Whys and wherefores

I am an American, but I am also Ghanaian. It’s difficult for me to have a conversation with a new person without Ghana coming up. My face is Ghanaian, my name is Ghanaian, I understand Twi (but speak less fluently than I once did, because I forget how to say things). Fried plantains and bean stew, nkatekwan with goat, and fufu are comfort foods for me.

I grew up in central Pennsylvania, far from the urban centers that Africans in the United States tend to congregate in. Partly because there weren’t many black people, and partly because of my parents’ efforts to instill ethnic pride in me and my siblings, I always thought of myself as Ghanaian. Our gatherings were filled with Africans from various countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and more.

I spent some time in school in Ghana and England, which made me see at a young age that many things about culture are arbitrary. Just because Americans don’t let 6-year-olds use knives didn’t mean that they couldn’t be trusted to sharpen their pencils with razor blades in a school in Ghana. The identical cereal could be put into different boxes with different mascots in it by the same company in different countries, and it would still be the same cereal.

It wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I really began to think of myself as an American. That shift was extremely dislocating for me, because although I had spent almost all of my life in the United States, there were so many things that I couldn’t relate to. I no longer knew where I belonged. As far as I was concerned, I belonged nowhere.

When I went to college, I became even more aware of something that I had noticed but never really had to deal with–a divide between Africans and African-Americans. I was friendly with people on either side, but never really felt comfortable with either group. I felt not African enough for Africans, and not “black” enough for African-Americans. It didn’t help when one guy asked me, in sort of a condescending way, why I considered myself African. I couldn’t think of an answer.

I realized that I felt most at ease with people like me, people who had grown up in multiple countries, or at least with a tie “back home.” People with whom I never had to explain myself, and could just be who I was. It didn’t matter if they were Nigerian, Indian, or Chinese.

But because of their numbers, Indian- and Chinese-Americans had a presence in popular culture. It certainly wasn’t all good, but people knew they existed. It frustrated me that Africans seemed to be left out of the political discourse about black people in the United States. To me, it felt like Africans were invisible except as starving people in war-torn areas who existed only to be pitied or mocked for their backward ways. None of the talent, generosity, and humor of the Africans I knew was visible.

At the same time, I began seeing and hearing African names all over the place: in the credits of movies, read at Ivy League graduations, by-lines of newspaper and magazine articles, the NCAA basketball tournament, and more. I started keeping track of them, mentally and on paper, realizing that we were all over the place.

And so began a dream to make everyone see what I saw. Years later, I came across a description of “The AfroPolitan Project” on Racialicious, which linked to this essay:
“What is an Afropolitan?” by Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu.

While the term Afropolitan made me uneasy, the essay described that sense of feeling in-between and having to define your own identity. Searching for that term allowed me to plug back into what had been going on while I’d been sleeping: we were taking over. I felt a new urgency to start the project that has been stewing in my mind for probably more than a decade, because otherwise, it would get to the point where there would be too much cool stuff for me to keep track of (and it may already be too late for that).

Tuakli-Wosornu writes, “And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is, necessarily. It is high time the African stood up.”

I agree. So here begins a chronicle of the African Takeover.

Leave a Reply