On: Being “African”-American while in South Africa

So, I discovered that I am more American than African.

Indeed, the modifier that I oft use to self-identify as one of Africa’s diasporic children, remains a symbolic insertion, a prologue?, that attempts to place me before/within the context of America’s raciated colonialist, capitalist story of human exploitation and systematic terror. Such usage is more about me attempting to demonstrate a connection to the historical, social, cultural trajectory of enslaved Africans in America (and maybe a connection of my family of origin to a West African source) than anything else.

In no way was this realization a surprise. I had done away with the idealistic and romanticized notion of Africa as “home” a few years back (and now wonder: why so late?). And, even while I am deeply spirited by the fact that Africa, West African countries to be exact, remain the primary “source” of my familial lineage, I feel like I am more of an enigma as I roam (touring actually!) South Africa, in September 2010, than my White American sisters and brothers who are visiting with me today: I get a lot of stares and they walk through town without surveillance. I am treated with speculation even as I witness them maneuver the streets without care for their interactions. The funny thing is: I GET IT!




When I walk the streets of Cape Town, my ethnicity-the identifier which supposedly characterizes my place of origin-which, in this case peculiarly places me, partly, in Africa ceases to hold true. It connotes a connection-for some a genetic link-to Africa, the motherland, home. Yet, I was reminded the moment that I walked through Joburg International Airport that my Africanisms can not be found in my knowledge of the African continent, my understanding of the varied cultures and languages and religions and peoples and my deep connection to the struggles of Black people in Africa (and the colorisms that continue to caste Blacks as a class below Colored South Africans). My African ain’t the African of the people that I have fantasized and fetishized, oh no! I, yet, have lots to learn!

Looking into the faces, when I was bold enough, of the workers, producers pushing other folk (Black, White, Red, Brown) in wheelchairs, cooking and serving food at airport eateries, cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping the floors, shining shoes, collecting tickets, directing, signaling, sweeping, I saw my reflection, that is, the reflection of an “African?” whose life had been made easier by the labor of other Africans. I could sense an e(race)ing of the Black African within my African-Americaness as folk surveilled a Black English speaking foreigner in Nike sneakers, designer skinny jeans, an iPhone 4 (that I wasn’t using), Kodak camera, lap top, Jeep luggage and a Western attitude, walk boldly on the floors that were being mopped by Black South African laborers. My African, in that moment, was less impressionable than my seeming economic status. To be sure, my “American” ostensibly was most visible when I encountered other Black (Africans) especially when they found out that I was from Jersey. American: a sign for a certain “class position” and economic status that is connected to an imperialist, neoliberal project of the West that negatively impacts the lives of many in the East (and South), is what folk saw. And, I get it!

My short time in South Africa has already been cause for me to interrogate the complicated meaning-making process of racial identification and to realize that class positionality, access to capital (human and monetary) and State affiliation/nationality has everything to do with the project of race-ing. Indeed, I am forced to critique my own place in a capitalist project that continues to draw a wedge between Blacks in Africa and those in USA. I have been forced to deal with my appropriation of “African”: an appropriation that has everything to do with my fantastical ideals about place and heritage and less about the unified struggle against race, gender, sex, class, religious, economic, neighborhood, ability and other oppressions that ultimately have me looking more vaudeville than bona fide African. I now realize that I can no more claim my African than I claim “being from” New York even though I live 20 minutes away in Jersey.  Africa, at least Cape Town, South Africa, has challenged me to examine my conscious and actions in an America that makes invisible the tattered Townships where Black South Africans survive daily. It’s hard to do from the Cape Milner Hotel where I can see way pass the struggles of the valley as I lift my head, with a glass of wine, to the soaring mountains. With my many-a-Rand I can take a privileged ride via a wire car to the tip of Table Top Mountain, but fail to position my Rand so that they can fall in to the hands of NGOs building up the lives of those in the economically-distressed Townships that I’ve passed so that they can soar.

Author: Darnell L. Moore / @dnnewark on Twitter

One thought on “On: Being “African”-American while in South Africa

  1. Thanks for your touching memoir. Reminds me of all of our romanticism expressed in the late 60s and my trip to Africa in 1980 (where I brought nothing but material to wear and a toothbrush). As we used to say, “its complicated.” But i love our people. Put on some african clothes, at least a dashiki and identify. They will mistakenly look for you to speak Yoruba (smile).

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