Friday, February 4, 2011

A "Home-going" - Part 1: Why I went to The Gambia

When most people talk about a "home-going" - they're talking about a death and a burial.  And in a sense, so am I, though not of a corporal kind.

My recent "home-going," involved the death and burial of a way of thinking about Africa - shared, I know, by many Blacks in America.  Since the beginning of our existence in this country up to this day, we've been taught to see Africa as the swollen-bellied, uncivilized "Dark Continent," unable to govern its people, or solve its own problems without the all-knowing, allegedly benevolent hand of the "civilized" West firmly on the wheel.

"I have said that the Civilized have never been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. Once they had decided that he was savage, there was nothing to honor, recognize or describe."
James Baldwin
Mr. Baldwin succinctly encapsulates the deeply embedded mantra of white supremacy which is, and has been, the reason for the steady diet of disinformation, misinformation and miseducation we've been fed about Africa by our stellar education system, the mainstream media, our perfectly run government - and our health care system.

In just two sentences, he clearly explains, that which continues to give this supposed, "civilized" society, the conscience-free license to kill, experiment upon, imprison, and otherwise keep their foot on the necks of other human beings who are also, as Baldwin, never fails to point out - their "fellow countrymen."

Reading (a lot of Baldwin!), listening and interacting with others outside my familiar, has definitely made me a better critical thinker.  I know that my mind is no longer completely inculcated with the double-talk of western superiority in general, and "American Exceptionalism" - in particular.  But, what I also know is - I still have a whole lot more learning to do.  Yet sometimes, all of that constant peeling back of layers becomes a little overwhelming, especially as more layers are constantly being added (like "Selection 2008!").

And by November 2010 - I was not only overwhelmed, I was tired.

Tired - of all the political gamesmanship continuing to discount real people's lives in favor of corporate "persons;" tired of all the craziness in defense of "American exceptionalism" - through decidedly crazy, and unexceptional acts; tired of mainstream media parrots pundits, informing and enlightening less, while promoting themselves more; tired of all things Changeling, to be sure; and particularly tired, of watching my kinfolk, seemingly so ashamed of who we are in our entirety, trippin' all over themselves to embrace the hegemony of the "exceptionalists" just because we've got some "skinfolk" in the Burning House.

So, right after seeing "For Colored Girls" (YES, the rash of ignoble commentary surrounding Perry's film also made my "tired of" list), I found myself contemplating an escape from the madness for a little while.  I called my friend, Gerald Pinedo in Germany - to see what he was up to, grumble about politics and the Changeling (he's more patient with him than I), and invite myself for a visit since I'd never been to Europe before.  I figured with so many bases dotting the landscape, it was definitely doable from my end - especially if I could get a Space-A flight from the MAC terminal here, and a room at one of the many inexpensive "lodges" the military so graciously provides!
A little background

I met Gerald, an artist, sculptor, lecturer and researcher of the slave trade (I know, I've tried to get him to let me update that woefully out-of-date site!), through a mutual friend in December 2001.  After one of his research trips to Cuba, he'd come to Key West to prepare for his Black History Month exhibition at the San Carlos in 2002.  I wanted to interview him for one of my weekly columns.

He, my then-71 year old Jewish friend, Rhoda and I - had many a lively,late-night discussion about why Blacks and Cubans in America were not aware of their true roots.  He was amazed, that when he asked the question - "Where are you from?" - during several interviews he'd conducted locally, the answers never involved any African roots.  What he'd found for the most part, were Cubans, and Blacks who claimed the Bahamas as their place of origin (as many in Key West do) - who seemed to have totally discounted the fact that African slaves were brought to, or through, those islands during the slave trade - and us, who had no clue whatsoever, where our true roots lay.

I offered that the question holds a totally different meaning - at least for Blacks in America. His reply was an immediate, "Why should it?"

We met again in 2003 during a series of events hosted by the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, which included a Jan. 7 - 16 port visit by the newly commissioned, Freedom Schooner Amistad (the Amistad case was argued and won by former president, John Quincey Adams - after he'd left the White House). 

I'd run into Corey Malcom and Lisa Petrone at Goombay in October 2002.  They told me they'd heard about the "Dialogues on Race" I'd been having around town and up the Keys, and thought it'd be a great addition to the planned schedule of events - if I was interested.  Of course I was!  "Legacy of the Amistad: A Conversation" became a means to openly and honestly discuss race in America on a much larger scale than I'd ever been used to.

Gerald was back in Key West to give an encore of his own exhibit featuring an abundance of original documents and artifacts from the slave trade, along with his own paintings and sculpture.  Since he was staying through Black History Month, the husband and I got to learn and see, so much more than either of us had ever been exposed to before.

Back to the future 

During the phone call, Gerald said he wouldn't be in Germany for awhile.  He was leaving for The Gambia in November to continue working on his "Center" for the African diaspora that he'd begun almost five years ago. He'd bought the land, the building was up, and he had to go pay the land taxes and oversee the installation of tile, plumbing and windows.

I was at once, excited and crestfallen.  Excited because it seemed he was finally going to see his life's work come to fruition (and trust me, it HAS been his life's work!).  Crestfallen, because I'd be stuck among the "exceptionalists" - still (What? It's not like I lied to him about why I wanted to come over there!). I asked him when he'd be back, and he said in a few months or so. Sighing (because I knew it'd be at least four more months away) I said, "Well, maybe when the husband gets back, we'll both come and hangout with you for awhile. He'll have plenty leave!"

All of a sudden he said excitedly, "You should come there!!  Have you ever been??" 

I told him that I hadn't, but had always wanted to go - especially after I'd stumbled upon information linking the Gullah language and culture of my Sea Island relatives and ancestors, to West Africa (probably Sierra Leone, Senegal or - The Gambia).

I realized my words were coming faster and with more animation as I told him, "I know slaves from these three places were brought, across the Middle Passage - directly to the Sea Islands - not only because of the mirror-imaged, climate conditions of West Africa - but because of their superior skills in cultivating rice - a very profitable cash crop for the mostly Charleston-dwelling masters!"  (And yes, I love me some rice!)

We were both completely excited now.  Then, in his thick German accent, he said,  "De-bo-rah!  Every Black American should go home at least once in their lives!"

It hit me in the head like one of those old V-8 commercials!  And as I thought about his suggestion (for a hot minute),  I couldn't ignore the rising in my head, of Brother Malcolm's searing questions - asked, some 50 years ago:

And I said,  "You know Gerald, you're absolutely right!  Then - I went to work...

To be continued - A "Homegoing" - Part 2a:  "Getting there" lessons

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