On my only excursion to the Motherland, I landed in South Africa only because a close friend from Brooklyn, by way of the Mid-West, decided she’d had enough of America and moved to Johannesburg to start anew. I decided to follow her (for three weeks) and boarded a plane full of naiveté and hope for a place where I finally felt like I belonged.
There are many reasons to go to Africa, particularly South Africa. In Johannesburg, the eclectic feel of Brooklyn meets the trendiness of Los Angeles, and Cape Town is loosely like Miami–cubed, but with far better scenery. But belonging isn’t one of those reasons to take the 17-hour flight. The only parts that felt like home were the racial-awkwardness, an expected offering from a country navigating past Apartheid, which ended about two decades ago.
Though I was Black in a predominately Black place, my American-ness stuck out in about the way I imagine Hester Prynne’s “Scarlet A” did, but without the shunning. My first stop, Johannesburg, is a city of continent-wide transplants, and even among them, my American-ness was announced long before I opened my mouth. It was shouted in the way I carried my body, my facial features and body-type, and the way I dressed.
I quickly developed friendships that have endured, soaked up the history, marveled at the monuments and the cuisine (everyone must have proper malva pudding once in their lifetime), but I never got past comparing and contrasting a new culture to the one I knew, regrettably the home that didn’t feel like such. In Africa, I felt the same way I had in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam: never more American.
That feeling hit all the way home for me when I was standing outside Mzoli’s, a butcher-shop in Gugulethu, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Every Sunday afternoon, the butcher hosts a day-party where thousands of people show up. There was a vendor selling sunglasses on the sidewalk and a woman trying on a pair. She turned to me and spoke. I didn’t understand and asked her to repeat herself. She did.
Me: “I’m sorry. What?”
Her: She rolled her eyes first. “Oh, you only speak English?” The question dripped with disdain.
I actually got by on a ten-day solo-trip thru three cities in Spain on my Spanish, and since I visited Haiti in December, have started learning French. But neither of those are one of the official 11 languages in South Africa, one of which she had been speaking to me, and in my American-ness I couldn’t understand. Begrudgingly, I recognized it was time to let go of my fantasy.
On the never-ending plane ride back to New York, I thought of a scene from “School Daze”, one of my favorite films. It was where “Dap” confronts “Julian” aka “Big Brother All-Might-Tee!” Julian denigrates Dap, dressed in a military jacket with Kente cloth details and a kufi covered in cowry shells, for all his “Mother Africa” talk.
“Without question, we are all Black Americans,” Julian declares. “You don’t know a got damned thing about Africa. I’m from Detroit. Motown!” For years I thought Julian was wrong on that one. Now I think he’s right.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria). Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk