Race, Ethnicity and Culture Part III

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Presentation during Lutheran Church in Senegal churchwide assembly, Anne Langdji is translating into French.

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Members of the Lutheran Church in Senegal including president of the church Thomas Diouf.

I was in Senegal recently. I was there for the purpose of continuing to build relationships with Lutherans in the country and specifically working with the Senegal Lutheran Development Service (SLDS) and the Lutheran Church in Senegal (ELS). I was asked to speak for the assembly of ELS and I was given the topic of “mutual submission.” (see the beginning of that presentation in an earlier post)

Using the text for the occasion I wanted to make the point about how we treat each other. It is as though the writer of the text says, wait a minute, I thought you were followers of Christ … so act like it. God loves you…so treat each other in the same love that you have been given…..and stop using power and authority to lord it over one another.   I used my relationship with my colleague Anne as an example. I told them that technically I was her boss, but because of her knowledge and expertise in the region where we work, I often have to listen to her advice and sometimes she has to listen to me because it is my responsibility to make certain decisions.

So, I finished my presentation, which by the way was translated from English to French and then to Sere, and then I was asked questions. One of the members of the church said that it was easy for us, Anne and I, because we come from the same culture. How were they supposed to do this when some of them were Sere, some were Pulaar, some where Jola? Looking at them I would say, if I didn’t know anything about Senegal, they were all from the same culture. They are all Senegalese. And it was evident to me that Anne and I are not from the same culture. So I laughed, because we are and we are not from the same culture and they are and they are not from the same culture. So, I tried to explain.

Seeing us  standing side by side, what they saw — two Americans. Standing side by side anywhere in North America what would be seen is an African American and a European American. Our histories on North American soil is very different, our experiences on North American soil are very different, our access to resources, power….. you name it, on North American soil could not be more different. Yet when I tried to explain, many looked at me with surprise on their faces.

Race, ethnicity and culture are complicated issues and are seen differently depending on where you are standing. I have learned this much and much more as I am westafricabound.

Who Decides? Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity – Part II

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Chimanandu Ngozi Adiche, Nigerian born writer and activist uses Ifemelu a character in her book Americanah to talk about race. She writes, ” I became black when I came to America.” This character tells about her experience as an African National in America and how her race consciousness was developed. I suppose growing up in Nigeria this character never had to think about the color of her skin, but coming to America her blackness, her race was ever present.

This is the same thing that Abdou said to me as he told me the story of coming to the US in the 1970’s. He was born in Senegal and he never had to think about the color of his skin. This changed  when he came to the US to go to college in Louisanna. There he learned how the color of your skin sets you apart from others. Abdou was taught this by way of a painful lesson. He ran track for the university and liked to run everyday through the same neighborhoods that his white team mates often ran through. As he ran he was attacked by a dog and while he was being attacked people in the neighborhood stood around and watched. No one came to his aid. As a matter of fact, some of them pointed and snickered. He made it back to the university, got treatment and was scolded by his coach. His coach told him that he should have known that because he was black that he could not run in that neighborhood. How could he have known? No one had ever explained.

Abdou’s real life lived experience, the reality Adiche’s puts in the mouth of her character is the experience of many who grow up in Africa and come to the US. Until they are here there is no consciousness about the color of their skin. This experience is a much different experience then being born a descendent of Africans on US soil. For those of us born in the US— very early on in our lives—race, the color of our skin is an ever present reality.

I do not remember a time when skin color was not a topic of conversation in my growing up. Whether we were playing sidewalk games and reciting “if you’re brown stay around, if you’re black get back.” We learned to judge each other according to skin color. Our folklore, our history, our stories are full of this. Everyone growing up “black” in the US knows about the paper bag test. If your skin tone was the shade of a paper bag or lighter you were offered access to clubs, and institutions that your darker cousins could not gain access. Whether I was at work where my slightly darker hue set me apart from my co-workers, or standing with my friends where my lighter skin was noticed, I have always been conscious of race and skin color and thus my place in the scheme of things.

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” They tell us race,” Adiche writes as Ifemulu, “is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a black person and a white person.”  I wonder is this really true. I have read scholars who say that race is a social construct. If race is simply a social construct then why can’t we deconstruct it? How do we overcome some of its affects? Besides that, how should we define who is related to whom? And who is Black?

Throughout history the answer to the question, “Who is black? varies depending on where you are in the world. In the United States of America, it is clearly defined. There is what is called, “the one-drop rule.”  According to F. James Davis in his book, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition, “. . .  a black is any person with any known African black ancestry or. . . a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black.”  As time has passed all who are born and raised in the United States have come to accept this. Broadly this is a concept that has been internalized through socialization. Whites and Blacks alike adhere to this concept.

So what does this mean as we move around the world? As we become a more global community? As people of all hues and shades visit the shores of the US?

Let’s keep talking. As always, I am westafricabound.

Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity …. Across Continents Part I

Bantoura, Toubob, Pulaar…..

I have been called each of these things in the last few months. Bantoura means white person in Hausa. This is what a group of children yelled as Dana and I visited a school in Nigeria. I thought they were just talking about her, until they ran up to me rubbing my skin.

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

Andrea and Dana in Nigeria

In Senegal, I was referred to as Toubob, that means foreigner and most often is used to talk about those of European ancestry. But not exclusively, it can mean someone from somewhere not Senegal. I didn’t mind this so much once I understood.

In Senegal, I am also sometimes mistaken for someone who is Pulaar. This happens especially when I am dressed in brightly colored African clothes. I was in a fabric market in Dakar with Rebecca and Anne buying cloth and a man came in and began speaking to me in Pulaar. Of course, I didn’t know what he was saying and Anne laughed because she understood him and engaged in a dialogue. I have been given the name Penda Baa, by my Pulaar cousins in Linguere. They have owned me, adopted me and said I belong.

The issues of race and belonging are issues that I struggle with as I do this global work. I believe these are struggles of many of us of the African Diaspora. Am I African? Am I American? Am I both? Can I self define?

Who am I?  What I am? are questions I have been asked while on the continent of Africa. I have shown photos of loved ones and some are surprised, others say of course….because my loved ones come in varying shades from the lightest, light to the deepest brown…..My son and grandson are a perfect pecan brown, while my beloved grandmothers are one a deep coffee color and the other the color of the cream for that coffee.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak to those gathered for the synod meeting of the Lutheran Church of Senegal. As I spoke to them about their strength to overcome the obstacles they faced, to be self reliant. I talked about my experience. I told them about my coffee colored grandmother and the strength of a community descendant from those enslaved.  I told them I was a descendant  of those who were taken from Africa’s shores. I said that those who survived the middle passage, my ancestors, were known for the strength to withstand obstacles.

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

Speaking at Lutheran Church of Senegal Synod Meeting

As they looked at my light skin, this puzzled them; so I told them that my ancestors were also Europeans, those  who owned the boats and traded in people from the African Continent. This is the truth of our lives, those of us who are called African America.

I would like to explore some of these realities. Please walk with me as I discuss some of the issues of race and belonging from across continents.

I am westafricabound.

Water is Life

“At this moment, we are on day 15 of the water shortage, and what was an inconvenience is starting to turn into a bit of a crisis for Dakar. . .There are two water treatment plants for 3.2 million citizens of Dakar. The pipe which conduits water from one of the plants has disintegrated, cutting the water supply by 50 percent. The demand on the other 50 percent has reduced the water to trickle in some parts of the city, and completely absent in the majority of the city. . .This is complicated by the fact that we are living the transition between the wet and dry season, which is, for Dakar, the hottest time of the year. People are trying to fill barrels of water from wells and distribute them by horsecart throughout the city, but in some points, tempers are flaring as there is never enough. In some parts of the city, demonstrations have begun in earnest. Many people have begun to drink water left over from the rains or by the ocean, and this of course is causing worry for future health consequences. Our family lives in a neighborhood at the bottom of the hill, and by the force of gravity, we still have a trickle enough to fill water bottles and wash. Thanks be to God. We are currently filling bottles for friends and members of the Church. Luckily, the Lutheran Centre in Dakar still has water, so we will probably be doing the same in the coming days. So, we ask you to pray for those without water, that they can maintain health and peace while the problem is solved. Psalms speaks of the waters springing up in the desert, and Revelation speaks of the city of God in which the river runs through the center giving life to all her inhabitants. We pray for those who need this source of life today.”

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This was the e-mail I received over three weeks ago. This note coincided with repairs at my apartment complex in Chicago. For a few hours during the day, management switched off the water to do some repairs. All residents received an e-mail; there were posted messages throughout the building; we were warned that after a certain hour, until a certain hour there would be no water. When I returned from work on the day of the scheduled outage and turned on my faucet there was not a trickle. I was annoyed. It was another hour before running water returned to my comfortable Chicago apartment. The next morning when I got up to shower, all memory of the scheduled water outage was forgotten. I turned on the shower and without a thought took a long shower, using buckets and buckets of water.

Can you imagine going 15 days without water? Wouldn’t it be a news worthy ordeal if 50% of Chicago were out of water? Yet, did you hear a peep about the shortage in Dakar on any popular news source in the USA? It is as if what happens in the rest of the world is trivial and has nothing to do with us. This makes me so angry. Of course, the troubles in all parts of the world affect us– if not directly, then indirectly. I knew about this water shortage in Dakar because of this message from Chad Rimmer who serves as global personnel in the region. During this shortage I was not only concerned about all the people I know— him and his family, the leaders and members of the Lutheran Church in Senegal, those who work for the Senegal Lutheran Development Service— but all the people in Dakar. Chad wrote to inform us of the situation and ask for our prayers.

I have no answer or pronouncement for the realities of life in places like Senegal where water outages and shortages are  normal.  All I know is that we continue to pray for clean water, for food, for health care; we continue to pray for the entire world to have the necessities they lack and that we so easily take for granted.

I am westafricabound.

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