When traveling around the world, few countries can provide the sense of belonging that African Americans may encounter during a trip to the Motherland.
My journey to Pram Pram, Ghana, was arranged through Global Volunteers, an international service organization that assists in community development worldwide.
Specifically, seven other volunteers and I were divided between teaching assignments or construction projects at local schools. Being a professor, I was of course assigned to work as a teacher.
Unlike some volunteers who were a bit unnerved by being at the head of a classroom, I was excited about standing before African children so that they could look upon me as an American representative of the world’s rank of Black people.
The students, of junior high and high school age, were warm, open and inquisitive.
“Are you American or African?” a student asked. It was the most poignant of all questions I received during a class.
I immediately fell speechless. Knowing they expected an answer and desperately wanting to provide one, I initially gave them the burden of defining my identity.
“Why do you ask?” I inquired.
“Because of your hair. It is like ours,” the student replied.
“What do you think?” I asked.
From among the stretched arms flailing above students’ heads to win my attention, I chose three students to answer my questions.
“Black American,” one shouted.
“A half-caste,” another retorted.
“African American,” said the last respondent.
After explaining my lineage from an African before slavery to finally evolving into what is now labeled African American today, they seemed resolved.
I, however, was not.
My conversation with the students stood as an example of the identity issue that African Americans often suffer.
The very label, “African American” intrinsically signifies a duplicity that remains misunderstood and unappreciated by many American and Africans.
I became curious and shared the students’ question and my answer to some Ghanaians who had different reactions.
William Anon, press secretary for the Pram Pram Traditional Council, stated with conviction that I could be none other than African.
In arguing his point, Anon posed the following question: If a Ghanaian woman who is with child moves to America with her husband and gives birth there, is the infant African or American?
“African,” I exclaimed. He closed his case.
Other locals I spoke with believed I was African American, but the ultimate conclusion lies neither with them nor with Anon.
How African Americans see themselves should be subject only to their own perspectives. Yet too often, Black people in America leave what it means to be Black in America to the discretion of Caucasians.
“…The reason why I want to continue my education (in America) is because I wanted to be like a White…” Apawu Harrison wrote in an essay I had assigned his class.
Harrison’s response to the topic, “Why I Want to Visit America” suggests that he has probably experienced more visits from Whites than he has from Blacks in his young, impressionable lifetime.
Moreover, he apparently believed that a White existence deserves more reverence than a Black one. This standard is not uncommon among Black children in America, either.
Ultimately, the cultural exchange that I looked forward to with such eagerness actually highlighted more similarities than differences between the people of Pram Pram and myself.
In fact, it became clear that neither my knowledge of them nor their understanding of me could be enhanced without continued exposure to each other.
Visits to Africa, therefore, are crucial for Black Americans, because the truth of their identity will remain hidden until experience becomes a primary teacher. Too many American and African children who share the sentiments of Apawu Harrison have yet to discover the relevance of being Black.
— Dr. Kimetris N. Baltrip is an assistant professor of journalism at Prairie View A&M University.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com