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.