opinion

Rootless

African Americans Can’t Go ‘Home’

A trip to a friend’s wedding on the ancestral homeland in Greece made me realize: If I tried to do that, I’d have nowhere to go.

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Earlier this month, I attended a wedding on a remote Greek island about five hours outside of Athens. I know, my life sounds pretty awful; but the trip was more than a vacation under clear blue seas among sandy beaches. The wedding was held at the bride’s ancestral home, where distant relatives greeted them with open arms. As an African American, I did not anticipate my friend’s connectedness to a foreign land and culture to be such an alien sensation for me—and in many ways I hoped it would not have been—but during this weeklong sojourn the scale of my disconnectedness to a foreign land weighed heavily on me.

The wedding party was an eclectic, global crowd with representatives from all across the world, and we all gathered in a tiny villa and then an even tinier Greek Orthodox church to witness the marriage of two wonderful people. A new union was building upon the cultural and familial foundations that generation upon generation of forefathers had created. We all felt the significance of the moment.

As with most weddings the father of the bride said it best. At one point during his speech, he thanked his daughter and new son-in-law for selecting his ancestral home as their wedding site. He spoke about how his family has had a recorded history on this island dating back to the first census, conducted by its former Venetian occupiers, more than 500 years ago. (He could tell you the name and location of one of his ancestors from the 16th century!) The father’s family had come to America more than 100 years ago, yet the connection to the island had never ceased. Fighting off tears, he told the newlyweds how this wedding, this union, and this joyous return home had meant more to him than words could ever express.

I remember listening to his speech and fighting off my own emotions, wondering if America’s black community—my community—could experience emotions similar to those of the father of the bride. At that moment, I knew that there was not a place in the world that I—and probably countless other black Americans—could return to and have an emotional connection that was similar to the man’s standing before me.

I knew I could come close to that feeling, while still missing the mark. My family has a documented history in Charleston, South Carolina, since the beginning of the 19th century, and we’ve been in Prattville, Alabama, since the 1840s, so I can see how a significant familial event in either location could elicit a groundswell of emotion from my parents. Yet black Americans have always had that natural American desire that is a yearning for a connectedness to an ancestral homeland that can enhance our American narrative of success and survival. But when we search for that foreign connection we inevitably will fall short.

As far back as the 1820s, free people of color had gone to Africa to escape American oppression and “return” to their “homeland.” But upon their arrival, most behaved as colonizers, not returning sons. They had returned as black Americans in search of freedom and opportunity, and not as Africans with a desire to reconnect with long lost family members. They had been away for too long, their ancestors kidnapped and terminally severed from their villages and homelands. In the intervening centuries, new American customs had become too rooted in their psyche.

The severity of black America’s disconnection to Africa should not be lost to Americans, but by most accounts it certainly is. Still today, racist voices will continue to proclaim that black Americans should go back to Africa. But if black Americans were in fact to return to Africa as racist terrorists such as Dylann Roof, who killed nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church, have advocated, where would we go? The reality is that as a people, few, if any, black Americans could find their authentic homeland. No matter how much we may yearn for an ancestral homeland like other immigrants, America is the only place where that connection can be established.

Of course, countless Americans regardless of race will have difficulty tracing their family history for hundreds of years, but there is a vast difference between losing or forgetting something and the feeling of having something taken away. And there is a difference between knowing the country you come from—and often the precise village—and being able to identify only the continent of your ancestors.

Even now I have friends and family members who are visiting Africa in search of a connection, but we are all tourists who just so happen to have a greater euphoria and comfort around an abundance of black bodies than the average American. We are not returning home in the same way my friend’s family did for this wedding.

Regularly, the comfort of being around black bodies in foreign lands can mask itself as a connection for black Americans. But for me, I felt the lack of an authentic connection sharply as I observed the depth of emotion the wedding family attached to its homeland. I wondered if it would ever be possible for me, my family, or other black Americans to feel the same way.

The severity of black Americans’ disconnect with Africa is hard for others, and even myself, to comprehend because it lacks any similar, modern analog. America should reacquaint itself with this experience of its black citizens so that all of us can have a greater understanding of the complexity of black lives and how we fit into the various foundations of this nation.