For the final closing project of my Global Citizen Bridge Year, I presented to my old Black Nationalism class. My old teacher Mr. Green had called me the night before and said the vlass was studying about India and the Bandung conference, and was wondering if I could speak more on the ties between India and Africa. My presentation started off with the basic history between India and Africa, and how South African Indians arrived after enslavement by the British Empire. I then went into talking more in depth about imperialism, and how British influence on the country is still prevalent today, as it is in America. Then, a young woman with curly hair and a notebook open in front of her asked, “Are there black people in India?” Two months into my year, I would’ve answered her question with a strong “no.” For two months, other than the good friend of mine Alexis, I had not seen a kink, a curl, heard a “what’s good,” or felt completely at home anywhere. Then one day, as our group cohort assembled outside of the Foreign Registration Office, I saw.. my first.. black person. She was alone, standing in line waiting to get papers signed and I ran up as fast as I could. “Hi!” I said, “What’s up? What are you doing out here sis?” She continued to look at me with a lot less enthusiasm than I had given. “I’m good, thanks,” and proceeded to turn back around and wait.
(As I told the class this story, they were shocked. In my experience in Oakland, any black person you saw you always at least gave a head nod, or if one person speaks, you start a small conversation out of courtesy.) I proceeded the story and said, with little hope, I walked back to my cohort. Within another hour of waiting around for paperwork to be finished, two black women walked up to Alexis and I, “Hello! Where are you from?” I was overjoyed. We spent the next 10 minutes talking, and after I found out one of them braided hair I asked for her number, and we said our goodbye’s.”
My origin is originally from Benin. I was born in San Diego CA, but my father’s family comes from Africa. I have identified as a black woman since my sophomore year of high school after previously referring to myself as African American. When I arrived at my first host family stay, I was presented with the common question,, “What are you?” I answered back, “Black.” They take one look at my skin, which is darker than theirs, and reply, “No no no love, you’re American!” I always had the same reaction in my Apprenticeship whenever a student asked me what I was, as if the answer was that simple. As if I’m not still figuring it out for myself. Hoping to find sanctuary in a person like me who could understand why being called American can be triggering for a person struggling with an ‘African-American’ identity, I called the friend we made at the FRO and asked if she was available sometime during the week to do my hair. After a 30 minute cab ride I finally reached her flat. She opened the door and invited me to sit down on the couch. The room smelled of potatoes and eggs, and she told me she was cooking lunch if I wanted any. After finishing our Potato and Egg stew, she started on my hair, and after half an hour in I asked her if I could play music. She had mentioned she was Christian so I played Chance the rapper, and then Pamela Mann came on. She started singing her heart out, and I finally felt comfortable in my own skin again. After we listened to the next couple songs and vibed out to Lauryn Hill, she finally asked, “so where are you from?” I was hesitant. I told her the full story about my dad and my adoption, and how I have an American passport but don’t feel at home in America. She listened intently.. And then proceeded to say, “so you’re American.” And we left it at that.
The issue of African vs. Black American treatment in India was the issue we landed on in the last minutes of the Black Nationalism class. If an Indian person asked me where I was from and I said “America,” they’d say, “Come have chai with me!” If I said Africa they said, “oh.” Knowing that the treatment of Africans vs. Black Americans is vastly different, and that Africans and the lower castes are still as oppressed if not more oppressed as Black Americans in America by still being seen as the equivalent to slaves, it made my identity seem insignificant, or in limbo.
Presenting this to a group of young African Americans didn’t give me the answers I was looking for to solve my identity issues, but it did open up the students eyes to a sliver of Black American life in other countries, and it only made me live my questions more.
If you want a broader sense of what it’s like to be black in India, watch this