Thoughts on "Not African Enough in Africa"

For some time, I’ve had a policy of not commenting on the posts I write. As a writer, I choose my words carefully, so that each conveys what I intend. Readers may take my meaning from it, or they may not. Each person brings their perspective to the screen and that naturally effects how they receive the message.  I learned many years ago that you can never really tell how a piece will go over with an audience. That said, I’m not at all that surprised that most of  the comments on “Not African Enough in Africa” were, well… such a clusterf**k. Several years ago, I wrote a two-part series about the sometimes conflicts between Africans, African-Americans and Caribbeans. I revealed some less than flattering comments that had been said to me about Americans from some Caribbeans and then spoke of some ignorant things I’d picked up as a child about Africans. Like “Not African Enough in Africa”, that story hit a lot of exposed nerves, revealed some ugly truths and opened many wounds. The comments section got ugly. After hundreds of replies to each post, I closed the comment section just to end all the insults (and not just at me, but at other commenters) and in-fighting. After that, I stayed away from similar topics. I knew the issues discussed were a deep problem. And I didn’t have a solution or see a way of effectively talking it out or through it, especially when, just like the Clutch post, people were reading what they wanted to see, not what was there.  So I figured the topic was better left alone.

I decided to write “Not African Enough in Africa” because it was something that I’d been thinking about, even before I headed to South Africa in January. (As many of you know, I’ve been writing a book about my travels over the last few months, sort of a Black Girl’s “Eat, Pray, Love”.)  Four years ago, a co-worker had returned from Ghana and had a similar experience to the one I would in South Africa, which is to say she loved the country, loved the people, loved the culture, but she didn’t “fit” the way she thought she would. She’d headed from the East Coast to West Africa hoping to see the slave castles and to duck and wobble her way through the Door of No Return, just as, so  the mythology goes,  her ancestors had centuries before. And she did that.

But she’s Black American like me. And though she had her “full circle” moment in Ghana, she’d also over-hyped what her experience would be. She expected to “fit”, not in the sense that an old woman at a market would spot her, hold her face and declare her exact tribe and ancestry (that’s a Black American urban legend, so you know), but that she would sort of blend into the rhythm of Accra. She’d learned the greetings, and the proper way to address elders, the modest way to dress to show respect.

She noticed while she was there that everyone called her a name, one she couldn’t find in all the translation guides she’d brought with her.  Someone finally translated it for her: clear.  She was heartbroken.  She wasn’t some Black American expecting to be “declared Mama Africa” as a commenter on Clutch put it, or as another said, that all of Africa “ stopped living to mourn your loss and will feel this sense of relief when you return.” She expected to fade into the background, to be just another link in the chain while she got giddy in her head about all the Black people everywhere – and in power!-- and go unnoticed.

I approached South Africa a similar way, reading travel guides and books, which had to be searched out. Most American guides to South Africa are about safaris, apartheid museums and if you’re lucky Cape Town. Jozi is snuck in as an international fly-thru to get to Durban or Cape Town. Most of the Jozi information I found was warnings to beware of the great danger and all the places you should avoid.

I’m not sure how the idea that I showed up in South Africa as an “ugly American” took hold, a popular sentiment among commenters. I showed up open, giddy about everything, from driving on the left for the first time to the bookstores that overflowed with magazines that featured Black people on the cover to actually just being in “O.M.G. Africa!” I gushed on Twitter and twit-pic’d to share with my followers. I was frustrated as f*** about the Internet situation—ie, the friend I was staying with didn’t have wi-fi and my AT&T plan, the one I paid extra for, didn’t work on the whole continent. That’s a problem, when you have a story due the following morning, and it’s a stateside problem as well. Other than the chick with the sunglasses, that’s the only thing I was really annoyed by. Everything else was observations and revelations.

More than anything, I just wanted to see people, do whatever it was they did. See as much as I could of  a place that I’d been wanting to go to since I was 10. I watched and observed and when I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, I asked a million questions. An ugly American? Hardly. I was gushing and marveling at near everything, but not everything. I’m not a publicist.

But an American? Definitely. Just like I can spot a New York tourist (or a fresh New Yorker, they’re just too damn nice) immediately, South Africans could spot me as an American.  I can spot a visitor or newbie in the way they move, the details of how they put their clothes together. There’s a South African “style” in the same way one exists for Paris or London or Brooklyn. And I didn’t have it. The same can be said for my features. Some people I met looked exactly like Black Americans, most didn’t. Why would they when they’re not Black Americans? I look like a Black American. I don’t understand why there was contention over that observation.

Maybe I should have gushed more in the initial piece so people who are used to their home – South Africa, or Africa in general-- being shat upon by Americans would know that what I was writing wasn't one of "those" stories. That’s the only reason I can fathom that so many commenters created sentences and sentiments that didn’t exist in what I wrote. As some commenters pointed out, there really wasn't anything to jump to the defense for or go into attack mode over.  I thought about adding some superfluous lines, but I don’t write press releases or travel guides. That also wasn’t the point.

For clarity, “Not African Enough in Africa” was written to debunk the myths that Black Americans are sold about Africa. Not the stuff about it being populated with huts, bloated babies and people chucking spears; a Google search can take care of that. But another myth, one that’s not often talked about, but can really screw people up when they’re dreaming of some place called “Home” like Stephanie Mills and you find out it doesn’t exist.

Many Black Americans suspend logic to imagine there’s a place on the other side of the Atlantic where they “belong” since so many don’t feel that happens here. The desire for a place where you feel like you just are allows for logic to be defied. People do it in bad relationships and over absentee fathers every day. I don’t understand why it’s so surprising in this context.  It’s not logic. It’s not ignorant. It’s hope for something better than the hand you’ve been dealt, an idea that keeps you going much like Christianity’s promise of suffering in life and getting your rewards at the pearly gates. If you don’t have that, then what? (That’s actually where I was hoping the conversation would go. Eh. All good though.)

The mythology and reality that allow for the suspended logic are literally the first 500 words of “Not African Enough in Africa”. The next 700 expose the knee-slapping joke that’s been had on Black Americans who hold up all of Africa and any part of Africa as our specialized Motherland. We’re Americans who are Black and that’s all. The story was in no way an indictment of what’s wrong with South Africa or Africa in general (if I thought it sucked specifically or generally, I’d just say that.) I could have  spoken greetings in all 10 of South Africa’s other official languages (and none of them would have enabled me to answer a question about sunglasses) and I could have been in Ghana or Nigeria, or Tanzania or any other country in the world and I wouldn’t “fit” because squares don’t fit in circles.  That there are Black Americans who are willing to try is an indictment of what’s wrong with America, a problem that I only picked up on when I got to South Africa and realized no, really, this “I’m so American” feeling isn’t just what happens when I travel thru the UK and Europe. That’s really just what I am, no hyphen necessary to pay homage to roots that were severed. My bad, I was bamboozled, maybe I just wanted to be.

Realizing that didn’t ruin my trip though. It didn’t turn me off to South Africa, the continent of Africa or any of Her other countries, a popular yet baffling sentiment in the Clutch comments section that was in no way even implied in the story, especially as I’ve already started hounding a friend to take me to Lagos with him when he goes to visit his fam in December. I loved South Africa, I just won't be  going back there, or any other place, searching for needles in haystacks.

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.