I went back to find out

Written by Imani Briscoe

Photo credit to Imani Briscoe ’17

A journey to the motherland

I am African-American. I was born into an Afrocentric family that celebrates Kwanzaa and recognizes Black History Month as a time to be grateful for the courageous African-Americans who fought so that one day I could find myself saying things like, “My president is black.” Recently, I was privileged enough to return to the motherland, Africa, through study abroad. I approached this opportunity with excitement. I was going home to the birthplace of my origins.  I felt that this is the place where I would find myself.

Unbeknownst to me, returning to Africa would mean questioning the identity I had grown to celebrate.

There are many layers that need to be debunked in order to have a serious discussion on the topic, including, but certainly not limited to, the stereotypical ways in which African-Americans are seen by Africans and vice-versa; the rift between the two; the similarities and differences between apartheid and segregation; the Eurocentric-standards of beauty that are hailed as being superior; and so much more.

My study abroad experience was comprised of thirteen phenomenal students attending universities from all over the U.S., from different walks of life, and took place over the course of 119 days. During this time, I had three homestay experiences. My first was in Gauteng, South Africa, my second was in Wanaheda, Namibia, and my third and final homestay was in Outapi, Namibia. During our time in each place, our student group had the opportunity to take trips to museums and universities, visit the homes of figures who played pivotal roles in the end of apartheid, hear from heads of informal settlements, and so many more incredible activities. For this, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

While abroad I was made aware of two things: that community and togetherness was a large part of the culture, and that the African-American identity is not always acknowledged. If I had a dollar for the number of times I had conversations that led to drama and arguments revolving around the topic of my “blackness,” I could pay off the rest of my college tuition. What must be understood is that, in the case of African-Americans, identity and culture can be difficult to define.

During slavery, Africans were forced to forfeit their culture and take on the identities of their white masters. Stripping an entire people of their heritage is one of the most diabolical ways of creating a disconnect in discourse. It is therefore understandable that after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves, African-Americans were left to rediscover and recreate their culture and heritage, which resulted in the merging of what was left of their known culture from Africa and their current lives in America. Today, for many cultures, ethnic groups, and races that have experienced cognizant cohesiveness, it may be difficult to understand the disconnect of a people that has been systematically and culturally dismantled.

The most memorable experience, however, was when I was confronted about my “blackness” by my host mother in Gauteng, South Africa. One night, in particular, I told her about my family and where I live in Philadelphia. I described how my parents raised my siblings and I to see ourselves not as just Americans, but as products of generations of hardships, displacement, unbroken spirit, and an unwavering will to live, prosper, and thrive. That because of the color of our skin, we would have to work twice as hard just to get to the same place as our white counterparts. We were taught that we came from queens and kings, that black is beautiful, that we were dipped in chocolate and bronzed by elegance, enameled with grace and toasted in beauty and that all life originated from Africa.

But all that came to a screeching halt when my host mother asked me, “How can you call yourself African-American?”

Dumbfounded, I responded, “Well, I’m more than just American. What history am I claiming if I only call myself American? My ancestors originated from Africa, and therefore I claim that part of my heritage.”

She responded with, “But I still don’t get it. You’re not African. You ARE American.”

At that time, what she said struck a chord. I had never, in my life, been questioned on my identity in that manner and to that degree. To be told by a South African woman, in her country, in her living room, that I was wrong about my identity was a wake-up call. It was hurtful to hear someone tell me I was wrong about who I “thought” I was. Because she is an African woman, I believe I registered her as having more say in what is and what is not “African.” I put too much of an expectation for “finding myself” into the experience, without realizing I was relying on this woman to reassure me in who I was. Really, I should have just believed in myself all along.

Looking back, I know she meant no harm in what she said and was simply stating her opinion. However, she did open my eyes to see that no matter where you go, or what you do, people will question your identity—regardless of their intentions. It is up to you and you alone to be so unshakably strong in who you are that no one can tell you differently.

You have to know yourself, and be you unapologetically.

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Imani Briscoe

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