light-skinned and sometimes, my dad would be mistaken for something other than a Black man. A Jewish guy with an Afro. An Italian guy. And once, when my father was in this store going off on the establishment for some real or imagined slight, the guy said to Daddy, “Y’all Greeks all always coming up in here starting trouble!”

I don’t know what hurt my father’s feelings more, that someone had insulted him in the store, or that they didn’t know he was of African descent. Bless his heart. My sisters and I laughed behind our father’s back, because he wanted to be African so bad and he didn’t even know how to be Black American in the first place. We, on the other hand, knew very well how to be really, really Black, because our mother came from sharecropper stock in Georgia and we had watched her and figured it out.

But Daddy? He came from those high-class, siddity light-skinned Negroes who had tried to lighten up the next generation by marrying other high-class, siddity Negroes. He talked proper, didn’t know how to dance—he couldn’t even clap on beat—and he never got the Black Joke. In his defense, he did play a mean blues and jazz piano.

The open secret in his family was that my grandmother had married a dark-skinned man, Henry Nelson. He was my father’s father. Daddy’s parents only stayed married a hot minute, then divorced, and my father’s maternal grandfather demanded that my father be sent to him. Henry never even knew what happened; both he and my grandmother told the same story, so we assumed it was true.

My father always talked about Henry, his lovely dark skin, how good-looking he was. And it became clear to me, even as a child, that my father searched for what he thought was “real” Blackness because he was searching for the love of his childhood; whenever he talked about “real” Blackness, he always ended up talking about Africa. My father never traveled to Africa, but you could never guess that by his poems. He pined for Africa. He ached for it.

I’m different from my father in a lot of ways, most noticeably in my feeling about the African continent. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate Africa. But I don’t love Africa, either. I just think, it’s a big piece of land over across the water. There are good people there. There are bad people there, but that’s not my home. And I don’t understand why I have to constantly defend myself for holding that point of view.

One of my oldest friends in the world doesn’t exactly make me defend my position; she just thinks I will change my mind. She keeps saying that once I “cross that sea” I’ll feel differently. And just yesterday, I had a huge blowout with a male friend because I was trying to explain that I just don’t consider myself an African, but rather, someone of African descent who was now an American, and he told me my absence of love was “unjustified.” That I should love it.

I guess you can figure out how that went over.

I know I’m sensitive; this has been going on for a while. Sometimes, I have even been criticized because of the way I looked, that I’m lighter than some folks and have curly hair. And if I were darker and my hair was kinky instead of curly, they said, I would feel closer to Africa, the way I’m supposed to, if I was really Black.

The joke to me, of course, is that my sisters and I—even my so-called “light-skinned” sister—were plenty dark enough for my father’s mother and stepfather. Too dark, in fact, for them to even try to keep a relationship going with their only grandchildren from their only son. Let’s not talk about where all their money went when they died.

Sidebar: You know, somehow my curly hair and in-between skin color never gets me from being followed by the security guards at the mall. Go figure. But maybe I should turn around at that security guard breathing his Philly cheese steak he had for lunch on me and say, “You know, you can trust me more than other Black folks. Don’t you see my naturally curly hair? Now back away.”

I do embrace my African heritage. It’s just, I identify with the Africans who were sold, not the Africans who did the selling.  And so, my heart follows those sold Africans where they went—and here is where they ended up and made a home.

I realized last night, arguing with my friend, that it’s hard for me to explain that my entire life’s work so far—my life-long artistic project—is to record the folkways, mores, speech, and lives of those descendants of African slaves in Eatonton, Georgia.  That’s my motherland.

And I admit it: my other reason for not loving Africa is that my mother’s people carried slavery stories with them. My mother’s Great-Great Grandmother Mandy Napier was six years old when Emancipation came. And her first memory was of her father being sold Down South to Mississippi. She never saw him again. Whenever my mother tells that story, and she tells it more and more often, it’s as if she is channeling Mandy’s pain, and carrying it inside her.

Some Black folks want to totally blame Europeans for why we got here, across the water, and scattered and abused. And surely, Europeans were extremely lowdown with the slavery machine. You have only to read Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History (click here to read about it) to know the cruel torture young African men, women, teenagers and children suffered at the hands of European slave traders. But they had plenty help from Africans. Can we be real about that?

And yes, surely those Africans may not have known that they were dooming their fellow citizens to a nightmarish journey over the Middle Passage. At first.

And yes, African domestic slavery was different from slavery in the Americas, a milder form. But the international slave trade went on for over four hundred years, so you know, those Africans setting fire to villages and bashing in the brains of babies and elderly people, those uncles who sold their sisters’ children into slavery to resolve bad debts—they had to know that Kunta Kinte and them weren’t ever coming back. They had to figure that out. They had to.

This sort of refusal to talk about Black or African culpability reminds me of the problems that go on in the Black community, and no matter what we are talking about—rape of Black women and children, domestic violence, Black males killing other Black males, the drug trade in our community, misogyny in rap music—somehow, we always end up blaming the White man for it. And the few voices of dissent, the ones who say, “Hey, you know, we can’t blame the White man for everything,” those dissenters get called “sell-out Uncle Toms.”

Sidebar: I guess because I’m a girl, I would get called a sell-out Aunt Thomasina.

My mother’s people, and my father’s, too (no matter how light-skinned and siddity they were) were the descendants of those young kidnapped Africans who were sent into the hateful and painful unknown.

Those kids cobbled together a life. They survived. And they made it possible for me to be here, as a teacher,  a poet and a writer, and as a human being who is trying to make my little corner of the world better. And while I harbor no hatred for Africa, I don’t think I should punished because I have no love either. I’m just doing the best I can over here, where somebody brought me.

8 thoughts on “Africa, My Motherland (Not)

  1. Dear Ms. Honoree, My baby’s daddy is from North Africa (siddity!)…but you know…at the airport some African women reclined in repoise on the marble airport floor in layover as if on divans, as if posing for their portraits as odalisques. The chairs were so uncomfortable! So I sat on the floor too. But I was too shy to recline. Outside of history there is something to appreciate from the folks who giggle at the jibe “faire comme les americaines” = show up with 10 suitcases = make a rackety catastrophe entrance = make unnecessary/work/damage/repairs /baggage…historical, genetic connection or no…there’s something like…I don’t know… but people are right. There are cultures there with eye-opening ways of doing, being…and there is a deep beauty there, too…

  2. Honi,

    As always you’ve made me think and think and think. I’m not sure if I agree with you or not. I simply know that you put something on my mind. Something that will continue tomorrow and for days to come. I like how you don’t flinch. Keep doing that. Your readers appreciate it. I know this one does.

  3. I happen to think (and I know a few fellow Africans (of-the-continent and by-descent)) that it is rather presumptuous to assume all people of African descent should and do feel some inborn connection to the continent. While I can understand the need to romanticise Africa, I think that the people who have forced you to defend your views need to examine their own assumptions. Plenty of African-Americans come to Africa and feel even more alienated from their idea of “Africanness”, because it no longer exists (if it ever did) and has no connection to the diverse, complex, sad, beautiful, joyful, ugly, modern continent that I live in.

    On a separate note, I keep coming back to this sentence “I identify with the Africans who were sold, not the Africans who did the selling” because I hate the dichotomy it implies, like there is only either/or. But I am going to assume that’s not what you meant and stop being an overly sensitive idiot.

  4. I enjoyed the piece-appreciate the frankness. Whatever intellectual abstractions we call Africa are in someway forced and who wants to buy into that. Yet, some days I wake up and hear our music and see portions of our culture with a beginners mind-as though the foreigness of it was not an idea but a reality, an echo from a distant land. For me beyond the books or the talk, that is Africa.
    Much Love

  5. ” I identify with the Africans who were sold, not the Africans who did the selling. And so, my heart follows those sold Africans where they went—and here is where they ended up and made a home.”

    This statement, for me, is profound. I can’t shake it from my mind, simply, its deep & thought provoking.

  6. Honoree,

    Richard Pryor sums it up best. After he visited Zimbabwe, he joked, “Now I know how white people in this country feel: Relaxed!” That’s certainly how I felt when I visited Kenya in ’96. Crazy thing was, I was only there 30 days, but coming back to America was hard.

    Seriously. I didn’t expect that. Again, it was only 30 days. But there was something so completely liberating about being in a place where I blended all the way in, a place where everybody from the beggar on the street to the occupant of the presidency all looked like me. So many times people would come up to me and launch into some Swahili, and I’d be sad at my inability to speak nothing but The Man’s language. (Was it Ntozake Shanghe who said English only equips you to speak to white people?)

    Richard’s most memorable bit about his African visit, I’m sure you’ll remember, is the voice he heard asking him, “Do you see any niggers?” He answers no. “You know why? Cuz there aren’t any.” In fact, Pryor, who had made that word his stock-in-trade said that the whole time he was in Zimbabwe, he hadn’t even THOUGHT that word. I tried explaining to a friend why that would be, why that word wouldn’t even be able to pop up in your mind while on the continent, but I couldn’t explain it. But I knew what Richard, how he felt.

    I think this is what people are saying when they try to convince you that you will love it. I don’t think they mean that you’ll find every African lovable or that you’ll come to make excuses for the atrocities certain Africans enabled. Perhaps they mean you’ll revel in wall-to-wall, top-to-bottom blackness.

    I flew back to the U.S. through Frankfurt, Germany. Plane lands and I’m trying to disembark. Passport official puts his palm on my chest to stop me. “Passport, passport,” he demands. I’m confused. I’ve just seen 17 white people walk off the plane unmolested. What the hell? I reach into my pocket. The only part that becomes visible is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and he says, “Pass through, pass through, pass through.” I hadn’t made it to the States yet, but the message was clear: You’re back.

    The poor Kenyans behind me? They’re probably still trying to convince that dude their paperwork is legit.

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