In my opinion, one of the cruelest things you can do to a modern, western, black individual is inquire into his or her ancestral background.

In America, people are rarely so insensitive, given their general knowledge of colonial history, but this frequently happens to me when I go abroad. And, quite frankly, it sucks. The inquiry almost always arises out of friendly intention and general curiosity, which is obvious when the questioner’s face lights up in a smile.

“So where are you from?”

On the surface, the situation parallels the popular comedy YouTube video, which addresses racism and microaggressions towards Asian-Americans in asking “Where are you really from?” Like the minorities in those videos, if I give the honest answer in claiming “America,” the questioner is dissatisfied and only prods further. Unlike the videos, however, the real-life situation lacks humor. Furthermore, unlike most Asian-Americans, I ultimately have no definitive heritage to claim.

The situation is dismaying, because it digs up the past. In my view, it is like asking Jews what happened to their European ancestry, or like bothering a widow to go fetch her husband. It is not always malice, but it is almost always ignorance. And while I do not condone forgetting America’s darker past, struggling to retrace black lineage is the easiest way to not forget the immense cruelties of slavery. Go back far enough and there is nothing inspiring to find. The average black individual  finds all traces of our historical ties, the history of an entire people, to have been literally eradicated through years of slave trade. Consider yourself an African American. If someone were to poll you where your original ancestors come from, what are you to say?

It’s a tough question, but not an unreasonable one in America, the nation built on the premise of immigration. I’ll give you what usually follows in a decent attempt:

“Well, my grand-parents are from Philadelphia.
Oh, okay, well before the Great Migration they were sharecroppers in Virginia. Earlier? Yeah, of course they were slaves, on a Georgia plantation. Huh? Uh. I’m sorry, I have no way to.. Well, I guess prior to that they were stolen from their families somewhere off the world’s second largest continent, during some span of 200 years of American slave trade. I’ve been told they were kidnapped or sold and thrown together with others from somewhere on that same continent, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to a new hemisphere. ‘Cultural Preservation’ was prohibited. Their language assimilated to English, and their religion changed to a southern strain of Christianity. African blood was diluted by whites, through consensual relations or otherwise. I cannot lay claim to that European ancestry, because many of my white forefathers did not claim to their mixed children. So no. Neither I, nor any of my relatives know much about Africa, or Africans, or our people prior to emancipation, for that matter. So, heritage? Yes, I am just black. I am just American.”

race?2The first time I considered this narrative was in Beijing, China, during the summer of 2012. I was out on the campus grounds of Beijing Normal University, practicing hip-hop choreography while wearing headphones and generally trying to ignore (or at least not grow egotistical from) the stares I was receiving from many elderly Chinese pedestrians and dog walkers. At one point, an older man who looked as if he had spent a life working physical labor curiously waddled over. I removed my headphones and politely attempted conversation with the man, as I was immensely excited to have casual conversation with a Chinese stranger in Mandarin. Despite my novice skills, the exchange was going pretty well, until we got to point where the man began insisting on some question focused around a word I hadn’t learned. He was intensely interested, and continued to try many ways to get his meaning across the language barrier. After I noticed he using himself as an example, and also mentioning something about Africa, it didn’t take me that long to conclude (somewhat unsurely) that he was asking about my racial background. I gave the rather literal and obvious self description as a “black person” in Mandarin. That wasn’t good enough. We kept going, and I explained I was American, and I was black, and there really wasn’t anything else. He was having a hard time accepting an answer like that, and I was having a hard time understanding what he wanted to hear, and the conversation became riddled with confusion on both sides until one of my native-Chinese speaking classmates came by and moderated the situation towards another topic.

Immediately after the encounter, I didn’t think much of the incident, nor of my own wholehearted attempt at an answer. But it was later, especially once I learned that the Chinese word he had used was one which implied more of a ethnic, regional, and cultural background, that I began to realize the unfairness in the question. Of course it wasn’t the man’s fault, nor was there rudeness in asking; if anything were to be blamed, it would be his ignorance to American society (although he had claimed to be familiar with American slavery).

But nearly a year later, a similar exchange occurred. This time I was crouching in the summer streets of Bangalore, India, photographing a cow eating garbage, when I was approached by a very young and dark Indian man. The exchange was brief and in heavily accented English, and I’ve never known his true motivation in asking, but he was curious as to where in the town I and “my people” were staying. I had told him that I was American, and naively assuming he meant other Americans (but also skeptical to his motives) I twisted the truth and said I wasn’t staying with any group of foreigners but instead in some local neighborhood. He then excitedly told me how he had seen or met some Africans around the city, and he wondered if we all stayed together. I casually reiterated that I was American, but with a smile added that I thought it was cool that there were Africans around in Bangalore. I assumed the topic over, but before either of us could change subject he rebounded with another question. “But are you Senegalese, Nigerian, West Indian, or what?” he asked, with a stubborn curiosity in his eyes.

This situation is difficult for me because it is vulnerability, a vulnerability that these people have no idea they are prodding. It is an inescapable insecurity, because it has nothing to do with me nor with the person asking. But it persists in all black people descended from slaves. It is like the feelings I used to get in grade school when the other kids went on field trips and I had to miss out because my family couldn’t afford them. It’s a greater weakness that you have no control over, to which your peers are completely oblivious. Despite all my personal achievement as a black man in America, despite the progress in America’s current racial relations, despite my racial range of friendships, it is the fact that I can never make a claim to some larger ancestral lineage outside of America or before the 19th century that puts an inescapable brand on my mental identity. Many of my friends, if they wanted, could proudly tout Irish, Italian, French, Korean, Pakistani heritage, or at least reasonably claim some combination pedigree, but I would not even know how to pretense another national heritage.

It’s painful not only because it reminds of injustices done, but also because it highlights the ambivalence in black identity; in the eyes of the rest of the world, we American blacks can neither claim Africa nor fully be seen as American.

This has been a reason why I have begun to strongly push for a broad ‘American’ identifier to describe modern American blacks. I don’t like the qualifying term “African-American,” not only because I have no legitimate ties to Africa (they were all erased or forced out) but also because I grow tired of people who see me and do not accept the term American as suitable enough for my identity. America’s history has taken so much from my people; on top of everything else it has ironically taken even our claim to any other groups. The least we deserve is to be considered as truly and inherently one of America’s own, and have others be satisfied with that.

-Kovey Coles