Like most grandmas, mine liked to tell stories. She was made for it. She was short and wide, with a billion wrinkles folded into one another, like elaborate human origami. Her skin was the color of peanut butter and she always smelled like her daily cocoa butter routine. We children used to say she was carved out of candy. But her glory was in her voice. Her voice was bull strong and sugar sweet and had the power to make every word into a jewel.
In his article “Black Heritage: A Fight For Identity”, The Stripes’ Kovey Coles outlines a few encounters where people have inquired of his heritage. Most of the encounters that he lists occurred abroad, between him and a nonnative English speaker. However, the article was mainly focused on Mr. Coles’ feeling that because many Blacks in American do not know their true heritage, any inquiry into their ancestry is insensitive.
As a Black person, I agree that it is somewhat insensitive, and I admit that I too have felt a twinge of envy when my lighter complexioned friends are able to claim certain percentages of German, Italian, Swiss, Portuguese, and perhaps even Native American descent. But the fact that he is discomforted by this question suggests that he sees our history as a source of shame, as something that needs to be covered up.
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?”