Does Tracing Your Roots to Africa Help You to Better Appreciate the Term “African American?”
I remember all too well the day in 1988 when Reverend Jesse Jackson urged us American black folks to drop the term “black” and begin to call ourselves, “African American.” In a passionate speech he declared that, “Germans in America are called German Americans. Chinese are called Chinese Americans. Therefore we are African Americans. It is important that we emphasize our culture and heritage. Otherwise we are trapped in a vacuum without a sense of roots or a sense of destiny.”
Personally, I prefer the term “black,” but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my African heritage. Nearly 30 years ago, I was in an acting workshop with a room full of white Americans. We were asked to identify our lineage. As we went around the room everyone proudly stated from where they were descended: Germany, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and Switzerland. When it was my turn, the furthest back I could claim was Alabama. Sure, I knew that I had African roots, but saying “Africa” wasn’t enough. I vowed then, that I would one day trace my roots not just to Africa, but to a specific country and ethnic group. And so I did! Like Rev. Jackson, I too am of Sierra Leone lineage, as well as Liberia.
Neal with Rev. Jackson in Tanzania, Africa
Just as Rev. Jackson urged us to rediscover our ties to Africa; 24 years later, the African Union will host its first Global African Diaspora Summit on May 25th, and will undoubtedly explore whether Africans in the Diaspora really want closer ties to Africa? Following that theme, I decided to reach out to members of the www.AfricanAncestry.com family to see why they personally chose to seek closer ties to Africa. Here’s what some had to say:
Anonymous (DC): Thank you, Shirley for sharing the story of how we started to call ourselves African American. I never knew that. And by the way, I love your blogs!
Tracing my roots was the best decision I ever made. I was adopted and never knew my real parents. My adoptive parents separated when I was young, then my adoptive father died two years later. It wasn’t until I traced my roots back to Africa and then visited there that I had a real sense of family and being “African American.” I had no idea the people there would accept me the way they did. In fact, they all called me “cousin,” which I’m told is how a lot of Africans refer to us. I urge people to trace their roots. It’s good to know where you come from and to have family!
Charlene (Detroit): I have been looking at my family’s history through genealogy. At some point there are no more answers to be found and that is disappointing. When I learned of DNA connections for persons, I became interested and was so pleased to learn that I had connections to a specific location in Africa, not just African American but Cameroon American or Camerican. So much for disappointment. I still seek answers to my family’s history but I have latched onto my Cameroonian heritage because having visited there and found the people to be so welcoming, I know there is a place there for me and I feel that connection. I will continue to make connections and seek answers but I am grateful to Cameroon, its government officials and its citizens for welcoming me with open arms and giving me a place to which I can feel a part of. Now if I can fill in the gap between Cameroon and Georgia, how wonderful that would be!
Thanks ladies for sharing! I’ll post more stories in the weeks to come. If you’d like to share any of your stories of discovery, drop me a line at (email@example.com). Until next time…