When I was 10 or so, my father won an all-expense paid trip to Senegal. “We’re going to Africa!” my mother gleefully exclaimed. So we took the Amtrak train to New York to fly out of JFK and ignored the warnings of a pending Nor’easter, thinking the sheer and desperate determination of three Black Americans to make it to Africa would hold off the worst of the snow until we were airborne.

It didn’t. New York City was shut down for three days, and by the time the airports opened, it didn’t make sense to fly out. We pushed the trip back indefinitely, and never made it. And so began my obsession with Africa, the place my even-tempered mother spoke of like it was some sort of Disneyland for Black people.

Some Black Americans, and I’m referring mostly to those that call Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina their “Old Country,” tend to be awe-struck at the idea Africa, like Nas at the end of Belly. Once we get a full picture beyond what we’re taught in school, where the largest continent and birthplace of all mankind is reduced to being the starting point for the Atlantic Slave Trade, there becomes an eagerness to migrate back across the Atlantic. The yearning is not unlike some immigrants who seek entrance to American shores. Except we’re not seeking the opportunities and streets of gold that Fievel and his family expected; we’re seeking the “home” that the Middle Passage erased.

I get why. For many American Blacks, the overall American experience has never really felt like a place where you can kick up your feet and recline all the way back. You get moments where that happens, of course, but then you also get a startling awakening— like when people are surprised you don’t have any children out-of-wedlock, or you happen to be “so articulate,” or despite carrying a purse while you shop, you find yourself explaining “No, no, actually I don’t work here.” Those things remind you not to get too comfy. America is home in the sense of being the devil you know, a bit like a stereotypical step-child, the one you tolerate but don’t really love like your own.

In recent weeks those feelings have surfaced again for many who struggle to make sense of the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s killer walking around freely, the ignorance displayed in conservative columnist John Derbyshire’s piece for The National Review where he wrote of advising his children to avoid Black folk, and the obnoxiousness of those Twitter-racists who found outrage in a sympathetic book character being Black or Awkward Black Girl landing the Shorty Award for best web-series. I find, similar to Cinderella, we dream of an escape to a place where we fit, like a glass slipper on the correct foot. For me, that place was Africa, any country, any part.

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  • I’m an American-Born Nigerian who identifies primarily as a Nigerian-American woman. But that’s the catch. When I visit Nigeria, I am considered American. My English is a “white, American English” not the British/broken English that my people speak. I look like them, but I don’t sound like them.

    Africans in the Diaspora have to deal with cultural displacement as well.

    And yes, Africa is much to large to have a general experience. I’m sure if I went to South Africa or Eritrea or Tanzania I would have to adjust.

  • Dear Belle,

    This last paragraph from your blog was unsettling (although honest!):
    “My trip to Africa was the sh**. I made friends. I went to great parties. I stood in clouds. I saw breathtaking views. I got a song trapped in my head that I still can’t get out. I had a great time that I shared with a lot of people. I liked Jozi so much I looked at real estate. Oh, and I dropped the “African-“ from the way I identify myself. I’d say that’s a great trip.”

    I think you are still generalizing Africa.
    WHENEVER someone travels to an African country and still says just “Africa”, I cringe.
    I dunno, am I overreacting here?

    The honesty that I LOVE is your blatant desire to drop “African” from your identification. I have never seen it illustrated that way and I think that says a lot about the Black American/African relationship. Maybe that is a way to begin clarifying definitions, instead of accusing one another.

    I just wish there wasn’t such a divide…

    • Ice

      I don’t understand what is the cringe with saying “Africa”? People say they are traveling to Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East? We are quite aware that AFRICA is a continent and not a COUNTRY! And besides the Continent was never originally called Africa anyway…but that is a whole other conversation for another time! Geesh!

  • I don’t know where to begin with this.

    I think part of the problem with American Blacks being alienated from (and being alienating to) other Black ethnic groups is the very term “African American.” I will get flack for this but here goes: it is not accurate. From my perspective, people are co-opting “third world”, post-colonial experiences that they know absolutely nothing about: the Black American reality is *extremely* different from any other Black ethnic group in the world. The term assumes a direct ancestry and almost unbroken cultural heritage — that’s completely false. American culture with its radical individualism is radically different from any other in the world. When you contrast it with African culture, the differences are dramatic. The more appropriate term for the Black population here would be “Africans and African descendants.” That terminology is simply true of all Black people in America.

    I also suspect that there is a cultural chauvinism and arrogance that is a mimicry of the general American outlook on the outside world. There’s a weird assumption of superiority and ownership, and Americans tend to erroneously think they have an objective, authoritative understanding of other peoples’ cultures: it’s imperialist.

    I cringed as the author described Africa as a “Disneyland,” and the repeated references to “Africa” as though it was a country. Americans abroad tend to treat the rest of the world as existing for their pleasure or enlightenment and tend not to perceive or understand people on their own terms. American Blacks react to ideas about African and other Black nations in the same way White Americans react to ideas about Europe. There’s a lot of paternalism, jingoism, and condescension, without a healthy respect.

    I’ve known White Americans who regularly visit India as some sort of spiritual escape, all while claiming Indians seem “happy” in poverty. I’ve known White men who’ve gone to Northeast Asia to have sex with Asian women, as though ordinary rules of decency and ethics didn’t apply. Are American Blacks starting to treat “Africa” as some place over which they can claim ownership, while not even acknowledging or comprehending the lived experiences of Africans, who often do NOT get to speak for themselves about their tribes/nations/people? I hope not.

    • Ice

      Yes you will definitely get flack because your comment is absolutely ignorant and typical. First of all, do you even know the history of black people in America? Because it seems as if you don’t. Let me give you a little understanding of MY PEOPLE….Black Americans never asked to be kidnapped from the continent and sold as HUMAN CATTLE. We never asked for our identity to be stripped away from us. We never asked to be sold on auction blocks like OBJECTS. We never asked to have the last names of our slave master’s. We never asked to be forced to speak our slave master’s language or salute his flag or practice his religion. We never asked to be raped, lynched, burnt alive and whipped. We never asked to be oppressed and tortured for 400 years!

      So now that we actually want to go back to where our ancestors were KIDNAPPED (that by the way we pay out of OUR OWN pockets because we never got reparations for OUR HOLOCAUST)…you want to CONDEMN us! Wow, talk about being insensitive to my people’s 400 years of slavery and oppression! You claim that we’re going back to the Mother land simply for pleasure and enlightenment? Well yes for ENLIGHTMENT because OUR history before SLAVERY was ERASED! Yes for pleasure, pleasure to learn more about OUR history and to find some ANSWERS! Maybe you should step into the shoes of Black people who were descendants of slaves so you can have a better understanding of our struggle because clearly you just don’t get it!

      Black people in America don’t think we’re superior or think we claim OWNERSHIP (as you say) to the continent of Africa! The name African-American came about because our identity was ROBBED from us! When slaves came over to the Americas, they labeled us BY NUMBERS not by TRIBES! So once again, our identity was STRIPPED AWAY FROM US! Something AGAIN we never asked for! We NEVER asked to be in the UNITED STATES! We were FORCED HERE unlike immigrants who come here on their OWN will! And it’s not just Black people in America, slavery happened all over! Black people in Latin America, India, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and in the Caribbean…we all have at least one thing in common! We all lost our identity and we will never know WHAT OUR true identity is because that shipped has sailed! Then you had the NERVE to imply that Black Americans are IMPERLAIST! That is comedy! The people who are victims of Imperialism are called the Imperialist! We’ve never BEEN in a position of power to be Imperialist! Maybe you should learn the definition of Imperialism! This is like white people claiming that black people are the true racist! LOL I can’t! Then you compare Black Americans reaction to “Africa” the same way White Americans react to “Europe”. Hmmm….do Black people and White people have the same history? NO! Difference is White people migrated to the Americas on their own and Blacks were KIDNAPPED and brought over to the Americas as SLAVES!! So no, our reactions are different because of how we came to the Americas from our original homelands.

      You are the definition of an insensitive a$$hole just like those white slave masters.

      P.S. You have an issue with the author saying Africa instead of saying a specific country, hmmm funny how you did the same thing…”in the same way White Americans react to ideas about EUROPE.”, “I’ve known White men who’ve gone to Northeast Asia” and “I cringed as the author described Africa as a “Disneyland” you just referred to Europe, Africa, and Asia as if they’re COUNTRIES! Got to love hypocrites! lol

  • As a BlackAmerican who has lived in Gambia, going to the motherland as a continent, was healing for me, though i was only on a small part of her being, I felt as though I was born again. It was a necessary journey and one that made me see all that we as african americans are missing. We are missing so much, because we don’t have a culture anymore in america. It is gone to mass culprit media, all sold out and washed up, and we’re just descendants of free labor who remain in the bottom of its belly…america. In Africa I felt like a human being, and not a black this or that, but a human being, a part of this sum total of a whole people, whether rich or poor, I was connected. I had to find out how African people live, and understand how its been so misrepresented and our ignorance as African americans is daunting. I will always pride myself in living there, and will always try to remain.

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