Girl Without A Country
I’ve long been inducted into that club to which most racial minorities in the U.S. belong. The initiation ceremony is simple, it hinges on a single question: Where are you really from? It doesn’t matter that you mimic the tongue and mannerisms of your countrymen or that your name comes from the British or the Greeks, or that the years 1492 and 1776 have been engraved so deeply into your head that they feel like memories. You are the perpetual outsider.
I’m used to this inquiry in all the forms it takes. When a girl at summer camp pointed to a map of Africa and asked if I was from there, when the music teacher told our class to do a project based on our ancestry, when other black people ask where my parents are from, or when strangers assign my face to a country (sometimes Ghana, other times, Liberia) I have to give them the same answer. I’m from here. Some press on and ask about the land that birthed my ancestors and by extension me. I have to say I don’t know, because that knowledge isn’t mine, and never fully will be. Questions like these are reminders that I exist within a strange, liminal space between that of a Westerner and something else–a vague concept of a nation and its people that, if you look closely enough, might contain my forefather.
It’s human nature to latch onto what feels familiar, searching for something that could easily be a piece of yourself. And yet for some Afro-Americans nothing can serve as an anchor, so you must remain unmoored and aimlessly drifting. My body already feels assimilated, a conscious decision I made to scrape away the differences between me and my surrogate culture. My eyes aren’t really mine, plastered with green contact lenses that have earned the admiration of peers. Neither is my hair, looser and lighter than what was written in my DNA. There is the occasional stiffness in my shoulder reminding me of those years spent learning the violin. All that remains is smoothing away the psychical gap where the detachment comes pouring out, blindly stitching myself into the narrative of the Western canon I so furiously consumed growing up. “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Saul Bellow once griped. I can’t even answer whether or not I’m a Zulu, if we really are the same tribe, but I can swallow the veneer of Europeanness and pretend that Russia’s Tolstoy is mine.
“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” Saul Bellow once griped.
Each time I move to give myself up completely to this adopted home, the same needling feeling sticks itself in my side. I could listen to Wagner, I could read Dickens, I could recite Rimbaud and La Fontaine. I could imagine women like me as muses for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for Byron and his love poems, or those Greek statues with the missing arms. But I know these men would regard me and my kinfolk as inferior strangers to their civilization.
While staying in a small Swiss town, James Baldwin wrote of the villagers that, “The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo,
Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me.” The dilemma remains. Raised on the Greats but also abandoned by them, I feel myself on the threshold between full-fledged Westerner and lost tourist.
I suspect I’m not the only one inhabiting this purgatory. Of course, there are some black Americans whose predecessors came to the U.S. on their own accord, who retained bits and pieces of the homeland in themselves. But for those of us whose past selves were shipped as faceless commodities without names or families, the bloodline was abruptly torn generations earlier. Once they arrived on this strange land, slaves were not only stripped of humanity. Their traders had severed the bonds of language and history so they could replace them with ones of iron. And now, after centuries of living, dying, and being born again, the descendants of Afro-Americans remain violently uprooted from our original culture. We have no frame of reference for our otherness; very few of us can point to a country and say “here is where my family was stolen from.” All we know is that one day we had a home, and the next we didn’t.
This isn’t to say that Black Americans don’t have a culture. From the muck of slavery and deprivation, new identities arose from the old one’s ashes. Resilience was born from suffering, and like a phoenix burned on a pyre, we built ourselves up again and went on living. And yet, there’s something uneasy about all the traditions, as most are tainted by the past. The gospels sung in my grandpa’s church on the southside of Chicago were created on the plantation. Even though we have a family name now, passed down through generations and something we should claim as ours, it doesn’t truly belong to us. After all, it’s decidedly Anglo-Saxon when none of us are.
Sure, I could declare myself a daughter of Dante or Shakespeare, to rid myself of this anxiety. But, that nagging little wound, refuses to sew itself shut, always announcing its presence with a smarting pain. It reminds me that I can be no one but myself, yet I don’t even know who that is.