I have been on work travel in West and Central Africa over the last few weeks and have begun to reflect on my various experiences. I remembered an article I read last year by Demetria Lucas entitled, “Not African Enough in Africa” , which prompted me to seriously think about what the Diaspora means to me and why it is important to dissolve the divisions within the African Diaspora as we continue our fight against modern day racism.
Growing up I was constantly asked, “what are you?”. (I am still asked that question today after people hear my name and then look at my business card to confirm what they heard was correct.) I always hesitated to answer because I didn’t want to go into my complex background and reasoning around my West African name. The problem was I never felt that I could fit myself into one box. I never felt “African enough” for my sisters from the continent. My African-American friends would always remind me that I was not “regular Black” (I still have no idea what this phrase truly means). My Latina friends would always say “technically you are not Latina…you don’t even speak Spanish”. My Caribbean friends would remind me that my Patois was non-existent. My simple answer would always be African.
I was born in Cotonou, Benin to an Afro-Panamanian mother and an African-American father. My mother describes her family as migrant workers who followed the imperialist job market since being brought to the shores of the Americas. She is a third generation migrant worker whose great-grandparents came to Panama during Fernando de Lesseps failed initial attempt to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th century. Her maternal grandparents came during the US’s attempt and her parents were born in Panama. She and her siblings have traced their roots to Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and Haiti. She is fond of saying that anywhere cheap or free labor was needed, captured Africans were sent. Recently, our family has been contacted by family members on her maternal side from Cuba and Nicaragua who have sought to re-establish contact with lost family members. While working on the Canal, my family was subjected to the same Jim Crow and apartheid laws that spread throughout the United States and Southern Africa. They were treated like second class citizens in their own country by outsiders. My mother was raised in the segregated Panama Canal Co. town of Gamboa where she attended segregated schools. Her father was a laborer in the Dredging Division of the Canal and her Mother a domestic worker up the “white people’s hill.” My mother never knew any of her grandfathers as they died constructing the Canal or at the whims of the US workers. She grew up with her grandmothers: maternal and paternal and her great-grandmother who was part Maroon; part Arawak Indian. Her maternal grandmother was part of the Garvey movement and her mother was influenced by this.
These experiences have helped to shape my world view and sense of belonging within the African-diaspora community. My parents instilled in my brother and me that we are all branches of the same root. The division and need to represent the branches separated from the roots only serves those who exploited and continue to exploit us. They spoke of unity in our beautiful diverse tapestry. Therefore, while I seek to learn the different manifestations of our culture as Africans, diasporic and continental, I build my faith in the deepness of our roots and our inter-connectedness. My birth and initial 3 years of life in Benin brought our family full circle to our continent of origin. From the age of 7, I spent every summer in West Africa and/or Panama to maintain my connection to my roots and family. These myriad experiences have shaped my view of our various differences, but has shown the connected-ness of Africans within the Diaspora. So as we continue to discuss why race still matters, let us embrace our various experiences and transcend the divisions so entrenched within or communities.
by Bai Kamara