We are not all immigrants. I learned this the hard way in seventh grade when all 30 of us were asked to create a poster about our ancestry, naming the first person in our families who came to America. I thought, “Trick question! Right?…right?” Wrong! Somehow, every student other than me actually had an immigrant story to tell. E-ver-y other student! Even the Black ones (And there were only three of us in the bunch). Can you believe it? It was Ellis and Angel Island all up and through that classroom. I was shocked.
I was shocked that I could come up with photos going back at least six maternal generations of my family being in America. (And I was also shocked that I had no White ancestors in the mix on that side of the family) I asked about the family before those six generations and they all were still American though there were no surviving photos. These were people who survived the Jim Crow South, who survived the Great Migration, who survived the Newark riots. These people were my people and these people, my people, were and still are American. But, they/we are not immigrants.
So, my seventh grade assignment earned me short shrift. My poster board, I, my family, my family’s American story wasn’t that interesting. We just didn’t have that ‘immigrant’ swag. I had pictures, and I had actually met each and every one of those people in my pictures. In comparison to my classmates’ two generations of photos and heart wrenching anecdotes of someone’s relative’s ancestral remembrances, my family’s story was so complete and so full.
Even today, I remember despising going to my great, great grandmother’s nursing home because “it smells like old people.” Yes, I actually said those words and I remember saying them. Which is not to suggest that I was just a jackass 8-year-old, but it is to prove that my family was not, at the time, based in historical fiction. They were then, and remain today to be people who I know. I mean, know know. These photographs dating back to the early 1900s, of people who were born in the late 1800s, were of people of my present. I, in seventh grade, could discuss their flaws and features. Yet, somehow, I forgot to say… sorry, we’re not immigrants.
As I have grown more academically invested in languages, foreign cultures, Diasporas and dispersal, I realize fully how foundational that experience was in shaping my trajectory. I wonder if somehow I’ve been trying to overcompensate for the lack of global exposure in my ancestry by offering global exposure in my lifetime. I wonder if I felt compelled to show the world that the terms ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ are not always synonymous. (It’s like people say, ‘Every Sikh is a Singh, but not every Singh is a Sikh’ – or is it the other way around?) I wonder if I internalized a sense of shame about not having an immigrant story, so much so that I wanted to create my own. Maybe I grew a curiosity, intellectually asking myself “What’s so fascinating about immigrants anyway?” These are all possibilities of the inner workings of my subconscious mind.
I can’t identify what pushed this African-American girl to wander the world, but I’ll tell you one thing I’ve never actually looked for in my travels: a sense of belonging. I’ve never seen people from a foreign land and thought, “maybe they are my long-lost cousins.” Nope, all of my cousins are in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. Done.
I don’t go to West Africa hoping that they embrace me as if I were their own. I don’t read stories of ancient Ethiopian and Egyptian civilizations and use their accomplishments to bolster my self-worth today. I am proud of these people’s accomplishments because they are worthy of glory and awe, just as ancient Rome and Greece, just as Nubia and Benin. But, they do not inform my life, as in my own life story.
Mine is of African-Americans in the most classic sense of the term. And in every sense of pride I can muster, I am proud of their story (as my story) and I can only own their story (as my story) alone. I am proud of Africans brought to America in a condition of slavery. I am proud of what they’ve made of families broken, and how they formed adopted families out of necessity and conditioning. I am proud that their fictional homelands did not outlive their ability to cope with present realities – despite how distressing. In the classic sense, we – children of these people – are supposed to feel lost.
No connection to a space beyond the enslaved one, no history before that institution. And what of the history thereafter? Well, we, like the institution, were supposed to disappear. We were supposed to go to Liberia or be impoverished in an America that preferred World War II refugees to those Americans born of African origin. We were supposed to be as ashamed of our lack of an “America, the land of the free” narrative, as I was made to feel in seventh grade for not having an immigrant ancestor. In the classic sense, I am still supposed to feel lost.
But, I have never had the luxury of feeling or being lost. This very present family, in this very fixed space of America, in an expanse of time immemorial leaves me firmly rooted. Thankfully, firmly rooted. As I better understand diaspora formation, I am more clearly able to understand how distinct and unique my history is from other dispersal narratives.
Just because we all came by boat, except for Native Americans (Mexicans and Canadians), we didn’t all come with the same tale. And, for me, there’s something voluntary and knowing about identifying as an immigrant. For individuals there may be more push factors than pull factors, but immigration is still a choice. In that, I don’t share the immigrant narrative and I simply never will.
We haven’t all shared in the belief of America as an idea. And we don’t all share it equally now. We all have our different stories, none my valid than others, but certainly the immigrant protagonist is more valorized than say my forefathers. Despite what I may share with my peers of immigrant origin in the tale of downtrodden ancestors making something upon which we now stand, I feel a sense of relief in my ability to be American – with no caveats, no undue deference, and no remorse.
I am thankful for my ability to own my Blackness in this American space, without thought of justification or apology. I owe this place nothing, yet it is my everything. I believe this sense of rootedness, despite its original formation, has empowered me to roam the rest of the earth undoubtedly confident of who I am and what I am made of. My family is not mythical. My sense of entitlement (no matter how hard-earned and at times unwarranted) to my identity and my place in my country, past and present, is unwavering.
I am the daughter of a African-American billing agent and an African-American techie nerd, who were the first-college degreed children of an African-American military photographer & an African-American amateur model, and an African-American AT&T/ Bell South factory worker and an African-American Bear Sterns maintenance worker. They being children of African-American sharecroppers, and an Irish man and an African-American woman with epilepsy. (Hey! Nobody told me about this paternal great-grandfather in seventh grade, because he supposedly raped said Floridian great-grandmother. And, were it true, it would be just as true to the African-American narrative as chitterlings and the Baptist church.)
I could go on, but I fear it would all be redundant and self-glorifying. It’s safe to say that I am not of Garveyists or Germans, not of French Creoles or Holocaust victims. We are not all immigrants (or descendants of immigrants), and we don’t have to be – to be American.