Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Identity Question Or Why I'm Neither African Nor African-American

By Der Kosmonaut 
12 Janurary 2012

The most common and vexing question I'm often asked in Europe is: “Where are you from?”
The exchanges are predictable. I truthfully reply that I'm from New York. However, rather than leaving it alone, people will press the question: “Where are you really from?”
This line of questioning is based on racism and ignorance of the history of the Americas.
When I lived in Montreal, I told a colleague of mine at CKUT radio a bit of my family history and she came up with a wonderful idea of a documentary entitled "A D.... History of the
United States". She came up with this title because my family history is really reflective of the
United States.
Through my maternal grandmother, I'm the descendants of both the first Europeans and Africans to arrive in North America. My grandmother's mother was born in St. Augustine, FL. I keep telling ignorant Europeans that I'm as American as one can be. To really explore my family ancestry would take no less than a decade of diligent research.
This is what I do know so far. I'm actually a true Native New Yorker. My ancestry includes the Seneca nation from the area of Western New York State. I also probably have American Indian ancestry from Florida and Virgina. However, it gets even more complicated. My maternal grandmother's grandfather was white Cuban, that's why my grandmother was a natural redhead with straight hair. Through my maternal grandfather, I have roots in Barbados. His grandfather was an English judge in Barbados. I received my family name from him. My father's mother's side also came to New York from Barbados. She looks white which means that I have white English ancestry on both sides from Barbados. Through my father, I have an Irish ancestor from County Cork. More recently I learnt that my maternal great-grandmother, the mother of my grandfather was born in Panama.
Of course, people in Europe feel like jackasses once I explain this to them and they regret that they probed in the first place and finally understand that they should have left it alone when I said I was from New York. To sum up, I have indigenous ancestry from North America, Caribbean and Central America. I have African ancestry but that is hard to really trace as my African ancestry can be from anywhere from Senegal, all along Africa's West coast south to Angola. I have European ancestry from England, Ireland and Spain. I'm as mixed as one can be. Any attempt to get an accurate diagram of my ancestry would be an endeavour of tedious and painstaking proportions. Hence, I simply identity as a New Yorker.
I never identified as an American because my early travels within the US made me realise that hailing from the Northeast US made me completely different culturally from the United States. Hence, my national identity is really Northeastern US. (My grandmother was raised in Philly and my two uncles were born in Philly but raised in New York. My grandfather was also born in New York.) With my history in Boston, I'm truly a Northeastern North American. That also explains why my closest friends and all of my girlfriends in Canada were from The Maritimes.
I don't identify as African for two reasons. First, I've never been to Africa. The Africans that I've met and encountered here in Europe are foreign to me. They don't consider me to be African and our cultural values and social outlooks are different. Moreover, I refuse the title of African-American because I was born at the peak of the Black Power movement in the US and was raised and taught to be Black. I was born Black and will die Black. Second, no one can tell me what I am or force an identity upon me. Particularly, those who base this on superficial physical appearances and simply make assumptions based on my skin colour. I do find it rather amusing that the ones who are most vehement that I'm not African are the Africans themselves ,while whites in Europe and North America and of course Black Americans are the ones that are most insistent in forcing me to identify as African.
At the end of the day, I have an international identity. Paradoxically enough, the only country and culture which I could most identify with is Serbia. Many Serbs consider me to be Serb.
So the short answer to the long question is this. I'm of mixed ancestry making me North and Central American, Caribbean, African and European. In other words, I'm simply a human being with the common blood of humanity flowing through my veins with the same human DNA as everyone else. 

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