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When I was 10 or so, my father won an all-expense paid trip to Senegal. “We’re going to Africa!” my mother gleefully exclaimed. So we took the Amtrak train to New York to fly out of JFK and ignored the warnings of a pending Nor’easter, thinking the sheer and desperate determination of three Black Americans to make it to Africa would hold off the worst of the snow until we were airborne.

It didn’t. New York City was shut down for three days, and by the time the airports opened, it didn’t make sense to fly out. We pushed the trip back indefinitely, and never made it. And so began my obsession with Africa, the place my even-tempered mother spoke of like it was some sort of Disneyland for Black people.

Some Black Americans, and I’m referring mostly to those that call Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina their “Old Country,” tend to be awe-struck at the idea Africa, like Nas at the end of Belly. Once we get a full picture beyond what we’re taught in school, where the largest continent and birthplace of all mankind is reduced to being the starting point for the Atlantic Slave Trade, there becomes an eagerness to migrate back across the Atlantic. The yearning is not unlike some immigrants who seek entrance to American shores. Except we’re not seeking the opportunities and streets of gold that Fievel and his family expected; we’re seeking the “home” that the Middle Passage erased.

I get why. For many American Blacks, the overall American experience has never really felt like a place where you can kick up your feet and recline all the way back. You get moments where that happens, of course, but then you also get a startling awakening— like when people are surprised you don’t have any children out-of-wedlock, or you happen to be “so articulate,” or despite carrying a purse while you shop, you find yourself explaining “No, no, actually I don’t work here.” Those things remind you not to get too comfy. America is home in the sense of being the devil you know, a bit like a stereotypical step-child, the one you tolerate but don’t really love like your own.

In recent weeks those feelings have surfaced again for many who struggle to make sense of the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s killer walking around freely, the ignorance displayed in conservative columnist John Derbyshire’s piece for The National Review where he wrote of advising his children to avoid Black folk, and the obnoxiousness of those Twitter-racists who found outrage in a sympathetic book character being Black or Awkward Black Girl landing the Shorty Award for best web-series. I find, similar to Cinderella, we dream of an escape to a place where we fit, like a glass slipper on the correct foot. For me, that place was Africa, any country, any part.

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  • VNK

    I went to high school in Cape Town and I totally get what you’re talking about when they found out you only speak English. But on the other hand many Africans who live in the States are treated similarly because they speak English in a different accent.
    Also I think that your American identity will always be with you no matter where you go. Moving to a different is not easy because you are never going to belong 100% but it takes time and visiting for a couple of months of weeks is not enough to help you get a sense of living there.

  • MissFLondon

    “In Africa, I felt the same way I had in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam: never more American”

    I love your work, but Africa is not a country. And for American blacks, South Africa is certainly not the motherland.

    Most of the slaves were taken from West Africa, a fact still evident today (facial features etc)

  • fufuandoreos

    Dear Belle,

    This last paragraph from your blog was unsettling (although honest!):
    “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.”

    I think you are still generalizing Africa.
    WHENEVER someone travels to an African country and still says just “Africa”, I cringe.
    I dunno, am I overreacting here?

    The honesty that I LOVE is your blatant desire to drop “African” from your identification. I have never seen it illustrated that way and I think that says a lot about the Black American/African relationship. Maybe that is a way to begin clarifying definitions, instead of accusing one another.

    I just wish there wasn’t such a divide…

    • Ice

      I don’t understand what is the cringe with saying “Africa”? People say they are traveling to Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East? We are quite aware that AFRICA is a continent and not a COUNTRY! And besides the Continent was never originally called Africa anyway…but that is a whole other conversation for another time! Geesh!

  • Adjua Dubb

    As a BlackAmerican who has lived in Gambia, going to the motherland as a continent, was healing for me, though i was only on a small part of her being, I felt as though I was born again. It was a necessary journey and one that made me see all that we as african americans are missing. We are missing so much, because we don’t have a culture anymore in america. It is gone to mass culprit media, all sold out and washed up, and we’re just descendants of free labor who remain in the bottom of its belly…america. In Africa I felt like a human being, and not a black this or that, but a human being, a part of this sum total of a whole people, whether rich or poor, I was connected. I had to find out how African people live, and understand how its been so misrepresented and our ignorance as African americans is daunting. I will always pride myself in living there, and will always try to remain.

  • Helenofreims

    Article written for neo-70’s externalism! Those irate to date presently African. Brand management exclusively owned. Control for marketing from. EU,UK and USA now China. Whom going use propaganda hello! My dispute persons of heritage. Do they have accept cultural image. Clutch don’t go there with me. French national familiar African heritage. Americans whom display original concepts. Excelled in France Namoi Sims and Grace Jones. Sold world more than Anglophile beauty. Markets whom avid buyers hello. When Africans those into African. Attire someday become popular Jay Z. Selling Hip hop does care about. Modern Africa? Profound difference USA promote Ms. LightBright delight. Lighter shades of elegance this marketing. Dark skin you must emulate Chocolate Barbie. Light skin as Michael Jackson sells. Grace Jones and Jody Watley sold. Many publications in France and EU why. Nature features oppose Beyoncé and Rihanna. French publishers eager promote. Market for African nations only problem. Lack of middle class so interest. Asia Merci! Watch Etam fashion show 2012. Bought acclaim to Sister Sledge,Grace Jones,Chaka Khan,Gloria Gaynor and Pointer Sisters. These women talented and pretty. Also popular in France Blacks. Favor light skin disfavor dark skin. Spike Lee conveyed in School Days (1988) NYC,Chicago and Texas lighter the better! Phony attitude trying speak proper. And delicate emulating Anglo mannerism! Merci

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