Nothing makes us more aware of our similarities with others in our own country or town than travel abroad. No matter how marginal I felt in the United States for much of my younger life, for example, trips to my African ancestral home in the 1960’s and 70’s made me intensely and even painfully aware how American I was after all. It was relatively easy for me to pass for African in most ways: I spoke French fluently in francophone West Africa, and my dark skin made me appear normal and a part of the majority for the first time in my life, not foreign the way I often felt at home growing up in mostly white surroundings. As an idealistic young adult I expected that in Africa I would suddenly fit in and belong at last! I presume that women and men from other hyphenated-American groups that have been here for multiple generations experience similar emotions when they travel to their ancestral homes as well.
Once I arrived in Africa it was my walk, of all things, that inevitably gave me away once I had mastered the “don’t act like a typical American tourist” routine. American women, regardless of ethnicity, have a kind of indescribable freedom in the way we walk that is a clear giveaway: not only are we outsiders, we must be American outsiders. In totally unconscious ways our walk lets on that we are not local and definitely more free as women than in most other places in the world. Men and women pointed this out to me time and time again when I was away from the U.S.
Initially it was not just my telltale walk that made me “not American.” I appeared to be unlike many Americans in other ways as well, including the color of my skin. This was true not only in Africa but also in Europe and Japan and the Caribbean. Americans generally were perceived to be wealthy, white, arrogant, and either unwilling or unable to learn a foreign language. Descendants of slaves were perceived to be poor and unlettered. If I were black and spoke French then I had to be not American, something I am ashamed to admit now that I even felt smug about until I learned to love myself and my country more. In each African country I lived or worked I was considered to be some sort of African or immigrant from a former French-speaking colony in the Caribbean, just “not from here.” I was always treated as an outsider: sometimes deferentially, sometimes disdainfully, never neutrally.
But then there was that giveaway walk which could only be construed to be American. It was the saunter of privilege and leisure, of independence from men and the right to make unfettered decisions, a long stride, arms swinging instead of balancing pots or children, full of the freedom to travel unaccompanied by a male. Additional qualities of “otherness” emerged, and finally I was categorized definitively and culturally as an American: an African-American, mind you, but an American nonetheless.
If we persist long enough as a culture, the effects of our values will eventually show up in our biological structure: people could actually see the effects of democracy and freedom in my walk, no matter how bad things were for blacks and women at home! If we lose our freedoms now, I daresay that any subsequent lack of freedom will show up eventually in our biology as well: shorter steps, eyes averted, nondescript clothing, increased efforts to become invisible and non-threatening as we try to avoid the lash or the fist or the prison or the deportation vehicle.
Later in my own life, as Africa began to go through a period of successive post- and neo-colonial military coups and dictatorships, I became increasingly proud of our flawed American democracy and found myself glad to spend more time here in my native home rather than in West Africa, whose peoples and lands I had come to love and admire so deeply. Those years in Africa included varied roles: first as a participant in a private summer exchange program, later as a fiancée, a Group Leader for the same exchange program, an international consultant working for a private American firm on a hydroelectric project, and finally as a rural sociologist with the United Nations Development Program.
I discovered through my experience that the perception of any of us as an external threat, as a neutral outsider, or as someone who fully belongs is always relative, depending upon the context and the time. I also realized that the immanent mainstream conversation about probable invasion of our planet by extraterrestrials is actually not too far afield from my earlier experiences of “otherness” among my genetic cousins on the other side of the world.
No matter how much angst I went through about whether or not I could pass for African or be identified as American or travel freely in the deep south or Down East Maine as a black woman, any cultural outsider would eventually come to understand that I am human, and might even discern that I am an American human. I can only imagine what someone from another planet might experience were it to come first into close contact with me and subsequently in contact with a Caucasian woman from Tucson or South Carolina. For the real-deal extraterrestrial, distinguishing one type of human being from another would cause no more consternation than comparing a tabby cat to a calico cat. For the extraterrestrial the issue is probably a no brainer: the woman from Tucson and I are obviously both earthlings! Whether I felt like I was going home or coming home, accepted or rejected when I traveled to Africa, I remained always an American and unquestionably an earthling. How simple things can be from the proper vantage point!