14.4.10

I Am African

The statement alone - I Am African - seems so simple, yet like any other declaration of identity, it carries so much weight. Or maybe I should say that it carries so much weight for me as it is something I have consciously pondered over the years. As a kid growing up in Liberia, it was obviously not something I thought too much about. At the time, being a Liberian and African, was all I knew and was so obvious that it didn't need to be pondered. It wasn't until I moved to the U.S. that I began to think about it in a serious way. Being African in small, majority-white prep schools came with a whole lot of confusion and explanations as my classmates knew little-to-nothing about the continent other than what they had seen on t.v. (i.e. the double SS - suffering and safari). My primary goals during my teenage years was fitting in as much as I could which often meant that the "I Am African" part of me got downplayed while other parts of my identity - the ones I could easily link with those around me - took the spotlight. In addition, I honestly didn't know what being African meant! Sure that's where my mother's family was from and where I spent the first 10 years of my life, but I couldn't understand what that had to do with me in the present rather than just being a part of my past. (Yeah, I wasn't always as smart as I am these days...hahaha.)



A few years ago in Sudan

It wasn't until I got to college - almost seven years after I arrived in the U.S. - that I had the chance to become good friends with another African who was not my immediate or extended family. A Nigerian-American who had only recently moved to Massachusetts to attend college, I basically thought she was one of the coolest people around. With her, I didn't have to explain anything about my life prior to the US because it all just made sense to her. She would take me African events throughout Boston and introduce me to Africans from all over. From African history, to music, to literature she became a new open window the continent for me. I can't explain how excited I was to have her in my life while at the same time feeling completely inadequate around her. Clearly I was not "African enough" compared her and the world she was introducing me to so I stuck to my best laid plans and followed my pursuit of other worlds...first Spain and Europe where I studied abroad and then Latin America which became my focus during graduate school years.

Even longer ago when I was in Liberia


No one was as surprised as me when I chose to go to move to Kenya upon graduation! (Did I mention I didn't have a job lined up and basically didn't know anyone in the entire country?) While the decision had absolutely nothing to do with a "finding my roots" agenda, in hindsight, it was a big part of my discovery of what being an African means to me. First there was the whole - "hole mole I'm surrounded by a majority of African and Black people" business. On the streets, billboard ads, tv, magazines, parties, clubs, etc. suddenly, I was part of the majority; a part of the golden standard for what was the norm and beautiful. It's amazing!! Second, I loved being "included" in that there was no guessing about what Caribbean island I was from (as is the case when I meet people here or in Europe or Latin America). Instead, it was more of a "are you South Africa, Kenya, Ugandan, Mozambican, Ethiopian" because "obviously" I was African it was just a matter of which country I was from. Third and most importantly, I just felt at home. It's really hard to explain this feeling considering I had never been to east Africa before, but there it was. Being around Kenyan, Sudanese, and Ugandan cultures, I was able to find those threads that were common to the way I had grown up and to the ways of my Liberian culture. While I had not always understood what the past had to do with my present identity as an African, over time it all began to make sense. I could now understand why I felt more connected to the history of my mother, aunts, grandmother and generations before than I had felt with any version of U.S. history I had learned over the years because it was their history and experiences that had played both major and minor roles in my understanding of family, home, culture and myself....and all of that links right back to Africa.

{Photos: Brandie}

10 comments:

urbancasita.com said...

Great post.

3pieceonline said...

I loved this post so much. Glad you changed it to your photographs. My daughter is preparing to attend college in VA as the only Black in her incoming Freshman class and I wander what her experiences will be and how they will shape her identity going forward.

j

Uzo said...

Simply put, I love the post, Brandie.

zahra said...

now we know where ur from.. oink oink..

african oyimbo..

zahra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandie said...

Thanks for the great feedback...

- J: I think everything continually shapes our identity so hopefully her experiences in college will add to what she has learned about herself from you at home.

- Z: I'm cool being an oyimbo as long as there is the "african" in front ;)

Azara said...

I guess many immigrants grapple with a sense of identity, especially when there is not a large community close by. Coming to the US as a "non-white" person we deal with culture and race. I never thought about race and it was so foreign to be excuded for such differences. With time we settle into our own. Regardless, when Africa is in your blood, it tuggs at you! Whether we had a good or bad experience! Thx for sharing Miss Brandie! U are truly an african international!!

Ali la Loca said...

This post is awesome, Brandie. It rings so true to me...obviously with different details. Living in Mozambique made me consider my identity like never before because I couldn't blend in as a local (even as a Portuguese Mozambican woman if I'd wanted to because my accent is 100% Brazilian). I was minority in race and culture and everything else...and yet still part of the privileged 10%. Makes you think a lot about the unspoken narrative your skin and hair and culture say about you, and how to deal with the world's reaction to it all as well as your own.

In all the years that I lived in Brazil, I didn't really contemplate my identity (other than the teenage shame I felt at being American) because I *could* fit in perfectly. I have no accent and it's impossible to tell by looking at someone if they are local or not! So it was easy to morph into a perfect little Brazilian and sort of reject my home roots for the time being.

Anyhow, this is a long and poorly organized way of saying that I've sort of gone the reverse route. Not fitting in while living in Moz was what prompted me to consider what being American (and from an international family) means to me. I've never been so proud to be American, nor have I ever felt so at home - and so foreign - here in the US. It's a very strange and wonderful feeling.

Lana said...

I loved finding out a bit more about you and your past!

kelly jo said...

i am so glad that we come from two very different places and can meet somewhere NOT in the middle - but meet just the same, with so much in common. and love it.