What it means to be African American in Sénégal

Jabari Gambrel - Senegal


March 22, 2017

What it means to be African American in Sénégal

Invisible. 

When I arrived in Senegal I had the idea that I was going home. Home, that is what everyone called it, from family members to, church woman in bright colored dresses, almost all exclaimed, “you get to go back, you get to see Africa, you get to see home.” This idea of home is what drove me to a gap year in the first place, but the thing about returning to a place is that it is always completely different than remembered.

African First

In one of the first conversations I had in Senegal, a woman referred to me as an American. Surprised and a little bit insulted I informed her that I was an “African American.” The African comes first. It is a tribute to the history, and beauty of my people, and is not to be forgotten. In fact I have always thought of myself as more “African” than American. In my mind I was only American by passport, birth and language. But what does it really mean to be “African American?” For me it means inheriting two continents, their cultures, histories, their music, clothing, everything becomes yours to claim, everything within two continents becomes apart of you, and your narrative. However, since being in Senegal I have realized that an inheritance of everything can often seem like an inheritance of nothing.

In the United States, as a black person, I never felt that I truly belonged. Especially in recent years, images in the news, the protests, the music all points to a war between the idea of “America” and the black peoples that inhabit it. The fact that I have to declare that my life matters means that this is not an apparent and universal fact. The fact that this movement (The Black Lives Matter) is even controversial shows that African Americans are marginalized in the country that we built, to the point of invisibility. The truth is that although the Americas, North and South, were built on the backs of Africans who inherited the title American through their bondage, these nations were not built for “us.” This is why the African comes first. It is our birth right, our Eden, our home, the place we are from, where we still dance the same way we do across an ocean, where we still laugh to loud, and where too bright cloths where we are still a we. Such we my thoughts and dreams before my arrival to Senegal. 

Going Back

The problem with the way that many African Americans view Africa may be summed up in one phrase, “going back.” I think this is a beautiful notion, picture a young girl with an afro past her shoulder blades, running into the arms of an old “African” woman. The woman pulls the girl in and says “oh how I have missed you my love.” Its romantic, its poetic, but its not reality. The problem with the notion of going back is it is almost as absurd as labeling a group of people African American. I suggests travel across space and time, to the static and ancient place that is “Africa.” 

This place no longer exists. And as ignorant as most U.S citizens are about the modern happenings of Africa outside of war, famine, or examples of what not to do with your government, the same may not be said for the Senegalese. They are extremely aware of “American” culture, society, and life. I think of it this way, when you leave your lights on at night and have your windows open, everyone outside can see into your home, but your vision of them is limited to the light which you cast outward. 

My experience in Senegal has been that going back is indeed going somewhere else. Yes, my skin allows me to be invisible and even at times to appear Senegalese, and yes, my tightly wound hair, and too wide thighs, and too long legs can be found here, but this place is no longer my home. Rather it is where I am from. And where I am going. I think shift I made during my time in Senegal was thinking of Africa’s peoples, more as cousins, aunts, and uncles rather than ancestors. It breathes life back into our extended family. 

An African in Senegal

That all being said, I believe every person of African decent should go and live in the different regions and spaces of Africa in their life time. Senegal has helped me make sense of my body, my hair and my voice. There is something powerful about being surrounded by people who share your skin, understand your hair, your booming voice. Lessons have been imparted upon me that I will never forget. Here I have learned how to not be the only black boy in the room, I have learned the surreal comfort of invisibility. 

When I meet a new person they first ask if I am from one of the neighboring West African countries. My face and nose, and eyelashes all speaking to people of my origin. I have heard, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Cape Verde, even Nigeria. I can’t be placed, this is the true meaning of being an African American. You are mixed, and homeless, because of your mixed heritage, but before I open my mouth my heritage is up to the beholder. Their preconceived notions I could be from anywhere between the three continents that share my name.

An american in Senegal 

In Senegal I have not been American… at least not to other foreigners. My skin, tells foreigners that I am Senegalese or that ambiguous “African.” I have been dismissed, and disrespected because of this assumption. Once while working at a health post I had a french woman refuse to shake my hand, opting instead to touch the tip of my pinky, all because she assumed I was a “native” as she said to her husband. It has been eye opening to see the way that both U.S citizens and other travelers treat the Senegalese. This invisibility has allowed me to see both sides. Not all tourists act this way, but in my experience in Senegal most of the tourists that assume I am Senegalese don't stick around long enough to discover I am an American. All it would take was an exchange of a sentence, but usually they look away, or pull out their phones pretending not to see or hear me, completing my invisibility. 

Senegal has killed my romanticism of the continent. But has given new life to its peoples, joys and triumphs and also its losses. Senegal for me has taught me about my blackness, explained the skin I am in, and has given me knew questions and momentum regarding my home. America.

Jabari Gambrel