Sunday, February 15, 2015

On being black and rediscovering that you're also European

(A trailer for the short film, Ackee and Saltfish, directed by Cecile Emeke)

So here's the deal. When I first meet someone new in the United States, I avoid telling them anything about my life for as long as I can. I answer the dreaded "where are you from?" question by saying, "my family lives in Atlanta, Georgia." Notice: I didn't actually answer the question. I simply stated a fact. My parents do currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia. Are they from there? No. Heck, no. But I throw the line out there hoping it'll distract them long enough for me to change the topic.

I learned this trick when I moved here at age 15. It was simply too much for people to process my identity as a black girl who'd spent her entire life in Vienna, Austria, I think. They'd want to deny it or downplay it, or they'd think I was a freak of some kind. Worse, they'd want to talk out their feelings about this strange fact that they'd learned. My being black and European is still a contradiction to many Americans. So in order to avoid being someone else's therapist for 15 minutes as they processed their feelings about me ("Why?" "How?") I learned to tell a different story to fit into people's boxes.

I still get into trouble, though. People tell me that I talk white. I was once asked by a well-meaning hairdresser if I was adopted. After hearing me ask for help at a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, the receptionist asked me suspiciously where I was from (I told her I was from New York, and that seemed to help).  Moreover, what I know about African American culture has been intentionally learned over the past 15 years. I have pockets of knowledge here or there but I also have HUGE gaps. I've learned to love Erykah Badu but that's after intentionally listening to her albums on repeat until I figured out what the hell was going on. I still haven't read any Toni Morrison. I don't know classic African American tv shows. But I've learned to "blend" in well enough, I suppose. To fit the label people want me to have.

What also doesn't help matters is that when I'm in Germany or Austria, I also get the question, "where are you from?" And that in order for people to make sense of my identity in Europe, I have to tell them I'm from America. It's easier, less exhausting, to say that I'm American than to tell Germans that I consider German-speaking Europe also my Heimat (homeland). My blackness can't make me European here, either. It has to be located someplace else. So I say (in German) that I'm African American like Barack Obama, and that helps people to put me in a box.

Here, too, I get into trouble, though. Why is my German so good? A lady at a Viennese bakery asked me that question a few years ago. If I was an American student, why did I speak the language so well? I had to confess that I'd lived in Vienna for a little bit in the past. But only for a few years. I downplayed how long I'd lived in Vienna before.

I've lived on both continents now (Europe and the United States) for 15 years each. And for the past 15 years of my life, I've been trying to find ways to erase my European identity. Which is all kinds of crazy because my research is on the history of the black diaspora to Europe. But in order to avoid feeling schizophrenic all the time, I've focused on expressing and performing mostly one identity (American/African American).

Over the years, I think I've lost touch with this other half of my self. I deliberately abandoned her when I moved to the States, tried to lock her up in a small crate and let her out only when I was in Berlin or Vienna walking around on the streets. Why did I do that?

I have a few theories:
1. Language. I have such a complicated relationship to the German language. It will never be my mother tongue. I sound like I should be a native but I still stumble over words, especially when I'm nervous. And this makes me insecure. So it's hard to claim an identity in a language that I speak instinctively but worry that I'm getting wrong all the time. I grew up speaking English at home and at school and German while out and about. Psychologists and linguists will tell you that language learning is a fascinating non-linear process, and I think I'm proof of that. Also, I'm hearing-impaired, and that tends to make language learning more difficult, too (I didn't get hearing aids until I moved to the States). So my relationship to German is weird: I sound like a teeny-bopper and can speak quickly, but I worry all the time that I've gotten something wrong.

2. Representation. Growing up, I didn't know the term "Afro-German," or that there was a long history of people who looked like me in Europe. I discovered them in graduate school, thanks in part to a generation of Afro-European activists who had started demanding societal recognition as citizens and insiders. They laid the groundwork for public discussions on these topics starting in the 1980s, when I was a toddler eating Käsesemmel in Vienna.

When I finally began to positively embrace my blackness (which took a while; it wasn't until my mid-to-late 20s), I turned to African American women (Marian Anderson, the Williams sisters, and yes, Beyonce) to think about what my blackness meant.

But I've been learning lately that I don't have to do that anymore. Or rather that I can also find representations of Afro-European women that really do celebrate them (and me!). I don't have to ignore my European self anymore.

I've been thinking about that lately because of the film director, Cecile Emeke, who's been filming Black Britons strolling about the streets of London for a short series:
She wants to capture real people living their lives in Europe sharing their experiences. Some of these girls look like they could be my cousins (literally: my maternal side is Jamaican/British)!

In an article she wrote for Afropunk, Emeke explains, "Not only did I want to document these conversations, but also I was also tired of being invisible & powerless as a black, working class female living in Europe. When you are black in Britain, or in Sweden, or in any other “obscure” place in the African Diaspora (and by obscure I mean deliberately erased,) it feels like you don’t exist and therefore society encourages you latch on to whatever representation feels like the closest match. Not having your own cohesive identity is damaging. I wanted to be a part of ending that by increasing the visibility and volume of voices that are usually ignored and silenced in their respective societies. I also wanted to help “internationalise” these problems that many of us seem to have in common despite living on opposite sides of the word. "

I just love that quote. I don't have to latch on to whatever representation feels like the closest match. I can look for people who look like me who've experienced life like me - life as a black person, as a European, as an outsider/insider, who live that double consciousness that Paul Gilroy talked about every day.

Thanks to the marvelous age of the internet, it's also become easier to follow blogs and magazines and sites dedicated to celebrating being black and European. There's a brand new magazine in Austria called Black Austria, for example (I wish this had been around when I was a kid!):
There are also campaigns from organizations like Black Austria, too: 
Organizations and websites like ISD (Initiativ Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland), Afropean, M-Media, DeutschPlus, and so on are also celebrating black bodies in European spaces.

It's funny because I've known all of this for a long time. Again: I've dedicated the last 8 years of my life to researching Afro-Europeans! But for the longest time I resisted thinking that I was one of them, too. It was easier that way.

Now that I'm in my 30s, though, I really am learning to give less of a shit what people think. It's so freeing! And thanks to so many other black European activists encouraging and empowering others to celebrate their lives (in spite of the rejection they constantly face from society), I feel like it's time for me to just throw caution to the wind and start claiming this part of myself more fully and publicly, too. I can tell people, in other words, that I have Jamaican/British/Canadian/American/Austrian/German ties and connections. No, that is not too many. That is just enough. 

I don't have to hide. I don't have to explain myself to anyone. I can just... be.

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