I am an American. I have an African identity. And no, it is not debatable.
Ever since I can remember, I have been a pan-African. I came from one of those households that were centered on Black pride, enforcing knowledge of the history of people who looked like me the world over. Yes, we celebrated Kwanzaa, took West African dance class since I could walk, and can even give you a few phrases in Swahili, Yoruba and Ewe if needed. In addition, I also practice the Yoruba tradition, a safe and loving religious home that I have found solace in since maturing into adulthood, along with my Ile (spiritual group or house) which is also mainly composed of African-Diasporic identifying members, from places like Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and right here in New York.
I am African. And no, it is not up for debate.
Recently while at a friend’s going away party in Seapoint, a rather affluent section of Cape Town, South Africa, I was approached by a man from Johannesburg, who had already proved how silly he was by trying to climb up the door frame, to the amusement of some who egged on his performance all the more. When he came down (from the wall and his performance high) he spotted me chatting with another guy, came over and interjected himself into the conversation. I’d already decided to be open to it, as I didn’t want to be a party pooper and have my friend worry about me (with a screw face and being 5 months pregnant, people tend to show a lot of concern). I extended my hand to introduce myself, and upon noticing my New York-style accent, he responds “oh you’re American.” To which I replied yes, I am, more specifically from Harlem. And his response to that was enough to bring the screw face back: “Oh girl, I’m definitely more African than you!” (which of course was punctuated with a neck roll and finger snap, you know because that’s what people think all Black and Brown women from America do).
Who the fuck does this guy think he is?
I rolled my eyes and turned my back to him, as he continued listing things that made him “African” despite his ivory skin, which mostly added up to being born in an African country, and having Black African friends. Not knowing any languages outside of English (while South Africa has 11 national languages) or anything about any Bantu cultural practices or concern for their representation.
His Africanness was valid because of his nationality, not anything actually having to do with like, actual Africans. This was a type of white privilege I had never seen up close before.
When I first travelled to South Africa in 2012, I presented at Public Interest Law Gathering where I held a presentation and discussion on the socio-economic barriers to accessing proper legal representation for Blacks and Coloureds in South Africa, to a lot of push back from those attending, who were mostly white, and had no idea how something like language could prevent you actually being better service to your clients. In a room full of pro-bono lawyers, who were allegedly dedicated to helping those in need, the need to learn at least one of the languages spoken by the majority of the population was a ridiculous concept. “They should just make the forms in their language”, “They need to learn English so we can help them better”, “If they just cooperated with us more, than the language wouldn’t be that big a deal”.
When this guy at the party then attempted to interrogate my Africanness, I calmly shut him down (minus the finger snaps and head roll) and continued talking to the first gentleman I was chatting with. Seemingly disappointed in my lack of desire to engage him in this way, he moved on to the next performance, which included beer bottles and talking very loudly. I thought back to the presentation I’d done two years before and the people I encountered there. Surely, they didn’t want to hear about their ineffectiveness as lawyers from an outsider, but it was an ineffectiveness based on something as simple as not engaging with your fellow citizens because of their Africanness. I’ve made very close and dear friends with Whites, Coloureds, Blacks and Indian South Africans during my time there, and mostly because those who I did make friends with were willing not only to share in their culture and that of their fellow citizens who may be different from them, but also, were willing to openly share with me in regards to my culture and identity. And here comes this dude in the middle of a party trying to question my identity, and he can’t even respond to a Xhosa or Zulu greeting properly?
Please go somewhere with that bullsh*t, sir.
My African identity is both a blessing and a curse: as the descendant of Africans brought to the Americas who were lumped together as one big homogenous group, I can’t give you a specific country where my lineage begins. But because of my acceptance as someone of African descent, I appreciate what some of that homogeny has resulted in, and thus, I can often find similarities with various African cultures and issues. It’s the reason my love for grits traces back to the mealie meal used to keep the slaves full and fit while waiting on the ships at Elmira Castle. It’s the reason I can make the connection between the schools-to-prison pipeline here in the US and the school system in the DRC. It’s the reason my chakalaka has been lauded by every South African (and Congolese and Nigerian) man I fed it to and learning how to make proper pap is such a big deal for me. And it’s why I may not be able to have a fluent conversation in a Bantu language, but respect that when you come in someone’s house, you have to come correct according to the ways in which they see fit, not your own personal opinions or beliefs.
My African identity is rooted in my connection, directly or indirectly with African people through history, culture, and the exchange between us. It does not require citizenship, but more so a respect for the identity of those willing to engage in such an exchange. And whether I meet some random partygoer’s idea of Africanness is not up for discussion, nor with anyone else, because I am perfectly fine just the way I am, and engaging in such a discussion would not do much, except to validate assumptions that are not only false but unimportant to me. And why bother doing that, when I could be practicing my Lingala, or perfecting my melk tart recipe. Aint nobody got time for that.
And my identity is mines, and mines alone.