You can’t place my face, can you? I mean, the skin tone kind of provides some insight, but my place of origin? A muddy lake of confusion and diasporic mystery. My junior year of high school, someone remarked that I had “Cherokee” eyes (wtf). When I was fourteen, someone complained that “Black people are so loud. Wait Ashia, why would you be offended? You’re mixed, right?” Apparently, my features provide enough bewilderment that people feel comfortable attempting to place me. Dark Taino eyes. Imperceptible cheekbones. Button nose. Chubby cheeks. 4a hair. Soft brow. Italian nose bridge (and arm hair, Jesus Christ). A transatlantic journey gone awry.
In eighth grade in my predominately white school, we were given the task of creating a family tree through narratives. Immediately, the white students in my class started talking about the Mayflower, their Italian immigrant history, Ellis Island–quick and immediate references. Even a couple of the other students of color in my class could pinpoint their histories: an Indian girl recounts memory of the fierce glint in her great-grandmother’s one blind eye as she packed up and left an abusive husband; another mixed-race girl ruminates on Hawaiian nationalism; two Mexican girls commiserate on not being able to speak to their grandparents without their cousins acting as translators because they do not know how to speak Spanish. I and the only other Black student in the class looked at each other as we began the painful process of remembering.
For many Black Americans, our history starts with slavery: the severing ties to any homeland. I don’t need to remind y’all of the trauma of slavery, how many lives were lost on the boat trip alone, the shock to the psyche of being ripped from your motherland and the immense sadness of losing an entire culture. We are a people of preservation: we take what we can and grow crop from that sorrow. Slaves buried their dead facing east with the belief that the deceased souls would return to Africa. Santeria, vodou, obeah and juju flourished and made white slaveholders quake in their boots. We carried over our staple crops by weaving seeds into our hair. We not only survived, we thrived.
Yet still, most of us do not know our country of origin. When I did my project in eighth grade, my mother’s bloodline abruptly stopped at Puerto Rico. This was a new discovery: my mother’s side of the family never discussed our Taino heritage, and my grandmother (a “true” Afro-Latina) who raised me for most of my young life, moved back to Detroit when I was 9 years old and died shortly after. But certain cultural practices made sense: the novelas in the morning; coffee breaks morning, afternoon, and night; her famous arroz con leche; the Southern vernacular of my distant family peppered with Spanish; and the clucking of the tongue at my “pelo malo” whenever she tried to run a comb through my hair. My father’s bloodline was even more dismal: stopped abruptly at my great-great-grandfather who happened to be the first Black principal in Oklahoma, who married a white Frenchwoman and fathered a white-passing daughter: my great-mother Carter.
I started the process of reclamation once I finished that assignment. And though I do not speak Spanish fluently or recognize every cultural symbol, this is a part of my identity that is there for me to lay claim to. I cannot change my blood, and moreover, I do not want to, so I am trying to embrace every bit of the ethnic cocktail I am. As Black folk, we are always in a process of searching. Always lost and seeking home. We have worked with what was afforded to us and built industry, community, a culture. And yet we are not even afforded the latter completely: many West Africans have expressed disdain at Black Americans “appropriating” various African cultures. When this article went around expressing disdain about Black Americans appropriating African cultural symbols, fashion, and tribal marks, a sharp pain broke through my chest. What happened to the versatility of Blackness? The merging of lands and experiences over an ocean, the dynamism that pervades our communities?
And what of Black American vernacular and culture that is readily claimed by Africans? What of fluidity? Of reclamation? How do you know when someone is Black American versus African? What of ancestral memory? What of the nuances of personhood?
I will never be able to show my children a map of Africa and say with absolutely certainty “this is where our bloodline begins.” Even if I took a DNA test, what would it mean? Probability, false hope, an analysis of alleles? My mother named me Ashia Ajani, the last connection that I have to a homeland (how ironic), because she did not want me to have a slaveholder’s name: “Lucas.”
In Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, the author visits the castle in Ghana in which slaves were housed until they were retrieved by white slaveholders to take to the New World. She remarks on the pervasive sense of shame felt by many who live near the castle and the quietness surrounding conversations of the slave trade in West African countries. No one wants to admit the heart wrenching, ancestral guilt they feel. Hartman also discusses the hilarity with which Ghanaian children react to her name, “Sadiya.” To her, the name meant “helper”; a strong, beautiful name. When she went to Ghana and told people her name, they said it reminded her of beggar children in the street, holding out their hands, pleading for money or some bit of food: “Help! Help!”
I do not want to sound as cynical as Hartman, who is a contributor to the body of knowledge known as “Afro-pessimism,” and says that there is no place, no home for us in West Africa. But recognizing the divides as well as the uniting principles is especially important with increased globalization and expatriation. Why do we want to reclaim things? Why do we want to return? And what is waiting for us when we do so?
I am still moving towards understanding of the limitations of reclamation: there must be a respectful way to reclaim ancestry, one that requires research, understanding, and tact. Africa is not a costume to don once in a while and shed when the stigma surrounding “tribalism” becomes too much to bear. When you throw in, you throw in. And that is what many Black Americans are choosing to do. We are relearning our history, the good and the bad, and trying to let that knowledge influence our everyday life, from our cooking to our stories to our clothing to the ways in which we wear our hair. Every day there is a merging of cultures between global Black peoples, and that togetherness makes room for difficult, yet necessary, conversations about our placelessness, identity, loss, and future.
The traits of African descent are widespread, fluid, and diverse. Take my high yellow cousin’s freckles and my grandmother’s bone straight hair, my mother’s prominent nose and my auntie’s thin lips, my uncle’s vitiligo and my baby niece’s hair of every single curl pattern known. Sometimes the traits are virtually nonexistent (not talking about white folks who find out they have a Black ancestor and start crying about it). But they remain, and they are ours to reinvest in. I am coming to terms with the versatility of my own existence, as well as the starlight that had to breathe me into existence. Afro-Puerto Rican. Black American. West African. Mixed race. Afro-indigenous. These are all mine to lay claim to.