My Experience in Race and race relations.
|First, a little bit of housekeeping, this conversation would be amiss without telling you a very brief history of myself. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya to a what, at the time was an upper-middle-class family. I was the last born and only boy in a family of four. Both my parents at the time were in the Police force in Kenya. I went to good public schools throughout my education and had a mostly normal and typical life for a Kenyan. At about 20 years, I, as many Kenyans do, moved to the states, to Philadelphia, Pa where I have lived since. I am 32 now. My background is relevant because it has given me what I consider a unique perspective to racism/ race relations and in a very broad way, the African-American quagmire. A few Caveats to this – I do not profess to know everything, I am sure that I am ignorant of a lot and my views change daily. To get what I want to say across, I may say something that may offend one person or another, and that’s not the intent of anything (I have written) here.
Growing up in Kenya, (and the root of the African-American quagmire) was in a word MUNDANE. I use the word mundane, not to minimize my experiences nor state that I had a boring life. I actually had a very action-packed life, had plenty of friends, played on the streets as a kid, went to school, got in trouble, got suspended from school, sneaked out of the house to go party, got caught and caught up in some very hairy and questionable situations, did some very stupid things that I still cringe about to this day, all the things that you’d expect a boy and eventually a man growing up would go through. But the unique thing to my experience that African-Americans have never, and to some extent may never fully have, is to go through all this within a space where everyone around you is a YOU. You are not unique, you do not stand-out, your just a young boy who just broke your neighbors window with a ball, your just a guy walking down the street, your just a guy who’s taking his girlfriend out for a nice date, your just a guy who got suspended from school, you are just a guy without a job. You are basically “ The People”. Not a Black Boy/ Girl/ Woman/ Man.
Fast forward to my life in the States. I will be upfront and say I think the US (even with it's inherent, institutionalized and very deep flaws and even Trump) is truly one of greatest nations on earth. It is made great by the people the vast majority who are kind and welcoming and most people I have met, interacted and encountered do not have a bad bone in their body, especially not for people of color. I consider myself lucky to live in the Philadelphia area which depending on where you are, is mostly black. The weird thing about it is – and what African-Americans go through -the black male/female experience is something that is inherently ingrained even in black people themselves. It is a very simple and subtle change and label that has a profound change on what life is like every day for not-white skinned people. It means that as a black person, you will get noticed, you are unique, you do stand-out, whether it’s for good or for bad. Your a young black boy who broke the neighbor’s window, you are a black guy walking down the street, you are a black guy out on a date, you are a black male who got a degree. YOU are not invisible (as I was lucky enough to be). You are basically “ The (Black) People.” Not “The People.”
Nowhere is this as evident as the statistic that as a young black male, I have a 1 in 4 chance of being incarcerated while a similar young white man has 1 in 17 chance.
This is what the fight against racism is about. It is the right to be equal, the right to not be unique, to not stand out, to not be noticed, specifically for being black. This is the unique sauce that Africa has and that African-Americans seek. It is a thirst to belong, to be part of “ The People,” to just exist and live without the added label. This, I think, is the root of the historical, current and almost eternal quagmire that the African Americans find themselves in. To be recognized, valued and appreciated for their unique culture, practices, food, religion, and adherence to the beat, not just because its black, but just as another spice of what makes us human. To simplify Dr. King’s “ I have a dream” speech, we just want you to remember the nice guy who held the door for you because it was a nice thing for them to do, not because it was a black person doing a nice thing. Basically, African Americans want a chance to be Mundane. This also goes into the heart of what is a small but growing movement of African Americans who are seeking alternatives outside of the States to exist in a space where they feel that they feel more as “The People” simply because everyone else is like them, a home.
Having been lucky enough to experience both sides as a young black man, the difference is like night and day. Here in the States, I’ve had sleepless nights because, on the very first day my brother-in-law handed me the keys to my first car in the United States, he had the “Talk” with me. The talk that every Black Father/ Mother/ Uncle/ Aunt/ Guardian has with young black men about what it means to exist in a space where we stand out. Very early on I realized that if I had been born and grown up in the States, I more than likely by now would have already had a serious brush with the law, not because I am particularly young and dumb but because I am black, young and dumb. This, is as the statistics show, is something I am still at a higher risk every day and something that I have to be consistently and constantly aware of. It is something that influences even the most mundane choices I make, like what type of kind of shirt to wear (I actually swear that I’ve gotten pulled over more because I was wearing a T-shirt compared to a collared shirt). It is a burden that Black people bear every day and as someone who has lived somewhere where there is no such burden, I applaud the resilience of African-Americans that are born, live and die with what is a very heavy yoke.
Africa really is THE ONLY place in the world that people of color can truly get this “Mundane” existence. Having grown up and lived in Nairobi, the capital city and the place most likely to have white people around, I can tell you, while it wasn't super rare to see a non-black person, it would always warrant a double take. To live in a place where your skin color is not a factor is a profoundly unique experience that only Africa can provide to non-white people. Somewhere where they get noticed only if they are unique. You are otherwise, just another “person”, not a “Black person”.
It is with this understanding that I think Africans should approach what is an increasing wave of interest from the world, and particularly from African-Americans, to what is Africa. In the past decade, we have seen the largest growth in African-ness awareness in history. Take the Dashiki for example. It went from what was a jest to African dress starting with Prince Akeem in American culture, to what is now as distinct a brand as is Italian or French fashion. African cuisine in my area is almost as prevalent as Chinese food. It is not a big deal to hear African songs in even the fanciest clubs that I have been to and African clubs are actually a category in itself right now, as is a punk rock club. It is with this understanding that Africans should welcome the increasing number of African Americans and people all over the world that are seeking Africa for its’ food, music, culture, fashion and destination (not only temporarily for vacation) but as a home. It should also be seen not as a threat but as an opportunity to showcase and educate the world to the African continent’s unique qualities and be open to sharing it, especially with our (sometimes ignorant to African-ness cousin) African Americans, who were involuntarily moved to America and around the world and now are curious about their roots.
The quagmire that race is, my growing up in Kenya gave me something that I do not think is achievable (at least not in my lifetime) for African-Americans in America. It gave me a chance to grow up in true racial parity, I was a white man in a white man’s country. We really didn’t have a “black” people to look down on and the few white people we saw came to see the lions and elephants. I can tell you that I am 100 % sure that had I not immigrated to the States and lived in Kenya my whole life, I would think that racism is just white people being evil, or a very vague Rodney King racism picture, or something that is an ideological difference, like Pro-life/ Pro-choice kind of argument, instead of something that affects a version of me in the States every day. It gave me a chance to grow up in a skin color that meant nothing. It did not get or deny me any special access. It did not make me more or less likely to be X or do Y. It did not make me 4 times more likely than everybody else to go to jail and it at no point endangered my life by making me more likely to be shot not only by the police but by law-abiding citizens. My skin color meant as much to me as what red blood means to any red-blooded animal.
With my understanding of this, not only do I understand why African-Americans are seeking Africa as a home, but I would recommend that EVERY African-American, even if it’s just for a week-long vacation, to at least once in their lifetime visit Africa. A Mecca-like pilgrimage, not just to pay homage to mother Africa, or for its warm people, beautiful scenery, amazing food and vibrant culture, but to feel what it’s like to not have a YOKE and just be a red blooded human.