When someone asks me where I am from, I always answer Virginia. I was born in Northern Virginia and I have lived here all 21 years of my life. But too often, this question is followed up with, “But where are you from originally?” My answer is always “I live in NoVa.”
I know that this is not the answer they want or were expecting, but smartass that I am, I just pretend to be ignorant of the real meaning behind the question. One of my best friends, who often has to listen to me complain about the passive racism I experience, suggested I start telling people that I come from a tiny village in Africa, where I barely subsisted and was saved by white civilization and Jesus. I laughed at her suggestion, but sometimes I cannot help but imagine that this is the answer people are expecting. I know this question comes from a human desire to place people into boxes in order to better relate to another person, and if I had an answer that would fit into a box I would give it to you.
The truth is, I do not know where I come from originally. I only know that my family’s journey to America was different from that of all my white friends. My family was crammed into a ship with hundreds of other Africans, malnourished and abused on their months long travel to America. The fact that I am even here to write this is a testament to the strength and resiliency of my family. I only have oral tradition to give me some kind of understanding of my origins. The closest we have ever gotten to figuring out where we come from is a record for my great-great-great-grandmother from the 1800s in which she is referred to in a census as the property and daughter of a John Stone in Southern Kentucky.
I have come to terms with the fact that I may never be able to claim my ancestral homeland. I grieve for that loss, because sometimes it feels like I do not have any culture to belong to. When I get asked where I am from it is a constant reminder of my feeling of alienation. America’s Independence Day is met with mixed emotions, because while my white ancestors were fighting the British for freedom, my black ancestors were property. I am proud to be an American, of what America stands for now. But it cannot be escaped that less than 60 years ago I would not have been considered equal to my white friends, or that for more than 200 years my family was seen as even less than a human.
The other day, when a Caucasian woman asked me where I was from originally, I was offended because she saw my skin tone and assumed that I was from somewhere else. I know it was probably not meant maliciously, but that does not negate the insensitivity of the question. If she had asked this question of one of my white friends, she would not have been expecting the answer to be, “Well, I am from Europe,” unless that friend had a European accent. She would be waiting for the name of a city in Virginia. But she saw my skin and just assumed that I must not be American, an assumption that has even deeper implications to the current immigration crisis.
It felt as if my blackness precluded me belonging here, because she has been taught by society that people with claims to America are white Europeans. I responded the way I always do, “I am from Virginia,” and then walked away. I should have given her a lecture on race, belonging, and American history, instead of giving her my go-to answer. But I cannot live in the past; otherwise I would walk around angry at the world and my circumstances. Instead I choose to embrace what I do have, a rich oral tradition full of stories of strong black men and women who helped build and shape America.
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