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, trips to my West 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 French-speaking formerly colonial West Africa. As an added bonus my dark skin made me a part of the black numerical majority for the first time in my life, not a minority outsider 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! Alas, that was not to be. I imagine that women and men from other hyphenated-American groups experience similar feelings when they travel to their ancestral homes too, even if their families, like mine, have been in the U.S. for multiple generations.
Once I arrived in West Africa it was my walk, of all things, that inevitably gave me away as being “not from here.” I had successfully mastered the don’t-act-like-a-typical-American-tourist routine in many ways: I ate local food and avoided McDonald’s and a colonialist demeanor like the plague. I learned the local French dialects and some traditional ethnic phrases as well. I also became comfortable with local ways of managing time and doing business. What I didn’t count on, however, was the fact that 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 gait yells from the rafters that we are not local and definitely more free as women than in most other places in the world. Both men and women pointed this out to me time and time again when I traveled outside the U.S.
While initially it was my telltale walk that made me “American,” I appeared to be unlike most Americans in other ways, 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. As a black person who spoke French I had to be somehow “not American.” I am ashamed to admit it now, but at the time I felt smug about this until I learned to love myself and my people 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. It was 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” gradually emerged, but ultimately 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 life, as Africa began to go through a period of successive neo-colonial and post-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 employed by the United Nations Development Program.
Through my deeply personal experience I discovered that the perception of any of us as being “from here” is always relative, depending upon the context and the times. It does not matter whether that perception casts me as an external threat, a neutral outsider, or eventually as someone who truly belongs. I also realized that what is fast becoming fairly mainstream conversation about the possibility of an invasion of our planet by malevolent extraterrestrials is not too far afield from my decades old experience of “otherness” among my genetic cousins on the other side of the world.
When I first wrote this piece I lived on the American mainland. Now I live in Hawaii, which by some accounts would place me on one of the farthest outposts of the United States. The issues I face here are not unlike those I dealt with in West Africa decades ago: I am too different and here too recently to be “local,” and yet I am asked occasionally if I am from Fiji or some other “not American” place.
No matter how much angst I went through about whether or not I could pass for African or be identified as American; no matter how freely I feel I could travel 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 or siamese one. In that context 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!