Justin SankaraI must admit that I had some worries about coming to Africa. I had heard stories from other Black people that traveled to the Motherland previously and had been expecting to be welcomed like a long lost relative home for the first time. They had told me how they were instead confused as white or deemed just another American. My sample size was small so, while I was sure there was a great chance my experience would be different, I knew it was entirely possible this could happen.
Within my first few hours in Ethiopia my taxi driver abruptly ended his explanation of the surrounding areas to mention something that I prayed set the tone for my time in Ethiopia. “I have to ask you something” he began, “why is it that in the US the police officers still are killing the Black man? Tell them that Ethiopia stands with the Black man and wants the police to stop killing the Black man. Because Ethiopians are the original Black man!”
I would not describe myself as shocked by this proclamation, but, as I alluded to before, my mentality to this point was what I’d called “ready for anything, with a side of optimism”. After hearing that, I could feel my in me the urge to hug this man and let out a cry of “Momma I’m home!” But I settled for a huge smile and moment to repay each word in my head to make sure that I’d be able to retell this story correctly as I knew it would be one that I share hundreds (if not thousands) of times!
The first time I was told I look Ethiopian, it was from someone trying to sell me something; so, as you can imagine, I was less than convinced that the comment was genuine. However, over the next 3 weeks I continued to encounter people that were sure I was Ethiopian until I was unable to understand them when they spoke Amharic. Honestly, I can’t even count how many people have approached me in Amharic and either were confused or laughed when they realized I’m not from Ethiopia. I must admit, even being confused as Ethiopian had given me a special kind of joy. I even found myself intentional trying to pass whenever possible. For example, instead of telling the public bus driver “I want to go to Friendship in Bole”, I’d simply say “Friendship” in my best imitation of a local accent. I’d hope that without saying anything in English my American nationality would go undetected. But many times when the English had to spill out to clarify a point or request, the reactions would be priceless.
“You’re not Habesha (Ethiopian)?!”
“You are American but your family comes from Ethiopia, right?”
“But someone in your family is Ethiopian?!”
“Hmmm… Maybe you are half Ethiopian?”
What has been a great surprise to me is that people here are actually shocked to learn that the great majority of Blacks in the U.S. have no idea which country we originate from. I sat with a few people and watched them react with shock as I explained how the slave trade eliminated our ability to trace our lineage beyond a few generations. I have never been the first person to explain the evils of slavery to someone before – I have since explained this many times in recent weeks – and the look in the eyes you observe as someone is told of the tactics used to intentionally split families and remove a sense of identity is one that reflects the deepest of thought, almost disbelief.
There hasn’t been much said from those who have listened to this quick explanation of why Black Americans don’t know which country from which we originate. I’m not sure what there is to say other than what one brother said, “wow… that is amazing… wow” (By amazing he most certainly meant extremely shocking).
The reaction the immediately following this from another listen in that group is one that I will never forever, however. The man sat down next to me and said, “Well, I don’t care what you really are then. For me you look like Habesha, so you are Habesha. I see you as brother. To me… you are brother!” And just like that, for the second time in a few weeks, I was opting out of aggressively hugging a stranger and screaming “Momma, I’m home” for a huge smile while repeating every word in my head because I was determine to NEVER forget this moment.