September 11, 2020
Covid-19 gave us a vacation from our captive lives of running here, meeting up there; saying it’s almost finished and I’ll be right over. My time inside YouTube videos was all over the place; from cooking to visiting Africa and Cuba but what touched me most was today’s Black youth struggling with their identity and culture. The challenge of fitting into American society and thus other parts of the world, including Africa for Diaspora residents and mixed race people presents the questions of comfort, safety and belonging.
As a Black man I grew up in New York City under the guidance of my wonderful belated mother. Her and my father had unresolved issues which kept him out of my life; something I really regret. When I was old enough to demand his presence he had passed. So the first thing I’m saying to you is if you know where your father is, go and see him. Too often parents treat their children like they are their private possessions; forgetting that their issues with their fathers are a set of separate circumstances and not the drama of their children. Having a good relationship with both parents gives you a greater sense of immediate identity and culture—whether southern, mid-western or east and west coast.
My school was Catholic filled with Irish, Italians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. My early years were spent in a Black environment at Manhattan’s Douglass Houses off 100th Street and Columbus Ave. Across the street was Park West Village. Here the rich folks lived and a few blocks west was Riverside Drive—where the Jews lived. Some of those days were filled with fights and if you lost today, tomorrow you were friends; laughter, games of Double Dutch and Hop Scotch for the girls—stick ball, basketball and touch football for us boys marked our seasonal activities. Cloths were not as important as the Converse, Pro Keds and Spaulding sneakers we wore; anything else was called skips.
Culture and identity collided in my life when my mother bought home and introduced me to the music of James Brown and The Four Tops. At that time I couldn’t dance but their electrifying funk took over my body and forever etched the feeling of rhythm and blues into the center of my soul. Motown became my daily lover and once I learned to dance it became my passion. Our dances requires our arms would go one way as our head bobbed another; our legs would move in opposite directions while our hips swayed left and right or up and down on the beat. It was then on the floor I realized, women always expressed greater freedom in the beautiful spirit of dance.
For the rest of my life it was about funk and rhythm. In fashion, the outfits had to carry a visual rhythm and food had to have an hypotonic scent which made me dance within. John Coltrane’s jazz and Little Walter’s harmonic blues; Lagos’s Sunny Ade’s juju and Fela’s Afro-beat music are filled with different levels of rhythm. The sweetness of Nigeria’s egusi soup and pounded yam, made inside the pounding rhythm of a mortar and pestle, have found a home in my heart alongside fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens; oxtails and Pernil with plantain, rice and peas. These are life journeys—cultural train tracks of identity, letting me know the elevation of my soul is in the right place. In my photography you’ll see plenty of rhythm as I listen and follow the images on the downbeat of their hearts.
Now let’s do some science. This is not a shameless plug but an intelligent road to discovery and recovery. DNA has come a long way in determining the origin of a person’s ethnic background. Black people were the first victims of identity theft. Our names, tribes, religion, families, etc. were all removed from our lives through our brutal abduction from Africa; this why reparations are mandatory from all of the countries and regions who participated in our kidnapping including African nations.
African Ancestry.com is a company which tracks the historical lineage of the DNA living in you, on your mother’s side, to the African region or countries of your origin. This testing costs the price of a pair of sneakers or a new phone—well worth the $300.00 of self discovery. My coming off the 23 and Me DNA test(a gift from my twin girls) displayed my African blood in an overwhelming count of Sub-Saharan origin at 76% with Nigeria at 31.7%. The rest is Yada, Yada, Yada. Now all that remains is my participation in African Ancestry.com DNA’s test.
This means you can finally erase those delicate memories of your childhood when your white classmates stood up and proudly told everyone their exact family’s country of origin. Your DNA results will place you in your ancestor’s time zone within one or several of today’s 54 African countries, thus giving you a wonderfully better educated understanding of your African identity. Acceptance of the culture is optional.
Our love of life, laughter and song—the swaying of her full-figured hips, the glide in his angular stride; the rhythmic inflections within our speech—which can also be found in the harmonic language of Yoruba, beautifully spoken by Nigerian elders and the vibrant colors we wear to social occasions, even to the supermarket, are proud visual rhythms adornments. There is this story about a town of white women who were so jealous of the hats Black women wore on Sunday, that they had them outlawed, only to have the sistahs go inside their creative energy and invent hair styles, rivaling their Sunday hats; powerful resilience emerging on the other side discrimination.
There is no monopoly on creativity nor culture or identity. You’re not responsible for that romantic night your parents made mad love and conceived you into the world. Blackness is a state of mind—your right, your opportunity; a life just waiting for you to claim it! I choose Blackness, powerful journeys into Africa and the African Diaspora, because they have so many levels of history, beauty, education and discovery; a multitude of world-wide humanitarian love stories. I would rather live in love than in anything else. An historical richness of identity and culture, beginnings with no end and millions of places I can call home gives me the comfort and joy of family. Awareness produces jealousy and envy in those who don’t have it and power in those who know how to use it.
Blackness encompasses confidence in your walk, intelligence in your talk and kindness in your spirit; an understanding of owning who you are with pride, dignity and respect. In the fabulous words of famed comedian Jackie Gleason, “How sweet it is!”