As an African American woman living in Europe (Belgium), there are times when I feel very disconnected. Often, I am the only Black person in the room—it is very rare that there is another African American in the room unless it is my son. (See Am I the Only One?) Other times, I’m the only American. Sometimes, the only woman—especially in my family! I am the “only” many things—writer, lawyer, blogger, or person to finish the Insanity workouts. Everyone is an “only” at times.
I often wonder about the “things” that connect people. I use the generic word “things” because people can connect on a variety of different characteristics.
However, I find that many people prefer to consider the “things” that separate them. I was watching a documentary that was talking about how African Americans don’t have a common language. Most of our ancestors were stolen (captured and kidnapped) from our native land where they did, indeed, have common languages, cultures, religions, etc.
This distinguishes African Americans from many other ethnicities in the United States. For example, Irish Americans have the Gaelic language though many don’t speak it anymore. German Americans have the German language. Italian Americans have Italian. Same for Polish Americans. Of course, this is an oversimplification because these groups can connect but also distinguish themselves in other ways (e.g., dialect, region, social status). African Americans don’t “fit” into these categories. And this says a lot about the experience that brought us to America. (One could call it a “common” experience!)
Does this mean that African Americans have nothing to connect us?
Absolutely not. We have plenty of “things” great and small to connect and unify us!
We’ve got “the struggle.”
Some people say that we’ve got “the struggle”.
"The struggle” doesn’t even need to be defined for us. In fact, I can’t define it but I definitely know it when I see it. (Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of “the struggle” these days.) The struggle is the collective “bad stuff” that has happened but it’s also the strength and persistence that African Americans have endured and shown throughout the centuries. In the 1970s, African Americans would say, “It’s all about the struggle.” And perhaps it was. This mantra was said with pride that we could take anything that is thrown at us and still come back strong.
“We’ve got Martin.” or “We’ve got Malcolm.”
I don’t even need to give last names here. We just KNOW which “Martin” and which “Malcolm” that we’re talking about—and uniting around. Sure, they were African American and they were strong unifying forces during the civil rights movement and their presence is still felt today.
“Martin” and “Malcolm” also represent the pride and strength of African Americans. They were brilliant, courageous leaders who transformed the way that people lived and thought. They changed the country and the world. And we claim them as our own. They unite us.
We’ve got a shared culture.
Wait! Didn’t I just admit that we were stripped of our languages, cultures and traditions during slavery?
Yes, but that is not the whole story.
(1) Even the devastating and genocidal effects of slavery could not obliterate the culture that came with the enslaved Africans. Some of our traditions, rituals and even languages endured. Many traditions and rituals even made a resurgence during the latter part of the 20th century. And they have stayed with us and are being passed down through the generations.
(2) Enslaved Africans developed a new culture, complete with rituals and traditions. This is African American culture which is a mélange of traditions from North, East and West Africa as well as the “American” culture. There was also the culture and rituals of “necessity” that enslaved Africans developed in order to survive and maintain their dignity and hope for the future. (Think of the Negro Spirituals, jazz and the Blues) So, yes, African Americans do have a shared culture, shared rituals, a common history and a united spirit that connects us in different and meaningful ways.
How to Maintain Unity
There are so many different ways that African Americans can keep up that feeling of unity (or Umoja in Swahili--for those who celebrate Kwanzaa). As I said in the beginning of this blog, I sometimes feel very disconnected as an African American living in Belgium. But I have taken concrete steps to maintain that united feeling for my son and myself.
Steps to Unite African Americans:
1. Celebrate Black History Month--all year long.
During Black history month, I make a big effort to keep in touch with my roots. For me, that means studying Black history. (I read an excellent book about Thurgood Marshall in February!) I also challenged myself to make a “dish” from my heritage like Jollof rice (The Gambia), okra and grits (my personal favorite). I watched DVDs about Black history and culture. I just spent the month remembering and studying African American experience—both the good and “the struggle.” But I must emphasize that this can be done throughout the year—you do not need to wait until February!
2. Attend functions by and about African Americans.
This is a little difficult for me living in Belgium but I attended Black history month functions in London where it is celebrated in October. But there are so many different functions—cultural, political, musical, literary, and social—that are happening every day. Just make the effort.
3. Get in touch with your roots.
Visit great historical sites that focus on the African American experience. There are so many different sites for almost any interest. I’m interested in slavery so I have visited slave quarters in the United States and read slave narratives. I definitely learned about “the struggle.” But remember that the African American experience is more than slavery; it is science, medicine, education, religion and spirituality, and many other experiences. Churches are also an excellent place to get united and get inspired together. Discuss your family history. Set a place for the ancestors at your dinner table.
4. Participate in political activities like marches, fundraisers, receptions or other activities that discuss a Black candidate or the Black agenda.
We have seen recently that marching can be very effective in pronouncing and defending the rights of African Americans. African Americans should be active politically and it does not require a big effort. But it is definitely a unifying effort.
5. Utilize social media.
Facebook has great pages and communities dedicated to the interests of African Americans. Twitter is also a great way to keep informed, in touch and unified. I have personally found social media to be a great way to stay “in the know” even while out of the country.
These are all easy and concrete steps that can connect and unify people. But the most effective step in maintaining unity is the desire to learn, appreciate and cherish Black culture. And to pass that to our children.
Yes, there is a strong United State of African Americans. It is just as real and enduring as any state, country or ethnicity. (We even have the African American National Anthem!) Let’s remember to keep that united feeling alive for us and for generations to come.
And Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing!
(Great song! Look up the words by James Weldon Johnson.)