Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Legend of Africania-- The Story of My Life

Long time ago in the land of Africa, there was a man named Uhuru who was given the task by the Sun and the Earth to take care of the animals and the land around him. He took this task very seriously for he loved the land and everything it provided. Because of this, the Sun and the Earth decided to reward him by giving him their daughter as a wife. Her name was Africania. She was very graceful, with a beautiful, slender physique. Her skin was as black as ebony, and her hair was curly and spring the because of the rain. She was the not only beautiful in body, but also in mind and spirit. Like Uhuru, she also loved the land and enjoyed caring for. She also enjoyed singing, dancing, and enjoying life. Because of their labors, Africa for rushed with every type of fruit and vegetable, as well as every type of tree and animal.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the East, there lived an evil man called Takata. He had no true enjoyment for life and only cared about himself. When he heard about the beauty and riches to be found in Africa, he decided that he will want all of those for himself. Therefore, he traveled to Africa and was first greeted by Uhuru. Uhuru, who noticed Takata's presence when he felt a sudden cold breeze, asked him what he wanted. Takata lied to him and said that he was a weary traveler and needed to rest for a while. Uhuru, who had a very welcoming attitude, gave them a place to rest and brought him food and drink. When he had rested, Takata thanked Uhuru and gave him a gift of a fruit from his land. He left out one detail about this fruit; it had a powerful drug within it. Uhuru, never being given reason to not trust anyone, accepted for fruit and ate it, and then he fell into a deep sleep. While Uhuru was asleep, Takata then began tearing apart the land, cutting trees, stealing crops, and killing animals for their hides, tusks, their or just for the fun of it as he was completing his destruction, he saw the beautiful maiden Africania watching in horror. Believing her to be the most prized jewel of all Africa, he put shackles and chains on her and forced her to come back with him to his homeland.

When they arrived at his homeland, Takata put Africania into a shack with a large mill and forced her to turn twigs and branches into gold coins. Every night, when he came to collect the coins she had made, she would beg him for her freedom. He told her that he could not free for because everyone would know that she is not from his land because of her black skin. In order to convince him to set her free, she made a paste in order to make her skin look like his. She then asked him again for freedom, only for him to say that he could not free her because her hair was different from everyone else in his land.  in response, she made a chemical to put into her hair to straighten it. The next night, as could be expected, she asked for her freedom again, but Takata said that her enjoyment for dancing and singing, and her love of life, was much more than that of his people, so they would know that different from them. She therefore decided to mimic her master's mannerisms, style, and diet. After a while, she looked and behaved like everyone in Takata's land, to the point where she could no longer recognize herself or remember her origins. So Takata unshackled her and decided that she was ready to be free. As she left the shack, she noticed that her way was blocked by strong vines.  even when she was able to push one way, another one would appear or grab at her. She then realized that no matter how hard she tried and no matter how much she changed yourself, while she was no longer Takata's slave, she still was not free. As a result, she just walked back to the same shack that she was so desperate to get out of.

Meanwhile back in Africa, Uhuru woke up from the powerful drug after hundreds of years to notice that his homeland had been severely ravaged. He also noticed that his beautiful wife had been kidnapped, so in order to rescue her, he followed Takata's footsteps back to his land in the East. When he had learned that his beautiful Africania was trapped in the shack in the forest, he tried to get through the vines that in trapped her, but they lashed at him as well, so he went back to Africa and returned with the rich soil of his land, which he used to fill the sink holes that contributed to keeping Africania imprisoned. He then began to pull up all of the vines by its roots, starting with the largest one. Every time he uprooted a vine, Africania remembered something about herself and was able to rediscover her identity. As a result, she cleaned off for white paste from her skin, she washed the straightening chemical out of her hair, and she was able to recall the purity of her land and  her history. The second she completely rediscovered herself, all of the vines that Uhuru tried to pull out vanished.

Seeing that all of the vines were gone and that her beloved Uhuru had come to rescue her, Africania ran out of the shack and through the forest, not turning back until she was at last free!

This was a story I read in my school library when I was a little boy. I never really knew what the story was about even though I knew about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Being the nerd that I have always been, I would insist that Takata did not sound like a European name a and that he did not come from the east but rather the North and the West. Though I thought the story was inspirational of the child, I forgot completely about this book by Dorothy Robinson until a few years ago, when I realized that, all along, the story was about me; I am Africania.

Ever since I was a young child, I was always told to be proud of my heritage.  I remember one day when I was in third grade, we learned about the Civil Rights Movement, about how we as African-Americans staged a sit in, the freedom rides, and the protests even though we had water hoses sprayed on us and angry dogs set loose on us. Our Euro-American teacher and told the a classroom of us young African-Americans that we should be proud of what we accomplished and the heritage that we share. Then, after school, I was on the bus going home. I looked out the window at what was then my neighborhood, in the heart of Austin of the west side of Chicago. I saw lawn that have not been mowed, with knee-high weeds. I saw mounds of litter on every street corner and in front of every store. I saw people walking around with their hair uncombed, yelling and screaming at each other. I saw young men lounging on Street corners, drinking 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor concealed in paper bags and talking smack while they could've been doing something more constructive. Even at that young age of nine, I thought to myself, "Martin Luther King gave us freedom, and look at we are doing with it."

I guess that is where the Megillah of my life of ethnic confusion and shame began. I began to study my people, and become the opposite of everything I thought was wrong with the people in my community. I would see people slouching, who I would always sit up straight. I would see people wearing sport jerseys and backwards hat, so I would always wear formal but not sure, but not cardigans (which I admit I still like today), and for a while, I would not even wear gym shoes. I would notice my people using inappropriate grammar and calling it a dialect full words like ain't, finna, gon', as well as many double negatives and slurred words. As a result, I would say words like are not, is not, or am not, as well as about to, going to, and I would avoid double negatives like the plague, and I would use complete and proper pronunciation for my words. In fact, I don't think I've ever used the word ax as a verb (You know what I'm talking about!). In my senior year of high school, I had discovered a hair treatment technique called texturizing, which is very similar to old-fashioned processing for me, this was the best thing since frozen pizza, and I had my hair texturized as often as I could, to the dismay of my poor mother. As a result of my efforts to try to single-handedly fix what I thought was wrong with the community, I often would be harassed and ridiculed in high school and sometimes in college by African-American students. They would then call me names like sellout or Uncle Tom. My mother's friends would either respectfully thank me when I corrected their grammar or they would look at me indignantly in the face and repeat the inappropriate term. All of this only compounded the ethnic shame I felt. As a result, I would back away from African-American students and received the friendship of the Euro-American and Latino individuals who accepted me. I did not plan it that way, but that's how it turned out, with the exception of a few African-Americans similar to me.

I remember when I was a junior at North Park University. I had gotten a certificate for an awards ceremony for maintaining a high GPA. As I was unaware of their even being an awards ceremony sense I did not see it advertised, I asked the friends I had made who were all White if they knew of any awards ceremony. When they were marked knowing nothing about it either, I did some research, only to find out that it was a ceremony from the African-American Society of the University, and that awards were only given to African American students I was the so offended by this that I took the certificate and ripped it up. I then marched to the professor who was the faculty advisor of the club with and demanded that my name be removed from the rosters.

And then, after an editorial I wrote in the university's newspaper about an issue going on at the time that caused the African-American and Latino groups to cry discrimination, which I thought was unnecessary whining and race card playing, I was accosted by students who belonged to the same organizations. I was eating lunch, and one man decided to sit down without being invited, and then a group of students literally surrounded me as I was being interrogated about why I wrote what I wrote. They then said that I knew nothing what was going on because I was a commuter student. One Latino student even went as far as to call me a racist. On the other hand, I noticed some White students stopping me in the hall to shake my hand and tell me how much we appreciated my article. Some of these students I had never really talked to before. Again, this experience further reinforced my ethnic confusion and ethnic shame.

The more experiences I had like this, the more I would isolate myself from African-American and even members of my own family, something I have truly regretted. There was a time when I literally became the protagonist in the movie Precious, particularly in the scene where, as she is dressing and doing her hair for school, she looks in the mirror, and instead of seeing herself, she would see a slender White girl with long blonde hair and blue eyes. To take it a step forward, if one were to look at pictures I drew as a child, whenever I drew myself, I never drew myself as Black. When I first learned that I had some Native American in my blood, I'm overjoyed and I told as many people as I could. I did this even more when I found out that I was part Irish and that I even had some German in me. I would eagerly tell everyone how many Native American nations I came from and how much I knew about Irish culture. One time a professor responded, while the class was listening, "now tell me about your African heritage. Do you know what countries in Africa your ancestors are from?" He knew as plain as day that I had no idea at that time where my African ancestors were from. He merely asked me in order to prove a point, that he believes that the worst part about the slave trade was that it took our heritage and identity from us. While I do not think this was the worst thing about it, it certainly comes close. The worst part about the African Slave Trade was how many people died because of it; at least the third of all of the Africans brought on those ships through the middle passage died, and many of those who survived died either by being overworked, tortured, or because they simply gave up once their loved ones were sold away from them.

Returning to my supposed assimilation, I thought that the more I assimilated, the safer I would be from the crooked cops and the supremacists, and the more I would prosper as a patriotic citizen of America. As a result, I always dressed and spoke appropriately, I attended church regularly, and I still do, I became the first in my family to get a bachelors degree, and then the first to get a Masters degree, I tried to befriend people of all different nationalities and cultures, and I did not even think of dating until I had finished school and started my career. I thought that by doing everything right, everything would go my way and that I would be completely accepted by those of equal education and values, as well as in the workforce.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. When I needed to get an internship for my social work degree, I noticed that while the female Euro-American students in my class would get in internship after the second or third interview, it took me up to eight interviews to finally get an internship. Nevermind the fact that I had a perfect GPA and much passion for the field. For some reason, even though I came to every interview professionally dressed and more than prepared, I had the worst time getting an internship within a field that is supposed to be very liberal, and one that is always talking about how they need more male minority social workers. I then noticed that, while there were some female students of European extraction who performed it just as well or less slightly well as I did in grad school, many of them had gotten jobs with then 3 to 5 months after graduating and after only 3 to 4 interviews, while I, a student with the perfect GPA, who always led group projects, who belonged to Phi Theta Kappa national honor society and Golden Key international honor society, and to already had one and a half years of work experience in the field had to go on 14 interviews in one and a half years after graduation in order to get the job I have now.

I also noticed on the bus that I once offered a White woman a seat on a crowded bus, only for her to refuse it even after her boyfriend encouraged her to sit down, only for her to sit down 10 minutes later next to an elderly White woman. I noticed that, when I would politely hold the door to the elevator for a White woman, she would position herself to thank me, only to see what I am and face the front with a cold disposition. I noticed how there would be people staring at me when I go to a restaurant in a Euro-American neighborhood. Finally, I noticed how a pastor of a previous congregation would preach about racial tolerance and equality under God, only for him to allow a Euro-American congregant to verbally abuse me because he came from an influential family and owns a business that the church would do business with.

After all of these incidents, I finally realized that, while the offending parties did not see me as a blog or a hoodrat, they saw me as a child at least and as they passed at most. They did not see me as being equal, but as being either a token, a dancing bear, or an exception to the race. Hence, while I was not a threat to most, I was still unwelcome. At this epiphany, there was no brother or sister I could turn to as I drove them all away.

This was when I had my reawakening. I realized that my desperate attempts to assimilate and be accepted were all for naught. As a result, I knew it was time to return to my roots. Therefore, I bought myself a kufi and a dashiki. I also began studying the history and culture of the West African nations, and I became enlightened by how powerful we once were and much more educated and civilized than we as African-Americans had been led to believe. Contrary to popular belief, we did not all go running around in our birthday suits; we were the originators of tie-dye clothing, and we made it very beautiful and elegant colorful clothing. We even showed the world how to design and color cloth by using fermented clay. We started universities, we had empires, such as the Ashanti Empire, and we've had a rich history surrounding music, dancing, storytelling, and less brutal warfare tactics. Along with Native American cooking, our fruits, vegetables, and even cooking techniques have been of great influence in the United States, especially the Deep South, as well as Europe and even parts of Asia. For example, my best friend, who is from India, once made me a delicious curry dish using okra – an African fruit. (Yes, okra is a fruit; it has seeds after all.)

Even after learning all of these things, something was still missing. I had no idea what nations might African ancestors were from. Therefore, earlier this year, I took a DNA test through After weeks of analysis, I finally knew. 67% of my entire bloodline is from Western and West – Central Africa, with most of my African ancestors coming from Cameroon, the two Congo nations, Senegal, and Ghana, respective in percentage. I also learned that 31% of my bloodline came from Europe, with 3% Irish and 24% from Great Britain (most of this likely coming from Scotland). I did notice to shocks from the test results. First, contrary to what I was taught, the test did not pick up any Native American DNA, which could mean that the DNA traces were far too small to be noticed or that I was never Native American after all. Second, they noticed that 2% of my DNA is from Central Asia. Considering the fact that I was told that someone on my father's side came from Romania, this leads me to believe that that this 2% could be Romani.

Though I was disappointed that I did not have  any signs of Native American blood in me, I felt a certain peace come over me that I never felt before in my life. Alex Haley probably felt the same way when he met his relatives in the village of Juffire in the Gambia. I had finally unlocked a part of my identity, and I felt as if I knew more about myself finally. However, as I am a proud nerd, I have been wanting to know more about my cultures. The first step I took was writing to the Cameroonian Embassy to request information about my heritage, such as food and clothing, but they have yet to write me back after over four months. Next, I found a store in Calumet Heights that sells West African clothing and accessories. The man who owned the store, Kayra Imports, was very welcoming and open to showing me the type of clothing the people of my cultures would wear. He then told me that eventually I would need to visit the motherland myself. Now, I am learning how to make different types of foods from Cameroon and West Central Africa, such as peanut soup and fou-fou, which is the a very thick starch paste from grains, plantain, or cassava. The paste is then rolled into balls and served with peanut soup or any dish with vegetables or meat. It is far too bland to be eaten by itself.

While I am now proud of my African American, Cameroonian, Congolese, and Senegalese cultures, they do not define myself completely. I am not going to pull a Halle Berry and completely reject the other 33% of my bloodline – even though being part European have not gained me any acceptance in America. I am not going to be bitter; after all, I have not too many of the experiences that I often hear about or read about in the news. I have never been denied service at a store or restaurant. I have never been pulled over, frisked, or arrested by police for a DWB. I have never been the victim of a hate crime, and the only Euro-American to call me at nigger listened to too much Hip-Hop, and he genuinely apologized when he saw that I was offended.

No matter how much of my identity I am aware of and how much I am proud of my heritage, not race, I am still myself. While I recognize that there are some big itself there, as well as discrimination in the workforce, and no matter how strongly I believe that African-Americans need to own more businesses, besides hair salons, barbershops, and liquor stores, I still know and appreciate the fact that there are plenty of good White people. After all, a White school teacher gave me the extra attention I needed in grade school. A White principal and an Italian – Armenian high school teacher recognized and encouraged my knack for writing. A White pastor helped me convert to Lutheranism. An Italian supervisor treated me like a son and gave me spiritual guidance. An Italian – Lithuanian – Ashkenazi Jewish Roman Catholic married me, and a White, mostly German congregation has genuinely nourished my talents and interests, and provided me healing from the wounds of my previous congregation.

Hence, no matter what pain one has felt in one's own culture or other cultures, it is wrong the two denigrate the entire group because then you will be closing yourself off from the good people of that same culture you are condemning. It is even more dangerous to isolate yourself from your own people due to your own values and ideals. Otherwise, like Africania, you may think that you have found freedom, only to realize that you are still a slave – a slave in your mind and heart. As for me, I am finally free and at home.

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