By Eddy L. Harris
Alex Haley went to Africa in the mid-sixties. Somehow he had managed to trace his roots back to a little village called Juffure, upriver from Banjul in the forests of The Gambia. It was the same village from which his ancestors had been stolen and forced into slavery. In some way Haley must have felt he was returning home: a flood of emotions, an awakening of the memories hidden in his genes.
Those were the two extremes between which I was trapped. I could not go home again, yet here I was. Africa was so long ago the land of my ancestors that it held for me only a symbolic significance. Yet there was enough to remind me that what I carry as a human being has come in part from Africa. I did not feet African, but was beginning to feel not wholly American anymore either. I felt like an orphan, a waif without a home.
I was not trying to find the village that had once been home to my people, nor would I stand and talk to people who could claim to be my relatives, as Haley had done. The thought of running into someone who looked like a relative terrified me, for that would have been too concrete, too much proof. My Africanism was abstract and I wanted it to remain so. I did not need to hear the names of my ancient ancestors or know what they looked like. I had seen the ways they loved their children in the love of my father. I would see their faces and their smiles one day in the eyes of my children.
Haley found what he was seeking. I hardly knew what I was looking for, except perhaps to know where home once was, to know how much of me is really me, how much of being black has been carried out Africa.
If you cannot know yourself, how can you expect to know a place like Africa? You can't. You cannot know this place in such a short time, such a short passing through -- or should I say, these places. Africa is a myriad of people and ways. And Africa is more than that. Africa is change. Africa is contradiction. And Africa brings out the contradictions in the traveler.
There are so many Africas that, like a river, you cannot step into the same Africa twice. There is Africa the cliché, Africa the postcard view. Africa is a Biafran baby with its belly distended from starvation. Africa is flies and illness everywhere, AIDS and malaria and green monkey disease. Africa is a tired old woman selling mangoes by the side of the road, a woman with a baby strapped to her back, a woman walking home with a basket on her head, her feet covered with dust, her back noble and strong but stooped a little from fatigue and from the years of carrying. Africa is music and song and endless patience. Africa is traditions that will not allow it to move forward. Africa is a tired old man waiting for the dirt walls of his ancient house to collapse. Africa is a six-thousand-year-old baby trying to find his legs. Africa is pain. Africa is joy in spite of the pain. Africa is enduring. Africa is the essence of mankind's ability to hunger for something better and the patience to wait for it. The traditions make movement slow, but they make the waiting easier. Africa is incredible generosity, Africa is selfish opportunism, Africa is contradiction. Africa is....
Africa is the birth of mankind. Africa is the land of my ancestors. But Africa is not home. I hardly know this place at all.
But I have drawn my finger in a great S-curve across the icing of the cake that is Africa and I have tasted it, the bitter, chalky-sweet taste and texture of chocolate. The sweetness lingers leaving me with a desire to return here, to taste still more.
There is also a tendency in man to recollect with kindness, to soften the edges of even the harshest memories, to remember fondly. Otherwise, you get too close and you remember too much, and those memories are full of dullness and pain. So you color them, and you soften them. I hope that with time I do not glorify the horrors and hardships of this place; I hope I do not forget them. When asked how it was, I will say interesting and agony. When asked if it was full, I will say no.
I do not feel a part of this place, it's true, nor a part of these people simply because of an accident of birth. I am not one them. I do not like their endless patience and their endless waiting, always waiting-for someone else to do, for the will of God to happen. And I do not appreciate how they treat one another, the powerful over the weak, nor this blind respect for authority. Some of this lunacy is tribal and traditional and reaches up out of dark mysteries where I understand nothing. Much is a product of colonial servitude to the Arab empires and their god Allah, to the Europeans and their gods Jesus and money. The Baptist missionaries and the Arabs teach the same music: Wait for God's time; He'll make everything all right. just trust.
As much as I would like to trust in God myself, I know that sometimes God is too busy elsewhere and you just have to do things for yourself.
I will go home to my world. I will eat steaks and drink milk shakes and put on the weight I have lost. I will shelter when I want and have at the turn of a tap all the clean water I can handle. I will drive the road as far as my eye can see and beyond. There will be no roadblocks to stop me. No one will ask me for my identity papers. And the roads will be good.
When I'm tired of driving, an airplane will be waiting to fly me somewhere else. I am lucky to live where I do.
It is easy to have all the solutions, to say that Africa must reject postcolonial colonialism, that Africa must end its dependence on America and on Europe, on the Peace Corps and Christian churches and missionaries, that we in the west need to stop treating these people as babies and - worse --as statistics, and start treating them as human beings, that we should stop stealing from them and that we should stop throwing money to plug gaps that wouldn't be so big if the interference ended. Perhaps we should let them sink for a while, let them figure out their own way. We did, in our own way and in our own time. But that is very easy -- too easy -- to say from the comfort of a full belly.
I will eat my steaks and fill my belly the same as always, but now when I do these things there will be second thoughts -- I hope -- for although I am not one of them, I really am one of them, the Arab and the Berber, the Bassar and the Bantu, and the Boer. There is a connection now, a real one -- a racial one, to be sure, but more important, a human one.
Love and hate do not come from the color of your skin, but from what you carry inside.
Excerpted from the book "Native Stranger," © 1991 by Eddy L. Harris. Used with permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
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