Are you African? pt.1

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 AmericanTheloniousMonkWithJohnColtraneCover 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…



22 Responses to “Are you African? pt.1”

  1. 1 dwayne2d3d
    September 17, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    hi, i’m a long time reader but first time commenter, i currently live in crown-heights brooklyn, not to far from bed-sty. I love how you didn’t jump to conclusions to reach your point but instead used {deductive reasoning} to come to an obvious conclusion. Many negative stereotypes abound us and the only way to change them is to spread your wings and to expand your horizons, which will then allow you to come into contact with people from very different background than your own. Only then can the healing and the re-education proceed.
    -keep up the kool blog-

    • September 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks dwayne,

      feel free to comment any time…peace!

  2. September 17, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    I think it is cool that your mother set you up with the kind of early education you received.

    • September 18, 2009 at 8:16 am

      Thanks Freedom, yeah my mom is the bomb!

  3. September 17, 2009 at 8:35 pm


    From reading this it seems that you were offended by being mistaken for an African. Is that how you felt or were you just surprised?

    If you were offended then why? I’m curious.

    your fellow gaijin,

    • September 18, 2009 at 8:17 am

      Billy-san, thanks for the shout!
      That my friend is a very complicated question. I will attempt to answer it in pt 2. Stay tuned!

  4. September 18, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Powerful piece…but:

    The Africa that the Africans you are encountering have lived in is not the REAL Africa. Africa today has been so altered by colonization and the negative affects of racism that its not even a Shadow of what it once was.

    You ARE what you are created to be. Your God/Creator given nature is who and what you really are. Same goes for Africa. Africa (Alkebulan) was created to be a paradise. Anything other than that is not REAL…its an ALTERED STATE of reality. So Africans who are raised in that Altered State of reality reflect that. They do not live in the paradise it was created to be.

    Your mother raised you on the REAL Africa. Why, because as long as it exists as what it REALLY is in our minds, we have a reference point from which to return it. Africa can and will again be a paradise. Africans and African Americans (Blacks) will again be what we were once created by nature to BE. The process has already started.

    So don’t trip off of what people are experiencing from an Altered State of realty. Hep them to REALIZE who and what they really are.


    • September 18, 2009 at 8:26 am

      Tony! Thanks for the response. What is reality anyway? Is the Africa in my heart more real than the Africa where the the ruins of Timbuktu are being poorly preserved? Or where the natural resources are still being pillaged by descendents of those colonialists who invaded her centuries ago? What is paradise? Isn’t paradise an individual concept? Is paradise the same for me or you as it was for Cecil Rhodes? Does Obama represent reality or is America in some Altered State too? Are kids growing up with a black president growing up in reality or in an altered state? Isn’t America born to be a paradise too? it certainly is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. (Grand Canyon was absolutely off the charts…so were the Rockies and Key West) Don’t things naturally change? Don’t things fall apart? When that asteroid hit Mexico and killed the dinosaurs, were they in paradise? are they in an altered state now?
      I can’t follow your altered state theory, it’s a little too deep… but it is interesting

  5. 9 Curt Holmer
    September 18, 2009 at 11:35 am

    I assume with this alternative education that you were exposed to Chinua Achebe and his writings in the late 50s? I didnt get exposed to him until very recently in a World Lit class. His work is really amazing and will definitely blow that image that gets painted in World History class. Now if you really want to blow your students minds, have them read his work ‘Things Fall Appart’ and compare that with the Meiji Restoration and Admiral Perry’s arrival.

    • September 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm

      Things fall Apart, one of my favs. Yes it was part of my exposure (-:
      I think the fabric of the students’ realities would begin to unravel if they had to read that book. i wonder if they have it translated into Japanese.
      thanks for the shout

  6. 11 Ivan
    September 18, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find this entry a bit depressing. I can see the benefits of bringing up a child to have respect for their heritage, but such an exaggerated focus on skin color isn’t anymore healthy for black people than it is for whites. Would I be guessing correctly if I said this school you went to as a kid didn’t hire non-black teachers?

    It’s slightly less disturbing than an all-white school specifically meant to instill respect for the greatness of Europe culture because the black reaction is more defensive, in response to a long history of being marginalized second-class citizens, but it still leaves me uneasy.

    Racism is beaten by making children understand that skin color isn’t important, not by suggesting it somehow makes every black person on the entire planet part of the same family or whatever.

    • September 18, 2009 at 2:58 pm

      It is a little depressing isnt it? Depressing that the situation in the PS was (and continues to be in many ways) at a level where an institution like my school was a necessity. The exaggerated focus on skin color was unhealthy, but no less unhealthy than the subtle insinuating yet persistent way the PS promote eurocentrism.
      Nope i don’t recall a single white teacher but for the pittance my teachers received I’m not surprised. Besides a good number of the teachers and staff were also parents of students enrolled there. It was (and is-we still are tight) like a family. A labor of love so to speak.
      I agree that children need to be made to understand that skin color isn’t important but unfortunately we’re not there. Hopefully someday we will live in that world. That’s why I’m a trekkie…I like the idea of a world where color (or even species) is not an issue whatsoever but, on the subtle tip (and sometimes not so suble tip), even Star Trek was/is Eurocentric. It’s very difficult for people to think outside of the racial box. It’s, quite literally, all most people know.

      I read an article in a recent issue of Newsweek addressing this very topic you might find interesting: http://www.newsweek.com/id/214989/page/1

      Here’s a teaser:

      “It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup’s entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they’d almost never called attention to racial differences.”

      It was startling!

      Thanks for the shout Ivan-san (-:

  7. 13 Alphonse
    September 19, 2009 at 12:57 am

    Hey Loco nice posting , i really like the inductive writting you have , you start the whole post with a simple question of your students …

  8. 14 Aka Gaijin
    September 20, 2009 at 8:06 am

    To a small degree, I agree with Ivan. But I also agree with you, Loco. Attending public schools in the DC suburbs, I can only recall hearing that America received kidnapped Africans as slaves… and that’s it. Nothing was really taught about Africa at that time, or before.

    Then again, we didn’t touch on any Asian history, the birth of the USSR, or anything about the Middle East beyond camels and oil. Hell, it never even crossed my mind that Australia might’ve been involved in WW2 until I watched that stupid movie with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

    I guess my point is, Africa isn’t the only neglected region in US history classes.

    • September 20, 2009 at 9:14 am

      Well said…
      two things: 1-European history, which I noticed you left out (probably as a result of this very problem…it’s almost a given that we shiould learn it) was taught, and how. What makes France or England Germany Italy etc…more relevant than Russia or Aussie? White ancestors came from those places. My ancestors didn’t. If they had neglected ALL other countries that would be balanced.
      2-American History was taught with a minor focus, if any, on African American contribution, though as we know it was significant
      Thanks for the shout AKA

  9. October 1, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I would love to meet your mom….

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