“The Truth is an offense. When you get the Truth, use it as a shield, don’t get offended.” Upbeat Radio host.
Yesterday was Emancipation Day in most of the British West Indies–the Caribbean islands that were/are under British rule/protectorate/alliance. It’s celebrated in varying degrees of importance throughout the BWI; in some places it is a part of the annual Carnival experience. Slavery in the BWI was “abolished” in 1834 although there was an indentured system in place to ensure servitude for a while longer.
I’ve been searching for an angle for this post and tons of ideas have come and gone, but nothing has stuck until yesterday morning when I was listening to Iwande on Upbeat Radio. He’s quite an interesting radio host. Most mornings I agree with what he says; he’s somewhat of a radical in my book. Some mornings though, I get tired with the God & Bible talk and so I tune him off. But this morning when I woke up, he was on a roll about Emancipation Day, and I had to listen. He ended his segment by playing “Freedom Songs” by Bob Marley, quite appropo for his message: emancipate yourself; know your history. This strikes home because much as I have loved being here, it’s been an interesting experience as far as my identity as an African is concerned.
I am usually introduced as C’s friend from Ghana. About 95% of the people I’m introduced to, have said: “Oh Guyana! Nice!” Of course, I correct them and say: “No not Guyana, Ghana, West Africa. Then the recognition comes: “Ah soccer! Man ayall need a better offense or is it defense (*me: shoulder shrug*). We were waiting for you to beat the U.S….oh well, next time.” This is often followed by the usual questions that I got from people in the U.S. when I first arrived twenty years ago, but with more of the dramatic Caribbean flair: “Na ayall have witch doctors and tins? So do you do Obeah? Can you voodoo me? Some have gone as far as to wave their arms above their heads and chant gibberish. A couple said they could paint their face with chalk, and set up shop and make a ton of money playing on people’s weaknesses. This caricature of what traditional African worship is, has been, at best, disturbing. Often, I try to critically engage folks saying that this is someone’s reality. I get into discussions of the White Man’s Religion vs. what “our” ancestors practised. Sometimes they have me cracking up because they look/sound absurd and I can’t help but laugh. Sometimes I laugh because well, I’ve been told I take things too seriously or that I’m being so PC I miss the point.
In addition to this, I’m introduced as “Melody” because it’s “easier” according to my friend. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m realizing that she is right. The first response to using “Kuukua” is: “Huh?” Then: “Do you have a nickname?” Then: “Do you have another name?” This is when my friend chimes in and says: “Melody!” and gives me this look like: “I told you it’d be easier!” And so I have a bit of a split personality while I’m here. A few people know me by Kuukua, but the majority know me by Melody.
The first time I was on the island, I don’t remember any of this bothering me, but then again I was here to celebrate my 30th birthday and just wanted to have fun; everything else played second fiddle. The second time, I was rushed because my trip was cut short by a hurricane. I guess third time’s a charm as the saying goes. I’ve been here longer this trip and I guess things have had a chance to sink in and grate a bit.
I want to scream at people: you are African! You came from the Continent! Learn your history! As someone who prides herself on being aware and trying to be as educated as possible, this is hard for me. I don’t know what to call it. Prejudice? Ignorance? It’s not Racism, right? On the whole, it’s rather perturbing to get this from people who look like me. So anyway, yesterday when Iwande was on his usual soapbox about knowing from whence we came to enable us to know where we are headed (an idea in Ghana known as Sankofa), I was cheering from the other side of the waves. Circumstances forced the migration and it’s maybe a lot too late to return, but it’s never too late to know the history.
I paused after he was done with his segment, to be a bit critical of myself because I wanted to flip the lens. Back in Africa, did I know about Anguilla? Probably not. What did I know of the people of the Caribbean? Probably not much. But I recall knowing about the British West Indies because Massa needed all of us to learn the extent of the empire. But perhaps it didn’t work the other way around. Those shipped out were not told from whence they came. I know I didn’t know much but I also know that for some reason, I didn’t come here thinking the natives were savages, starving, and witch doctors or have any caricatures of them or their cultures. Is media to blame? Maybe this reason was an open mind, education, exposure, and my eternal need to want to know more Black people. I don’t know.
What grates is it that, without fail, everything Africa/n seems to be treated as “other” no matter what part of the world I’m in. If I’m not exotic, I’m to be feared. Is it because the media presents this view to the world? How come the only view of the Caribbean we get is of the beaches and sand? Did you know that this is one of the islands where people have what we would “typically” label as “African American” names. I’ve met a Shantaya and Kentisha. Yet people will be quick to distinguish themselves from “Black Americans”. Now let me say that at least three people have been interested in Ghana and have expressed interest in making the trip if I would go with them, so all hope is not lost. However, my interaction with the majority of people has just been what I have described.
I went to the Heritage Museum the second week I was here, and literally everything in the museum bore resemblance to things back home. Some things like the “coal pot” and “grinding stone” are still being used in some places in Ghana in this present day. As I walked through, I wished for some miracle that people here would know how strong the connection is. How we really are one people no matter what the Colonizer would have us believe. Sigh. Sadly, I think this perspective is only gained by traveling and perhaps reading and talking to actual real-live Africans 🙂 (to an extent) and I’ve decided I am more than happy to be the guinea pig and tour guide.
I didn’t have a particular goal with this piece; just wanted to pour out a bit of my heart and think through what has been bugging me even as I’ve been sunning and bathing perpetually. I don’t want you reading and going away with a negative opinion of the people I’ve interacted with; I want you to think through what makes it possible for this to occur. What allows people to hold incorrect visions and ideas? And how in your own little ways you can help educate people about whatever it is that you know to be your truth. I’m sure this is present in other cultures as well; Black folks are not the only ones, although I think for us it was strategic and still continues to be to a certain extent. Sigh.