Understanding African American heritage is key to future

Feb. 13, 2003, midnight | By Colby Chapman | 17 years, 11 months ago

in first person

Over winter break I visited Senegal, West Africa, and the trip opened my eyes to many aspects of African American culture. Prior to that experience, I can't recall ever intently exploring my ancestry. I knew about slavery, its impact on society and African Americans' contributions to America. But looking back, I realize I knew about my past in a purely intellectual sense. I lacked emotional or spiritual connection to my very personal history.

The journey became a "homecoming" for me. While in Africa, I explored Goree Island, the largest slave trading post on the African coast. Most of the buildings had been preserved; flowers and tourists pervaded the beautiful island, but as I crossed the threshold onto the soil where millions of my ancestors had died, I blocked out the images of beauty and let feelings of anguish and fury fill my mind. Amid the colorful houses where the slave traders used to reside stands a special house, the house for the slaves. It is a modest building whose first floor imprisoned as many as 20 million Africans over the course of a century. Slaves were "processed" in this house, approximately 300 at a time, in small rooms classified by sex, age, weight and virgin status. They were then transferred to a waiting vessel outside of the slave house, exiting through the "door of no return." Confronting this door, I pictured countless spiritless Africans walking the bridge to the boat with the knowledge that they would never return.

Although robbed of our dignity and taken to a foreign land, African Americans have come a long way. But, the struggle continues. On the island, tears welled up in my eyes as I reflected on the passage of my people. The tears then flowed down my cheeks as I realized how few of my peers, even African Americans, understand African American culture.

That day, it struck me that if African Americans truly reflected upon our heritage, things would be different. We wouldn't neglect our families, present our bodies in inappropriate ways or treat Black History Month as a mere ritual. Instead, the traditional values that remain the essence of African life would be celebrated and cultivated in our homes.

One of my realizations involved the concept of family. In Africa, every meal is eaten with family, and children are named after their elders. This made me think, "When was the last time I willingly had a family meal without the distraction of a television and a telephone?" It's bad enough that the majority of American families have this problem, but for African Americans to participate in this phenomenon is even more alarming. During slavery, black families were torn apart and sent to different locations. Now that we are free, isn't there a need to treasure what we once had taken away from us?

Until the 1960s, blacks were denied access to a fair education. But now that the opportunity exists, some African Americans take it for granted. When a black student does take advantage of educational opportunities, other blacks may see him or her as a "sellout." If we understood where we came from, we wouldn't allow disinterest and underachievement to flourish in our communities.

African Americans are criticized for being sex-driven, a stereotype conceived by whites and now internalized by many blacks. Many African American females fall prey to marketing and strut around wearing tight jeans and low-cut shirts that draw attention to their bodies. Slave dealers used the same attributes to determine the price of a female slave.

Admittedly, we have learned about the visions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and their emphasis on black pride and unity. But their ideas still need powerful reinforcement. Within the African American community, divisions based on skin tone, economic status and educational levels persist. In Senegal, I was exposed to the beauty of a people fully united by history and tradition, and I was reminded of the urgency of King's and X's messages. Our history determines our future, and if African Americans are misinformed about our origins, then in turn, we diminish our chances of ever becoming prosperous in this society.
My trip across the Atlantic reinforced the critical importance of Black History Month. This is a unique opportunity for all of us to authentically reflect on the African American legacy through a museum trip, a family reunion, a religious activity or a stimulating discussion with friends. Whatever one chooses to do, we must seek to move beyond just another Black History month ritual and, instead, approach the emotional and spiritual truth that characterizes African American culture. Black History Month is a time for celebration: celebration of African American adaptation, celebration of our contributions to America and, most importantly, celebration of our unlimited potential.

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Colby Chapman. Colby Chapman is a junior page editor and sports writer for Silver Chips. She plays basketball and runs track for Blair, and she plays the piano as well. She is very committed to her academics but takes great pride in her athletics. More »

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