Saturday, March 11, 2006

Africans in New York

I recognized their African-ness and had to ask, "Where are you from?" There was a curious moment when they were wondering why I was approaching them. Why I would want to know.

"Botswana" came the answer. "Zambia," said the other. I beamed and waited a moment, relishing dragging out the suspense. "South Africa" I heard myself saying, focusing intently on reading their reactions.

Sheer joy, followed by a solid, complicated but familiar African handshake that all Africans know. We share something that we can't pinpoint. Yet we know we share it. And it is good. No anger, no resentment, no suspision. They know the tall, blue sky. They understand the nuanses of Africa. The heartache, the promise.

"All the Africans here are angry," he says. "It takes a while for the anger to go away. But eventually it does." Hope.

His son grew up here and rolls every "R" sound the New York way. "Are you an American?" I ask the four-year old. "I'm American. I'm African. I'm African American," he says with a straight face. The dad laughs and looks at me. He sees my childhood, knows my home.

I can't claim that heritage, I think by myself. I don't come from slavery, but I do come from Africa. My skin may not show it, but there's no denying it. Without a word from me, he says at that moment, "I call you my sister."

"I would like to go back, but there's nothing for me to do," says the programmer from Botswana. "It's been 11 years." But Africa never lets go, never leaves you. Even if you're a continent, a season and many time zones away.

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