American in Africa or African in America: to be or not to be…

6 Min Read

Many years ago when I started studying towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Arts I was introduced to something that had been, in my opinion, bypassed and neglected by my basic education. In fact it probably still is and it’s inexcusable.

Those of us who did art at school were subjected to the regular art history from pre-history to modern.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved it but I always had the incredible knack of being interested in an area of history other than that which we were studying at any given time so my marks were always hopeless and it was only through my practical work that I actually passed art at all.

Why African art was never integrated into our curriculum is beyond me; of course intellectually I can ascertain the reason but for its sheer global spread, depth, imagery and cultural reach I can’t understand this purposeful exclusion; especially for those of us born and raised right here in Africa.

One of my first BVA assignments was to write an essay on Yoruba spiritualism and yes, I am deeply ashamed to admit that until that point in my life I had never even heard the word Yoruba much less what it encompassed.

WLA brooklynmuseum Yoruba Housepost One of Pair B 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How grateful I am for my desire to study further as an entire universe was opened up. The universe of African art, music, tribes, religion, language and culture beyond the boundaries of those I knew of by virtue of my proximity.  I have never been to north or central Africa and stopping in Abidjan for a refuelling on a flight en route to Heathrow circa 1985 hardly counts.

The culture and art of the Yoruba people is probably amongst the most widespread globally, mostly due to slavery and while the horrific and inhumane reason for this reach can’t ever be overlooked it is not my focus here.

We are surrounded by such rich cultural heritage in Africa, certainly of the oldest in the world and yet so many Africans run from their roots, embracing Americanisms and Western culture beyond their own circle of influence and while I can understand the appeal of the unknown it seems tragic to me that we don’t focus on increasing the appeal of local cultures at basic education level to encourage our youth to stay local and find interest in who they are. I know by default that there is a good chance any migrating African’s will have children who would want to return to Africa for the same reasons they may want to leave: in search of adventure, mystery, the unknown, heritage, difference and change.

There are many many Americans of African heritage who do whatever they can to try and get back to their roots. They have even created their own American celebrations such as Kwanzaa as a means of raising cultural awareness.  The term African American is also an indication of this return to or links with their heritage. However there is a high likelihood that very few Americans would actually give up their lives stateside to return to Africa: although I am sure they think about it and imagine all types of wonder and romantic notions of Africa. (As I was typing that Bob Marley’s Buffalo soldier started playing on one of my playlists – just sharing that strange coincidence).

I am an American African and while I could probably make the leap to return to America I have to tell you there is a lot of comfort in the familiar. Africa is all I know and the unknown is pretty scary so why would I embrace a culture I don’t know? Possibly to escape the downside of my own reality or perhaps because it is part of my heritage: but do I really know anything about it? No, I really don’t any more than any of my fellow African’s do or similarly my fellow Americans do about Africa.

In essence I am an African, I was born here, I live here and I love Africa. Wherever I go and whatever I do will be directly affected by my African-ness and not by some invisible chord linking me to my American ancestors determining my origins.

Let’s embrace our own truth.

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