On a Tuesday evening sometime in the year 2001, I stood in the aisle of a massive Barnes & Noble store in downtown Seattle, in search of a new read. Always hungry for knowledge about my heritage, I’d gone straight to the African-American Studies section, and soon found a book that caught my eye. The title of the book was “Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America”, and it was written by the late Philippe Wamba.
As the son of a Congolese mother and Black American mother, Wamba inhabited two related but distinct corners of the African Diaspora. By the time I finished reading the jacket, I knew this work of literature deserved a place in my permanent collection, and I made my way to the register to purchase it.
I devoured Kinship, completing it within forty-eight hours. I enjoyed it so much that I read it again the following year, burying my nose in it while at a house party. Ali, a laid-back, toffee-colored Tanzanian man that I knew casually, noticed me, a perplexed look on his face.
“You are at a party but you are reading a book”, he said, chuckling softly, “it must be really good!”
“It is”, I replied curtly, hoping he would stop talking so I could return to it.
“May I see it”, he asked, extending his right hand. I reluctantly placed the hardcover in his palm, watching as he turned it over and began reading. Ali must have sensed my apprehension, and he started talking to allay it.
“I know the Wamba family”, he said nonchalantly, “and I will probably see them when I go home this summer. Give the book to me-“
I interrupted him, sucking my teeth sharply while words of protest formed in my mind and bubbled from my lips.
“Give you my book? FOR WHAT?”
Ali looked at me and shook his head, amused at my overreaction. He continued.
“If you give the book to me I will bring it to Dar es Salaam and have Philippe write a message in it and sign it for you.”
“OH”, I replied sheepishly, now embarrassed. “That would be amazing! Thank you so much!”
“You’re welcome”, he replied, nodding in acknowledgment. Ali kept his word, carrying my book with him 9,413 miles to East Africa and returning it to me in the fall of 2002.
Two years later, I would possess much more than the book and an encyclopedic knowledge of the African Diaspora. Ali and I would have a child together; a toffee-colored little girl whose parentage (American mother, African father) mirrored that of Philippe Wamba. With the birth of my daughter, I was now linked by blood to family across the ocean, and global connections among people of African heritage would forever take on a deeper and more personal significance to me.
For this reason, the incessant “Diaspora Wars” between Black Americans, Continental Africans, and Caribbean folks on social media work my last nerves. The hyperbole and animosity I read in tweets, Facebook updates, and thinkpieces just do not match what I have experienced offline!
The vitriol hurled is so over the top that I cannot help but wonder if other issues are at play. The fighting, the insults, the need to state one is “better” than those Black Americans/Africans/West Indians is so extra and unnecessary.
I love my specific heritage as a Black American. Moreover, while I certainly acknowledge the cultural differences within the African Diaspora, ultimately we are branches of a massive tree. We can honor our respective branches without debasing and attacking others. There can be no picking sides for me. There is no us against them.
My mind cannot fathom the idea that I must limit myself to my subgroup. Sure, on occasions I have been on the receiving end of hostility from West Indians or Continental African, condescendingly lectured to about the real and imagined flaws of my tribe. But the love and acceptance I have felt far outweighs any shady treatment. I cannot imagine what my life would look like without the lasting connections I have made which transcend culture, oceans, and borders. So when shots are fired in the Diaspora Wars, I adamantly refuse to join in.
I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to opt out. I refuse to use my tongue against others of African heritage and add to the psychological and identity issues that comprise our history. I refuse to engage in xenophobia. I walk away from the petty debates and recriminations about the past, for I know they are ultimately useless.
Just as there are men and women within my ethnic group who do not want to improve the gender dynamics and quality of relationships in our community, there are people of African descent who do not want to cultivate links and understanding amongst us. They enjoy the fighting and tribalism, and do the most to keep it going.
They must be left to their own devices, as no amount of evidence and impassioned reasoning will change their minds.
I am not going to argue with fellow Black Americans, online or off, who oversimplify the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Nor will I entertain delusional Black Americans who deny we are of African descent and insist we are the “real” Native Americans or “real” Jews. I am not going to waste my breath trying to convince non-American Blacks that my ethnic group has a culture or prove our worth to them. But I tell you what I am going to do instead:
I am going to sip rum and buss my rhythmically-challenged (but sincere) wine next weekend to celebrate Jamaican Independence with my girls;
I am going to have Sunday Dinner with my relatives, carrying on the tradition our forefathers began in the Deep South before the Great Migration scattered us north and west;
I am going to attend a birthday celebration for a beautiful sista from Zimbabwe next week, a sista who hooked me up with free tickets to see Danai Gurira’s play Familiar when it came to my city in May;
And God willing, I am going to spend the summers of 2019 and 2020 on African soil again, inhaling the humid air and drinking Campari with my daughter’s Bibi (grandmother) while looking out at the Indian Ocean in Dar Es Salaam, living proof that intercultural connections can be lasting and fulfilling. It is my earnest hope that more of my kin open themselves up to experience the same.