When I was a kid back in Brooklyn, younger even than Terrence, my friends would tease me.
“Are you African?” They’d ask.
“So why the hell do you dress like that???”
Yes, indeed, evidence to the contrary. I was decked out in a dashiki and a kufi everyday. My friends in Public School wore whatever the hell they wanted to wear to school. I even had an African name, Senegalese, in fact. A name that my friends, with little or no effort or imagination, could turn into the most irritating jokes.
My first week of school the teacher told us that we shall all choose a name from a book of African names and for the remainder of our school lives we shall be known by that name. Little did I know, at 7 years old, how significant that moment would be. That not only would that name follow me home, it would follow me into my after school life and even until this day it remains the name I am known by. Even friends I’ve had over thirty years do not know my “slave” name.
Why “slave” name? Because, in case you don’t know the history of slavery, the true names of the African chattel were taken and replaced by rather random meaningless names, like dogs, and their owner’s surnames became their own.
Why did I respond, “Hell no!”? Well, that’s a little more complicated.
Though I was being taught to love and honor my African ancestry, I didn’t exactly live in a vacuum. I watched TV, too. A LOT of TV. And a lot of movies, too. The images of Africa I received in school- of a land rich with ancient civilizations and natural resources, of Kings and Queens like Shaka Zulu in South Africa and Cleopatra of Egypt (though consistently portrayed as being white for some reason in films), of warrior kings like Hannibal of Carthage who conquered large portions of Spain and Italy and nearly defeated the Romans, of great Universities like Sankore in Timbuktu, of great empires like the Mali and Ghana Empire, etc… all of these images were countered by the bombardment of negative images, those that influenced the minds of the people I had to interact with outside of the cultural sanctuary of my school.
And, unfortunately, I was influenced by these people and these images, as well.
Of course, as a child, you don’t question these images. Seeing is believing. I just kind of thought that Africa was big enough for both. I wanted to be associated with the positive images, the flowing robes of Princes and the kufi-bearing scholars, but unfortunately most of my friends outside of school had no exposure to the positive images, only the negative ones. So I was subject to being called names like “African booty scratcher,” “Spear-chucker,” “Monkey-chaser,” etc.
Like Terrence, among those that were essentially my own kind, I was an outsider.
Naturally, I blamed my school. This led me to resent the education I was receiving, and even resent the Africa I was being taught forced to hold in such high esteem. And I would not have even an inkling of the enormous gift I’d been given by my school until my first foray into the public school system as a High School student, where I would see first hand what little I had been missing out on all those years. Little by little I would realize the virtually insurmountable obstacles my teachers had taken on.
Even now I am still learning.
Growing up in NY I learned more about the world than in any school. In New York, you have ample opportunity to meet people from all over the world, or descendants of people from all over the world, whether you like it or not. New York is truly a global city. I was never proud of that fact before I came to Japan. No wonder I wore my New Yorker status like a badge of honor. It’s funny the things your ego has to feed on for sustenance when you live in another country, especially one as un-diversified as Japan.
Diversity is not just a word, as many countries including Japan are learning or perhaps will learn in the future. When one is truly coming to terms with living in a diversified environment one eventually comes to know the nature of the cultural hard-wiring they’ve undergone, in most cases without their consent and sometimes without even their knowledge. Then, one’ll have to undergo a certain amount of dis-assembly and re-conditioning in order to develop a sensitivity for various types of differences because that’s life in a melting pot. The only way the stew can thrive is if, ideally, all the ingredients coalesce and complement one another, or cancel one another out so that the stew has about as much taste as Tofu.
Like Alex undergoing the Ludovico Technique in “A clockwork orange.” In order to induce in him an aversion to doing “evil;” the only side effect being that “evil” in its current cultural definition was so closely tied to what amounted to all he’d come to believe were normal human responses to stimuli that he was made into a human punching bag. Well, in a diverse society, the conditioning begins with an induced aversion to Political Incorrectness, in as much as when you hear or witness an act of P.I. there is a Pavlovian-type response to it. And, like poor Alex, you might in some cases want to throw up, and in my case, engage the offending party in discussion or debate as to why they retain their questionable views or, in extreme cases, wring their necks (a rather troubling response.) It has not always been this way and in some corners of America, and in some hearts of Americans, it still isn’t this way. But, back home, it’s pretty advanced. Besides, you learn in NY that, like Chris Rock said, whoever you are intolerant of, irrationally fear or hate, will probably end up in your family. Got a problem with gays? Your son will come out of the closet and announce his engagement to your next door neighbor’s son. Hate white people? Your daughter will bring home Brad Pitt and announce their engagement.
When I was a kid, my first exposure to real Africans from various countries would came through my school. Mostly musicians, artists and educators. They’d lecture, share their knowledge and experiences, do their dances, play their instruments, and display their art. There were programs where students and faculty took trips to various African countries. (I never went but some of my classmates did.) The school even began an African Street festival in Brooklyn, an annual event every summer, which still persists to this day, 38 years later, though the school is defunct. All in the spirit of building bridges with our African brethren.
My interactions with Africans as an adult would be quite different, however.
Back in NY I used to get the feeling that average African Americans (not celebrities, athletes or of course presidents) were beneath contempt in the eyes of many African visitors and immigrants for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to our legally living in the so-called land of milk and honey and not finding a way to milk it dry; their perspective akin to Antonio Montana’s in “Scarface” who said: “If I had come here (to America) 10 years ago I’d be a millionaire by now. I’d have my own house, my own car, my own boat…”
But, it was only a feeling…I only knew a handful of Africans.
In Japan, the Africans are really the only “friendly” black people. Usually if I encounter an African-American he’d give me a look like I owed him money, or cower like he owed me money, one. Or, they’d pretend they don’t see me. I get it, though. I avoid other foreigners too sometimes. Perhaps it’s a side effect of living in a culture where the natives can best be described as evasive. Perhaps it’s just fear. and prejudice. And self-hate.
Africans, however, invariably approach me with, at minimum, a warm greeting and often try to strike up a conversation. They seem to be impervious to all of the Japanese behavior around them. I suspected it was because they too mostly come from mostly racially homogeneous countries and have not undergone the Ludovico technique so they have no illusions about their place here and know what’s to be expected from their Japanese hosts, but I don’t know for sure. The ones I’ve spoken to appear to have no racial sensitivity, no qualm with anything that goes down here aside from those that hinder their business ventures. And, they’ve found ways to deal with those hindrances in most cases. The 1000 daily paper cut type slights and the out-and-out discrimination that trouble me seem to fly well under their radar.
I envy them, sometimes. But, sometimes I think that kind of thinking would do me more harm than good. Just a little too pragmatic and hope-free for my taste. But, the relatively few Africans that I have interacted with in Japan do not represent the thinking of an entire continent. To me, this is common sense. If it weren’t for the school I attended as a child, as well as my experiences growing up in NY, I might have been able to lump all Africans into one and label them. But, you see, I have an aversion to that kind of thing. I try to deal with each person as they come.
Easier said than done.
I brought all of this to my interactions with little Terrence- my lifetime of experience dealing with other races, cultures and nationalities; with all its convolution and confusion. It’s no wonder I felt so cautious. Afraid to engage. Afraid to corrupt his mind with my experience.
And it illustrated one of the reasons I think this experience living in another culture has been good for me. It constantly gives me opportunities to really see what I’m made of, this equation I call identity. And, what the world is made of, this constant search for cultural uniqueness or distinctions. Sometimes what I see is not a pretty picture. Sometimes its beauty is overwhelming. Sometimes a simple question like, “Are you African?” can open a door and send me to a place in my heart I may not have ventured otherwise. A place where the designation “African” has about as much meaning as the designation “American”: none. I’m American as much as I’m African as much as I’m Japanese…
What I really wish I could have told my kids when they asked me was I African, before the thought was washed away by those 500 feelings flash flooding my heart and paralyzing me, before I thought of the racial aggrandizing I was subject to as a child, and the Ludovico-type conditioning I’ve been subject to as a New Yorker so as to enable me to co-exist with other cultures and people relatively drama-free, before I unearthed all of the feelings, good and bad, about people I have encountered from the African continent, and contemplated all of the racial and cultural prejudice that paralyzes progress and our true evolution as a species…I wish I could have told them that despite their question springing from such innocence, it was indeed irrelevant.