The other day in class, the Japanese English teacher asked me what languages could I speak. The simplest answer would have been English only. I mean, as far as fluency is concerned it is the only language I know. However, from grades 1 through 8, I was heavily exposed to Swahili (an African language spoken in Kenya, Tanzania and other East African countries) and between HS and University another 8 years were spent gnawing and yawning at the French language. So, in the spirit of teaching the students that there are more than two languages in the world, I answered, “Of course, English, but also a little Swahili, French and Japanese .”
The students were of course familiar with English, and with French as well. But the Japanese teacher had to explain Swahili a little.
“Are you African?” one student asked, innocently.
“Uh…no,” I said, after a brief hesitation during which 500 feelings flash-flooded my heart.
“Did you live in Africa before?” Another student asked.
“No…not really.” Another flash flood…
The reason the students had asked was simple deductive reasoning: If you speak an African language you must be African. They didn’t ask me if I were French or British, though I speak languages originating from those areas as well.
Of course I wasn’t French, British, nor Japanese. Yes, very simple deductive reasoning.
I try not to think for my kids or assume anything about what they know or don’t know. Why? They constantly surprise me. Sometimes they know the most obscure stuff. And other times they have no clue about stuff I think anyone of any age would know. Did they know that there are black French people or black British people? I don’t know. Do they know that there are white African people? I don’t know. They knew that there are black African people, however. Why? The walls in the hallways of my school inform them of that. Whenever a black face goes up on the wall it’s either A: The starving, flies on the unblinking eyeballs, swollen bellied black people living in utter destitution in Sudan (or some other African country) or B: The AIDS- plagued, one- or three-legged, smiling black people of the Malaria-ridden, mosquito infested Congo (or some other African country), and the Japanese charities set up to aid them or the Japanese volunteer workers setting off to assist them.
And we, those charity cases and I, share a race, don’t we? So, hell, I could be Kenyan or Tanzanian for all they know.
Let DNA tell it, for all I know, for that matter.
All of the students in the school, especially these 3rd year students I was teaching at the moment, know I am an American. They even know all-too-well that I’m from NY. Hell, I used to wear it like a badge of honor. But the anomaly of being able to speak a relatively obscure African language (only tens of millions of Africans speak it) gave my students a WTF! I thought he was an American moment. Were their minds able to wrap themselves around questions like: Why would anyone who wasn’t from Africa, and didn’t plan to live in Africa, study an African language? I wondered.
The reason I was exposed to Swahili for 8 years and the experiences surrounding that exposure can surely fill a book or two, but allow me to summarize. My mother was as progressive as black mothers got back when I was child and saw fit to have my early education begin outside of the NYC public school system, in a small private school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This school’s mission was to instill in the black minds that attended the school a sense of African cultural awareness and history, something completely lacking in a public school education. Their theory was if you want children to grow up with a sense of pride, love and respect for themselves and others then you had better indoctrinate them with some knowledge of themselves that didn’t begin with slavery and end with poverty, illiteracy, drug addiction, crime and all of the other social ills they need but look out of the window to witness. You had better diffuse the bomb that the schools and media have planted in young black minds that tells them they are the descendants of savages running butt-naked in the deep dark jungles of Africa, a lion hot on their heels, and if it weren’t for the civilizing efforts of our forefathers, they would still be there- living a barbaric, cannibalistic, blood-soaked idol worshiping way of life.
You had better do something about the image issue, and give that child an image of beauty that was not white, an image of power that was not white, an image of success that was not white, etc… Otherwise, that child will grow up associating beauty, power, and success, etc, with white. The women will want perms (straight hair) and lighter skin (sorry MJ) and the men will feel powerless (unless they have a gun.)
Hmmm….think they were on to something?
Anyway, I was very fortunate indeed to have a mother like mine. Someone who could see the benefits of a true knowledge of self.
Part of the indoctrination I received in this private school was exposure to an African language. The Public Schools would force feed European languages, culture and history as well as “American” history to black children but little or nil was taught about the African continent nor the contributions of African Americans to American History. My elementary school remedied that, though, and how! Carter G. Woodson stressed the importance of a people having an awareness and knowledge of their contributions to humanity, so I grew up knowing more about George Washington Carver than I knew about George Washington (-: More about Kwanzaa than Christmas. More about Mozambique and Senegal than about France or Sweden. More about John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk than about Mozart or Beethoven. And, of course, more about Swahili than about French.
Little did I know then- marching through the streets singing songs of revolution, wearing a kufi, a dashiki and combat boots as a uniform- that I was a child of the Pan-African movement in America, a symbol of the burgeoning new black aesthetic.. Is it a coincidence that I now live in a foreign country with relatively few black people (though a helluva strong cultural influence) and a surprisingly high level of ignorance about the African Diaspora? I certainly didn’t plan it this way…
The majority of the black people in Japan, at least in the Tokyo/ Yokohama area, do not come from the States. They come from what I was taught as a child to say with humility and reverence: “The Motherland!” Yes, as a child I was taught to adore Africa. I prayed in Swahili, said grace before meals in Swahili, sang songs about Africa in Swahili, pledged allegiance (literally) to the Pan-African perspective. For a very long time, Africa remained this mystical, magical land of dreams Stories of the armies of Hannibal and the Universities of Timbuktu were my bedtime stories and filled my mind and heart.
But, the vast majority of the black people I run into in Japan were not raised with this idealized image of a Motherland resplendent with ageless beauty, strong and courageous Mamas and Babas, leaders like Sekou Toure in Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana- beneficent and incorruptible. They were raised in the real world, in the real Africa, where beneficent is rare and incorruptible rarer still. Where they don’t have an idealized image of themselves or their homeland, but rather they have an all too realistic one, and an often cynical image of Americans, including African Americans, and of Japanese as well…
They are not the way I imagined them in my childhood visions to be….
In fact, it’s safe to say: I wasn’t feeling any love for Africans at all…
to be cont…