As I watch my 8 year-old daughter go through the process of trying to find her place in the world I have noticed that she wants very much to find countries that she can identify with. Which is easy as far as her mother’s side is concerned since all she need do is focus on Mexico, since my wife and her family are Mexican-American. While we she knows her other half is African-American, that distinction does not give her a particular country to identify with, only the broader notion of Africa, one of the largest and most diverse continents in the world. So when she asks what country my family is from, all we can say is we don’t know for sure, but definitely it is in Africa. You can imagine, the answer does not do a lot for her, when all she wants is to be able to identify a place on the map, which is a big thing to her right now, looking at places on a map and on a globe. Pointing to a wide area is just not as exciting as pinpointing a place and culture. All of this makes me think about a couple of things.
One is how important it is that while we celebrate the blending of ethnicities and cultures we need to also make sure that we do not allow that mixture to become so blended that we forget or don’t recognize what came together to make it so. That would be a tragedy. Even multi-ethnic people need a heritage, a culture, or more accurately, heritages and cultures, to be proud of. The beauty of their blending is the expansion of what they are, so we should not let anyone lose anything in the process.
The other thing that comes to mind is the reminder that for blacks, this uncertainty for most of us of exactly where we come from in the world is indeed a hole in our psyches. Sure we know Africa and can be proud of that continent. But African cultures are not at all alike. Northern Africa to South Africa, from Nigeria to Ethiopia, there are some truly unique people, histories and traditions. My Africa may not be, and is likely not, the same as another black person’s Africa. It is also true that for blacks, not knowing exactly where we hail from, at least our African sides, is also a perpetual reminder of slavery since that is the reason we do not know from whence we come.
The good news is that Alex Hailey was not the only one to do the work to figure out their African roots. It is possible, though sometimes difficult to figure out our roots on this great continent. I think I owe it to my daughter, and son, to find out, to make it easier for Maria to point to a spot in Africa and say here is where one side of my family traces back to.