Monday, December 17, 2012

I'm not African

I was chatting with someone a few weeks ago, when I made reference to the politics of various ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago. When I used the word "black" to describe the group to which I ostensibly belong, she stopped me and - ever so politely - corrected me to "African."

I paused for a second, but I gave in. I did this for two reasons:
  1. We were talking about something else and didn't want to get side-tracked in the little bit of time that we had.
  2. I didn't think an explanation of why I don't identify as "African" would be appropriate at the time and in that setting. 
I've noticed that people who do identify as African tend to become offended by that revelation. So, just this once, I went a long to get along. Always with the intention of correcting the misconception at a later date. I haven't had the chance to do so yet, though, and it's crossed my mind a few times since, so I figured I'd write it out.

So, here are the four reasons that I don't identify as African:
  1. I grew up in a time and place (90s NY) where it was ok to identify as "black" rather than Afro-whatever-country-you're-born/raised-in. This was particularly lucky for me because - as a girl who was born in T&T but raised in America - I wouldn't have known whether to call myself African-American or Afro-Trinidadian. Which brings me to my next point:
  2. "African" is not a race. There are people of various races born on the African continent every day. They are African (because they're born there) but that designation is no indication of their race. In fact, it's not even an indication of their nationality because...
  3. Africa is not a country. It's a continent. People born in the myriad countries of that continent tend to identify with their country of origin, rather than the entire continent, because each country tends to have its own distinct culture. In fact, it seems to me that the only folks who would label a South African, Nigerian and Egyptian as "Africans" are people outside of Africa. I imagine folks outside of South America would lump Brazilians, Venezuelans and Chileans together, too. I never hear anyone referring to Canadians as Americans, though. Even though, technically (continentally) they are.
  4. My last (and most important) reason for rejecting "African" as my racial designation also happens to be the simplest (and most controversial): I'm not African. I wasn't born there and I wasn't raised there. Aside from the texture of my hair and the color of my skin (which are softened and lightened respectively by my mixed-race father), I have no means of tracing my roots back to any specific part of Africa short of DNA analysis. 
We have slavery to thank for that. Put simply, the global institution managed to obscure the history and culture of various peoples, leaving us to create something new using myriad influences from where-ever we ended up. 

My people ended up here, in the Caribbean, on the twin-island nation of T&T. My people embraced roti as much as callalloo and Chutney as much as  Soca. 

I am a Trinbagonian by birth. Full-stop. 

If you must refer to me by race, feel free to call me "black". I was raised with none of the negative connotations of the word, so to me it signifies a strong, enduring people of various shades, textures and tongues. 

Of course, this might all sound like a dismissal of the linage from which I descend. It might seem as if I'm dismissing my ancestors, those who survived slavery so that I could be here.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

I respect and admire the range of cultures on the African continent that have survived repeated attempts to stomp them into submission. It breaks my heart to know that I and countless others of African descent (yes, I'm fine with that designation where logically applied) will live our lives without any real understanding of where our ancestors came from and how we got from there to here. But embracing some nebulous idea of what it means to be African wouldn't fix that any more than embracing whatever culture gave my father his curly hair, light skin and light brown eyes.

I am what I am, and what I am is a Trinidad-born, American-raised black woman.

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