My grandma welcomed me to the “motherland” before I had arrived. By November 2004 I had saved one year’s allowance of vacation at my job towards a two-week trip to South Africa. My grandma had visited western Africa years earlier. She felt a kinship with the continent and was pleased that I was going to do the same.
But I did not.
I was picked up at the airport by my friend Andrea, who had organized our round-country tour. Andrea is South African?”brown-eyed, has medium-length brown hair, and is light-skinned. Actually, girlfriend’s white. Afrikaner, to be specific. Afrikaners are South Africans of European ancestry known for having created and upheld the practice of apartheid, or segregation, which ended in that country just over 10 years ago. In high school I had read about the measures some Afrikaners took with army tanks to prevent a handful of black children from attending “their” school. Years later I was one of two young women touring the country?”one black and American, one white and African.
On our tour of Johannesburg, the driver got lost before reaching the first sight?”Mandela’s house! As a result, the whole day’s events were delayed and rushed. By the end of the day, we were happy for the tour to have ended. We were not happy after paying the driver and him telling us we owed more. Aww naw! For the first time that day, I spoke up about the poor service and told the driver we would not be paying more because of a misunderstanding on pricing between our hotel and the tour company.
He paused, looked me in the eye, and told me that the only problem was that I was American, and that it was a shame. My American-ness had shown itself?”entitlement with a ‘tude! We did not end up paying more. But though I was proud of having spoken up, I also regretted having shown so much of myself that this man, who looked like he could be family, felt that I was a foreigner. My grandma’s words were not true for me?”I was not at home. I was distinctly separate from Africa by my being American.
Our next stop was Durban, where we visited a community of Zulus who are helping to preserve traditional culture by earning money from tours of the village. I ate the best vegetarian soul food I had ever eaten, and our group was serenaded by school children who sung in those beautiful African harmonies I’d known only from Ladysmith Black Mambazo CDs (the Grammy-Award winning, South African a cappella singing group). I felt I finally knew something of this place and its spirit, firsthand. But my sense of knowing was checked at the airport.
Before boarding our flight to The Cape, I stopped in the airport bathroom. While washing my hands, the bathroom attendant, a black woman, actually reached her fingers into my scalp to feel if my long, kinky waves were weave. And I actually let her do it! I yearned to know what blacks there thought of us blacks here, and I was willing to endure insult. After finding no weave, she threw her shoulders back, held her head a little higher, and asked where I was from. I told her I was black, from the States.
Her inquisition continued: “What’s your family name?”
“Brown,” I replied.
This is when she took one step back, pursed her lips, and let me know what I had not known: “You ain’t black.”
What? I had come all the way to Africa to discover that not only was this not my place of origin; I wasn’t even black! The medium-brown hue of my skin, less-than-coarse texture of my hair, and my last name, counted me out of the monopoly this black-skinned, coarse-haired, African-born woman had on being black and African.
Another worker in a chocolate shop had told me this same truth a few days earlier. He said that black Americans always came to South Africa pledging their allegiance to the land and people. He said their feeling of kinship was a farce, that black Americans were as African as my friend Andrea is American.
What I learned is what I had suspected?”my home is not the continent of Africa. My home is the city of Chicago. And while blacks in the U.S. may look similar to those in Africa, skin color makes you neither black nor African. My trip was an experiment in my blackness that taught me I did not have to identify with Africa to be black. My brand of blackness is American. And blackness born of America stands true.
Two weeks later, when I landed at O’Hare, I had arrived at my motherland?”I was home.