Young Griot

Shanghai Travel Blog

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I remember my first Black History Month. As a group home kid who avoided fights by staying away from the popular television set, I found my entertainment through books. Many of them were about Black inventors, Black scientists, Civil Rights leaders, and Black athletic heroes. When a Black History Month contest was announced over the school loudspeaker, I was very excited to participate, and studied extra hard just to win a prize. It was near lunch recess when they asked the question of the day, "Name the first American to reach the North Pole?" I jumped out of my seat and yelled to the teacher that I knew the answer. I sped down the hallway and up a flight of stairs to reach the contest coordinators. When I reached them, I blurted out, "Matthew A. Henson". They looked at me, and announced to the entire school that I won the question of the day. What troubled me next was their surprise. They alluded to the fact that they didn't have my prize, a bag of chips and a discount to Great Adventures because they didn't think or believe that any student would be able to answer their challenge. When they asked me what grade I was in, I answered. They were further shocked to learn that I was in special education.

Years later, I would tell that same story to countless students attending our nation's schools, to point out that though others may carry low expectations of them, it is up to them to create their own possibilities with the power of their own knowledge and imagination and drive to push forward. I recently took advantage of an opportunity to visit Shanghai several weeks ago and stayed for six weeks learning quite a bit of Chinese culture and some Mandarin language, but it was my experience with Africans studying and living in China that transformed my relationship with the continent and her people, my belief in the power of Black contribution in American History through Civil Rights leaders and the Civil Rights Movement, and returning to the United States with a renewed interest in Black history and making it known to others the importance of knowing one's historical struggle and greatness.

I arrived at the foreign student's dormitory with great expectations and curiosity about the unknown. While fixing up my room, a bus arrived to take elder Chinese to another campus for western New Year's Celebration. Joining them, we arrived shortly after to a barrage of students. Seeing another dark complexioned individual immediately got my attention, and I quickly introduced myself with the excitement similar to seeing a long lost cousin. The gentleman I met was from the Congo, and asked if I was from Cameroon. I explained that I was an African-American from the United States. His eyes lit up with wonder, and he quickly introduced me to several other Africans from different parts of the continent.

Later on that evening, I met Joshua Mutambi, a Ugandan middle-aged man with a degree and long professional experience in Uganda, attaining another degree along with his wife through Shanghai University. He invited me to his room, his lovely wife introduced herself and offered me tea. I sipped her tea while Joshua; excited that I was from America, asked me how African-Americans viewed Africans. I explained to him that African-Americans vary greatly in knowledge of modern day Africans and most of the Black Community knew very little of Black history as well as American history. He couldn't see the difference between the two, and then asked why African-Americans don't invest more in Africa when other nationalities seem to without hesitance. I then explained that eighty to ninety-two percent of American citizens don't have U.S. passports, and African-Americans constitute an even smaller population of passport holders, and that coupled with poor perceptions developed by inaccurate media depictions, feed disinterest and perhaps negative stigmas that prevent African-Americans from interacting with, learning about, and investing in Africa. However, I did elaborate further that Dr. King and Malcolm X both at the end of their lives desired that African-American society be more global in their outlook and influence. Mutambi asked who Malcolm X was. I was completely taken back. How could an African of any country not know who Malcolm X is? I asked him if he knew who Dr. King was. He had heard of him, but didn't have any knowledge that he felt was of any worth. My impulses immediately jumped at the chance to share their history, and that took several hours. Nearly two in the morning, Joshua's eyes were still lit with excitement, while his wife rested peacefully. Joshua asked me if I would share these same stories to friends of his. I accepted, and left for bed.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a "griot" as being an African storyteller whose role it is to preserve the genealogies and oral traditions of the tribe through stories that maintain the history and culture of the people. I would have never in a million years considered myself a griot, or someone taught and rigorously trained in the art of storytelling, especially to modern people, but in Shanghai I had somehow assumed the possibility of one.

What I also learned concerning modern literary resources in third-world countries also gave me a culture shock that had me re-evaluate the civil liberties I had taken for granted as an American citizen. When a country like Uganda faces social upheaval, as was the years of Dictator Idi Amin, one of the first institutions that are destroyed are the libraries. Most political leaders afraid of an educated proletariat class would either seize control or regiment all institutions of learning or severely lay waste any teaching or literature perceived as doctrinally opposing their rule and form of government. To prepare myself for meeting Joshua's friends, I went to the Shanghai University college library with hopes of finding more resources to accurately detail events from American history, to my surprise, I couldn't find anything. Of course, most of the books were in Chinese, but after asking the librarian about books of historical significance, most holdings, in fact, all holdings carried either Maoist-centered literature or books about science and technology but nothing on social studies. Did I have internet access? Yes I did, but Africans afraid of surveillance by the Chinese government, stay away from any web content that would jeopardize their status as students or workers. Many Africans say that they wouldn't even know how to begin to search for Black history online, even with the limited access to internet-accessible computers in their home countries.

I met with Joshua's friends, gentlemen from Uganda, Gabon, Cameroon, Tanzania, and several other parts of Africa. I began with Malcolm X and Dr. King, their background and history. I explained the Civil Rights movement and how African-Americans fought for their human right to live as equal to Whites under the American flag. I described what it felt like for Rosa Parks to be asked to give up her seat for a White passenger, and Medgar Evers helping Moses Wright escape from Mississippi Klansmen for testifying in the Emmett Till case. My message to them was that Black history and American history are not separate histories and that if it weren't for movements like Civil Rights and the cultural, political, economical, social, intellectual, militaristic, athletic, artistic and heavy laboured contributions African American Blacks made to America, America wouldn't be the country it is today. They also admitted to me their lack of knowledge of their own African history prior to the 1930's. I spoke about the eight hundred year old Moorish Empire that covered most of the known world and controlled most of the Mediterranean trade routes. I spoke about Hannibal the Great leading hordes of manned elephants across the dangerous Alps to defeat the Romans across many fronts, and Napoleon's loss of Haiti at the hands of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Black emperor. As I kept telling stories, they kept feeding me food, and eventually we engaged in healthy discussions about the present relationship with African-Americans and Africans of the continent.

Returning to the Unites States, I immediately picked up my home television remote control to reacclimatize myself with current American events and culture. The first channel that popped up was B.E.T., a music video with a young African-American woman in a skimpily dressed outfit dancing between a rapper with numerous gold teeth and a red fire truck. I turned off the television. I went back to my books and multimedia encyclopaedia to learn more about the countries of the men and women I entertained while I was in China. I also looked for DVD movies about the sleeping car porters and A. Philip Randolph, and the Deacons of Justice. I was engrossed in learning more about my history, not just for myself anymore, but for Joshua Mutambi, my African brother in China, and my other friends in China, and every future friend I will make who will ask me about Black history, and I hope to help them to understand that Black history should be studied and appreciated, yes, but to recognize that without Black history the greatness of American history would be lost. We not only survived some of the worst persecution America had to offer, but we endured! And we endured with remarkable dignity, value, warmth and grace. United, tolerant, and amazingly strongly and supportive of each other, our leaders were American icons and heroes who revived and instilled in new generations the will to struggle and attain the American dream by stretching its vision to whole new horizons.

How do I explain how far we as a people have come, and the struggle for civil rights we've fought for, only to explain that a large population of us don't vote, many of us don't read, and many of us don't know what Malcolm X felt when Mr. Ostrowski suggested that he be a carpenter rather than a lawyer, or have read Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It was hard enough to explain these current issues of the African-American community to my adopted African family, and is even harder for me to explain it to myself.

China will always be a memorable trip because of my experience with Africans studying and living in China. To them, I was a young griot who had brought a gift of immeasurable value to them across the oceans, knowledge of our history as a people, and the love of friendship. They in turn transformed my relationship with my continent and my people, my belief in the power of knowing our history, and returning to the United States with the belief that I too will make history by building bridges that connect African-Americans to Africa, and Africans to our people here. Black is not a color; it is an origin that is forever and always, and as long as we hold onto that single essence, our National Black Anthem becomes internationally and universally felt:

…Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun, of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.

Griot. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 4, 2004, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
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