Raven-Symoné isn’t the first to shed the “African-American” label (and she won’t be the last). 14 years ago, I attempted to do so in the name of progressive consciousness, following a ten-day trip to Ghana as a college freshman. I failed, and I’m so glad I did.
At 18, although I’d interacted with white peers, never had I been immersed in such an intimate setting with a group of white people as when I attended a small private college in the midwest. Until then, I’d grown up in a middle class black neighborhood in Chicago, but I suddenly found myself in a modern Mayberry-esque town — a place not far from cows or corn, where there were few strangers and little necessity for locked doors. It was there, in that cultural twilight zone where no matter how many times I went to the local super market — often dressed in my school’s paraphernalia — and drew gazes, that I began to examine my identity. Now, I must say I never felt ostracized because of my race, and members both in and outside the college community were generally welcoming. However, this new experience made me curious. What did it mean to be black? Was I less “black” now because I was mostly around people who didn’t share my experiences? I remember feeling so disconnected I wondered what black people were doing “out there in the real world.” It wasn’t long before I was subscribing to Essence magazine and using the weekend to search for a decent black church.
A friend and I had been sitting in the campus cafeteria when I noticed an African / American student (no hyphen). He was born to Nigerian parents, but fully American. Aloud to my friend, I questioned how both he and I could essentially hold the same title, but for different reasons. He was a dual citizen of sorts, African and American. However, I was not. There was no question that I was an American, but in what way was I African? I had no real ties to the continent other than in my own mind. Even that connection was weak under the influence of the familiar philosophy in black America that Africans have a natural hatred for us.
I considered my white peers in this respect. Why weren’t they hyphenated? Why didn’t they go around identifying themselves every day as European-Americans? They were just Americans, white Americans. Black people in this country earned the right to be called Americans, just plain old Americans, no hyphen, right? In the true spirit of Enlightenment, I’d come to a more informed conclusion independent of any long-held, outdated, unchallenged beliefs about being black in the U.S. I was secretly proud of myself in the way young people sometimes are when discovering themselves. My friend, only two years older, was unimpressed and gently tried to show me my error, but to no avail.
With no real conclusion that night, I simply went about my college life. I walked to class, attended guest lectures, complained about the cafeteria food, played tennis and heard some of the well-meaning (and perhaps not so well-meaning) comments from white classmates about what black culture was, what was expected of us, and how African-Americans should feel about slavery. This all added to my frustration, but it wasn’t long before I saw a flyer advertising a spring break trip to Ghana. I didn’t have a penny to my name, but I knew I had to go. Ever since elementary school when I was made aware of Africa and how history linked me to it, I imagined what it would have been like if my ancestors had never left. This was my chance for a glimpse at that, to finally see this beautiful and complex world to which I’d been yoked without my permission.
For weeks, I prepared for my trip with a handful of others — students, professors, and a local couple. From the moment we landed, we took it all in — navigating crowded markets, waving at smiling school children, visiting the local university, eating breakfast served by hotel staff every morning. Not long into that ten-day visit, I began experiencing Ghana more intimately in ways I hadn’t expected. I looked into the faces of complete strangers and saw people with eerily striking resemblances to cousins, uncles, neighbors, even a girl in my church choir back home. I breathed in the stubborn remnants of toxic gas deployed at Elmina Castle hundreds of years ago to murder women who looked like me as they protested in their holding cells. I walked through the small passage through which so many Africans walked before embarking upon the Middle Passage. There is no way of knowing if my ancestors tread that same ground, but it’s not hard to imagine how somewhere on the continent, my family tree leads to a few individuals who made a similar trek. I know that my existence in this country began with the Middle Passage and all the tragedy, injustice, and triumph that followed.
As my trip came to a close, I was sure of two things — one, I had to return, and two, the connection I felt to Africa was justified. It’s not a betrayal of American-ness or progressive thinking to seek out one’s roots and feel a connection with the peoples and lands of her ancestors from a foreign country. I’ve done that, and I now choose the legacy that comes with the label “African-American” because I experience an undeniable bond and I count it an honor to be associated with Africa — its beauty and its plight. I feel no less American for it, and neither should anyone else exploring his or her own ancestry.