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roots + routes of afro-atlantic identities

We have a running joke in my family that I'm like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who's always chiming in to say that everything has its roots in Greek culture. In my case, I like to trace everything's "Black roots". It's less a claim to factual truth, but more of an imaginative probing, a mental exercise to expand our view of what the past might have looked like for people of African descent throughout history-- radically inclusive of, but also far beyond the Middle Passage.

I see Black people every where... I wonder at blue-skinned deities, I wonder at the significantly darker figures in statues and drawings of ancient pre-Columbian civilizations, of classical paintings and frescos of Black pages and handmaids.

I love afro-futurism.... but there is also a pull I feel toward the vastness of the Black past... We have barely scratched the surface of what Black pasts were like and just how much movement there was of Black people around the globe long before colonialism and enslavement.

Several years ago, my husband and I took ancestry tests on a whim as we prepared to welcome our first child. As multiracial people who were now going to be raising a second generation of multi kids with African, Japanese, European, and South Asian heritage, we were interested in the ancestry story coded in our DNA.

The accuracy of ancestry data as well as the relationship between biology, culture, admixture, migration, and history are all subject to debate. (And the dangers of sending off bits of my DNA to some company are not lost on me :) Yet, for me, the results served as portals into more seeking and exploration about the multitudes in us ALL-- a premise I have been harping about for well over a decade now as we continue to grapple with race and ethnicity-based injustice all over the world.

My African ancestry told a very complex story tracing my roots not just to Cameroon, but to Nigeria, Congo, East Africa, and Pygmy tribes in West and Central Africa. I was especially interested in my African ancestry results and the "DNA relatives" that began popping up who were self-identified African-Americans. We seemed to share a set of common ancestors who lived sometime in the early 19th century--- the height of the transatlantic slave trade. This likely means that at some point in my lineage a family was broken apart and branches that remained in Africa and one that was enslaved and forcibly brought to the Americas. Now this may not really be a revelation to people from Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Benin, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. The evidence of the slave trade from prominent locations like Elmina and Ouidah is well-documented and the growing interest of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States in their origins has led to growing (albeit fraught) connections and "homecoming" pilgrimages. Yet, Cameroon's role in the slave trade is much less studied. Yet, slave ships did leave the coastlines of Cameroon.

Growing up in the United States as the daughter of Black immigrants, culture and ancestry were important. But there was more of a futurist outlook. The focus was much more on where we were going, than on where we had come from. The past was veiled and the transmission of culture was taken as a given. I remember very early on learning about the slave trade in school and wondering why my family remained in Africa. It was such a burning question, that it was one of the first things I asked my grandfather when he first visited the United States from Cameroon. I was ten when he told me, as if he had been there himself, "The white man's ships arrived and our people ran up into the mountains." I accepted that very simple and succinct version of events. It made sense to my ten year old self and the focus always seemed to be on what happened once the slave ships crossed the water to the Americas and not on who was left behind.

It is often assumed that the children of African immigrants have easy access to the ancestral motherland and all its wonders. Yet, Africa was colonized too and the legacy of slavery left it's own phantoms, traumas, and amnesias of varying kinds. My father admits, that even in Cameroon, in our own village, many people do not know the customs or the roots of our traditions let alone how they made their way to places like Cuba or the Sea Islands. In college, I learned more about contemporary Africa as well as Black diasporic histories in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Yet, there were no scholars or professors who could teach me about my small ancestral village tucked away in the sprawling tropical forests of Southwest Cameroon.

I learned a great deal about Yoruba and Afro-Atlantic religions that shaped so many communities in the US and the Caribbean. I learned about the orishas of Nigeria and the orichas of Afro-Latinx Santería, of Anansi/ Brother Nancy the trickster spider of Ghana and the Caribbean, of Igbos Landing and the myth of the flying Africans, and of the loa and chalk-line veves of Vodou in Haiti and Louisiana. I felt a deep kinship to all this. But I also felt they were not quite directly rooted in the particulars of my own ancestral past.

And even that is complicated. The internal precolonial and even post-colonial migration of African peoples within the continent and then again in the global diaspora means that people of African descent are already a vast mixture of different African ancestries and ethnicities. Borders were always porous.

Shortly after college, I began writing a novel about Black mermaids based on the primarily Yoruba deities and water spirits like Oshun, Yemaya, and Mami Wata (the latter appearing more widely across the diaspora). A few years later, I attended my brother and sister-in-laws traditional wedding ceremony in Cameroon. My father made a passing fatherly jest when my sister-in-law came to greet us from a local restaurant. He said her outfit made her look like "Mami Wata". My head swiveled, my eyes wide. "You know, Mami Wata?" I asked him. He did. And moreover, he also knew about Ekpe, the all-male secret society centered around the archetypal power of the leopard spirit. I had first heard of Ekpe in a Black Studies course in college when we discussed Afro-Cuban religions. Ekpe or Mgbe is the progenitor of the Abakuá in Cuba, brought to the island by enslaved Africans. Not only did my father know about Ekpe, but a few years later I sat in a ceremony after my grandfather's death where the Ekpe gathered to honor him while my father graciously declined taking my grandfather's place in the ancient fraternity. Sitting outside the circle, watching the elegant ritual and hearing (though not understanding) the poetic Ejagham language the men spoke to each other, I realized that Ekpe was of my people and I could trace it across the Atlantic. Over the years more discoveries like this happened. My cousin mentioned that the wall behind Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther was inscribed with Nsibidi. Nsidibi, being an ancient writing system believed to be developed by the Ejagham/Ekoi--- my ancestors. The entire Afro-futuristic script used in the Black Panther films was inspired directly by Nsibidi. A friend then gifted me Akata Witch by Nigerian-American writer, Nnedi Okorafor. The book itself was inspired by the Ekpe "Leopard People" and Nsibidi.

Over the years, more and more connections seem to have found their way to me. I rediscovered a book I was assigned for an African dance course at Oberlin College entitled Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson The entire last third of the book is dedicated to the Ejagham and the Abakua tradition in Cuba. Just last week, I stumbled upon an article discussing the work of Haitian-American artist Basquiat. Basquiat, too, had read Farris Thompson's work and painted a series of paintings which featured the Nnimm diety/preistesses of Ejagham culture. I've known of Basquiat's work since I was a child and I never knew he was in conversation with Ejagham art and culture. I feel as if I'm part of a legacy of artists, writers, and scholars tracing the evocative engimatic lines of chalk-lined nsibidi and listening for the rhythm of sacred drums that can only be heard beneath the water.

The research for my novel is ongoing. But as I write about a fantastical quest in this mash-up afro-historical fantasy novel, I feel as if I'm embarking on my own quest-- digging my hands deep into the roots of my own ancestral history.


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