I went into the Albert Gallatin Scholars trip to South Africa with misconceptions and grand ideas about somehow returning to my roots. I fantasized about catharsis. I did not achieve it. I had conflict with being seen in my large and mostly white group of students from NYU. The intersections of my identity became points of confusion for me: I was Black like the people I was seeing, but I wasn’t African. I did not even know if I should call myself African-American or if I was being seen as just American, or if it mattered. I had a conversation with my friend Maame (from Ghana) about how we related to some of the activities. She said she felt more connected with the stories we learned about prisoners in deplorable conditions at Capitol Hill than she did when learning about the slave castles in her home country. Though I’d never visited the slave castles, I told her that I would probably feel the opposite. If there was a tangible point connecting me as an African-American to the continent, the slave castles would be that point.
Weeks after returning to New York, I was still disturbed and felt misplaced. I did not really know how to define myself or if I even needed to. In one of my classes, we read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. A passage from the memoir goes as follows:
“But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact, whatever one does with it thereafter, that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other—not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam. The paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought” (Baldwin 81).
As an African-American, my history and my identity were intrinsically linked with America and my experiences as an American. I could not grow or learn more realistically about my own identity if I refused to acknowledge the disconnect and the multiplicity of the African diaspora. I chose to complete my project by taking a recording from the group’s last night in South Africa, the only night where I felt completely at peace, in a restaurant called Mzansi in a township in Cape Town. At this restaurant, the owner expressed her desire for us to feel like we were eating at home, not in a restaurant. A band played live music while we ate, and the owner told us all the story of her restaurant and the story of her marriage. Afterwards, we moved on to make music with the band in a small room off of the main dining area and I have never laughed more in my life. I felt safe, I felt at home, and I felt like I was a part of something. The recording from that night is mixed with a Google translator reading of the James Baldwin quote that I used above. Merging the two created an awkwardness that was indicative of my own experiences. Combined with the robotic voice and compelling music, the piece also represented the almost Dionysian pull of the moment. In this moment of dance, wine, song, and laughter, we all lost ourselves to the crowd and the community, seemingly suspended in a moment of time that I had wanted to last forever.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage Books, 2013.