The following post originally appeared on Slate under the title, “Where I’m From: How a trip to Kenya changed the way I think about the terms African-American and black American.”
By: Aisha Harris
One of the first times I recall being asked the question “Where are you from?” was also one of the first times I realized that being black wasn’t a sufficient answer. For a sixth-grade project, I had to create my own version of a family crest to be presented to the class. The idea was for each student to celebrate her ethnic heritage. I knew my ethnicity, but where were my ancestors from? While almost all of my classmates in my predominantly white Connecticut elementary school could proudly claim that their grandparents—or great-grandparents—had come to America at some point from Ireland, or Italy, or Greece, I was forced to acknowledge that I had no idea where my forebears had lived, as they were brought here against their will and any records of their origins had long since been lost. My grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family were born in the South and the mid-Atlantic—hardly an interesting story, or so I thought at the time.
I was recently asked where I’m from again—multiple times—in an entirely different context: while in Kenya for a wedding. On one occasion, I struck up a friendly conversation with a young armed guard (and aspiring engineer) who stood watch within the gate of the compound where my boyfriend and I, along with several of the other foreign wedding guests, were staying.
“Where are your parents from?” he clarified, after I told him I was a visiting American. “They’re also from America,” I explained, slightly confused about what he was getting at.
Eventually, it dawned on me: He was asking the same question my school project had asked: He was curious what non-American country my family was from. Kenya, Nigeria, both? I tried to explain that as far as I know, I have no immediate or extended relatives outside of the States, but he didn’t seem to fully grasp what I meant.
Later, another Kenyan I met—the cousin of the bride—posed the same question to me during the wedding afterparty. His complimentary response: “Ah, you look like you could be African!”
I am at least partially African, genetically speaking. A few years ago, my father took an ancestry DNA test, which revealed that some of his roots can be traced to Nigeria. But I don’t consider myself Nigerian-American, or even African-American. Where I’m from is America—who I am is a black American.
I was about 7 or 8 when my dad sat me down to watch Roots—all 500 hours of it—recorded on VHS tapes from an ’80s cable rebroadcast. Alex Haley’s tale of genealogical discovery resonated with my father as a powerful attempt to re-establish the lineal connection between Africans and African-Americans that had been erased by slavery. Roots was just one of the African-themed cultural artifacts that my father introduced to my sister and me: There was also the gorgeous soundtrack to Sarafina!, a Broadway musical about the Soweto Uprising in South Africa; the African-themed art in our home; Anansi tales; Kwanzaa celebrations. He attempted to instill in us not just a sense of pride as black Americans, but as Americans of African descent, and throughout my adolescence, I identified as black and African-American interchangeably. All of this without knowing, at the time, from what country our ancestors had come, due to the loss and erasure of their birth records prior to the turn of the 20th century.
Despite my father’s efforts, however, my first in-depth encounters with first- and second-generation Americans who had immediate family from African countries made me question my adherence to the label of African-American. To me, people with such explicit connections to their relatives’ home countries accurately embody the term; they truly have access to both cultures. As someone who grew up with a much stronger sense of my black American roots, and an understanding of African culture distilled primarily through an American sensibility, I feel as though the termAfrican-American doesn’t quite suit my identity.
That didn’t stop my father from (sort of) jokingly asking, upon my return from Kenya last month, “Did you feel different when you landed in the motherland?” What he meant, of course, was whether I felt as if I’d returned “home” to a place I’d never before been. People have spent their whole lives hoping to find the equivalent of their own personal Zion. Had I?
My answer to him, without hesitation, was no—at least not in the way he meant it. I definitely felt different in Kenya, but it was the kind of difference I imagine everyone experiences when exploring an entirely new place for the first time—that of a tourist. (I suspect that visiting my supposed ancestral homeland of Nigeria would produce the same effect.) In addition to the obvious differences intransportation and living conditions (livestock roam the streets even in urban areas of Kenya), there were smaller but significant cultural gaps. While the wedding featured familiar traditions like the tossing of the bouquet (accompanied, naturally, by a sound bite from that universal anthem “Single Ladies”), many parts of the ceremony were in Swahili, the country’s official working language alongside English. Even some of the jokes the emcee made in English delighted the Kenyan guests but flew over my head—I later had one of the guests, a cousin of the bride who also lives in the U.S., explain the playful digs to me.
But it’s not just the lost-in-translation humor that made me frequently aware of my outsider status. Having to explain what I am—an American with American parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—emphasized the gulf between the Kenyan understanding of race and my own. For the Kenyans I interacted with, having black skin also means being African. For me, being black means, well, being black.
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