My husband often uses the analogy of tumbleweeds to describe the importance of history. Tumbleweeds dry out and detach from their roots and stems. They just blow in the wind. It’s hard to find your purpose and more importantly ride out a storm without having roots. In fact, there’s a Malay Proverb that says “A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”
Years ago I had a unique opportunity to visit east India. While there on a Rotarian sponsored trip I stayed with different families. The first family I stayed with was that of a prominent businessman and his wife who was a teacher. When the driver opened the door, the very first face I saw was a young girl about 10 or 11 with a cocoa complexion. Her smile was warm. Her eyes glowed and she immediately shook my hand. My host introduced her as Rocky, a farm girl they had adopted and brought to live with them to provide her with an education and give her a better life.
Rocky only spoke Hindi and I only speak English. Our communication barrier was no secret, but in a world where complexions matter it was obvious that Rocky was thrilled to see and touch mine. Every time she spoke to me, I smiled and told her how sorry I was that I only speak English. After a few minutes, Rocky’s eyes filled with tears. She hung her head low and walked away silently. My host was kind enough to translate as I am sure I had a look of confusion.
“Rocky was asking you to teach her your secret language,” he said. “What secret language?” I replied. “The language of people that look like you and her in your country. She was hurt because she promised not to tell anyone, but she feels as though you don’t trust her.”
If only Rocky knew that many of my people, people of African descent are like tumbleweeds. We don’t have a secret language. It’s a consolation prize from years of bondage during slavery. We don’t know the language of our ancestors because we don’t know where we are from. It’s a tough conversation and difficult for most people outside of our unique circumstance to understand.
I grew up in small city in upstate New York with one of the largest refugee centers in the nation. I had the privilege of learning about so many different cultures. I had Italian friends whose grandmother’s only spoke Italian and had secret family cannoli recipes. I had Laotian friends whose grandparents only spoke Laotian and had home made temples to worship in their homes. When children grow up around children from different places they learn their geography, their religion and cultural differences. However, most Black families were one generation removed from migrant farming. So when you ask us about our roots, the answer is usually a southern state. That’s it. That’s about the extent of where we can say we are from. We don’t have a language all our own and we don’t have recipes from before our involuntary voyage.
A few months ago my husband bought me an Ancestry DNA test. No, I didn’t run to take it. In fact, it sat on the table for about two weeks. I was curious, but I’d seen several friends do it and come back with a gazillion different ethnic regions and still walk away feeling incomplete. Plus, it requires fasting before you take it and well, I like to graze. I can’t remember when I did it, but I certainly remember the day I got my results; Wednesday October 4, 2017.
I wasn’t sure I’d feel different knowing more about my ancestry. But there’s an unexplainable sense of peace in feeling connected to a people and a land. Even if you don’t know anything about it. My results came back over 30% from Togo, which is a pretty high. So, this is the beginning of a discovery phase for me to learn as much as I can about its’ history, culture and people.
I wish I could find Rocky and tell her that my secret language is more than likely Ewe’ but French will do. I wish I could tell her that my region is much like hers, filled with farmers and huts, but has over 30 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea. I wish I could explain to her that at 42 years old I am just now beginning to take root.