Blackness Redefined: My Journey of Discovering What Being Black Means to Me

by Moiyattu Banya

My black identity is bound up in my culture and my experiences; the consciousness-raising that I experience as a feminist and African black woman; and the relationships I have been able to cultivate with other women of color. Blackness is a thing I had to develop and understand. I believe many immigrants of color do as well. In reflecting on how I developed my sense of black womanhood, I needed to think about my journey from Sierra Leone in West Africa—where I was born—to who and where I am now. With the mass movement of people of color traveling around the world, the concept of blackness has become more intricate and continues to evolve, while still maintaining its strong historical connections.

I remember when I first immigrated to the United States. I was called all types of names because I was coming from an African country. A young boy in my 8th grade class asked me, “Do y’all live on trees in Africa?” During this time, the term “African Booty Scratcher” was very popular. I never fully understood why there was so much hatred and ignorance towards the continent from people with the same skin color as me. My cultural heritage of being Sierra Leonean was everything and nobody could take that away from me. I would always respond to their bullying with candid pride, but at times the comments would still hurt. These experiences scarred me for some time and led to me rejecting any form of association with American Blacks until I got to college.

During my college years, I began to define my blackness intentionally. In high school, I had experienced bigotry from white students that made me realize I needed to better understand what the construction of race in America was truly about. I needed to go beyond the two-day lesson on Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman we were taught in high school. In college, I discovered more important black historical and cultural figures, like Ivan Van Sertima and Paul Robeson. I learned more deeply about the impact of slavery on the minds of blacks in America from the writings of W.E.B. DuBois and contemporary scholar Cornel West. At the same time, I also deepened my understanding about colonialism in Africa. I learned about feminism from the perspectives of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Mariama Ba, and Tsitsi Dangaremba, as I was particularly interested in black feminists and their contribution to women’s movements in the United States and around the world.

I began to slowly piece the puzzle together, about what blackness meant for me. It meant that I had to know the complex history of blacks in America and across the Diaspora. It meant that I had to know the impact of colonialism and the slave trade had on Africa and how it divided us as a people. It meant that I had to unlearn and re-learn things that I had always taken for granted. This combined knowledge and exposure to all things black, African, and feminist strengthened my definition of my blackness. It made me bold to speak as a black woman in America. It made me understand the issues more—not just in America, but also throughout the Continent.

Building and deepening connections with other black women also helped me to define and affirm my blackness. In 2008 I visited Le Maison Des Enclaves (House of Slaves) on Senegal’s Goree Island. While it is now a museum, Le Maison Des Enclaves is where enslaved blacks were taken when they were departing from Senegal to come to the “New World.” During our tour, a Senegalese tour guide made an offensive remark about black Americans in the slave trade. I was there with one African American woman and two African women. In that moment, it did not matter if we were Sierra Leonean, Ghanaian, or Jamaican—what mattered was that our blackness was violated. We confronted the tour guide about his ignorant statement. I always wonder if the rage I felt would have been the same if I had never lived in the United States. That moment further defined how much pride I had in the struggle of black people—all black people—and it made me realize that the impact of slavery and colonialism are something we’re all still affected by, whether in America, Africa, or other places throughout the Diaspora. As black women, we must be aware of how our history and struggles connect us, in order to form stronger bonds and fight ignorance.

My blackness continues to evolve and be defined when I travel outside of the United States, particularly to other countries. With black people in all parts of the world, I believe the concept of blackness has become a transnational experience. There is a multitude of ways to describe what blackness means for all of us—whether we be from Africa, the Americas, or other parts of the Diaspora. What unites us is our history and our experiences of injustices, as well as having access to spaces we may not have had access to before. Black identity is evolving due to the exchange of ideas, cultures, and stories across countries and continents.

We will never be able change our histories, but we can learn from them. We can continue to connect and build and shape what it means to black. We can continue being black and proud.

Photo: Shutterstock

Moiyattu Banya is a native of Sierra Leone, a digital mover and shaker, feminist, and writer. She currently teaches women studies courses at Temple University in the United States and also does international consulting with Social Enterprises in West Africa. She is Founder of Women Change Africa. Moiyattu is part of the African Women’s Development Fund’s (AWDF) Community of African Women Writers. Follow her on Twitter @WcaWorld.

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