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.