Monday, May 17, 2010

To Be the "Other"

How strange it was to arrive in Ghana and constantly be referred to as an American! It's not that I don't feel I have a place in the country where I was born. I'm proud of all that Black Americans have achieved in the U.S. Our struggles and innovations have truly enriched the country. But, how can I put this...sometimes it's easy for me to forget that I'm an American, until I am reminded. I am so used to being referred to as Black. So often people put it before everything else. Add that to being eyed with suspicion when entering certain stores or certain neighborhoods, or to constantly being treated like a "problem" on the evening news and other mainstream media outlets, and it's easy to feel like an outsider sometimes.
But in Africa, "American" was the first thing people identified me as. It kind of made me feel like a double-outcast. Not really accepted at home, and treated as a foreigner in a place so many Blacks romantically refer to as "the motherland," a place where everybody looks like you. I get it though. Black people from Ghana call themselves Ghanaian. Blacks from Ethiopia are Ethiopian. The country they were born in is part of their identity, and it is not questioned. In contrast, I don't hear many Blacks (aside from the President) call themselves American. We tend to identify with our color, maybe because our color was used to identify us and classify our status for so many centuries, from slavery to Jim Crow and beyond.
Am I an American? Yes, even though I am made to feel that I'm not. But I am also an American of African descent, and my roots are in Africa. Does that make me African? It really depends on who you ask. I've met many Blacks who say they are not African, and many Africans who agree. I've also met Blacks who are proud to call themselves Africans, and find ways to reconnect with the continent, and Africans who welcome these "lost Africans" with open arms.
So what am I? Where do I belong? It may always be a mystery, but I like to think that one thing my unique history as a Black person in America has freed me from is having to label myself as anything at all. How about you just call me Marissa, a woman between two worlds, who is finally at peace with that.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Africa: You Must See It for Yourself

When I told my mother that I was taking a trip to Ghana, West Africa with my class she told me I'd better bring a rifle to defend myself. My mother is an educated woman, and sadly, I knew she was only half joking. And if I went only by what American television and newspapers were telling me, I might feel the same way. I might be under the impression that Africa was nothing but famine, AIDS, and war. And while those things are certainly part of the picture, that is certainly not all there is to this vast and diverse continent.
I knew it was time for me to go to Africa in the summer of 2003 when I had the option of traveling to Mexico or to Ghana. Go to Mexico, I thought to myself. You're not ready for Africa yet. I was startled by my own thinking. Wait a minute! Not ready for Africa!? And just what was it that I needed to prepare myself? The fear, ridiculous and without any basis, was what made me commit to Ghana on the spot. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was not prepared for Africa, not by a long shot, because no Black American person truly can be prepared for their first trip back to the motherland. I went with a group of about 15 African Americans, on a trip facilitated by Professors Wade Nobles, Na'im Akbar, and Mama Marimba.
The first thing I was struck by upon our arrival in Accra, Ghana, was its incredible beauty. The lush greenery, dirt roads, the pulse of the city and the vastness of the countryside. The air was thick and hot, and smelled of ash. Standing on the beach, I was struck by a feeling of coming full circle. Long ago my ancestors had been ripped from this land against their will. And here I was, back on the same shores they had left.
In many respects, we were like newborn babies in this land, emotionally raw and unsure of what to expect. I remember one of our first days there, two women from our group had ventured out of the hotel and gone for a walk in a nearby neighborhood. They returned visibly upset, and said that they had passed two women on the street, and when they said hello, the women glared at them. They took it pretty hard. When Black Americans dream of coming to this homeland, they dream of being welcomed with open arms. After all, it has taken so much to get there.
I was not immune to any of it. In fact, I found the only way I could function was to feel all of it. I had to let my romantic notion of Africa crumble, I had to let go of my expectations about what this place should or should not be, how we should or should not be treated. Coming to this home was just like going to the home of any friend or relative one has a relationship with: there will be some good times and some bad times. But at the root, what holds everything together is love. So I let love take over. I cried when I needed to, laughed when I wanted to, got angry a few times, and prayed a whole lot.
I was thankful for our particular group of guides, these amazing Black scholars. As we traced the routes of the enslaved through Africa, and visited dungeons where they were held, and other sites, they never let us forget that our ancestors did not go quietly. These were places where they fought, where they plotted, where they comforted one another and protected each other from harm. So even when we shed tears, we did not lose sight of their strength and power.
Some of the most interesting interactions I witnessed were between our group and the local people around the subject of slavery. At one site we visited, a large open area where many were chained when they were first kidnapped from their villages, the local man guiding the tour broke down and cried as he told us the story of what occurred on this land. When we visited a dungeon on the coast, we found an altar where local people poured libations for those who had been held captive there, and prayed for the return of Africa's lost children (us). That was deeply moving to witness. An interaction that humiliated me was when we visited a village that had lost many of its residents to the slave trade. Some members of our group demanded to know from the village elders how villagers who had participated in the kidnappings were punished. Then they demanded to know how the elders felt about what had happened in such a way that these men literally bowed their heads and apologized for something they had not done. That hurt my heart to witness. But it made others feel vindicated. Everyone needed something different from the journey.
This homegoing was necessary, but not easy, and I was glad to return home. Africa was a place I was starting a relationship with that would last a life time, and like all family visits, this one had come to an end. But I learned and grew so much on that journey! And Africa comes back to me in bright memories, sounds and smells. I know it will be time to visit her again soon, to continue the dialogue.
Going to Ghana brought me to this conclusion: Every Black American person should visit Africa at least once in their lifetime. They must visit to help break apart the ignorant stereotypes perpetuated about the continent. They must visit so they can witness brown-skinned people who hold their heads high with pride. They must visit so they can lay down the weights they do not even realize they carry around. I left mine on the beach in Accra.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Identity

I started this blog as an outlet to express my own thoughts and understanding of race and identity. As an African American woman, these are issues I have grappled with throughout my life. For the majority of Black people in this country, where we come from is a mystery. And for some folks, the not knowing is fine. For others like myself, it is heartbreaking, and that subconscious pain is something we carry around not quite knowing how to describe.
From a very young age, I remember wanting to know more about Africa. I knew that I was African, and I wanted to know what country I came from. I'd ask my parents, who of course told me they didn't know because of slavery. Our collective memory was beaten right out of us. Over the years people told me to "get over it," and that where I was from didn't matter. That didn't take the yearning away. The West African sankofa concept, of learning from one's past to have a brighter future, is one that resonated deeply with me. And I was able to live that concept by taking Black Studies courses while in college at San Francisco State University. This deep study of history empowered me, and made me feel less alone. I was surrounded by other strong, seeking minds and learned how much of my people's past had been hidden or simply glossed over in junior high and high school. I studied the speeches of Malcolm X, the history of Kemet (aka Egypt), and Civil Rights law. I also took a class on the shared history of Blacks and Native Americans, which encouraged a deeper study of my own family's histrory.
This is what I know for sure: My father's family came from Texas, and my mother's family from the midwest (Oklahoma). I know my mother's people settled in Oklahoma during the Land Rush of the late 1880s. I know that we have Cherokee roots on my mother's side, and Chicasaw roots on my father's side, both from about two generations ago. I was told that my last name, Arterberry, is Scottish. I've thought about changing it (since it is the name of someone that enslaved my ancestors), but I've changed my mind in recent years. It may sound silly, but the damn name suits me. Arterberry. I'm a painter, and my last name has "art" in it. It's also distinctive. So I am going to stick with my "slave name." I feel that in some ways I've made it my own.
Coming to terms with my identity has not been easy. People would constantly tell me I looked mixed because of my features and skin tone. I remember one moment in particular when I was hanging out with a group of my friends, all of whom had gorgeous ebony skin. One girl went around the group looking at everyone's features, and said "hmm, you look like you could be from (insert West African country here)." When she came to me she stopped. "You're too mixed up," she said. "I can't tell where you're from." That hurt. But I had reached a point in my life where I could not deny any part of my ancestry. I could feel my people standing proud, and I wanted to honor them. If other people had a problem with that or thought it made me "less black", fine. I choose not, however, to honor my caucasian ancestors. I remember talking to a friend about this, and she said matter-of-factly, "I honor all my ancestors, except the ones who raped and colonized my family." I adopted her belief. So although I keep the Scottish name, I do not venerate the Scottish ancestors. It's a simple reality of my ancestry, and I leave it at that. You won't catch me wearing a kilt like Andre 3000.
Studying history opened so many doors for me in understanding who I am. The other component to that journey was spirituality. I've always been a deeply spiritual person, but Christianity (the faith I was raised in, although my family rarely attended church) just didn't speak to me. It was when I discovered the Orisa faith (practiced in many different ways with roots in Cuba, Brazil, and Nigeria) that I found something which spoke to me. The deities looked like me, the drums and singing stirred my soul, and the sacred stories (patakis) resonated deeply with me. Something inside me began to wake up, and although I could not precisely identify my ancestors, I could feel them close to me in a way I hadn't before. A friend who was also a practitioner of the faith for many years sat with me and my ancestors once. "Your ancestors are from all over the place," she told me. "They are speaking to you in all different languages." She went on to say that they are closest to me through music, and they are the reason I feel connected to Latin America. She put into words what I had been feeling for so long. I didn't have all the answers, but I had what I needed. My search continues, but it continues with joy, and not a feeling of yearning emptiness. When I want to feel close to my ancestors, I play traditional music that reflects my heritage. I sit and talk with them. Others may think it's strange, but it has brought me peace. I know who I am in my heart and my spirit, and that is the most important thing of all.