Being African American in Senegal

This post was written by Jabari Gambrel, a Global Citizen Year Fellow spending his bridge year living and learning in Senegal.

Invisible.

When I arrived in Senegal I imagined that I was going home because that’s what everyone called it. Family members and church women in bright colored dresses all exclaimed, “You get to go back! You get to see Africa and you get to see home!” This idea of home is what drove me to take a gap year in the first place, but the thing about returning somewhere is that it is always completely different than you remember.

African First

During one of the first conversations I had in Senegal, a woman referred to me as an American. I was surprised and a little bit insulted, I informed her that I was an “African American.” The African comes first. It is a tribute to the history and beauty of my people and is not to be forgotten. In fact I had always thought of myself as more “African” than “American.” In my mind I was American by passport, birth and language. But what does it really mean to be “African American”? For me it means inheriting two continents, their cultures and histories, their music and clothing. Everything is yours to claim and everything within both continents becomes part of you and your narrative. However, since being in Senegal I have realized that an inheritance of everything can feel like an inheritance of nothing.

In the United States, as a black person, I never felt like I truly belonged. Especially recently with images in the news, protests, and music all pointing to a war between the idea of “America” and the black people that inhabit it. The fact that I have to declare that my life matters means it is not an apparent and universal fact. The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is controversial shows that African Americans are marginalized in the country that we built, even to the point of invisibility. The truth is that although the Americas, were built on the backs of Africans who inherited the title American through their bondage, these nations were not built for “us.” This is why the African comes first. It is our birth right, our Eden, our home. It is the place we are from, where we dance the same way across an ocean, where we still laugh too loud, and wear too bright clothes. It is the place where we are still a “we”. At least, this is what I thought before I arrived in Senegal.

Going Back

Many African Americans view Africa through the lens of “going back.” It’s a beautiful notion. Picture a young girl with an afro past her shoulder blades, running into the arms of an old “African” woman. The woman pulls the girl in and says “oh how I have missed you my love.” It’s romantic, it’s poetic, but it's not reality. The problem with the notion of going back is it’s almost as absurd as labeling a group of people African American. It suggests travel across space and time, to the static and ancient place that is “Africa.”

This place no longer exists. And while most U.S. citizens are unaware of the current situation in Africa outside of war, famine, and failed governments, the same cannot be said for the Senegalese. They are extremely aware of “American” culture, society, and life. I think of it this way: when you leave your lights on at night and have your windows open, everyone outside can see into your home, but your vision of them is limited to the light which you cast out.

My experience in Senegal has been that going back is indeed going somewhere else. Yes, my skin allows me to be invisible and even at times to appear Senegalese. And yes, my tightly wound hair, too wide thighs and too long legs can be found here, but this place is no longer my home. Home is where I’m from and where I’m going. The shift I made during my time in Senegal was thinking of Africa’s peoples more as cousins, aunts, and uncles rather than ancestors. It breathes life back into our extended family.

An African in Senegal

I believe every African American should go and live in Africa. Senegal has helped me make sense of my body, my hair, and my voice. There is something powerful about being surrounded by people who share your skin and understand your hair and booming voice. I will never forget the lessons that have been imparted on me. I have learned how to not be the only black boy in the room, but how to find comfort in invisibility.

In Senegal, when I meet a new person they guess that I am from one of the neighboring West African countries. I have heard, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Cape Verde, even Nigeria. My face and nose, and eyelashes all speak to my origin, but I can’t be placed. This is the true meaning of being an African American. You are mixed, and in some ways homeless, and before I open my mouth my heritage is up to the beholder.

An American in Senegal

In Senegal other foreigners have not seen me as “American.” My skin tells foreigners that I am Senegalese or that ambiguous “African.” I have been dismissed and disrespected because of this assumption. Once while working at a health post I had a French woman refuse to shake my hand, opting instead to touch the tip of my pinky, all because she assumed I was a “native” as she said to her husband. It has been eye opening to see the way that both U.S citizens and other travelers treat the Senegalese. This invisibility has allowed me to see both sides. Not all tourists act this way, but in my experience in Senegal most of the tourists who assume I am Senegalese don't stick around long enough to discover I am an American. It would only take an exchange of a sentence, but usually they look away or pull out their phones pretending not to see or hear me, completing my invisibility.

Senegal has killed my romanticism of the continent. But has given new life to its people, its joys and triumphs and also its losses. Senegal has taught me about my blackness, explained the skin I am in, and has given me new questions and momentum regarding my home. America.

Jabari has a profound passion for poetry, the visual arts, singing and both cultural and social anthropology. He is passionat
Jabari has a profound passion for poetry, the visual arts, singing and both cultural and social anthropology. He is passionate about African and Polynesian studies and is a National Geographic student explorer alumnus as well as a Rustic Pathways alumnus. He also runs an NGO in the Dominican Republic. Jabari views every person’s individual narrative as important to understanding the human condition. You can read more stories from Jabari's Global Citizen Year on his blog.
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