What is Africa to Me?
The Trinity Global Leadership Initiative welcomed Dr. Nemata Blyden, professor of history at George Washington University, to discuss her new book, African Americans and Africa: A New History (Yale University Press, 2019) in November. Dr. Kimberly Monroe, assistant professor of global affairs, served as moderator for the virtual discussion, open to the entire Trinity community.
In advance of Dr. Blyden’s talk, Trinity students, faculty and staff were asked to respond to a question that forms the title of the first chapter of her book (drawn in turn from a poem by Countee Cullen): “What is Africa to me?” Here are excerpts from their responses.
What is Africa to Me?
We were taught from a young age about Africa. From what I could remember, if someone had asked me “how do you imagine Africa?”, I would have simply said poor and unhealthy. After taking multiple classes on Africa and its history, I now imagine Africa as flourishing with many cultures, communities, and melanin skin tones. Africa is divided amongst the wealthy and poor. Africa plays such a huge role in the economy through its production of minerals and gold.
Films like “Black is King” help us understand that Black is beautiful and should be respected. We also learn about the different cultural creations Africa holds, including unique hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry. The main message I got out of this film was to be yourself, to know your self-worth, and understand your true value as a Black queen or king.
Anita Viveros-Reyes, Undergraduate Student
How I identify has much to do with how I was both brought up and how I was seen. I came to realize the importance of racial identity when I was in middle school. I was filling out a form that required me to choose my race/ethnicity, and it was the one time where I thought to question how I had typically identified, which was Black/African American. Ignorantly, I chose mixed, which had a lot to do with moving to Virginia from Kentucky. Virginia was perceivably more diverse in comparison to Kentucky. When I moved to Virginia, I can recall my ethnicity coming into question much more frequently. This confused me, because how I identified rarely came into question when I was growing up in Kentucky. I was always Black. Because I was perceived differently, I began to question my identity. Not only did people tell me that I was mixed, but people were often unsatisfied when I told them that I was Black. It always followed with: “Well, what else?” My blackness came into question so much during this particular period that I believed that I should have been identifying as something else.
The form that had originally prompted this internal dialogue of “How should I identify?” was supposed to be taken home for a parent to sign. When I gave the form to my mother, she saw that I had marked “mixed” and not “Black/African American,” prompting her to ask me why I had decided to mark that. At the time I did not understand the importance of this question. I told her about all the incidents at school and thought it seemed logical because my grandmother was Chinese. She was infuriated. I had only ever known being Black. As a 12-year-old, I did not understand the nuance of what Blackness meant in its totality. However, from the conversation I had with my mother, I came to realize that the experience of being Black is not a monolithic one, allowing me to also reflect on my privilege.
Ashley Jones, Undergraduate Student
I am a part of a blended family of Kenyan heritage influenced by the American culture modernly and by the British colonial historic presence. I was born in Kisumu, Kenya, and raised in the vibrant city of Atlanta, Georgia, from the age of five. My name is Mercy Ogutu and I represent the Luo indigenous group of Kenya. When I think of Kenya, I think of my mother tongue of Swahili, flowing smoothly when I speak, like honey fresh from a bee hive. Even though I speak English, I can see the British influence in my connotation varying from the English my American friends speak. I feel that I am often a tourist to my identity as I learn more about Africa from a textbook perspective and also what I have known from a cultural perspective of stories passed down from generation to generation. My mother, father, and older sister were born in Kenya, while my little sister is a first generation African American.
I have always been proud to be Kenyan, even with the vivid memories I have of my childhood, extended family, and my first home. Kenya is the first home I knew, but Georgia is the second home I feel the closest to. In recent years, I started to take the initiative to educate myself more about Kenya and also about different aspects of African history, culture and tradition. In learning more about Kenya, I have developed a stronger sense of nationalism, and have been inspired to learn more about historic figures that worked hard to create and expand change.
Even as I am learning more about the history of Africa, I am more appreciative of the previous efforts and sacrifices my ancestors and my parents have made that have shaped me to be who I am today. I am part of a story that is rewriting history and will be part of the next generation of leaders that will continue the fight for more equality and better representation of history, culture, and heritage of the African Diaspora on the local, national, and global scale.
Mercy Ogutu, Undergraduate Student
I am originally from Ivory Coast in West Africa. First, Africa is not one country. We have been colonized by at least three different countries: France, Great Britain and Belgium. There are two countries who did not experience colonization, Liberia and Ethiopia. Liberia was created by individuals of African American descent who decided to move back to Africa, while Ethiopia fought colonialism to stay independent.
Our relationship with African Americans is complicated. In Africa, they made us believe that African Americans are lazy and like to live under government assistance, and that most are good in music and sports. They never mentioned African American doctors and engineers. By contrast, when I came to the United States, the only programs that showed Africa on TV Tarzan movies, or showed African children starving. Things are changing bit by bit.
Lately a lot of African Americans are going to visit Africa and they are impressed. People should visit Africa. Africa is getting better.
Maxime Kra, Graduate Student
As a kid, I always enjoyed talking about African culture. In textbooks, I always read about parts about African villages being fun and full of excitement. However, the excitement tends to get dull once we hear about slavery. In television, I always see movies of struggle. Programs show African children starving and asking viewers to send donations. I do not really see beautiful depictions of Africa. It always advertises poverty. I had never really heard of any songs that speak of Africa, but now we have lots of new artists that are now paying respect to Africa.
Shakyra Harris, Undergraduate Student
To be African American is to hold the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before them and continue their legacy. It is about participating in the struggle and working harder for future generations. It recognizes solidarity through the bonds made during the African Diaspora, slavery, and the civil rights movement. It is a people who built this nation through their mistreatments and sacrifices. Men, women, and children were forced to labor for free and were denied the fundamental liberties given to every citizen of this country. It is also about remembering those who protested, sat in, and went to jail to ensure equality regardless of the color of our skin.
African Americans are people of strength and courage. Despite the injustice, limitations, and mistreatments, they chose to fight for what is right. Not necessarily a violent fight but one in which their voices could be heard stating what they were fighting for and why. Being African American is to realize the fight is not over yet; it is imperative to continue getting into “good trouble”, as John Lewis stated. It is about making America and the world a better place for all regardless of race. It is about helping African American brothers and sisters of all socio-economic backgrounds feel represented and heard.
Andrea Guerra, Undergraduate Student
For me, the term African American has been a struggle to truly understand. I felt that I am African American because my ancestors come from the continent, right? However, neither my dad nor my mom are first generation African. Do I not qualify? I was born in America, so I am American but I am also Black. Black is another term that I struggle with only because when I see the color Black I see darkness. A color that oppressors placed on us to suppress us. I will never forget where I came from. I want to have stronger knowledge of the term African American to truly understand the meaning.
Lawren McCoy, Undergraduate Student
Africa means a lot to my family. Africa holds a strong connection to ancestors as well as the way that my family is shaped. The term “African” includes strong values as well as strong ethics. Africans give us a rich and loyal background. We have to remember that our ancestors’ lives were so natural and so clean. They had survival skills as well as maintaining their minds to keep everything growing around them. We fought to have so many rights and that is what African slaves did.
My family sticks out because we fight for our rights. We seek challenges and get through them with a breeze. This connects me to Africa more than ever. The outside presence makes me feel like we were a part of something so huge and Africa has the openness and space for those thoughts. We had so much more land to explore and that is exactly how I feel. We have so many things to explore and my mind is open to different adventures. We are meant to push life to its full capacity so that we can capture both the explosive moments as well as the less explosive moments. We have to constantly fight just to feel free or breathe freely.
These thoughts connect me to my African roots. I am willing to overcome every obstacle because that is what my ancestors faced.
Chloe Pasley, Undergraduate Student
Africa to me is a place filled with wonders. I have an aunt who lived in Africa for 15 years. The stories that she and others told me have shed light on the beautiful and ugly things that Africa has had to deal with. The beauty is within the people and nature of the land. Throughout all the tears and bloodshed, Africa has remained resilient to what comes its way.
Sofia Ocampo-Morales, Undergraduate Student
My family history is recorded up until the 1900s in a small South Carolina town. This is my family’s last mark in the American South before the Great Migration of African Americans. The records of my specific African ancestry is lost in the files of American chattel slavery and forced migration. This history is so lost that the stories told in my family are generalized to the Kingdoms of Africa with no ties to a specific region or tribe. It has been my duty to be the legacy of a royal history, without knowing what dynasty or tribe I have descended from. I have been tasked to uphold the values of an ancient tradition that is ingrafted into my history with no true ties to any specific origin. I was taught that to be African American is to have a sense of pride in a reclaimed history that has been pieced together with no authentic reality other than the skin that I am in. As a child of a 1970s baby, the term Black has always been the more modern American way of saying “African American”, centralizing the idea that history has been lost and stolen.
Christian Parks, Graduate Student
In 1999, just before the turn of the new century, I had the pleasure and honor of visiting Cape Town on business. It was an extended stay, as we were planning a cross-cultural summit to engage in discourse about Welfare Reform. I fell in love with Cape Town on that visit and have wished for her ever since. The colors of the people against the backdrop of Table Mountain, the lushness of the vegetation, the music, and the wine felt like home. The feeling was no different that than the feeling of sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table in the safety of Grandma Katherine and my aunties. But that was in North Carolina. How can both homes feel the same and yet exist so far apart?
The reason why the two engender the same feelings of home, love, and safety is that although they are thousands of miles apart geographically, the blood is the same. It is the blood that flows through the veins of our black bodies that tie us back to Africa. The blood spilled in the cotton and tobacco fields of North Carolina flows into the bloodshed in the dirt streets of Cape Town during the Apartheid uprisings. The beauty of land and people, the pain of land and people, the pride of the land and people are all common to both my birthplaces. Yes, I was born in two places, North Carolina and Africa because it is the blood, not the distance around the globe that connects us. What is Africa to me? I AM Africa.
Tresa Welch, Faculty Member
As a Nigerian, Africa is a number of things to me. It is a land rich with beauty and brilliance, yet it has been ravaged with turmoil from colonialism and corruption. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and it is seen as a leader of many African nations. Yet recent events have made this giant fall.
With recent “#ENDSARS” protests happening across Nigeria and diaspora communities, Africa is painful to me. Countee Cullen’s words towards the end of his poem really resonated with me, “So I lie, who find no peace, Night or day, no slight release, From the unremittent beat, Made by cruel padded feet, Walking through my body’s street.” These words capture why “#ENDSARS” has become a movement. SARS is a special anti-robbery squad police unit in Nigeria that has been brutalizing Nigerians for years, and this past October, my fellow Nigerians said “enough is enough.” SARS is one of the many reasons Nigeria has “no peace, night or day, no slight release…” Countless protests have erupted across the country and world in support of the Nigerian youth calling on government leaders to put an end to police brutality.
Seeing these protests and movements, and joining in support myself, has helped me feel more Nigerian. Though immigrating here to the U.S, has caused me to label myself as an “African American,” this label does not fully capture who I am. Nor does it fully capture who Africans are—as all labels fail to do— but it has created a sense of unity amongst varying groups of people, whether they were born here in the U.S, or immigrated here. African Americans share a connection to Africa that captures the diverse stories and heritage that the countries in Africa carry.
Ewaoluwa Ogundana, Undergraduate Student
Africa was seen as the continent with beautiful feature, rich cultures and traditions, and unforgettable history. It also will always be remembered for the foundation that was built to become the person that we are today. But, when this question comes to mind, Africa means so much more when we talk more about it. For example, it could represent home, strength, peace or a powerful root to a flower that is blooming more and more everyday. Although we have learned the hardships and negatives about Africa, the things that we have never learned is the genealogy and the wonders of Africa. There are family who were lucky to know how they came to be and where they came from. But in my case, I don’t know my roots, nor does my family, but it would be something to dig into. From my prior knowledge, I just know that both of my families are from country-side Maryland and North Carolina, but I am interested to learn accurate information about my family before they arrived in the US. In conclusion, Africa to me is a mystery that I am willing to learn about historically, which may lead me to knowing more about where I came from and how I came to be.
Tayia Jeffers, Undergraduate Student
The way that I have witnessed Africa described in pop culture has usually taken one of three forms: a beautiful, harsh field full of flora and fauna as depicted by National Geographic; the stereotypical depiction of a developing nation in which wealthier nations provide basic education for cute little kids in their uniforms; and third – most recent descriptions from what might be called ‘African Twitter.’ During a period in which I was spending way too much time on the social media platform, I would constantly come across posts from users with their home nations in their bios. Most posts were intended for humor and satire, but they also provided what might be called a preliminary education into real, modern African culture, from light-hearted arguments over which nation makes the best jollof to videos of entire neighborhoods of mini-mansions with the title “This is the Africa they won’t show you on the news.” The Africa we learned about in school is of the former two categories. On Twitter, for the first time, I have gotten a view of the actual cultures of Africans and first generation African Americans alike.
Danna Subia, Undergraduate Student
The continent of Africa in television and movies is usually described as a wild place, as vast deserts or jungles where people go on safaris. It is not until more recent years when the many countries in the continent have been portrayed as globalized metropolises in their own right. For example, the fashion scene in Lagos is making its way into the mainstream world of fashion. There are many emerging designers there who are bringing with them the textiles and patterns of their culture to the masses. In this realm of art, Beyonce came out with her musical film and visual album, Black is King. The images in the film celebrate the many diverse forms of beliefs and experiences of black culture as they range from the continent of Africa to American culture. The elaborate hairstyles worn by Beyonce and others in the film are perfect examples of this. The film is visually stunning; however, I have seen some pushback to the film. On social media commentators have claimed that the film focuses on more westernized people and aesthetics. Still, it is refreshing to see the many forms of art coming out of this continent. There are many different countries each with their own cultures to explore. It is interesting to see the similarities as well as their differences.
Karina Gaytan Rivera, Undergraduate Student
Africa is something I think about almost every day. Without Africa, there would be no Haiti, and my family fully acknowledges that. Especially when I notice similarities between my culture and my friends. From having similar foods, or similar phrases in our native language. Me and my family would love to go to Africa one day. Despite the language barrier, I’m sure that me and my family would blend right in. Of course depending on where I go in the continent there will be cultural differences, but I have always dreamed of going to Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Mali.
My family and I identify as Haitian, Haitian American, or Black American. Although I was born in America and my parents were born in Haiti, by law I am a natural born citizen of Haiti and have Haitian rights. I do not identify as African American because I feel as though I can be more specific and name my own country instead of the whole diaspora. I do identify as a Black American because at the end of the day I am a Black woman living in America, and still face the everyday oppressions regardless of the fact that I have roots somewhere else.
Magnisha Casseus, Undergraduate Student
What does it mean to be African American? It means to be stereotyped and labeled by the world around you. The world treats you as less than others. They question you and make you question your self-worth. They make you wonder if your dreams are possible. They tell you that because of your race, certain dreams are unattainable. They want you to strive for less than they do, because they are scared of you breaking the barriers of systematic oppression. They want you to be in their control out of fear. They want to make your heart the prisoner of your mind. They want you to remain invisible. They refuse you even though you are the living force and breathe behind the system they hold you hostage in, even though without you and other marginalized communities, there would be no system at all. They create a world where they want you to be so scared of the system that you stop believing in the strength within. They want you to see yourself as weak without a cause or identity outside of the system. They want you to feel unworthy in a system where you are not a human being, much less the glue of the human race. They want you to remain unknown. They want you to cease to exist in your own light from within. They want to keep your kindred spirit locked away because they fear for their loss of power. They fear for their lack of control in a new world made more equitable for all and for all of the dreamers such as myself.
Myra Strickland, Undergraduate Student
As a Caucasian female born in Washington, DC, my experiences of what Africa means to me come through various sources: my husband and his family, who are African Americans (born in USA of Zulu and Bantu African heritage), the hundreds of international students I have taught over a career of 50+ years, and the more recently arrived members of my church who have emigrated from different African countries, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and others.
Our family is connected to Africa by more than heritage. My father-in-law, who was a professor at Howard University, won a Fulbright Scholarship in the 1950’s and went with his wife to Liberia and other countries to teach. He returned after his tour of duty with albums of photos and many stories, including how the government was run and who some of the VIPs were–Tubman, Selassie, and others. He recounted tales of how diamonds were smuggled out of Africa–in one instance, in a woman’s hair. Many cultural experiences were shared, making me feel as if I had been with him.
I can say that my life has been enhanced and enriched by the people who have become a part of my life, so many of whom are Africans by birth and those born here. It is a joy and an ongoing treasure that I hold dear and for which I am most thankful.
Katherine James, Faculty Member
I like to think that I’m living a life far from ordinary. I was born to a family living in Cameroon, the only African nation to reach the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals. Spending 16 years in Cameroon has encouraged and motivated me to a great extent. I have come to see life as one that is infinitely subject to change. I did not get to grow up with American traditions and education. Most of the representations of Africa that I in the US get are not the real truth about the history, healthcare, and economics of the region. There is an incredible beauty that most fail to see; the amazing African spirit. I know for sure about the natural resources of Africa, the healthy soils, the magnificent landscapes, and the absolutely outstanding and unwavering human resources.
There has been a wave of social justice movement in Africa lately, and it made us proud to achieve this feat when we came together. We are slowly, but gradually, recalling that the liberation of our continent was accomplished through pan-African unity. We are hoping that the same spirit will help us resolve obstacles at home and amplify our global status abroad.
Gabriella Badji, Undergraduate Student
Growing up in the United States, one is surrounded by a diverse people. In my experience the most appropriate word to call the population most people call “Black” is to instead call them “African American”. To me “African American” means a race of people that are fighters – loving, energetic, and survivors. For a long time they have faced racism that is rooted in slavery. From the moment African Americans stepped into the United States they have been targeted and hated based on the belief that they are not human, because of their skin color. I am blessed to be able to have many African Americans in my life.
Ammi Cabrera, Undergraduate Student
Africa, as far as I am concerned, is where all humankind was made. Africa is the place where my predecessors were taken from their country—taken from their clans, culture, and religion. There are more than 2,000 unique dialects spoken on the landmass. Additionally, Africa is 15% of the world population. It is the home of deserts, including the Sahara in northern Africa, the biggest desert on the planet. Africa is home to a wide range of kinds of creatures. In Africa, you can discover the largest warm-blooded animals on earth. For example, elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, and significantly more. Africa is the home of numerous gemstones, including my #1 favorite – the ruby, which is found in Kenya. I generally keep thinking about whether I have family still in Africa who never boarded the slave ships. Africa is on my to-do list to visit in life. Africa, to me symbolizes beauty, culture, growth and world dominance.
Chakola Paris, Undergraduate Student
Africa has been many things to me growing up. Thanks to my parents and an open mind, I was not brainwashed to think against it. In the Caucasian media of the western world, Africa is a barren land troubled with pain and poverty. The land is war stricken and filled with corrupt leaders and voodoo witchcraft. The music is of drums and originators of twerking. To this side of the world, Africa is useless, much like the Blacks have been portrayed after the slave trade.
However, my parents are rich in Black pride. From Caribbean roots to Afro Latinos, no one in my bloodline denied the beauty of Africa in us. Growing up I received books on African folklore and maps of the great kingdoms. My father has told me of African history from his teachings at Howard University. He also explained the many African inventers and spirituality that originated there.
I have been introduced to artists and authors that wrote great stories and created beautiful artwork to enjoy what Africa really is. One trio of stories is called Children of Blood and Bones, featuring all black characters heavy with African culture. Currently, Netflix has movies written by Africans. Hollywood produced Black Panther, which introduced the riches of Africa and African beats and artists to our media. The best part are new clothing lines now accessible to African Americans. I can finally fit pants for my meaty hips and thinner waist.
I cannot say it enough but, thanks to my parents I have had such an appreciation of Africa outside of the Western European views. The land of originality and excellence is everything. There are many more stories and music to discover from the various countries and tribes from throughout the beautiful continent of Africa.
Azaria Norris, Graduate Student
As a Mexican my first instinct is not to trace my roots back to Africa. To find my ancestors I am told to look to Spain or the Native Purapecha Indians of the land. Still, all I have to do is take one look at my father’s features – his skin and his hair – to know that in our blood Africa is strong. The blending of Spaniards, the African Slaves they brought with them, and the Native Americans they colonized created my culture. Africa is in the music I love so much – cumbia, merengue, and even modern reggaeton. Africa is in the food that I enjoy – the fiery heat and jollof so strikingly similar to the Mexican rice prepared at home. While my own skin may not call attention to what I know to be true, Africa is in me like it is in all of us.
Mileidi Salinas-Bucio, Undergraduate Student