Mandela and My Journey Back to Connection

Mandela Memorial

It was an ordinary Tuesday at work as I sat at my desk watching the taped coverage of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service where important people including leaders of some of the world’s most elite nations gathered to pay their respects to Mandela, his family, and his people. As the video rolled along, I could remember waiting to see and experience the foreignness of the festivities. I wondered what traditional attire his people would wear during their time of mourning. What tribal dances and songs would be called on during such a service? How would they present their culture to the millions of people around the world who tuned in to see Africa on stage?

I watched, waiting to be awed by something new and awkwardly different. But as the minutes continued to pass by, it became more apparent that I would be waiting in vain. I would be disappointed.

With each pan of the camera across the packed stadium and as the camera documented the arrival of important men and women who had come to honor Mandela’s memory, instead of seeing foreigners and foreign customs and behaviors, I saw a lady dressed to the “nines” with a shower cap covering her hair in an effort to save her ‘do from the rain. I chuckled as I caught an older woman give someone the disapproving side eye. I took in the beautiful black hats that were worn with such pride. I listened to the up-tempo and soulful songs from both the choir and those given impromptu by the large crowd. I saw familiar traditions that I had experienced as a black girl from the south. I recognized familiar faces that reminded me of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

This wasn’t foreign at all.

I had experienced this before.

It felt so familiar to me.

For what had to be the first time, I felt such a connection to African people. Well, I felt a connection to this particular group of African people. Before that moment, there was a disconnect between what I had believed the African culture to be and how I lived and saw myself as a Black American of African descent.

This belief had come about years before.

Sometime during my four-year college experience, I made the conscious decision to denounce the term African-American when describing my ethnic origins. I would instead describe myself simply as Black American. I had determined that the differences between myself and real “Africans” were too great to even make the slightest suggestion that we were in any way connected, even if only by name.

I was a student at Howard University, a historically black college/university (HBCU) in Washington, DC. It was my first experience with such a diverse mix of people from the African Diaspora, a word that I was introduced to as a freshman. There were students from all over the world. Any distant locale, you name it, we had it. It was great to hear the different accents, even from Florida students with a southern twang that I had somehow avoided. But it was the students from Africa that had a lasting impression on me.

They* were smart, ambitious, and worldly. They were also smug. The more I came into contact with them, the more I came to realize that an imaginary yet very real line had been drawn in the sand. I heard their message loud and clear: “We may share the same “motherland” and maybe even the same skin tone, but in no way are we alike or one in the same.” I won’t go into detail about the scenarios and situations that brought me to this conclusion or that reinforced how I felt. A quick Google search will give an array of discussions and stories on this very topic. What is important is this: after some time of being slapped in the face with the “we’re not alike, in fact we’re much better than you” deal, I got downright tired. So, I decided to part ways from my people. I made a very bold, yet silent, declaration: I will no longer use the term African-American to describe myself. I will now and henceforth shall be referred to as Black American. I was, in fact, an American who happened to be black; at least that’s what I told myself.

I spent years like this. It wasn’t just the name that had changed. That was only the symptom of the larger problem. The larger problem was that I had allowed my limited experience with such a small subset of a larger group of people to allow me to believe that my complexion was the only thing that connected me to the place where my ancestors had once called home.

So, as I sat there that day, watching as the camera panned across the stadium, showcasing strangely familiar faces, I felt a connection that I had never felt. I had this sudden urge to go and walk among people like me.

*Please excuse my use of the word “they.” I know Africa is a continent, and I am in no way suggesting that there is some general African culture or belief system or general anything. I hate generalizing as much as the next person. It’s just that I would rather not call out a particular set of people.

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