Dignity of History

Africa is so much more than the images the media feed us.

By Solomon Jones
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 29, 2005

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Five years ago I stood barefoot at the edge of a continent, my toes sinking deep in sand whose reddish tone danced in the highlights of my skin.

In that moment it became clear to me.

This was the place where God shaped my ancestors from spittle and clay. Africa. Even the whisper of the ocean breeze was familiar.

It carried the echoes of history's greatest empires, and the screams of the enslaved. It carried centuries of ethnic pride, and the stench of tomblike slave ships. But West Africa's ocean breezes also carried the abiding dream of my ancestors: the hope that someday, somewhere they would return to the land from which they were taken.

As I stood looking out over the seemingly endless ocean, I realized I was that hope. That against all odds, I had returned.

A tear fell hot against my cheek. The tide swept in, touching my feet for the first time. Yes. This was the place where God had breathed life into my ancestors. And as I stood on Ghana's shore, in a moment born of ancestral dreams, the story of my people enveloped me.

It envelops me still. Even as a Pennsylvania politician crassly reasons there's no need for Philadelphia students to learn the history of African-Americans since most black children will never see Africa, the story of my people envelops me. Even as debt is forgiven by the people who caused it, the story of my people envelops me. As artists gather in Philadelphia for Live 8-an ambitious effort to raise awareness of poverty in Africa-the story of my people envelops me.

The story sweeps past in an ocean breeze, just as it did on that long ago morning in Ghana. It's a story I can't allow to get lost in the music. It's a story that's bigger than Live 8. It's the story of a people and a continent that dwells beneath my skin, in the place where identity is born.

Today Africa is the world's poorest continent. Its nations are often described as developing or Third World, which is ironic, since for centuries stretching back to the beginning of time, Africa was home to the world's first and richest civilizations.

But most Americans can't see beyond the images that have long defined Africa. Images of starving people, wild animals, raging disease and crushing poverty. Images so powerful and pervasive that African immigrants are often confronted with them. Not only by white Americans, but by black Americans.

Fatima Yasin, a Temple University graduate from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, says the stereotypes, numerous and painful, often come out as questions.

"Did you live in a house or did you live in a hut?" she was asked when visiting with an African-American family. "I had to explain to them, 'No, I never lived in a hut.'"

"'Did you live in a village? What was it like? Did you have lions?'

"And I go like, 'No, I've never seen a lion in my life ... '

"You know, I can understand if a white person asks me if I have zebras in my backyard, but why should a black person ask me that?"

Black people ask those questions because, like most Americans, many of us don't understand the reality of Africa, or African immigrants, who have the highest education levels of all immigrants to the U.S.

We know only the distorted view of Africa that we've been given, even as Africa's history hides in plain sight.

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