In a city where more than half the population was born somewhere else, you get used to people asking you where you’re from and what you are. It used to be that I had real issues with the whole “label” thing. What am I? How do I identify myself? The options were many, but not one ever seemed quite right. African? Not true. African-American? Not true on two counts. African-Canadian? May be getting closer. African-Jamaican? Sorta, kinda, but not really. Jamaican-Canadian? Sounds like one of those dual-citizenship deals. African-Canadian-Jamaican? Too many damn hyphens.
In high school my peers did the labelling for me and considered me a militant-type Black kid at the back of the class who was “sensitive” about race issues. It’s a struggle most young first-generation Canadians face, working through complex issues of race, culture, and nationalism and at the same time going through the macabre period known as teenaged angst-hood. After leaving the world of pimples, proms, and popularity contests I got over the whole label thing. I started referring to myself as a Black Girl, capital “B”, capital “G”, plain and simple. No African something, Jamaican hyphen, semi-colon that or the other, rama-dama-ding-dong. Is Black Girl politically correct? Hell no, but that’s why I like it; it’s just a nice little package that gets the job done.
Then the “African thing” happened and messed up my whole game, again. Usually in this town “Black” instantly equates to “Jamaican”. Never mind the fact Black people live on other Caribbean islands, too. Never mind the fact that Black people live in dozens of other countries around the world, too. If you’ve got dark skin and you live in Toronto, you must be a “yardie”. This “yardie” stuff started up with me in university, when I made the decision to stop chemically straightening my hair and instead wear it in a head wrap or braids. This was not so much a personal affront to western ideals of beauty (I still occasionally use my medieval-looking flat iron), but it was more a decision made out of lack of cash and terrifying progressive hair loss.
As strange as it may sound, a “sistah” without a perm seemed to equate to “straight out of Africa” to some people. One example: while riding the bus early one morning an older Black woman started chatting with me in a foreign language. Dazed, I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying.” A surprised look spread across her face, she smiled and apologized in broken English as we both made our way off the bus. On another occasion, while scrambling through rush hour traffic on my way to a birthday dinner, I stopped at a light to ask a 20-something guy for directions. “Are you African?” he immediately asked, “I like Africans. I dig the African sistahs!” I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed . . . and then I laughed some more. What a weak pick up line! But I found this reoccurring mistaken identity confusing. So I turned to the UN for help.
The UN is my circle of friends from university, so named because we were the most diverse clique in the journalism program. If anyone could help me with my identity issue, it would be the UN. “Do I look African?” I asked them, while pointing my index finger to my chin, protruding my face and turning it every which way so they could inspect my features. Alas, most of those girls were no help at all. In fact, they got sick of my questioning altogether and instead used my confusion as a source of comedic relief. One, however, thought my identity “problem” was in fact, an advantage. “People think you’re actually from Africa, how cool is that?!”
She was right; it really did work to my advantage. For laughs I’d tell white kids my father was the Nigerian ambassador to Canada and I was desperately trying to find a husband so I could stay in the country permanently. Another time I explained to an unwanted suitor that unless he could produce a herd of goats for my family, our potential relationship would be void under Ugandan civil code. It turned out my pride in my new found African identity was closely linked to my twisted and evil sense of humour.
On a serious note, I was still perplexed. It wasn’t fair of me to call myself an African, even if I was of African decent. I had no first hand knowledge of African politics or social life, knew nothing of the various African cultures and languages, and probably most importantly, had never set foot in an African country. I don’t even know which country my ancestors initially originated from. But to deny my connection to the continent would be interpreted as some sort of self-hatred, a slap in the face to my background and in a way a sad rejection of my race. I was both African and not African. After some thought I decided I was just another Negro in the Diaspora, of African decent, yes, but not actuality an African.
My home is Canada, my cultural influences are American, and my family background is Jamaican. Slavery and colonialism brought my ancestors to the West Indies and through similar events, people like me have grown up with a strange combination of admiration and contempt for our historical oppressors. We’re scattered across the western world, and define ourselves through past histories and present circumstances, whatever they may be. This is a similar paradigm for other peoples as well Indians, Filipinos and the Vietnamese they’ve all felt the lasting effects, both good and bad, of the British, Spanish and French colonists. Perhaps then my friends in Toronto will start calling themselves “Indians in the Diaspora”, “Filipinos in the Diaspora”, and “Vietnamese in the Diaspora”.
A Negro in the Diaspora, you see, may live on the South side of Chicago or the East End of London. A Negro in the Diaspora may speak Ebonics one minute and fluent French the next. Negroes in the Diaspora may rock out to Blondie, Beethoven or Busta Rhymes. Negroes in the Diaspora may consider soul food cornbread and collard greens or jerk chicken with rice and peas. Negroes in the Diaspora are a thriving part of the global village and a lead character in the varied sagas of colonialism and capitalism. Yes, we carry the essence of Africa in our blood, but we carry on the evolution of Black people in our very existence wherever that may be.