South African: Yebo, Unjani?
Me: Ngiyapila, nam…
South African: Ngiyapila *Insert follow up question*
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t know much Zulu
South African: So what language do you speak?
South African: English and what?
Me: Just English
South African: *Insert all types of looks of confusion* What do you mean?
Me: I’m from the US so I only speak English *shrugs*
Nine months of living in South Africa and traveling throughout the southern countries opened my eyes to the extent of privilege that I have on the continent of Africa as an African American. We don’t usually think of ‘privilege’ and ‘African American’ in the same breathe, but just as America sets the economic tone for the world, Black America sets the cultural tone for much of the world. All over Africa you will see blackness ever celebrated, but you’ll notice that you are celebrated to a greater extent because you’re ‘Africanness’ is perceived to be refined by your ‘Americanness’. Very often, my accent granted me access that it would not have been granted to me otherwise.
Don’t get it twisted, racism is still alive and well in the motherland along with the impacts of colonialism and remnants of apartheid in South Africa. My 6 months in 2012 studying on the campus on which the policies of the apartheid were written made it all to clear to me that not every corner would be welcoming of blackness, but that was not vast majority.
My experience in Durban allowed me to encounter and appreciate the vastness of black culture. Nonetheless, my status as an African American still posited me as an onlooker in some cases where I was learning what certain traditions and customs meant while also encountering some white onlookers who were appeased and intrigued by my accent, the only tell that I was not also South African. I also noticed my immersion and assimilation being somewhat easier than that of my American counterparts who were not black and understood my privilege within that context also. I’ve even questioned whether it was actually “privilege” since I was on my own continent receiving the same or similar treatment that those friends may receive upon visiting the country or continent of their roots.
It is conversations like the opening dialogue though, that made me aware that this feeling of privilege (that just may be what it feels like to be in a land where your humanity is holistically accepted), has a flip-side when held up to a critical and linguistic light. This happened rather often when I introduced myself in the Zulu language to someone over the age of 30. It was at those moments that I was reminded that no matter how much I cringed at the fact that this pedestal I am placed on was based on the Westernization of my 1st generation Ghanian-American self, it is an unshakeable part of my identity, and the exact thing that creates this pervasive barrier between myself and this continent.
This question keeps me in check. It forces to acknowledge both the privilege and the barrier that myself and many African Americans experience on an international level. It reminds me that while the struggles of black people in America and the universal celebration of African American culture my be at the center of my world, they are not the center of THE world. As much as I love to learn of and celebrate black culture as it exists internationally, there is one aspect that constantly blocks me out. My monolingual tongue.
In this vast world that we live in, black people communicate with their own in their own way. One of the many things slavery and colonialism did was to try and demolish that ability. To deprive someone of their language is to deny access to one’s own identity and a survival mechanism as crucial as communication. Once you take away a person’s ability to communicate with their own, what does that person have left? Your language, English. It serves its purpose but so does every other language.
My parents, aunts, uncles and cousins communicate with each other in 3 different Ghanaian languages that I do not understand because of the highly misguiding scientific research about three decades ago that said that multilingual children will struggle to learn English. Meanwhile these researchers could have turned to ANY culture outside of American and British to see that this is not the case.
“English and what?” is an ever so necessary reminder that in the grand scheme of history, English was never the first language – just the most dominant one by means of conquest that in the 21st century has been coined the most professional. It is not how any of our ancestors communicated with each other and it is not superior to any other language. It is simply the language of currency and economy.
I entered South Africa with a once in a lifetime opportunity that involved teaching English that will stay with me forever, but as I spent my last week reflecting on the many impactful lessons, this country has taught me, the resounding question in my head was, “English and what?”
In the words of Nayyirah, I barely know “how to say hello to my mother,” but I do know how to say thank you. Ngiyabonga and Medasi to Africa as a whole for always teaching me, uplifting me and most importantly always keeping me in check.
Naa-Shorme | Creator, Write to Live