Black History Month 2019
I recently finished reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s stellar memoir, Becoming. In it she expressed her feelings about being an African-American in Africa when she visited Kenya with President Obama. Mrs. Obama writes:
with the awkwardness of a tourist, aware that we were outsiders, even with our
black skin. People sometimes stared at us on the street. I hadn’t been
expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively
believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up
thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on
me some feeling of completeness. But Africa, of course, owed us nothing. It’s a
curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African-American
in Africa. It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being
unrooted in both lands.”
Mrs. Obama’s words perfectly articulated my feelings as an African-American living in Africa. As we move into Black History Month, a month I celebrate with vigorous pride, I find myself reflecting on this once again. Unlike some other Black Peace Corps Volunteers, I am not mistaken for being Rwandan. In fact, Rwandans are sure that I’m American, White-American. Despite the color of my skin, I have received the label of a White man. Like Mrs. Obama I came to Rwanda quite naively believing I wouldn’t “stand out” only to discover I attract the same stares and privileged treatment as my White peers, being bestowed White privilege, something I never asked for nor desire, in a place I least expected it. I was raised to be proud of my African ancestry. Although tracing my ancestors beyond a few generations is impossible, my family’s love of Black culture was apparent in the way I was raised with everything from the food we ate, to the music we listened to, to the art on our walls and the books we read. I was raised this way primarily as a means of promoting self-confidence and dignity knowing that in America those things are often stripped away from Black men. My family thought of Africa as the “motherland," a place from which our ancestors had been taken and enslaved but also a place to which we were inextricably tied to.
So, I was a bit shocked and confused when I was I labeled “White” when I arrived in Rwanda over a year ago. If my Rwandan colleagues and neighbors didn’t assume I was white they’d often interrogate me intensely trying to gather the truth about my origins. To this day, I’m called anything from White to Chinese to Indian. I’ve showed them pictures of my parents and grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles but there has been no convincing them. It’s a peculiar and wounding experience to have a key aspect of your identity erased with no way to regain it.
Like James Brown, I’ve always been “Black and Proud”. Proud of the strength and resilience of Black people in America. Despite enslavement, physical, emotional and psychological violence, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, and institutional discrimination, Black people in America are not just surviving but thriving. I’ve decided to abandon the feelings of anger and sadness I have experienced as a result of my identity erasure here in Rwanda, electing instead to exhibit the same pride I felt in America. A pride which drives me to continue to explain and educate my Rwandan peers about the diversity of America and the richness of Black-American culture. So now when I fry chicken for the teachers at my school or blast hip-hop when I’m in my house, it’s not in an effort to prove anything to anyone. I celebrate my history and culture not just in February but 365 days a year. Understanding that how people see me is not only who I am. I get to define myself and I proudly carry the pain and power of Black people with me every day. I am a proud Black Peace Corps Volunteer this month and all throughout the year.