This post is part of a series this week that will honor the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.
– For Kimberlee –
So the other day, a young black friend of mine posted on her facebook about being African American. She had been asked “what African?” and of course she doesn’t know what the “African” part was because, as she said, well, she’s African American and we basically don’t have any history of our “African” ancestry. It got me thinking…it is very, very true. Many people have been oppressed throughout the history of America (both North and South) and particularly in the history of the United States. The particular brand of colonialism that gave birth to our nation was pretty much all about standing on the backs of whoever was handy. But in that history, only Africans were sytematically separated from their history and culture by the oppressing majority. The Irish immigrants were scoffed at and beaten but were allowed education; the Jews were ghettoized and restricted in their movements but continued to practice their faith; Native Americans were outright slaughtered but they fought to the death maintaining their cultural beliefs and practices. But Africans were denied their language, their religion, their customs. In fact Africans were stripped of nearly everything except their usefulness as labor. Referred to as soulless heathens by white society, the accepted concept of the African slave was that they were brutish blank slates and any “culture” they possessed was worthless. The result of this is that today, those of us who can identify as “African” American have no idea what that actually means. We carry the pigment and other physical characteristics, but we are absent of that original culture.
So what does that leave us?
On one level it leaves us with young black people who grew up in this world with no sense of belonging or feeling as if they had something great to aspire to that belongs to them; they’ve assumed that they will always be “the other” and vilified; their only future is in what they “take” from society that is made for and by “the man.” They live on the margins of society with maybe a glimpse here and there of something called success, only to see it taken away or held just out of reach.
But maybe there’s another way to look at it…
When our “African” history was obscured, and when we were raped and shuffled around and traded like so much grain, true to anything as resilient and old as the human race, we were still fertile…so fertile that even in a place with no soil and no nutrients, we grew. We grew not just in terms of finding and equaling our education, not just in terms of flourishing creatively, not just in terms of discovering our political and communal strength, not just in terms of evolving spiritually. We grew as a brand new and unique race with a unique set of potentials that is still waiting for us to acknowledge. Like jazz music, we were a blend of everything we carried in our genetic code, plus all of the hardship and obstacles put in our way. Eventually, we had to ignite. We are not just “African” Americans, we are Native, Irish, German, Spanish, Asian…and we are the only ones who can truly lay claim to being all of those things…the embodiment of the melting pot. We are the worst nightmare of colonial European cultures that prided themselves on racial “purity”…we are the combination of all of the strongest parts of all of the cultures that have mixed here in the United States; and we are irrepressible.
I had a lovely conversation with a friend recently where we were talking about potential. We were discussing how some people can look at someone based on one world view and see them as a “waste” of potential. On the contrary, potential is never wasted. Potential is a well that is always ready to use. Each time you access any part of that potential…any time you dip into that unfathomable reservoir of ability, you will pull out something that is far beyond what those with less potential are capable of achieving. Whether it is Nobel Prize winning diplomacy or cooking dinner. This is how I view the black American; a people who contain the richness of many cultures, visible in skin and facial features, but also language, faith, creativity, aptitude and a host of unmeasurable gifts. These aren’t wasted. They are present and ready to use at any moment in time. It is simply up to more young black Americans to use them.
The different and distinct cultures that people lift up and identify with so strongly are beautiful and deserve their spectacular place in our modern society; but so does the melting pot “African” American. So to Kimberlee, I say, yes, you may have no idea where your “African” really comes from, but you have something that is completely unique. Think of yourself as the “Jazz American.” You can swing and waltz; you can paint and calculate; you are mother and father, child and parent. You are the dynamic blending of all of cultures that are gathered here as one. You more than anyone, own this American experience and with it you can change the world.