Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-Chief
Last Modified: 00:52 a.m. EDT, 27 September 2010
UNITED STATES - My son was 10 years old the first time I had to have the talk about "race" and "racism." This was when he began to feel different and although he couldn't articulate it, he had already embarked upon the nuanced journey of life as a person of color, albeit biracial.
Specifically, we have had several discussions about Africa and African people. He understood that I had grown up in Africa and that I was 'brown,' but he couldn't comprehend why he was fair and had straight hair. So he chose to identify as 'white' which was at odds with how his Caucasian classmates viewed him. At that time he attended a strict religious school with a homogeneous population. It was very difficult for him because of the isolation and ostracization he experienced.
One day my son came home in tears because the children teased him when he told them his mother had grown up in Africa. It was particularly disturbing to me when my son recounted what the children in his school said about Africans and the cuisine I cooked. I recognized in large part these children were only repeating what they heard at home since children are intrinsically innocent, and must be taught to hate, disparage, and disrespect. It is the responsibility of the parents to train them otherwise.
Sometimes we think our children don't listen to us, and if they do hear, that they won't act upon what we teach them. However, in this instant, my son obviously heeded my admonition and forcefully told these children that they could not make fun of Africa or his mother.
I was and continue to be proud of him, and how he had the courage to follow my instructions to never let anyone put Africa or Africans down. I told him that though he is biracial German, his heritage is also African, and that all life on earth started in Africa. I emphasized that he needs to be proud of his African heritage, and that his grandfather, my father, lives in Harare which is a major city in Zimbabwe, Africa.
At the time when my son told me what happened, I was angry that racism remained perniciously prevalent in America. I was incensed that my son had to experience it at such a young age. That is when I decided that it was important for me to expose him to Africa, if not in person, then through the next best medium of video. I wanted to communicate to him the importance of becoming a global citizen because xenophobia is bred from fear and lack of exposure. I searched a long time for something that I could show my son to communicate the modernity of Africa. Luckily, someone who is a follower of the blog sent me a link to this video.
It is a generally accepted fact that genetically human beings are 99.9% identical. "When researchers completed the final analysis of the Human Genome Project in April 2003, they confirmed that the 3 billion base pairs of genetic letters in humans were 99.9% identical in every person. It also meant that individuals, are on average, 0.1 percent different genetically from every other person on the planet." (Source: National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH)
My son, a science buff, understood this much more easily than my telling him that we are all the same. What he couldn't understand was much more personal. He wanted to know why the food I prepared for him was vastly different than what the other children in his class ate. I explained to him that we eat organic foods, but also that some Europeans preferred diets rich in dairy, sugar, very little spice. By contrast, I cooked the food that I grew up eating which is very spicy foods made from fresh, organic vegetables and legumes.
I will address the moniker of organic vs non-organic and GMO in another post, but for the purposes of explaining the type of foods I prepare for my son, I take great pride and care in cooking fresh food for him everyday. So, when he came home with his Sambusas (which in other parts of the world are called Samosas) in the bottom of his backpack I was concerned. Then when his teacher told me that my son was hungry at school because he had no food, I was understandably chagrined.
I asked him why he wasn't eating his food, and he told me "because the other children say that my food stinks like Africans." That conversation then apparently segued into a discussion about how Africans live, and more stereotypes were presented about Africans as fact.
I remember when I came back from Tanzania, East Africa in 1979, I vividly recalled some of the ignorant assumptions that children had then about Africa. If one more child asked me about "lions running down the middle of the street, naked women with their breasts exposed, cannibalism, or what it was like to live in the jungle", I might have screamed. But to hear my son repeat such comments nearly 30 years later, was unfathomable.
I never thought I would see a person of color elected to the highest office in America in my lifetime. Yet, in 2008, a biracial African-American, the son of an African Kenyan father and a Caucasian American mother, was elected as the President of the United States.
There are any number of characteristics and reasons why President Barak Obama is one of the most famous persons alive today; but most transformative for me is his African heritage, and the fact that his election at this time in history, changed the paradigm for all children. Especially, for my son who views President Obama as a hero and someone who looks like him.
Though at seven, my son was more interested in competing in the Olympics as an equestrian, or playing Polo, or growing up to be scientist who builds space ships, robots, and rockets, for him the question of ever being President of the United States is but one more option in a panoply of choices.
President Obama, through his life, his family, and his leadership, is demonstrating that we do not have to dwell in the realm of pigmentation, but should elevate ourselves to the heights of our intelligence. I am not naive nor idealistic enough to think that his election would eradicate racism in this country, but I did hope that it would die with my generation and those who came before me. Sadly, this is not the case, and so, I fight the fight, one interface and interfaith dialogue at a time.
Recently, I was speaking with my mother about the difficulties of raising a biracial child of African/European descent in a largely European environment. We are privileged to have access to my mother's wisdom and insight. She is a world-traveler, former Peace Corp Desk Officer responsible for all of the countries in the Horn of Africa, a former educator, and a phenomenal human being..
As we discussed the challenges associated with communicating to my son the value of his heritage, and how I might demonstrate in a tangential manner short of traveling to Africa, that the Continent is more than what is portrayed in the Western media. My mother suggested that I go to the library or bookstore and get some large picture books with photos of Africa and its cities.
Nothing takes the place of actual experience, but until we have the opportunity to return to Africa, this was going to have to serve as a satisfactory alternative. As expected, my son responded much more to the video than the books that I provided to him because the music is superb, the images clear and powerful, and it is so evocative.
Like me, it pulled him in and provided him with a visual reference for him to embrace and share. The continent of Africa has many countries, each with major cities and sprawling metropolitan areas that rival, if not outstrip many in the West.
It is my hope that others will view this video and share it with friends, family and acquaintances. The producer of this video has done a great service to humanity in promoting greater understanding and knowledge of Africa. We can't all be "rock stars" like President Barak Obama, but each of us can contribute to making the world a better place for our children's today and tomorrow.