Africa: More Than Just Hollywood’s Black Panther (Pt. 2 of 2) – Rejecting The “African” In African American

Modified from original post on 1/10/2019 on Zoot580.blogspot.com

(In case you missed it, click here for Part 1)

Unfortunately, the following will reveal facts about myself that I’m not comfortable sharing, at all. Still, it is a tale that must be told because sadly it applies to more of us (African Americans) than we care to admit. 

So let’s get into it and hold on tight because I’m coming out swinging…

“You’re black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.” (UN Canadian Colonel Oliver to Hotel Manager Paul Rusesabagina in the historical movie drama “Hotel Rwanda”.  Oliver was explaining why the world would not intervene in the 1994 genocide attempt in Rwanda during the Hutu/Tutsi civil war.)

That hurt, just as much to type as it did to hear it when I first saw the movie.

Wow.  Was/is it that bad? The beautiful people of Africa are valued even less than African Americans? So much so that during an attempt to mercilessly slaughter an entire community, an entire race, that the world would watch in horror on their television screens, then turn their channels to focus on more pleasant viewing?  And just why were the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations forbidden to intervene in the conflict? To prevent this campaign?

Question: How many of you reading this have seen “Hotel Rwanda”? Now, how many of you, old enough to understand world news back in 1994, even KNEW about the conflict in RWANDA at the time? I’m sure that many of you would readily and truthfully answer that you don’t even remember seeing that in the news.  And since home computers back then were a desire for many and the internet was still in its infancy, we didn’t have the benefit of access through the many information sites we now peruse daily.

I think that, instead of going too far into the general world view of Africa (since I can’t FACTUALLY speak for others), it’s necessary for you to see how “I” have seen things over the years.  I need to show you that I am no exception to the rule.  If you want to say, “Speak for yourself”, that’s cool.  But think twice before you do.  I’ll begin by recreating a moment from my own past:

“Excuse me.  Are you from home?” asked the young lady who approached me in the grocery store.

“Pardon me?” I replied.

“Are you from HOME?”

“Where’s home?”

“Ghana.”

“Ghana? Ghana, AFRICA??”

“Yes.”

(“HELL no!”  Well, actually, I caught myself before those ignorant words left my lips.) 

“No ma’am, I’m sorry.  I’m not.  What makes you ask?”

“You look like somebody from home.”

“I’m sorry.  No.  I’m American.  Born and raised in the Chicago area.”

“Oh, you look like my people…”

This conversation took place more than 15 years ago and I was soooo glad I didn’t blurt out such an ignorant reply, but I was equally disappointed in myself for even thinking to say something so atrocious.  It’s not that I was offended to be associated (by appearance) with anyone from Africa.  I was upset because it wasn’t obvious that I was American. African American.  But wait, isn’t that the same thing? Semantics?

And what exactly DOES an African American look like? That thought was more ridiculous than the possibility of me not wanting to appear of African descent.  Especially because I AM of African descent.  Not including any other race that could be mixed in my blood (especially during slavery), as far as I know, I am black.  Black, black, black.  African American.

Point: Being ‘proud to be an American’ should never dissuade you from taking pride in and knowing from whence you came!

But how can one claim the title “African American” without accepting both aspects of the title?

African.

American.

You are an American, of African descent.  Sound it out! Ah-Fri-KAH!

So why was I initially bothered by my facial similarities to someone from Ghana?
Was this a leading or trailing indicator of something deeper?
A sense of self-loathing perhaps?
Shame in my race?
A hidden desire to be white?
Confusion about who I was?

I thought about this for years, and I mean YEARS.  I eventually came to the self affirmation that I was NOT ashamed of who and what I was. But during this lengthy “talk with myself” I also realized that I had failed to embrace my place of origin. 

Unfortunately, because of the slave trade and subsequent years, records weren’t appropriately maintained of and for black people, if created at all.  There is little documentation of what happened to my family and anyone that was taken from them while serving on someone’s plantation.  Even after we were granted freedom and a life of our own, no sincere efforts were made to secure and pass down vital information to help generations to come. Something to preserve the family history and maintain its legacy. The average African American can trace back to their Great-Great (and maybe another “Great”) ascendant, but rarely further.

I look at the Family Crests and other keepsakes found in the homes of those of European descent, taking you on a journey through generations of people in different occupations, lifestyles, faiths, etc.  Fascinating. 

I have vivid memories of sitting in the home of my old friend Sofianos “Sam” Hasapis (rest in peace, my friend), listening to his father talk about “the old country” in Greece.  The problem with that? After all those hours spent with Mr. Hasapis, all I talked about was making it to Greece to see these places.  I wanted to visit Poland, after sitting in the Starykowicz home.  To visit Italy, after talking to Mr. Ricci.  Vacation in Mexico, having sat with Mrs. Porras, Mrs. Almendarez and Mr. Guerrero, who all often quizzed me on my school-learned Spanish.

But not Africa.  Never Africa.  No parents of any friends with which to discuss Mother Africa.

I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area, once known as the industrial steel center of the United States (the old railroad tracks are a testament to that), where many different ethnicities once migrated and resided in hopes of earning a decent living.  My high school was one of the most diverse schools in the region, from my father’s early years, up through the time that I attended.  You name it, there was that nationality.  Still, I can’t remember any from Africa.  There were families from Haiti, but that wasn’t Africa.

When I was young, my cousin John introduced me to African songs and lore and taught me words and phrases in Swahili.  He exposed me to Kwanzaa by taking my siblings and I to the celebration at the community centers in Chicago during the holidays.  I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, the poetry, the plays, the singing, music and the food.  And oh my, that fruit!  The fruit was everywhere, in aisles, waiting for me to take all I wanted and eat all I took.  OH, and I remember this extremely attractive woman, dancing in this beautiful royal blue-based, multi-colored dress.  She made her way to me, knelt down and softly caressed my cheek with her fingers before twirling away.  Yeahhhhhh, I’m in love! I’m going to Africa to see HER! 

(This girl was probably from the south or west side of Chicago for all I knew.)

Still, as far as education and access to information goes, other than presentations at the children’s library, that’s as far as it went.  I certainly couldn’t rely on and restrict it to the pictures of topless women with baskets on their heads in elementary school books and National Geographic magazine.

But how do we find pride in Africa when we subject ourselves to teachings, sights and sounds that teach us that we shouldn’t? Television reports and movies that depict Africa in the most derogatory fashion…

In the movie, “Primeval”, there is a memorable scene where Orlando Jones’ character got separated from the rest of the film crew while trying to escape from a giant killer crocodile.  In addition, he was trying to evade an evil warlord and his gang, all the while suffering through cuts from thorn bushes, the muddy terrain and snakes in trees.  After looking at his bloody hands and at his wit’s end, he looked up and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I HATE FUCKING AFRICAAAAAA!!”  A short while later, while walking, he muttered to himself, “I’d never say this in front of a bunch of white people, but slavery was a GOOD thing. Anything you gotta do to get the fuck out of Africa is OK with me.”

I laughed uncontrollably with the other movie viewers at the time because I thought it was hilarious.  Looking back, I am inconsolably ashamed that I found it funny to deny, insult and dishonor such a beautiful continent. MY home continent.  The place of my people. That movie line was the ultimate PR nightmare.  It reinforced the warning that whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t put Africa on your list.

Looking back at the movie, his confrontational personality was revealed early during his first exchange at customs. In the scene, he acknowledged/greeted a stranger, then fired off an challenging remark after being glared at silently, without reciprocity.

…and sadly, once upon a time, he was me.

We, as a society, have been brainwashed by Hollywood and the media to believe that Africa is such a bad thing.  Such a terrible place.  And that BEING black attaches you to everything that’s wrong in and with the world.

By the way.  “Oogah Boogah”.

Oh, come on.  Don’t act like you don’t remember that being a catch phrase, imitating Africans while pretending to hold a spear in one hand and jumping side-to-side from left foot to right.  Thank God I never did that, but I won’t act as if I’ve never seen it. 

But like I said before, I’m no saint.  During my freshman year at Florida A&M, a predominately black university, someone told me that I needed to visit Africa and learn about my home land.  I retorted, “I spent 17 years, mastering outrunning police dogs in Chicago.  If you think I’m going out to Africa, fucking with those lions, you outta yo’ dayum mind!”

This is what ignorance creates: People, like I used to be.

Point: You have to yearn to learn.  Denounce the ridicule and ignorance.  Find out about yourself, FOR yourself.  Which I did.  Thank God.

In Part 1 of this post, I shared a very VERY small list of great places to visit in Africa.  I could create an entire blog series if I wanted to dig deep enough.  I could also spend hours talking about the great people and their accomplishments.  I’m so glad that my eyes have been opened to it all.  In fact, I have to thank God for experiences and conversations that I had at a former job.  80% of the personnel were temporary associates and the great majority of them hailed from various countries in Africa (Mexico made up the second highest percentage, but it paled in comparison.).

For some of them, seeing me, a BLACK man, in a position of authority, working OVER Caucasian employees and supervisors, was as world-shaking as it was uplifting. 

A black man, telling a white man what to do? Oh my God!!!

I, myself, never thought twice about it because I’ve been in management since I was the store manager of Jeans West in a mall in Tallahassee, Florida before I was a legal adult.  Leading a team of people from various races is nothing new to me and it was never an issue.  But to others, as I was told, this was Heaven.  That thought was initially lost on me until I started feeling the love and respect that I was given.  And to look like I’m from Africa? Bonus points!  Every single New Employee Safety Orientation session that I conducted had attendees who were from Ghana.  EACH and EVERY time they told me that I looked like I was “from home”.

As a result, they all (not just the Ghanaians) accepted me as their own, following my instructions without fail.  They made meals and brought them to me, daily (I never asked them to and politely requested that they stop, to no avail).  They even came to me before talking to their OWN supervisors and team leaders.  In the cafeteria and on the production floor, they shared stories of their home countries, each trying to convince me to visit THEIR country before others. It was absolutely beautiful…

Two strange, but thought-provoking facts: There was a young Ghanaian employee that could be my oldest son’s twin and an older Ghanaian woman that could have been my mother’s sister.  Also, my sister once dated a man from Ghana who pursued her because she, wait for it, ‘looked Ghanaian’. You know what? That’s gonna have to be in another blog because there are too many funny tales to share and I don’t want to wear you guys out.  In fact, there are so many different directions that I want to take this entire post right now.  The hardest thing for me to do is talk without losing the general theme.  I feel something bigger on the horizon, so don’t be alarmed if more blogs about Africa and African Americans materialize.

As a matter of fact, any time I do business at an African-owned place of business, I find myself openly and readily received by the employees. Especially the women!  Dayum.  Can’t get my wedding ring off because it’s been stuck for years.  (I’m kidding, folks…            …I don’t wear one because it doesn’t fit and hasn’t been resized! LOL ——  Bad Kenny.  BAD Kenny!)

Another quick side-story: I once visited an African-owned auto service store at the suggestion of one of my neighbors, who was also from Africa.  It was their Grand Opening celebration.  I didn’t know this before driving down (I love grand openings because that means free EATZ!).  When I got there, I darn-near got mugged by women who I assume were relatives of the owner, all trying to make me hotdogs and drinks.  No joke.  What’s crazier is that the other customers did not receive similar treatment. And believe me, it WAS noticed.

And yes, they asked if I was from Ghana. 

Needless to say, even though I behaved, I wasn’t in any hurry to leave.  (Bad Kenny.  Bad, BAD Kenny!)

What I’m trying to say is I’m a very different person now.  I love what I’ve learned about Africa and I can’t wait to learn more.  I’m so happy to now know that I indeed am 11% Ghanaian (thanks to Ancestry DNA). I’m even more surprised to know that I am 44% Nigerian and 26% Cameroonian/Congoan. 

Speaking of “Ancestry DNA”, a comedian once said that ‘white people took us from our homeland and now we have to pay them to learn about it’.  Dayum.  That’s funny, but it’s not. 

I can’t wait to continue my conversations with my friends in and from Africa on social media.  I can’t wait to visit for an extended period.  Give me Ghana, give me Uganda, give me Nigeria, give me Cameroon.  Could I live there? Yup.  It would be an adjustment, but it would be a BEAUTIFUL life change.  And if I have to choose one, after all that I’ve learned, it will definitely be Uganda.  Kampala, the capital city, to be more specific.  Of course, Accra, Ghana is a very close second.

So, to my distant cousins in the various parts of Africa:
I’m sorry.  I am so very sorry.  

Please look beyond my ignorance, stupidity and immaturity and forgive my thoughts and actions from yesteryear.

Please welcome your brother home when and if the time comes. There is much that I look forward to learning and experiencing.

I don’t need Hollywood, painting a misleading portrait. “Holly would” and does not know what to teach me.

But Abass knows.  Ibou knows.  Siima knows.  Bunmi knows.  Sophie does too…

And to the sweet woman who innocently asked if I was ‘from HOME’:

I was born and raised in America, but I am PROUD to say that my people come from Ghana, and a few other countries. 

I am the proud son of Ghana.
I am the proud son of Nigeria.
I am the proud son of Cameroon.
I am the proud descendant from Ah-Fri-Kah!!

End

Photo from 1989, Paris, France.  Meeting representatives from Africa while practicing for the Bastille Day Celebration with my Florida A&M University “Marching 100” bandmates (That’s me seated at bottom center with the green hat. The girl next to me even kissed me. Shhh.)

Hmmmm. Interesting, but I am not afraid…

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