dear one, what have you lost?

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backpacking in Yosemite – 2008

Obruni (Twi word for “white foreigner”)* forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t belong anyplace. The domain of the stranger is always an elusive elsewhere.” Saidya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

I am a wanderer. My life has been a sojourn. I do not feel that I belong in any of the places that I’ve seen, visited or called home.

Sometimes it feels like I’m enacting my childhood fantasies of running away. Other times, it feels like I’m chasing after something that I never had. Today, it feels like a loss.

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Me, in the Bahamas (Nassau)

Maybe it’s Diaspora Anxiety. “Authenticity” roots us not in terms of where we were born, but in terms of where our ancestors were from. That’s part of why I am identified as a hyphenated American- African-American. In my case, it’s unclear that my ancestors ‘belonged’ where ever they came from in West or Central Africa. I could make up for this by appealing to an imagined Africa, or I could stop trying to ‘belong’ and stop searching for a place in which to be rooted. Perhaps I was supposed to be a sojourner. In the US, my nativity is not sufficient proof of my belonging, but outside of the US, my American-ness is laid bare at every border, and in every moment I open my mouth.

As descendant of trafficked and enslaved Africans and a student of history who has studied the Arab Slave trade, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, (TAST), I do not have the false comfort of believing that my ancestors were simply “snatched” by outsiders and put on a slave ship. Perhaps mis-translating the Yoruba word “Akátá” and divorcing it from its contexts, I could say that maybe my ancestors were “Akátá” before they ever came face-to-face with a European slave-trader. Or perhaps I am unfairly imposing a Western us/them : we/Other : human/animal binary onto Western or Central African societies. Perhaps, Yoruba speakers used this word to refer to feral animals outside of the compound or pins, and not other Africans outside of their community. Nonetheless, the word “Akátá” is used to refer to me- an African-descended Westerner- now.

It is quite likely that many trafficked and enslaved Africans were outsiders in their communities of origin, or were displaced and otherwise made captive. Slavery was not new among the people groups of what we know as “Africa.” It could be argued that slavery among Africans was defined in intrusive terms, but the involvement of European slave traders redefined the enslavement of Africans in extrusive terms. But this is not so clear-cut, because there were African intermediaries who acted as agents and captors. It is worth asking whether these intermediaries were outsiders negotiating that liminal space between ‘enslaved’ and ‘free.’ Perhaps they did what they did to avoid the mark of the slave-outsider.

Orlando Patterson writes of “natal alienation” in his text entitled, Slavery and Social Death. He writes “Slavery is the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (13) This is summed up nicely by a Yoruba saying, “Ọ̀nà ló jìn ẹrú ní baba,” which translates to ‘The slave came from a home as well, he is simply far from it.’ What of the free children of the enslaved? Where is their home?

Reading Suggestions:

  1. Patterson, Orlando. (1982). Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  2. Hartman, Saidya. (2007). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlanti Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

*”Obruni” literally means “white foreigner” in Twi (one of the most widely-spoken languages of Ghana), but it is used to refer to African-descended foreigners as well. In that sense, it is similar to “mzungu” in parts of East Africa.

6 Comments

  1. Peace, Arrianna. Just a few thoughts–

    Saidiya Hartman came immediately to mind as I read your post. I met Saidiya briefly in Ghana during the early stages of what would become her book “Lose Your Mother.” That was back in 97; I was an undergrad doing a year-long study abroad. Whereas Saidiya’s experiences were mostly of loss and disappointment, my experience in Ghana was enriching and affirming. I had a profound sense of belonging–I feel much more at home in Ghana than I do in the USA…

    Someone, some family, some village, somewhere in Africa mourned for their Lost Ones, our shared Ancestors (see eg. Maya Angelou, “All Gods Children Wear Traveling Shoes”). Saidiya could not hear them, but I certainly did/do. The Lost Ones welcomed me home often. Through divination, through libations, and in ways that I cant fully articulate…

    I’ve been to roughly half of West Africa over the years. I have found West Africans, and Africans generally, to be welcoming of, and curious about “returnees.” In fact, occasionally, Ghanaians have chastised me for being a “local’ trying to imitate a foreigner. It helps to make an effort to learn the local culture, develop an appreciation for fufu, try to speak some of the local languages (in Ghana picking up a bit of Twi or Ga or Ewe or Hausa is really helpful)…

    African diasporans (the “old” sense of the term) are pan-African genetically. Every individual diasporan will likely have Ancestors from several different regions of Western Africa. And my own view is that there is still much that is “African” about descendants of the Maafa (Middle Passage). Our distinctive dialects (e.g. in the southern USA), our foods, our worship, our notions of kinship, our naming traditions and so on.

    As for “Oburoni/Obruni,” I think “stranger” is more precise (the lit. meaning is debated, but the consensus seems to be “person from beyond the horizon”). It is not typically negative, but is sometimes used to denigrate (akata, by comparison, seems, at least to my ear, frequently tinged with pejorative connotations). It simply means that things like water bottles and backpacks and airconditioned tour buses and non-local dialects of English marks one as an outsider.

    Having said that it is understandable how diasporans might find “oburoni” offensive or, at least, disappointing. Just as, by the way, some Africans report disappointment when the come to the USA expecting to bond with African Americans (here we should note that the US govt. has played in important role in Black Atlantic relationships–basically, alienation by way of brute and psychological terror as Malcolm X reminded us). But If you move about in Ghana by yourself or with Ghanaian friends, catch the tro-tro, buy a bowl of waakye (beans and rice dish) or koko (millet porridge) a few times a week from a street vendor, Ghanaians are less likely to mark you as an outsider. kzs

    1. Well yes, the post begins with a Saidya Hartman quote.

      “African diasporans (the “old” sense of the term) are pan-African genetically.” I have major reservations about geneticist conceptions of ancestry- mostly b/c they presume heteronormativity and are traced patrilineally. Even the word “Diaspora” refers to scattered seed (generative substance of life produced by (assumed) male bodies).

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