Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, music, foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.
The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories. It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted. She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”
I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of another race; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?
All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.) I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim. The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes. I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer. And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land. Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.
In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.
But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?
I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-tinted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes? Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps? Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?
If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.