Dasia S. Moore, Yale University
I know the tree on the wall, though at first, I do not recognize it. I am in Connecticut, land of cool summer nights and long, gray winters. The last thing I expect to see here, in a New England artist’s home, is a photograph taken in sweltering South Carolina. Still, I take a second look and think again, I know the tree on the wall. The Spanish moss and low, sprawling limbs tell me immediately that I’m looking at one of the South’s iconic live oaks. Intrigued, I go closer to examine the twist of each branch, joking to myself that I might recognize this particular tree. Then, I see a familiar footbridge and pond in the background of the photo. I jump back with surprise. To no one in particular, I exclaim, “I know that tree! It’s the first one I ever climbed!”
This must be the definition of home. The place that you glimpse everywhere, the place that looks for you regardless of where you are and whether you wish to be found. Home is the place that makes you exclaim your knowledge of it, declare your intimacy.
When I see images of Africa – in textbooks, restaurants, study abroad catalogs, friends’ travel photos – I do not see home. I am descended from Africans who were enslaved in the Carolinas, and though I see their beauty in my skin, hear their echoes in my own poetry, and try to honor their strength with my successes, they and their homelands are distant. No one in my family has been to an African country. Both my parents’ ancestors have lived in the Carolinas for as long as any living relative can remember. I had not even known anyone born in Africa, or whose parents were African immigrants, until I went to boarding school in ninth grade. Of Africa, I have little knowledge to exclaim, little intimacy to declare.
I suspect that my experience is common to many children of the African diaspora, particularly those living in the Americas whose ancestors were enslaved. To us “umpteenth generation” black Americans, who also identify as Southerners and Brazilians and Haitians and Latinx and Caribbean, calling Africa the homeland or motherland might ring just a little false. After all, our diverse African origins were muddled, homogenized, and slowly forgotten in slave ship holds and plantation fields, centuries ago. The African diaspora itself represents a forced forgetting of Africa—through slavery, colonialism, war—as much as it represents a commitment to remembering our African heritage and recognizing our global community.
Today, a time in which over a hundred million African-descended people live outside of Africa and have done so for generations, it seems the root of our contemporary pan-Africanism can no longer be a sense of a shared home. So what is the basis for our community and solidarity? Why am I still offended when Hollywood depicts Africa as a land populated exclusively by safari animals and warlords? Why do black people living outside the United States care about the US’s chronic police brutality? Why does seeing another black face smiling from across the room or the world make us feel joyous?
I think the answer to these questions still lies in the concept of home, just not a physical one. Perhaps pan-Africanism is now, and has always been, more about sharing our African-ness than sharing Africa itself. It is about recognizing a strength, a joy, and a courage in one another that we know transcends borders and cultures.