Why I am an African American.

February 18, 2011 Comments Off on Why I am an African American.

I’ve started reading Langston Hughes. The first poem in the book was sort of average, but the beginning was interesting:

So long,
So far away
Is Africa.
Not even memories alive
Save those that history books create,
Save those that songs
Beat back into the blood—

I thought about what it would be like to learn to feel your heritage from books and from songs, and, to my surprise, I felt the experience of being African American to be familiar. What I figured out is that America is full of ways for black people to find their roots, and a lot of this is available to people who aren’t black. I’ve lost count of how many spirituals and gospel songs I’ve sung over the years, and I love them and I identify with them. Those songs have beat African memories into my blood, which never had them to begin with.

It reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago, wherein Derek and Mom and I discussed culture, and what it meant to be Italian or German, and what it meant to adopt Italian or German traditions even if you were neither. I don’t remember where the conversation was going—somewhere in the direction of a universal culture—but I am a great one for adopting traditions and manners of speaking that appeal to me, regardless of the nature of my attachment to their culture of origin, and they become mine, part of my culture.

I suppose black culture has also infiltrated my life, especially the music, the way it has infiltrated all Americans’ lives. Where would our identities be without Aretha Franklin, Motown, rap, punk, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson? Of course this is me parroting the propaganda from my Black Music class, which is still one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. But still. Music is so important to humans, even more so than language…or maybe it is a language. It’s no wonder that the best way to impart to someone an impression of a culture is through its music…and no wonder that non-black Americans receive an impression of black culture from black music. American blacks today are very different from American blacks in the 19th century. And American culture today is different from American culture in the 19th century because American blacks are different—it’s been flavored in ways that we probably don’t even notice.

Which brings me back to Langston Hughes. It’s almost certainly not how he meant the poem to be received by a white girl, but somehow it speaks to me and to my heritage, because heritage in the way he means it—a valuable understanding of roots, not inherent but worked backwards to—is something I’ve gained in the same way he has gained it. And nothing makes you feel part of humanity like feeling welcome and comfortable with a heritage that is not, technically, yours.

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