Black in Spain: "But, Where Are You Really From?" and the Questioning of Black Americans
Often, when I introduce myself to other people here, the question is asked, “De donde eres?” (Where are you from?) With my typical response being, “Soy Americana.” (I’m American.)
On more occasions than I can count, my answer has been received with a mixture of surprise and slight disbelief. The person I’m speaking to either repeats the word, as if to confirm that they’ve heard me correctly,
…or, I’m peppered with more questions to help the listener clarify my response.
Such as when a Cuban guy sitting next to me at a bar queries, “Pero, tus origenes…?” (But, your origins?) Or when my new roommate presses, “Pero, que mezcla tienes?” (But, what mix do you have?) Or even the European guy who I bumped into at a rooftop BBQ in a hostel who accepted the fact that I was American, but not too American, since he was convinced that my grandmother must have been a slave from Africa. I calmly assured him with as much shade as humanly possible that my grandmother was born in the 1930s. I resisted the urge to append the statement with ‘dumbass’, choosing to punctuate the sentence with a look that conveyed the same sentiment.
“Kisha, is it true that the police shoot black people in the US?”
This question comes from one of my students during an English conversation class when I’m encouraging them to ask me about life in the US. Lately, the news from home has been filled with images of police brutality and excessive gun violence by law officers against unarmed black people. Images and commentary surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, the related non-violent protests and the violent Baltimore riots have made their way all the way over to Spain. My students are shocked at the graphic nature of it all, they can’t seem to believe that the police can actually kill citizens without any real punishment.
Even my other black associates here in Spain – who are used to being profiled, harassed or occasionally mistreated by the police, confess that the situation is far more severe in America. For this reason, I don’t always feel the nostalgia or the tender longing for my home country that my brown kin from other parts of the world do. When my Senegalese friend speaks of home, how he wants to go back there, and how simple life is – even though it can also be tough – I almost envy his longing. When my Cuban friend speaks of spending days at the beach, catching and eating huge fresh fish right out of the ocean, having anyone open the door of their home to you for a bite to eat, a drink, a little dancing… I am more than a little jealous – even though we both know that Cuba, at least politically speaking, ain’t no island paradise.
The place that I do have longings and nostalgia for is actually something of a non-place; a sub-category of America known as black America. I, like many black Americans, regard my home country with a double-mindedness. Yes, I am from there. But, I am also not. That is, the American identity as it is most often portrayed both within and outside of my native land, is not my identity.
This is something that seems uniquely different from the relationships that others in the diaspora have with their countries of origin. Even though their color may be different from others in their home country, their culture – language, history, music, cuisine – is almost completely shared. As a black American, I have always known that I exist as part of two distinct cultures. My history has its own month. My music has its own stations. My literature has its own shelves in the bookstore or library. My cuisine – which I consider to be the only truly American cuisine, found nowhere else in the world – is not commercialized and widely recognized around the globe as American. The larger American culture – that of fast food, football, movie stars, and big cars, and the culture of black America – that of gospel, hip-hop, and soul food are not consumed domestically, nor exported to the rest of the world under the same label of ‘100% American’, even though both of them are.
And so while I occasionally flaunt my Americanness – the passport, the perfect English – as a badge of privilege, I am conflicted about my American identity. When I say, “I’m American,” I sometimes feel the need to affix an asterisk to the end of the statement.
The eloquent black American actor, singer, civil rights activist, and occasional expat Paul Robeson sums up the feeling rather nicely. When asked by an interviewer, “Do you still feel American?” Robeson responds:
“I would say that unquestionably I am an American – born there… upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America…. There’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet. But just like a Scottish American is proud of being from Scotland, I’m proud for being African…. So I would say today, that I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent. No question about it. No question about it. I’m an Afro-American and I don’t use the word American ever loosely again.”
Kisha Solomon is an Atlanta-based writer, bon vivant and occasional expat who lived, learned and taught in Spain for 2 years. A Southern girl with city sensibilities, she’s a perpetual student who travels to collect new ideas, stories and flavors. Read more of her Black in Spain series at Solo in Spain and follow her latest adventures on Instagram @ksolo22.