Several years ago, I was invited to speak at Oxford University, the oldest university in the English speaking world. I lectured there in conjunction with their Black History Month (BHM), during the month of October, as the United Kingdom celebrates it to coincide with the opening of its school year, unlike the United States’ observance in February as a tribute to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I still pinch myself whenever I think about going there.
Was I really asked to talk about my book, my life, and my ideas? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to a chance encounter with one of its co-eds of color when I spoke at the American Library in Paris. She rushed up after my presentation and insisted that I come to Oxford for a similar talk.
“Uh? Well, yeah, I can do that. Just tell me where to sign!” I thought to myself.
“I’ll be in touch.”
She scribbled down my contact information and was off as quickly as she had approached me, without my getting her email so I could follow up.
After almost a year, one of her colleagues from the university’s African and Caribbean Society wrote to me with an invitation. And as I thought earlier – just tell me what I have to sign.
I arrived by bus from Heathrow and was met by a quite jolly co-ed and her friend who would be my ‘handlers’ during the two and a half days I spent on the history packed campus. As they escorted me to my dorm, I peppered them with questions; the most pressing for me was “Well, where are you from?” And then, I was nonplussed.
One told me that her mother’s side came from Ghana and her father’s from Nigeria.
“Granny’s still in Accra and we talk to her a lot. We get all our recipes from her because they are still the best,” she laughed.
The other replied, “Daddy’s from Cuba and me mum’s from Antigua. And their parents came from Colombia and Guyana.”
On more than one occasion, both girls had visited the relatives who remained in the Caribbean and Africa.
Why was I speechless? I expected to hear, Well, I’m from London or some other fill in the blank town in England; just as black Americans in the States would have answered, Cleveland, New York, or Paducah, when asked. That’s just how short-sighted I was.
I wove delight and wonderment into my speech the next night by emphasizing how lucky they were to know where they came from, unlike so many of us in the States who don’t know much, if anything, about our extended lineage.
My encounter with these students made me reflect on black American cultural heritage, in general, and on my own origins, in particular. Not until the publication of Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley in 1976 did we begin to realize that our ‘roots’ could be traced. We all knew that our forbearers had been ripped from some patch of the vast African continent but from where or exactly when eluded us. So many of us lacked a sense of pedigree until Alex Haley provided us with the possibility of discovering it when he found his elders in The Gambia. The smallest nation on mainland Africa, The Gambia resembles an arthritic finger inserted into the middle of Senegal. Each country, critical points of departure for the slave trade, remained in the clutches of either the Portuguese, British or French for centuries. Many Americans, black and white, learned a lot of shrouded history from Haley’s blockbuster book.
Shortly after it came out, I ran into a friend working on her PhD, glowing like a high-beam headlight. She had just received a significant grant to study the branch of her family that originated in Madagascar and delve into this largely ignored aspect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“What did you say?” I squealed out. She repeated herself.
“That can’t be. I have a story about my Madagascan heredity but we all thought it was nonsense.”
My family’s tale consisted of unsubstantiated lore, recounted by my great, great aunt who wore braids down to her waist and a Native American beaded headband, and whom everyone considered a wee bit ‘touched’. She insisted for decades that one of my great, great grandmothers and her sister (princesses, no less) were snatched while walking through a Madagascan field and sold into slavery. She even wrote out where they finally landed in Mississippi and other snippets of information.
I never took any of it seriously until that chance encounter with my friend. As her research progressed and bolstered by Mr. Haley’s certainties, my curiosity grew. I found that there were hundreds of similar Madagascan stories coming from every nook of the United States. One year, my intrigue led me to attend the New Year’s Eve party at the Madagascar Embassy in Washington, DC where I noticed that many of the people there could have been my cousins — long lost cousins, perhaps, but physiognomically similar enough to be. A few years later, after I became a Foreign Service Officer, I contacted a colleague who was posted at Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, for further proof. She confirmed the numerous calls and letters the Embassy received each year from black Americans with comparable stories from their family griots. In addition, a cousin looked into the matter and corroborated much of what our aunt believed.
I am now fairly certain about where one-sixteenth of ‘me’ comes from and it’s comforting to pinpoint that place. Someday, I hope to visit this faraway island in the Indian Ocean for a closer look. As far as the rest is concerned, I really do feel as if most of my patrimony springs from St. Louis, Missouri where I was born and reared: the comfort food I still retreat to on a cloudy day comes from my mother’s and her mother’s kitchens; the photographs of four generations of ancestors (one, a freed slave) line the walls of my office; certain homemade medicinal recipes passed down to me continue to work better than store bought fixes; plain old, down-to-earth mother wit, most probably gleaned over the centuries from its origin in Africa, have resolved many of my dilemmas; jazz and spirituals move me in a way no other music does; and my political outlook is solidly formed by having experienced outright prejudice growing up and having fought for civil rights all my life.
So, it turns out that I, like the members of the African and Caribbean Society, do know where I come from. I’ve also traveled the world, incorporating bits and pieces of other cultures (salsa music and dance, for instance) and shaking off others (manioc). In turn, I’ve handed these to my younger relatives as part of my ever-evolving cultural heritage.
During the reception following my address at Oxford, I asked as many of the Society’s members as I could the same question: where are you from? I swilled down all the countries they mentioned, all their subtle differences in accent, and their every nuance of comportment. It was a heady experience because I felt their sense of place in the world. Yes, they were British but they embodied so much more than that.
I, however, finally got to turn the tables on them. They had used a photograph of Josephine Baker, looking as sharp as a sabre in her French Red Cross military uniform, to advertise their BHM activities. They didn’t know who she was and certainly not where she came from.
“Why did you choose this photo?” I asked.
“She was so beautiful and seemed to represent a proud black woman who stood for something,” one responded.
“She definitely did and guess what? She’s from my hometown,” I said, trying my best to appropriate a bit of her legendary je ne sais quoi.
For more information on the activities and extraordinary members of the Oxford’s African and Caribbean Society, please click here
For more information on Josephine Baker, please click here
Map credit: Emory University. Available for download, click here
Gail Millisa Grant is a retired United States Foreign Service officer who served more than twenty years as a cultural and public affairs attaché. As a diplomat, she was stationed in several countries including France, Norway, and Brazil where she directed international public relations and cultural exchange programs and recruited and led culturally diverse teams. She is fluent in French and Italian and skilled in public speaking and Presidential press advance work. She lives in Italy