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.