It has been 12 days since Jesse Williams gave his impassioned speech on the value of Black lives at the 2016 BET Awards. Four days since America celebrated its Founding Fathers’ war to escape the fate that many African and Caribbean nations faced: being a colony of Great Britain, complete with colorful simulated explosions aka fireworks. Yet we have come right back to the same sickeningly familiar place: black men dead at the hands of American police officers.
One, Philando Castile, was shot to death in front of his girlfriend and their daughter as his girlfriend documented his murder on Facebook live. Another, Alton Sterling, was murdered while two police visibly had both of his hands restrained. Now several officers in Dallas, Tex., are dead, another black man was falsely and very publicly accused of being involved, and everyone is on pins and needles as this unofficial war on black lives gets uglier and uglier.
Yesterday, I flew home into this firestorm after spending some few months in Ghana. The outrage that greeted me was disorienting but familiar. It is rooted in a paradox that has haunted African Americans at least since the government voted to recognize that we were not 3/5 of a human being but actual citizens of the land our ancestors toiled in for free, for centuries. It is the horror of being unwelcome in the only home you actually know.
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It is politically popular in some circles for African-Americans to declare that Africa is our home. And so it is, ancestrally. The modern reality is a little different, though. It is a home that we have not lived in for in a very long time, and the distant relatives who still live there greet us with a mixed reception. Some warmly and genuinely regard us as long-lost family members who have finally returned. Others treat us as obroni, oyinbo, mzungu – the very people whose oppression we came to escape – or worse, akata. Others yet see us as a walking wallet and instantly overcharge us or ask us – total strangers to them – for support because our diluted melanin clearly marks us as ambassadors from the land of dollar bills. Do I need to mention the way western TV and music images (mis)shape the beliefs many Africans in the continent hold about my people in the USA?
Aside these occurrences, one of the biggest challenges I faced was the language barrier – being in so many social situations where conversations were taking place all around me, and I could not understand let alone contribute. I tried to humble myself like a toddler who is just learning to speak, knowing that it takes time to learn one or more local languages. But I cried like a toddler too at times – the delay it caused in my ability to really connect with the people in my community was hard on my ego and my sense of belonging. The next time I come, I will be sure to pack more patience and be more diligent in my vocabulary studies.
Back in America, I can understand easily what is being said in standard English and “Ebonics” – our Black American pidgin. I can walk into a market with confidence and shop without debating. I can connect deeply with people who have known me my entire life. I can participate in our African-American culture just as smoothly as a Ghanaian who is attending an engagement or outdooring or funeral. There is a comfort level in these experiences that was missing for me in Ghana.
But as soon as I step out of the hood, out of my family home, out of what’s left of my once-Chocolate City, a portion of my fellow citizens are ever ready to remind me that we are not really welcome here, that in this nation, we have always had to fight for our right to just be. It could be as mild as a look or a slick remark – the microaggressions that make you want to slap someone but stuff that rage inside your soul because you know that the blame would instantly shift from the person’s provocation to your overreaction. I pray that I never face the other extreme – a police officer filling my body with bullets because I did not bow down low enough and make him feel powerful enough to spare my life.
Today, we are mourning for Philando and Alton. But as a woman, my mind always returns to Sandra Bland. She was not a criminal. She was an intelligent, vocal woman like me, smoking a cigarette in her own vehicle, minding her own business on the way to start a new chapter in her life.
To be Black in America is to be constantly on alert. To fear the police cruiser that pulls up behind your car or worse, signals you to pull over. To recognize that the leader of your country – who after several centuries finally “looks like you” – still can’t do anything to bring these killers of your people to justice. To read comments online and realize that you share this “land of liberty” with a lot of people who are ever ready to justify police – or civilians – killing black people in cold blood, no matter the circumstances. To worry that you or someone you know will be the next hashtag.
These are very difficult realities to explain to someone who has never lived in America, whose education system barely teaches their own history, let alone the history of Black oppression in the West. It is nearly impossible to convince people who are tired of struggling in the continent with upside-down currency and widespread unemployment while encountering “been-tos” who return with all the trappings of material success; white volunteers or NGO workers who come bearing gifts like schools, libraries, and other social investments; their own forms of oppression that are more tribal than racial; and oppressors who look just like them.
I can relate to such “Black on Black” violence and oppression. It is a fact that more African Americans are killed by other African Americans than by police. The problem is not disconnected from our oppression in America, but if I go off on that tangent, I may never get back to the subject at hand. Let me say that I wholeheartedly disagree with the people who use this internal violence to chastise us for loudly opposing police brutality. More Americans die at the hands of other Americans than from terrorists, but that never stopped America from bombing and invading any country it accuses of harboring hostile groups 15 years after the nation was attacked.
It hurts me to see and sense the fear and confusion in my fellow African Americans. The mothers and fathers who hug their small children tight and try to explain to them what is happening, who worry about the safety of their older children – especially the males – every time they leave the house or get behind the wheel of a car. I ache for the ones who are ready to march and pray yet again, and for the ones who want to fight but fear it is a losing battle against a highly organized and equipped adversary. The ones who want to demand reparations from a country that is seriously considering Donald Trump for President. The ones who still can’t understand how people can be so hateful towards us even after centuries of racial terror.
Yes, we live in America, the land of plenty from the perspective of many people in developing countries. Yes, we can come and go without waiting for a visa lottery or enduring a lengthy interview at the embassy. But money is not all – a fact that many people in these same countries know well. The lab tech in Accra who diagnosed me with my first case of malaria shared this quote with me to that effect:
Money can buy you a bed, but not sleep. Money can buy you a clock, but not time. Money can buy you a book, but not knowledge. Money can buy you a position, but not respect. Money can buy you medicine, but not health. Money can buy you blood, but not life, and money can buy you sex, but not love.
So dollars be damned, I want an out for us if we cannot live in this country with peace and dignity. Last year, some African Americans started the #WeWantToComeHome campaign, arguing that the African Union or somebody needs to grant us refugee status. I wish Africa was ready for us to come home. I wish we were ready for Africa. Not everyone – some don’t want to go and some don’t need to come because as Marcus Garvey said, they are up to no good in America and would bring the same confusion to the motherland.
A select group of brave, pioneering souls have already relocated to various nations in the continent, or even to majority Black countries in the Caribbean. Yet there is so much work to be done on both sides before mass repatriation could be a reality. Cultural understanding, spiritual and psychological healing, infrastructure development, and legal immigration status are just a few of the things that would need to be worked out, especially if we want to avoid a repeat of the Americo-Liberians’ repatriation after slavery, when Blacks from the United States came over feeling superior to the Krios and other native-born Liberians. The last thing we need to do is come back and further destabilize the continent.
To me, that work is the value of the United Nations declaring this to be the Decade for Persons of African Descent. People are already reviving Malcolm X’s aim to bring our case to the UN as a human rights issue. On a broader level, if we do not use this time and space to bridge the Olduvai-sized gorge that opened up between Africans from the continent and African-descended people in the Western hemisphere around the time of the transatlantic slave trade, if we do not intensify our efforts to use our collective strengths and resources to reduce our respective problems, if we do not spend as much time building global African institutions as we do building the interests of global European and American institutions, then what is the point of calling ourselves Pan-African?