Welcome home, Sistah

written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor teendoc; originally published at Welcome to the Dollhouse

Something about South Africa makes me believe in the improbability of blood memory, the concept that our historical roots and connections reside in some spectral remnant within our consciousness, wakening only when we visit places significant to our history…to our story. How else to explain the resonance, the sense of belonging, that overwhelms me whenever I step off the plane onto South African soil?

This may sound too far-fetched for those who know me as a data-driven empiricist. But I have yet to arrive at a scientific reason that explains the pulsating thrill of home coursing through my blood vessels with each beat of my heart during each minute I spend in the Republic of South Africa.

Like most African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans, the continent of Africa is undoubtedly my Motherland. We learned that as children. Africa is the cradle of humanity, after all. And most of we darker pigmented folk definitely originated from this cradle.

As a child of the 60s during the Black Power movement there was passion that I remember for a connection with Mother Africa. From sporting dashikis, to necklaces of the continent striped in red, black and green, to Ron Karenga and his creation of Kwanzaa, we attempted to cross the 8,000-mile divide of our Middle Passage. I remember dancing to the spinning 45s outside the record store on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata and Manu Dibango, long before rap was rap, chanting in Soul Makossa. I had no idea what countries these singers came from or what strife existed there, but the music moved me because it was African…the place that was the home to us all.

Unfortunately, around the time I was 7, I moved to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, and lost what little connection I might have had to africentrism. I became indoctrinated in the Western concept of Africa. You know what this means…Africa as one giant, backwards country filled with grass huts and scantly clad people with bones through their noses. My dear mother sneered at her West Indian roots, so you could only imagine what she felt about Africa.

And for me, this transition to California and life with her was such a painful one. I was a 7-year-old third-grader whose mother expected her to be an au pair for her 2-year-old sister and 2-month-old brother. And in school I was the target of such abuse for being different, for being black, and for being dark-skinned. It was my first time hearing “the n-word,” my first time being teased for my color, and my first experience with being told to “go back to Africa!” The other kids feared touching me because the black might rub off. Even the teacher took umbrage at being given the black kid for her class. She told my mother at the parent-teacher conference, “You might have gotten to be a doctor, but your daughter is too stupid to amount to anything.” Of course, Mom took this out on me for making her look bad. It was not the time, you might surmise, that I took pride in being black.

Fast forward to my first year at Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles. Jimmie Walker and Redd Foxx were the representations of black America on television. I spent most of my time trying to blend into the woodwork. Please don’t notice me, my color, my hair, my difference…please! Ah, one of the few chocolate chips in a vast sea of vanilla. I dreaded anyone noticing my race, because that noticing was never good and generally involved an application of the n-word. But then came the television event of the decade! Of the century! Of all time! Then came Alex Haley’s Roots. Suddenly everything was shot to hell.

At first, I mistakenly didn’t think it would be so bad after the first Sunday night installment. It was gripping and powerful in its depiction of the cruelty of the slave trade, the Middle Passage, and life as 3/5ths of a human being. But by the next day in school my classmates began coming up to me with true sorrow on their faces. “I’m sorry for what my people did to your people,” they would intone with the utmost gravity. What was I– now an 11-year-old incognegro–supposed to say to that? “On behalf of my people everywhere, I forgive you?” Somehow that didn’t seem right.

In truth what I wanted to say was, “Why are you burdening me with this– your guilt? All I want is to be left alone. I’ve got enough crap on my own plate!” Those words were never said, though. I’d just offer a pained, confused smile and walk away, wishing I could just hide…maybe for the rest of my life.

Luckily people and societies evolve. The next major evolutionary period was heralded with the start of The Cosby Show. Black professionals, married, functional with children? Did such people exist? Well, duh! I told you that we didn’t all live in junkyards or the projects! We moved beyond the depictions of black life created by Norman Lear and onto the post-racial era. (Of course, those of you who know me understand that I use the term post-racial oh so facetiously.) But The Cosby Show changed everything…like a shift from records to CDs. Suddenly Roots became a memory and slavery and its consequences were something that happened long, long ago. Every person of color had the potential to live The Cosby Show dream…or so a whole lot of majority people I knew seemed to think. Sigh… Let me not go any further off on this tangent.

Now this digression from Africa to my sorry history with my ethnic identity has gone on long enough. Let’s conclude the matter by saying that I eventually threw aside the neutral grey cloak that I hid behind to embrace my inner sista-gurl during my college years. There’s something about being around a tiny number of scary-smart, overeducated black folk at an Ivy League university that can end up setting things right in a confused gurl’s head. Later, upon attending an HBCU for medical school (and that’s an historically black college or university, for those not in the know), I got teased a lot with the, “it’s a good thing you chose to come here to an HBCU for med school so that you’ll finally learn what’s it’s like to be black” ridiculosity from many of my classmates. I just smiled politely, thinking, when are you more aware of being black, when you are 7% of the student body or 97% of the student body? You do the math. The net of it was that I found my place, my politics, and my sociocultural home.

However, though there is amazing peace to be found within the black American diaspora, there remains a sense of otherness within many of us here. We recognize how different we are from what is conjured in the mind when the word “American” is envisioned. Sure, we are American, but our difference requires a qualifier, “African.” Yes, everyone knows that there are black Americans, Latino Americans, and American Muslims. Yet when you have a casting call for Americans, our faces aren’t generally the ones first considered. There’s a lingering sense of otherness I’m not sure will ever leave me in America. And yes, I am aware that we have a black President. Puleeze do not pull that out to illustrate anything against what I’m saying, for the love of the Goddess!

Right…so back to South Africa.

The first time I visited, back in 2005, the circumstances were very different. I wasn’t sure what to expect traveling there for fertility treatments as half of an interracial couple. I think I was expecting the South African version of that old Chuck Conners movie that haunted my cross-country traverses, Nightmare in Badham County. (And remember that it’s the sista who dies in the end…enuf said) I don’t think I was just being paranoid. If you look at the parallels, life immediately after slavery was no picnic for blacks, so it seemed to me that life post-Apartheid would be uh, challenging as well.

Luckily what I found, at least in the areas that I visited, was a country that had truly shined light onto its dark ugliness with the hope of not repeating its racist past. No, it was not some hidden away utopia without conflict or strife. Poverty remained profound with unemployment at staggering rates. There were huge infrastructural issues to be overcome. Yet everywhere I went, from the townships to the high-end spas, people seemed to be buoyed in some measure by hope. I suppose that if you can overcome one of the last bastions of state-sanctioned racism, there is a feeling that perhaps infrastructural issues can also eventually be overcome.

Between my now three visits to the Republic of South Africa, I became enthralled by its history: from the San people, to the Boer Wars, to official Apartheid (1948 to 1992). And then there is my hero worship of Papa Nelson Mandela. It started with my visit to Robben Island, the prison where they sought to break his spirit, to my most recent visit to his Vilikazi Street home, and the powerful Apartheid Museum. I am in awe of the man’s strength, his passion, his patience, and his capacity to unite a country. Oh yes, he had many allies and did nothing singlehandedly, but still, I must give Papa Mandela his due.

The funny thing is that I loathe history! I can barely remember what happened when in my own country, but for some unknown reason, South Africa affects me in ways that I cannot explain.

It hit me again during a dinner two weeks ago in Cape Town. I was meeting with some scientific leaders, one Afrikaner and one white Catholic (I had just learned that during Apartheid there was equal if not worse animus between Afrikaners and Catholics/Anglican/British descendants as there were between whites, colored and natives). The Catholic woman had just declared quite firmly, “I’m a 52-year-old white woman who was born in South Africa during Apartheid. By this very definition that makes me racist. There’s no way around it.” I found myself wondering whether people in the US could ever be so clearheaded about the natural human tendency toward racism and the many other “isms” we have. She bantered back and forth with the other physician and then turned to me and asked, “What part of Africa is your family from?”

I responded with a blink, wondering if I had misheard the question. This wasn’t a US-type “go back to Africa!” epithet. Nor was it one of those stupidwhitepeople questions I’ve gotten like, “so, did you grow up in the ghetto?” This woman actually wondered whether I knew my connection to the Motherland. Whoa! Snap!
Finally I stopped the internal dialogue and answered, “I have no idea,” with a sad shake of my head.

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I replied, “Most of us black Americans don’t know our African origins. We lost that bit in slavery.”

“Well,” she said with a sad shake of her head, “it must be terrible not having a connection to the place you came from.”

Maybe it was the wine, or the noise, or the lack of sleep, but suddenly I felt an uncomfortable dizziness. Her words kept reverberating in my head: it must be terrible not having a connection to the place you came from it must be terrible not having a connection to the place you came from it must be terrible not having a connection to the place you came from itmustbeterriblenothavingaconnectiontotheplaceyoucamefrom!
My homeland. A disconnection. Sure, I am American but at the same time I am other in America, different. My family comes from St. Kitts in the former British West Indies, and I feel a stronger connection to my West Indian heritage. But beyond that…what is my connection to the land of my ancestors? Am I Xhosa, Zulu…what blood runs in my veins? And why does it pulse stronger whenever I am in South Africa? Is it possible that my blood holds memory that my consciousness does not?

I wish I had answers…concrete, empirical answers that could satisfy both scientist and mystic. I suspect there are none to be had. All I can say is that when I walk down a street in South Africa, whether Soweto township or Camps Bay beachfront enclave, a black South African will always greet me with, “Welcome home, sistah.” And I know from the thrum of the blood coursing through my vessels, that I am absolutely, undoubtedly home.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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