ChickenBones: A Journal

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One myth fell quickly, namely, the Negro is naturally suited for the tropics.

Ancestry is important, but not sufficient

 
 

In Search of an African Identity

 By Rudolph Lewis

 

Summer 1982, I left family and friends for a two-year tour sponsored by the Peace Corps in Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo--the heart of darkness. I deplaned in Central Africa a year after graduate school. My interest in Africa had been a long-standing one. I wrote my master’s thesis on the rhetoric of Martin Delany, a mid-nineteenth-century theoretician of an African nationality for blacks in the United States.  Disappointed and angered by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill passed by the US Congress, Delany made a journey to Africa with the intent of a mass African-American emigration to the region of the western Niger River.

Delany’s engaging report of his Niger River adventure, among various tribes of the coast and the savanna, fired my imagination. His personal intent was to find his father’s people; his greater aim, to evaluate Africa’s commercial possibilities for cotton production and secure British capital. Delaney’s book, in effect, was a cocktail before a great meal. I wanted to see Africa, the land of the blacks for myself, to make my own judgment.

My final determination to make the African trip was influenced indirectly by a young professor friend, Joyce Joyce, her doctorate earned at the University of Georgia. In the late 70s, Maryland’s English department contracted her as an authority on blacks in literature. For her dissertation, she wrote on Richard Wright. While at Maryland, however, she became a devotee of Sonia Sanchez. And so we had many private discussions of black writers, the nature and state of blackness and whiteness at College Park and the rest of America. I tried to put a bit of street-level realism into her ivory tower version of Pan-Africanism.

I had known Joyce several years when a white friend  of hers from her native state of Georgia visited her in Silver Spring on his return from Lubumbashi, a large European city in the southeastern corner of Zaire. He raved about his adventures (his pleasures) and his teaching at the university in Lubumbashi. My master’s degree qualified me for such a position. It was a timely convergence, a sign from God, I imagined. I would discover whether Africa was indeed God’s holy ground or Satan’s paradise. I needed, I interpreted my exhilaration, to experience the “savage land” of my distant ancestors, like Delany, with my own life’s blood.

National Geographic & Primitivism

Like many children growing up in 1950s America, my first encounter with Africa came by way of school magazines and encyclopedic books of world history or geography, With TV in our humble home, by 1958, I received a great inpouring of “African images.” There were films and TV movies such as Tarzan and Jungle Jim. Amos and Andy, the Kingfish and his cigar, provided some balance to the magazine and history book distortions of black reality. Still I hungered to see people like I knew in my rural Virginia neighborhood on TV, to see the height of their being as I experienced it in my life, coming out of the black and white screen. In time, I discovered that that was an endless quest. These were years when Africa was known only through the prism of European power and colonialism; when “White” and “Colored” signs were living reminders of slavery’s legacy in the Southern landscape.

It was probably four years earlier, in 1954 or 1955, that I got my first magazine glimpses of Africa. It was through the well-known National Geographic, amply supplied even in the poorest of schoolhouses. It was a magazine that specialized in glossy photographs of the “primitive.” I still recall the savage beauty of oval discs in distended lips and ears, animal bones through the nostrils, half-naked men and women. At home I was spared these images of wild men and their customs. Mama and Daddy did not take newspapers, magazines, or journals. Our central text was the Holy Bible, supplemented by Sunday School materials, and maybe a concordance or two.    

During this earlier period, I learned also I was a “negro,” “black,” “colored.” At first, I recalled these designations without valuation.

They were of the same category as personal names. Clearly, I recognized differences in skin colors, which were prevalent in my own family. The phenomena of variety could be observed in the rest of nature, in animals, in plants. Grandma Mary was as black as a Senegalese, “as an African,” people would say; yet her son Percy was pink as a “white man.” In addition, Grandma Mary’s hair reached to her waist. So nothing seemed amiss, except Grandma Mary’s indifference to my questions. Generally, she was of bad temper, so I finally shrugged that off as the way of old people.

My Creath experience, however, provided another framework for a greater understanding and significance of skin color. Creath School, No. 5, a two-room public school for grades 1 through 7, was founded in 1910. Its name honored Luther Creath, a white farmer who donated five acres of his wooded land so that the grandchildren of former slaves could receive an education. Creath with his great farm was very dependent upon Negro agricultural laborers, including that of Mama and Daddy and their five children, all daughters--a sharecropper's family

Most of these children and grandchildren of slaves, Mama and Daddy among them, the times were such, that their hands and backs were more important than their minds, so they received only a few years of formal schooling. This deprivation may have been a spiritual blessing for they suffered less formal cultural programming. They were an oral people who had many more interesting stories of black life than could be found in the schoolhouse books. Mama’s daughters, my aunts and mother, completed, however, all seven of Creath’s grades. This was usually looked on as a sign of racial progress, that is, of God with us.

My aunt Annie was the first to walk me to Creath, which was about two miles from Jerusalem, where we lived across from the church, its foundation laid in 1870. We walked a winding dirt road through a thick low land forest with open fields, here and there. The school was between Creath Gate and Grandma Mary’s house. At that time, my aunt’s walk with me had no more significance than the pleasure of a new adventure. At that time, I was still in the dream world of innocence, blind to the social world into which I was born and to which I was then being conditioned.

The afternoon school bus that ran the Jerusalem-to-Creath road became my gateway to an even darker aspect of “blackness.” The school bus roared through the woods like a mighty lion, blind to any fear. It usually came when we were between Creath Gate and Sansee Swamp, where the road curved like a snake going up and around small hills, near an open field. Back in the 40s, Mama and Daddy and their five daughters lived in that field near Sansee Swamp, a Creath farm, where the mosquitoes were as large as eagles disturbing the blue-black silence with their song of blood.

There was a long train of us that walked to school from Jerusalem. There were Alvester, his brothers and his cousin, John Alvin (“Daddy Longlegs,” I called him), the Carters, my cousins; the Williams; Margie Parham (“My sweet little Margie”), her brother and sisters, her cousins the Briggs; and a few others. And we all arrived at Creath about the same time. Except for those being punished, usually we all left Creath about the same time, for the two or three-mile walk home. I believe the Stiths walked almost five miles.

The afternoon bus headed always back toward Creath Gate. Someone was always alert to the roar of its engine and the rumble of the big black tires on the gravel, above childish chatter and the songs of birds. The older kids were experienced and alerted the younger ones to get out of the road. For it was the bus of the “white kids” and their “white driver.”

At Jerusalem, there were no white kids; nor any at Creath. I had never thought to ask why not. There was none in our church; nor immediate neighborhood, though I knew of them, but not intimately. I do recall once John “Cap’n” Smith brought his granddaughter to the house when he came to see Daddy on some business about his sawmill. But I had little or no association with white kids or white adults. I did not assume naturally that they were any different from those kids in our neighborhood. Chickens were with chickens and geese were with geese. They were just displaced elsewhere.

But here they were on the road in the middle of the forest, in this big yellow bus, forty, maybe fifty of them, riding while I was walking, hollering, belligerently gesturing, out the windows, throwing projectiles. I had many questions, though most went unanswered. It was the way things were: all shrugged their shoulders. No words were sufficient. I was frustrated. As a child, I had no insight into this mysterious antagonism.

When I learned to read, no book had better answers than my parents and neighbors. I gathered that we, my family, those of my community, my church, were at once related to the Africans, but yet different, somewhat other than, an improved variety, at least, for some of us, of which we had nothing to be embarrassed. The heart-felt advice was not to worry overmuch what others think. They (the whites) will make us blacker than we are.

A New Dispensation & Birth of a Nation

My studies at Central High brought me no closer to an understanding of what it meant to be “African” or to be “black.” We did not celebrate, I am certain, the growing independence of the African peoples. Negative connotations continually came by word and print. Curiously, we Negroes had the only modern, newly constructed school in the county. I traveled only twenty miles, rather than the forty miles my aunts traveled to Waverly Training School. So it seemed God was also with me and my generation of the Village of Jerusalem and those of the County of Sussex.

Still on questions of race, none of my teachers provided any verbal certitude of what was essential and what was fiction. Their responses did not allay my suspicions that something was amiss. Of course, our hand-me-down library was not in possession of the studies of Africa nor of Africa-America by black scholars or black writers. What was important, I decided finally, was to get to know me and my truth. So I played basketball and made great sacrifices for the game. One night after practice I walked ten miles to get home, three miles through a dark wood and swamp.

After graduation from high school, I went off to Baltimore, to Morgan State College, really not knowing any more about the intellectual black world and Africa than what I first learned at Creath. I still did not know what it meant to be "black" or "African." My pursuit of knowledge at Morgan brought me no closer to certainty about race and racial truth. 

I registered for a Negro history course, Spring 1967, a course scheduled to be taught by the renowned historian of the Negro, Dr. Benjamin Quarles (1904-1996). Here was my chance to talk to an expert, to get the truth from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. But that was not to be.  

As fortune had it, Quarles went on sabbatical, leaving Thomas Cripps, a German-America professor, to teach me about the Negro. You can imagine my suspicions. I was seventeen, eighteen years old. Cripps had then a budding interest in Negroes in films. He took our class to College Park and praised the technical ingenuity of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in which blacks were represented as greedy, chicken-eating “niggers,” making laws in the state capitol and raping white women. This species of propaganda was enough to make a black man a revolutionary, like Nathaniel Turner. 

My ontological and metaphysical concerns about blackness went unanswered. I felt like I wanted to turn everything upside down, including our scholarly German-American professor, who did not have a clue to the needs of African-American students at a Negro college.

Fall 1967, Stokely Carmichael and Walter Lively came to Morgan and gave young co-eds the real scoop on what it meant to be “black” in America. And they weren’t talking about being “Colored” or “Negro.” They were talking about political struggle against racial oppression, of putting one’s body on the line of fire. I was fascinated. I had never known black men who talked so openly about the shortcomings of white people’s perceptions. They commanded a language that represented the world in terms I had never heard. 

They were unlike Daddy, who was for me then, in Freudian terms, the superego of black manhood

For Daddy’s world was primarily viewed through the acts and visions of biblical prophets. These men were not preachers, at least, in the traditional sense. They were not prophets of God. These magnificent young men had stolen the thunder and fire of the gods of earth. I dropped out of Morgan within months of their visit.

A New Cultural Consciousness

For me, it was a call to intellectual arms! I joined the black revolution. “Black Power” and “raising black consciousness” became the code words to an unfolding new world of knowledge and understanding, or so I believed in the fervor of the times. I started reading again with great vigor. I felt as if I had historically, like Rip van Winkle, slept through a revolution, at least through Dr.. King's civil rights struggle. From these men and others, which included every variety of Marxist, cultural nationalist, black Muslim, pimp, political opportunist, I discovered unknown worlds behind the veil. I experience a new birth, so to speak.  

Outside of academia, I saw the most startling acts of political boldness by ordinary men and women. I experienced an unfolding manifold of blackness. I read about Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. I became aware of the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Yet my only personal contact, to that point, with an African was limited to Sambola, a Liberian then a student at Morgan. Sambola thanked God that in Liberia he could have more than one wife.  

I paraphrased Fanon, read Du Bois, skimmed through Marx and Lenin and Trotsky. Listened to Kwame Toure’s African adventures. In DC, for awhile in the 80s, I acquired a Senegalese housemate, who cooked at the Kennedy Center.

 From him I learned about adding peanut butter to meat stews. That was the “African way.” Personal experience with Africans, nevertheless, remained rare; those I did know, I doubted they represented the African Way. These privileged Africans, defensive and secretive, got me no closer to the experiential reality I sought. Then, in the late 70s, the murderous Idi Amin stepped onto the world stage and delighted many, who said, “I told you they were savages.”

The romance of Africa became staggering and esoterically enigmatic as I continued to discover Africa’s “real history” in books by J.A. Rogers, Dr. Ben, Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Sonia Sanchez. Acquired then at rare outlets for black books, their writings about blacks and Africa were very special. I concluded much as I did in my master’s thesis that the rhetoric of the new black history mirrored in method the old white history, only turned inside out, and painted black. It seemed as if our fine scholars and intellectuals (the scribes) sought advantage and position rather than the truth of God’s design. Delany, the blackest man Fred Douglass said he ever encountered, was consciously blind of his own imperial views toward Africa, his own vanity of superiority.

In the mid 1970s, I came under the influence of the philosopher Max Wilson, a Haitian aristocrat with a degree from the University of Berlin. I first met him at Morgan as a student in his undergraduate course in philosophy For awhile, he was chairman of Morgan's and then Howard’s philosophy department, Alain Locke’s Chair. Dr. Wilson spoke French, English, German, Spanish; possessed a knowledge of Italian, Latin, and Greek. He was one of those men I felt knew everything there was to know about books and living in the world. I was stupefied by his intellectual breadth. He was sober, thoughtful, and caring. He treated me as if I were his own son.

He understood I had come under the influence of the black rhetoric of the 60s and 70s. He cautioned me on the extravagances by which blackness could manifest itself, by tales of his native Haiti, and its noirisme, the “blackism” of Papa Doc.

Blackness had made him a refugee in America. He thought my readings should be expanded beyond race and religion. And then came the horror of Liberia, the heads of state, tied to posts on a beach, publicly executed, by the orders of Sgt. Samuel Doe.   Instead of philosophy proper Professor Wilson suggested a study of philosophy through literature. We designed a two-year study program entitled “A Search for Self.” I read the histories and literary works (ending with the philosophical works) of several European countries, including Russia; scanned Freud, Jung, and Rollo May; visited the museums; attended theatre, dance, opera and symphony programs. I made some progress in my intellectual confidence and the clarity of my thinking. Later, Professor Wilson enrolled me at College Park with a scholarship. I matriculated five years at Maryland, earning a graduate degree in English, a bit short of my initial goal of a degree in comparative literature.  

A Stranger in the Motherland (Fatherland?)

So after graduation I went to Zaire. It was a religious experience, at least, a unique spiritual one that brought about a bit of personal growth. For when one is raised in the backwoods and in a Baptist Church, however reluctant, one gets to know God when one finds oneself 35,000 feet above the earth, above the clouds. It is a perplexing though traveling at 600 miles an hour and one feels as if one is just inching along. And when one is on a Zairean airline from Bujumbura to Kinshasa, on one’s way back to Mama, and the African pilot flies intentionally through a storm and the plane drops, falling, seemingly an eternity, there escapes the uncontrollable utterance, “Oh, my God!”

It was the longest of journeys: New York to Paris to Lagos to Kinshasa to Bujumbura. And then we climbed aboard a small plane to the region of Lake Kivu, Goma and Bukavu; altogether, over twenty hours in the air. In the 90s, Bukavu, formerly a Belgian resort town, and its general region, became a haven for those fleeing genocidal Rwanda.

For almost two decades, I have felt a bit embarrassed about my African trip sponsored through the Peace Corps. The expectation was that I would stay two years and while teaching learn French. I had taught composition at Maryland and sophomore literature at University of the District of Columbia and I hoped to get a position doing the same work in Lubumbashi. But I had to get through STAGE, the preparatory period in which one becomes seasoned to the country, which included learning French. 

But STAGE was structured like a kind of boot camp, with white Americans in charge. It convened at what had been before the revolution a Belgian boy’s school in the hills of Bukavu, by Lake Kivu.

I had several hundred dollars in Traveler’s checks. No job to return to, no money in the bank, nothing left behind (I thought), but friends and family. Making such a decision, one never thinks out matters to the nth degree. One allows some matters to take care of themselves and one handles them as they come up. In such dependent situations, one learns much about the self, one’s strengths and frailties. The folk teach that one must learn to live with difficulty in the best kind of way.

It was at the Lagos airport that I became conscious of not being in America. I ran back across the tarpaulin to retrieve cartons of Marlboro I left on the plane. When I returned to the station I was told how foolish I had been, for the soldiers might have shot me down for a saboteur. That was a sobering thought and then there was the awkwardness caused by fellows begging to carry our luggage, assuming all Americans were rich. These were the first glimpses of Africa’s material poverty and its fears of insecurity. But not the last. 

At the Goma air field, I needed to relieve myself and asked for the restroom, and the rifle carrying soldiers showed me out back a hole crossed with planks of wood, smeared with excrement. I grew up using the outhouse and even the woods, but this was an altogether different matter. My desire to make use of a restroom faded suddenly. And then the soldiers begged for cigarettes.

One myth fell quickly, namely, the Negro is naturally suited for the tropics. At STAGE, my body revolted. The palm oil and the food gave me gastritis, except for the rabbit, which even in Sussex I do not recall ever eating. (Though rabbit hunting was widespread, I never developed the temperament of a hunter. Hunting and killing game was never a pleasure I developed, though Daddy taught me how to shoot a .22 rifle with considerable accuracy.) But the rabbit raised in a cage was wonderful, much better than the tough chicken that foraged for his supper. The unwashed pineapple bought at the grand marche and ate gave me diarrhea. The dry season caused sores in my nose. 

I felt lethargic, my energy, and enthusiasm waned. There was none to comfort me. I was alone, isolated.

Then there were the things that affected the mind: the small lizards crawling in the bathroom, and large ones along the walk way at night; and spiders large as frogs, spinning threads from the ceiling of the cafeteria. Then there were the more personal things: living in a dorm for the first time and the lack of privacy. And when the rainy season came, mosquitoes were thick as flies on a dead carcass; such a great swam of them, one could kill them by patting the walls with one’s fingers. There was no escaping them; I had neither net nor anti-pest creams.

My ten weeks in Africa was one of existential despair, lightened by moments of delightful pleasure, usually which came after the weekly stipend. I was alone, desperately alone, no money, no friends. It was an invisibility not unlike that state Ralph Ellison contends is the phenomenological existence of the black man in America. But here I was in “Mother Africa” and only here did I truly understand his vision.

The regimen of STAGE and its managers became the ultimate source of my discomfort. English was forbidden to be spoken in public. That created all kinds of awkwardness and structured a hierarchy based on language proficiency. The middle-class white kids from the Midwest, born in the mid-60s, composed most of the volunteers. There were none with my background, so even in English, I had none who talked my language.

My narrative worldview differed from the managers of the STAGE. They were middle-class and white, representatives of a certain official view of America and of Zaire. Their subtle mockery of Mobutu and the lack of political and social freedom in this African country, I read against the history of unfreedoms in the land of my own birth. We were warned not to photograph Mobutu’s mansion across Lake Kivu because of the President’s security concerns.

 For a time, I had the ghostly doubts my failure to remain in Zaire resulted from my own weaknesses, that I behaved badly while I was in Bukavu. My behavior, it seemed, was compelled by some inner conviction of rightness. I offer my naiveté as no apology; it is a naturalistic aspect of American consciousness. I was the only African-American male in the group. But that in itself was not what generated a downward spiral of my commitment to remain in Africa. Rather, two situations brought my anxiety to a head: my lecture to students of the local teacher’s college; and my unscheduled return from the village of Luberizi. They were occasions in which I spoke too freely or resisted the Peace Corps regimen, or both

I gave a reading of one of Langston Hughes’ tales of Simple, the displaced Virginia Negro living in Harlem. I ventured to give the historical, social, and political context of Hughes’s story of America as represented in the tale. Seemingly, my lecture embarrassed the managers of the STAGE, who flushed with self consciousness as I continued my history of black America. A few of the students, I learned later, were astounded that I would present such a discussion before the managers. I did not anticipate the gravity of the reactions; I expected applause and amazement. My explication of the text of Simple’s life was based on established critical methods, presented with enthusiasm and exactness.  

I was astonished continually how little Zaireans knew of America. On my return from Luberizi, at a Rwanda checkpoint, the seated official, when confronted with my American passport, in French, asked was I an American. (He thought I was some African, maybe a Tutsi from Burundi.) I said I was American. He found it incredible. But the facts of my passport were undeniable. Many Zaireans wrongly believed Americans were white. I wondered how it got that way, but the managers had no answers for me.

On the Peace Corps payroll, the educated Africans who taught classes at STAGE were of little comfort. At the teacher’s college in Bukavu, there were only several books printed in America. If there was any knowledge of Black America, the perspective was viewed principally through Ebony or white Americans. One Zairean woman, a teacher at the school, did not believe there were dark-skinned blacks in the United States. As dark as that fellow, she pointed to one of the servants. Yes, I answered, many that color and darker. Another Zairean teacher asked why more black Americans did not come to Africa. Was it, he continued, because, we sold you into slavery? The question shocked me by its expression of sincerity. The thought never crossed my mind he had had anything to do with it.

My private talks with these Africans, I discovered, were reported back to the white managers. This became clear when I was called into the office by the managers charged unfairly by one of the male Zairean teachers of calling him a son of a bitch. During the session, they raised the question whether I wanted to remain in Zaire. I asked them did they want me to leave. They responded that was up to me. It was in Luberizi, I suppose, that I decided I no longer had a fear of going home to America. I wanted my freedom, so I left the village to see Zaire for myself. I caught the bus, a Japanese truck with racks, back to Bukavu, through the rolling plains of mud huts and banana groves.  

There was nothing to do at Luberizi; the physical discomfort, sleeping on the floor, going without meals, made no sense. No program for an interchange with people in the village had been arranged. I had seen the sights. I observed, uncomfortably, village women naked to the waist carrying water on their heads from a couple of miles distance. I saw an abandoned giant Chinese earth-moving tractor which was intended for the construction of a dam on the banks of the River Luberizi. The intent was to develop rice cultivation in the region. But the local chief, according to the report, misplaced funds and the project fell to nothing, rusting Chinese machinery on a great plain.  

I was sixty miles from Bukavu and my Traveler’s checks. On the Toyota truck with a rack, by my count, twenty people hanging on with luggage and other articles, we left the plain of scattered mud huts and rose onto hills of banana trees. Though I stood the entire trip back to Bukavu, I felt freer than at any time during my African sojourn. I met a friend of one of the Bukavu teachers on the bus. Knowing something of the financial condition of volunteers, and amazed by my presence in his country, he handed me a five note in Zairean currency, enough for several beers. Disembarking at Bukavu, I headed directly to Los Angelos Noire, a bar on the lake. I had several bottles of the local brew, listened to the Brazilian rhythms and daydreamed from the hills of palms to the surface of the still lake and fishermen.

During my stay in Africa, in sentiment, I felt closer to the prostitutes of Bukavu than the African professionals at STAGE. Prostitution was legal and regulated in Zaire. Here, there was no language or cultural barrier. The prostitutes were the best dressed, the freest women in Bukavu, at least, among poor women. At one bar, a group of them paraded in, with a hoop and a holler, their bodies tied snugly in colorful cloth, their heads wrapped in matching material, dazzling everyone. Foolishly, I was tempted to rescue a drunken prostitute who had fallen in the streets; she was harassed and verbally abused by one of the soldiers of the town. Fortunate, for me, I held my tongue and walked on.

I did not have the opportunity to associate with the higher classes of Zaire; nor did I expect I would be so fortunate. During my stay in Zaire, I visited only once a Zairian’s house, a young Tutsi widow with two children, one of the Peace Corps staff. Her husband had been killed in a raid on Bukavu by Belgian terrorists. There was a painting of the raid on the walls of the cafeteria. So it was in bars, a photo of Mobutu ever present, that I got my social view of Zaire. A woman of quality in Bukavu does not enter a bar unescorted, and even then she is suspect.

My Mind on Jerusalem

More than my lack of freedom, my ten weeks of ascetic living made me irritable and ready to return home to America, and the women I left behind. In addition, my teaching assignment to Lubumbashi did not come through. The one I received isolated me far in the bush and by that time I had little trust of the Peace Corps people. A Zairean slipped an anonymous note under my door. He knew efforts had been made to drive me away, but, he pleaded, I should hang on.

I disregarded his advice and packed my bags. I had had enough. Though I hoped for more, I felt on the whole I had gotten the better of the bargain. Destitute more or less, I had come to Africa and I saw it for myself and I would leave with many memories to synthesize, romantic tales to shoot the bull. It was an achievement of a sort. There would be none from my town who had had the luxury of such an adventure.

Two others left with me, an older fellow from California and a young white woman. We rode along Lake Tanganyika for long stretches before we got to the airport in Bujumbura. We spent a week in Kinshasa, part of the debriefing. The Peace Corps officials surprisingly wanted to know if I had a racial complaint. I told him I did not, that I was only looking forward to returning to the States. I arrived at the National Airport and caught the bus into DC. I called Cecilia, a girl I left behind; she picked me up and took me to her house. After taking some ribbing, I found it great being in her arms, even though she had caused me so much anxiety before I left.  

Having made the rounds of nearby friends in Baltimore, I went home to the Village of Jerusalem (in Virginia). Though I had no money, no job, nor any opportunities, Mama welcomed me with joy and relief, for her baby had come home safely. I gave a positive spin to my adventures in Africa. That was not difficult at all: the beauty of the women, their variety, their linguistic skills; the landscape, the sun rising above the hills, the broad savannas, fishermen on the lake seen from a red hill. No, I didn’t see any jungles, unless Kinshasa is included. My only  reticence shared was the difficulty in being poor anywhere, but maybe especially so in Africa.  

I became ill that fall. I didn’t feel sick, but I detected swellings – my upper thigh, behind my knee. Mama made a poultice out of a dirt dauber nest. The swellings became larger. I went to the town doctor, who mistook my speech for an African. From a casual diagnoses, he believed I had terminal cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, or something worse. The doctor prescribed a biopsis to establish certainty. Death! Maybe five years to live. My blood quickened.

I returned to Jerusalem at speeds of 85 miles per hour. I called a Peace Corps nurse in DC. I decided to take the Aralen, an eight-day dosage that was supposed to have been taken on my return to the States. Obviously, the malaria virus was still in my system. I took the full treatment and the swellings went down. Had the drug truly got Africa out of my system, I was never certain. But that was almost two decades ago, and I am still living.

An African identity, I concluded, cannot be grasped with certainty in that it is a consciousness of a becoming, a possible vision of humanity. Ancestry is important, but not sufficient, and possibly not necessary, for such an identity. Its modern impulse is progressive when measured consideration is given to the past, humane when universal connections of cultures are recognized. The establishment of an African identity by those in Africa depends much on individual efforts, by those who value justice and equity in thought and human relations. Hopefully, by word and actions, each of us will contribute to its positive production.

First composed in 1999

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