Pieces

Pieza de Indias. That was the term used throughout Latin America, and later in the West Indies and back on the West African coast, for enslaved Africans. They were pieces of people. One pieza was an adult slave free of visible flaws. This measurement was useful in determining the worth of the enslaved individual and what they should be traded for. Females and children were fractions of a pieza, with adult males holding the highest value. This was not the last time my people would be assessed in such a manner. In 1787 the United States would count each slave as only 3/5 of an individual when determining representation. It is said that the Three-Fifths Compromise actually worked in favor of African-Americans, as counting each individual slave as a person would have only increased the political power of the Southern aristocracy and allowed them to expand slavery further West. Perhaps there is truth to that. What I know, however, is that whether the term used is Pieza de Indias or three-fifths it all comes down to the same thing for me personally: I am left with a broken legacy. My identity is two halves that don’t fit together neatly. I live with pieces of both the place of my origin and the often abusive land of my birth.

Pieces of my origin: my West African ancestors dominate my phenotype so thoroughly that people have trouble accepting that I’m American born. The surface pieces that remain-my deep ebony skin, the coils of my hair and the curves of my body- have caused many to sputter in disbelief and stare at me in incredulity when I answer their question of where I’m from with ‘Seattle’.

Pieces of my origin: my Grandma would grab my hand before I could step on the intersecting lines at street corners, sharply telling me to ‘mind the crossroads’. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, and she never explained it either. Years later I would learn of Esu, the deity of crossroads in many West African traditional religions, and his important role in religious ceremonies. I’d recall my Grandma’s attention to crossroads. I’d wonder if what I thought of as a weird and senseless superstition on her behalf was actually a piece of my enslaved African people passed down through generations, one that I should have paid attention to and questioned her on.

Pieces of my origin. Though we were Christians and were supposed to spurn connection to the “pagan” and “evil” practices of our African fore parents, the pieces slipped out. I saw it in my Grandma’s face as she held a cousin of mine in 1996. My cousin was a lovely baby, with huge, pensive almond shaped eyes. As my Grandma gently rocked her after church one day she held her up to her friends. “Look at those eyes”, she replied, “This one’s been here before. She’s come back to us from over there”. Sis. Montgomery, A lady from North Carolina, slowly nodded her agreement. “Yes”, she said as she smiled, this is not this one’s first time here”. Once I recovered from my brief shock I smiled with them. I knew that what they were insinuating about my cousin was a belief that flouted what we officially believed, and I knew that it did not come from the Christianity forced on our ancestors. No, what they stated that day was from the ancestors themselves, and something about hearing it expressed-in a church of all places-resonated within me.Vestiges of our ancestors can be found in the cuisine, religious practices and music of African-Americans. These assorted pieces, however, are not enough to make us wholly African. This became apparent to me when I married an African man.

“Am I Ethiopian? NO, tell them I’m 100% Bantu! I’m as BANTU as they come”, Ali said, picking up his bottle of Corona and laughing. I’d just told him yet another story of a relative of mine asking me if Ali was Ethiopian. Ali’s narrow bone structure and toffee skin didn’t fit America’s assumption of what a “pure African”  from Sub-Saharan Africa should look like, so people frequently assumed that he was  of Ethiopian or Somali descent. But Ali was not from the Horn; he was Tanzanian. His parents came from two different tribes and he was fiercely proud of his heritage. Ali’s maternal lineage could be traced back to the 14th century. The oral traditions of his paternal side went back millennia, the story of their migration through the Great Rift Valley to the plains of Northern Tanzania being passed to him from his grandmother. Ali was African in a way that those of us in Diaspora could never be. Ali had a surname which denoted his origin and knew his tribe and his clan. The Iraqw tribe of his father still dwells in the plains of Karatu and the Chagga tribe of his mother continues to inhabit the slopes of Mt.Kilimanjaro.

There are those who would argue that one’s lineage is irrelevant in the 21st century, that the concept of tribe in Africa is backwards and should be forgotten. But when I visited TZ in 2006, I would experience firsthand what it meant to belong to a tribe, and it moved me deeply.  Three weeks into my trip my in laws held a traditional ceremony to welcome and accept me into their clan, and as the saying goes ‘membership has its benefits’. Others are deeply obligated to you and you are obligated to them. Though I’d witnessed traces of this back home among my own family, Tanzanians took the concept much more seriously.

When I returned to the United States three months later I had a better understanding of Ali. My time in Tanzania gave insight into his immense pride, the commitment that he felt to where he came from and why he held it so close to his heart. I also realized that I was not African in the sense he was. Name, lineage and land were key components of Ali’s identity, and the circumstances of my history meant I would never have them. I had pieces of my origin; Ali possessed the entirety of his. I find an aspect of this to be ironic though. While I cannot simply label myself African, only identifying as American isn’t really an option either. As much flack as my ethnic group catches for using the terms ‘Black American’ and/or ‘African American’ the harsh truth is that the country of our birth refuses to recognize and treat us as true Americans. That distinction is still reserved for WASPs. Even if I was inclined to be the type to spurn any connection to Sub-Saharan Africa, reject the term ‘black’ under the pretense that it doesn’t describe my actual skin color, drape myself in the American flag and chant ‘AMERICA! Fuck yeah!” at the top of my lungs it would not be enough for me to be viewed as American in every sense of the word. Indeed, the resurgence of vitriolic and public racism during America’s self-proclaimed post-racial Age of Obama makes me deeply pessimistic. Sam Cooke said that a change gon come, but I wonder about it. The soaring rhetoric of the Constitution isn’t enough to cover up the ugliness present from our founding. Freedom, citizenship and equality for Africans were never a part of the grand plan of the Founding Fathers. I don’t know where that leaves me. I hold the pieces of my African past in one hand and the realities of my American present in the other, unsure of where I’ll ever belong.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

4 thoughts on “Pieces

  1. ” I hold the pieces of my African past in one hand and the realities of my American present in the other, unsure of where I’ll ever belong.”

    You belong in the present, as well all do. Not to make light of your plight, as it is very, very real, but you were welcomed by your ex’s family with open arms; you might not have been of their country or their tribe, but you were accepted. With any relationship, it is almost a rarity to be taken in by one’s in-laws. And in America, African-Americans aren’t treated the best, this is certain, but they are far from the worst off.
    Sometimes I think of how Asian-Americans, many of whom have families that lived on this land for centuries, must now feel to always have it assumed that they are immigrants, while I (an immigrant myself) have it assumed that I was born here until I say my name. I wonder about Native Americans, who don’t have a history month, no media representation, and barely have the land that their ancestors once roamed freely, not to mention overwhelming alcoholism and sexual abuse in their communities, with no place to call home, no glorious motherland to reference in conversation.
    Perhaps the squeaky wheel gets the grease and Blacks in this country are treated slightly better than other minorities because we speak up; perhaps our rights are a result of White guilt. But Blacks can live here, own property here, and as a heterosexual woman, you are also free to love here. I look at countries like Iran, where female citizens live in the very definition of hell and even coming from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere does not diminish the relief that I feel for not having been born there.
    You have something in your hands, something that none of your American-born ancestors could have dared hope for: a chance. Make peace with your past and work slowly but surely to ensure that your child has both chance and opportunity. All you can do is make things better for her, for the next generation. That is all anyone can do.

    1. Emelyne: WOW! Your response was beautifully written. I co-sign your comments regarding the plight of Native Americans. I try to be sensitive and stay away from the “Oppression Olympics” game but I think Native Americans have gotten the worse deal in this country. It is one thing to kidnap and enslave a people. But to go through what Native Americans have gone through-and in their own land no less-is horrible. In schools we are taught that the oppression of natives was just an unfortunate brief chapter of American history, but the reality is that it continues today.

      The examples that you use to illustrate your points about the opportunities America provides are on point. The US does afford its citizens certain rights that are unthinkable elsewhere.

  2. I find this to be a sensitive story to reply to, because at some point we, as having conscious thought, have a natural instinct to seek identity. To have a spiritual desire to find out who you are like you have is both admirable, and melancholy to witness. The easy thing to say is “you are you, no matter what your past”, but you’re desire is so strong, I wish you the best of luck in discovering your identity, but I am more than comfortable with who you are, and the distinction in which you carry yourself. You are a queen, even if you’re unaware of which tribe you’re from, always remember that. Your legacy continues on from the mysterious one unfounded regardless, I hope you solve the mystery of your past

  3. D, I always enjoy your posts and look forward to new ones.
    I can certainly relate to how you feel, as this has been a long journey of mine as well. For me, not so much a search for who I (we, my family) am, but for the hard evidence that supports it.
    I was fortunate enough to know many of my elders, to include my great-great grandparents, and receive quite a bit of oral history and other facts (to include artifacts) from them. I think that is because my family is proud of its past, in spite of the perpetuated evil upon us -by ourselves, by others.
    Like you, however, I experienced standing on the other side of the “closed door” when it came to certain topics with certain family elders. I was always a curious child, never afraid to question things when most of my family -children and adults alike, would shy away from putting (insert elder) “on the spot” (fortunately my inquisitiveness was never harshly reprimanded or all-out discouraged).
    So, I gleaned what I could. Though I was young, I somehow had the gumption to care enough about it, continue to ask questions, then piece it all (not ALL, of course, but what I had) together as I got older. I still ask questions. I still do my own research.
    As a result, I’m referred to as the “keeper of our family’s history”. This perturbs me, because even though there is still plenty of family in the two generations above me who could carry this “title”. I seem to be the only one who gives a damn.
    So keep searching, Family. Your roots may not be as far from the tree as you think.

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