My daughter is sleeping, twitching and burping in her baby sleep. Marwein, my third-born, “the Stranger,” in the language of my husband’s ethnic group of the Loma, in northwestern Liberia. The child with the long, delicate fingers and shining eyes, the child named for her sister who died in my belly before she could push her way out, who “came as a stranger, and left as a stranger,” as my husband told me, lying in our bed one cold winter night not long after we discovered we were pregnant again. She is her own child, and yet she carries the spirit of her sister who could not come, for whatever reason. Just as she is a child of Africa, though she has never set foot on its soil, or eaten its food, or felt its sun. She has her father’s eyelashes and round cheeks, as well as his easy disposition. Wants to sit on the couch beside her brother most days, watching the relative progress or ongoing destruction of the house from her perch. Brother was made in West Africa, Ghana, to be exact, and has been asking my husband and I more and more frequently lately, when we will be going to the continent.
These are our two living children of the diaspora, the third having succumbed to another kind of Middle Passage, the life of the dead, now buried in the hard Minnesota ground. This is a moving diaspora, change defining it, coming from both sides of the Atlantic: I, a descendant of African slaves brought here for servitude and brute labor centuries ago, my husband, a citizen of Liberia, that beleaguered nation-state plagued by illness, civil war, corruption, and then again, buoyed by resiliency and invention. What this diaspora means to Ballah and I is love. Partnership. A bond of commitment between two different and distinct families that would otherwise never intersect. But this is not what this diaspora will mean to our children. We know this. What we do not know is what it will mean to them. How they will navigate it, think of themselves within it.
Of course, they will first be Americans, having grown up here for most of their lives. Of course, they will feel this whenever they travel to or stay for extended periods in Africa, which we hope will be often. What it means to be Black in the West, we want them to know that this is all contextual, the result of violent historical and cultural forces that were colliding long before they were born, and will do so long after they are gone. The only way to know this, truly, is to leave America. The only way to know this is to come back to America after a long stay on the other side. Because if you are Black in America, America will not teach you what you need to know to be a human being. If you are Black in America, America will teach you what you need to know to die.
Can America be more than this for our children? Could it nurture their yearning to embrace this endless enfolding of African diaspora, allow all of them to exist, however imperfectly? There are more African immigrants in America now than at any other time in our history, and more are coming every day. In my neighborhood, I can buy injera as easily as wheat bread, and cell phones held in place by hijabs are as common as Timberlands. Our Somali, Liberian, and other neighbors from the continent are rapidly redefining what it means to be “African-American” in the Twin Cities and beyond. I hope that our children will be part of this movement, being both African and African-American. I hope that they don’t balk at the blood of the Middle Passage, but step into it openly and respectfully instead, knowing that it is what brought them into being. I hope that they know equally well that everything that made them can be made again in the contemporary moment, reframed and reshaped for whatever new reality they find themselves living in. I hope that they can connect themselves to past and present Black liberation movements in the U.S. and on the continent, as I believe that this is the most powerful legacy we have brought to the world. Our tradition of resistance. Our language of endless invention. What do I want for my children? An affiliation with this Oppositional America, an honest reckoning with America’s domination and power, and an engagement with the continent and diaspora based on dialogue. That is the future America which they will be uniquely suited to create and engage. It is a place that I would be proud to call home.
Author’s Note: This piece was written more than two years ago, when my daughter was a baby, and my now ex-husband and I were still married. I view this piece, just now being shared with the public, as an artifact from a very particular time and place in my life, reflecting all the hope and tension present in any marriage, but perhaps amplified and layered by its cross-cultural component.