The funniest things come out of the mouths of kids sometimes. And by “funny” I don’t necessarily mean “haha” but more on the “that’s interesting” side. The side that usually has me saying, alrighty then. So, one of my jobs is teaching dance at the YMCA in Berkeley, and the kids I teach are primarily White, but at times I have a mixture of Black, Mexican, Asian, etc.
Well, a couple of weeks ago I was asked if I was from Africa by a 8 year old boy who considered himself to be Latino. I paused a minute and informed him that no in fact I am from Los Angeles, which is in California, which makes me American. He looked at me confused. “Are you sure?” He asked, with the tone of voice you use when you are so sure that someone is telling you something clearly untrue. “Yes, I am very sure that I was born right here in California. Now my ancestors are from Africa, but I was not born there.”
He took a closer look at me: he took in my brown skin, my dreadlocs and frowned. “American? Are you sure? You look like you’re from Africa.” At this point, I’m now beginning to frown slightly. Not because I have any issue with being told that I look like I’m from Africa, but because he is under the impression that anyone that looks like me does not constitute as an American. What does that mean exactly? Where does he get that from? Is that what children from other ethnicities are being taught?
In this country, we are all labeled from the moment we are born. On your birth certificate it asks you for the race of your mother and father. Any application you fill out you’re asked to define yourself by checking a box. This country is entirely too hung up on making folks choose one race or another, determining what is someone’s background, placing them in a category that makes it easier to decide how to treat that person. This country uses someone’s ethnicity, the color of their skin, the shape of their features to determine their worth, their value…
Most of us Black Americans do not know exactly where we come from. That’s the sad truth. If we’re fortunate enough we can attempt to trace our family lines back to a few generations, but most of us can’t trace our roots back far enough to learn the beginnings of our lineage. And by beginning I mean back to Africa. I had the opportunity to trace my maternal line back to the Bubi Tribe of Bioko Island, which is now called Equatorial Guinea, a tiny island on the coast of Central Africa. How amazing is that?!
But, what does it mean? Does it mean that I’m African? Am I still American? Can I go there and apply for citizenship because hey, there’s DNA that proves I came from there? To me it’s a source of pride, it’s an affirmation, it’s a reminder that I am connected, that in fact I am not lost out here in this country that has never and will never completely accept or appreciate me or my rich history.
But at the same time, according to the laws of this lovely country, I am in fact American, not African. I was born in Los Angeles and I have not yet had the pleasure to visit any country in Africa. I have not had the opportunity to experience the wonders of that Continent that has enriched us all. So when asked where I am from, I have to answer the same as I did a couple of weeks ago. I’m American yet was blessed by my folks from the Bubi tribe with these physical attributes that have ensured that my connection to Africa will never be lost or forgotten.