One of my dreams as a child was to know what part of Africa my family was from. I grew up in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which was full of immigrants and ethnic Whites who had strong ties to their “homelands.” I am proud of my Arkansas heritage, but that’s not the same as knowing my homeland. So I was over the moon when science made it possible to get an accurate DNA test done so I would know my African ethnicity and homeland. As it turns out, I am 70 percent Mende and about 25 percent Fulani. My “homeland” is the area of modern day Sierra Leone, Liberia and Benin. Finding this out was one of the happiest days of my life.
I spent years getting to know everything I could about my people. One of the more fascinating things I discovered is that they are mainly rice farmers. The reason that is important is because my family, both maternal and paternal, are from Jefferson County, Arkansas. Guess what else comes from Jefferson County, Arkansas? Riceland Rice Company!
The slavery story I was taught in school told me that enslaved Blacks were chosen at random and that evil White people had them pick cotton or help with whatever crop they were growing. It was all just happenstance where the Black people lived. What I realized through the research is that it was not random at all. The slave traders were very deliberate in targeting specialty areas from which to draw African slaves, and equally deliberate about where they sold them. That is the reason a lot of the slaves in the southeastern United States are from Ghana. Ghana’s climate and ecology is similar to the coastal southern U.S. Africans from Ghana already had immunities to malaria and other illnesses common in the Southeast’s coastal region. That is likely also the reason my family lived in the part of Arkansas where they produced rice.
I am so blessed that I am able to tell my children their real African-American story! Although it is great progress to have a Black History Month where everyone can learn about the contributions of Black Americans, it is also so very limiting. The narrative of Black people, as taught by most American schools, begins with slavery. But that’s not where our story begins; our story begins in Africa. For each Black American, our story begins in a certain part of Africa, with an ethnic history, culture and community that is thriving.
It’s also crucial for my children to know that Africans who were brought to America weren’t arbitrarily chosen to be enslaved. They had a certain skill set of labor that was needed to grow the agrarian American economy. My people, the Mende tribe, were rice farmers and came to America to cultivate the rice economy in America. It is also interesting to study the internal conflicts between the ethnic groups in the African region I am from, both historically and today.
My ancestors were enslaved because of a multitude of reasons, including tribal wars. The more powerful tribes in Benin were known to be deeply involved in the enslaving of other tribes, especially the Mende people. There are still major fights between tribes in Africa because of the country divisions created by Europeans at the Berlin Conference, held in 1884 and 1885. The Berlin Conference had two major effects: first, it carved up Africa and its resources and wealth and divided it among different European nations; and second, it further exacerbated existing ethnic/tribal conflicts by using the same kinds of divide-and-conquer strategies that we see employed today.
There are also cool things I’ve discovered about my Mende people. We have a pretty rebellious and resilient spirit. The movie Amistad was based on the true story of a slave mutiny led by people from the Mende ethnicity. Today, South Carolina’s Gullah community still maintains a strong Mende heritage and culture. The Gullah people have preserved a Mende song, “A Waka,” for over 200 years! It is still sung today! I look forward to teaching it to my daughters.
I love that I have a homeland story. I’m glad I know my homeland even if I never go. It’s nice to not have my history start with slavery in Arkansas. I love that when people ask my children where their ancestors are from they say, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Benin. I love that my children know that they are Black American but that they are also Mende. And the Mende people have a strong, beautiful culture and traditions both in Africa and the Americas.
As Black Americans we will never be part of the common American narrative of “immigrants coming to America for a better life.” However, my children know their honest origin story in America, and they can say with pride, where they are from in Africa, why they came to America, and know that they have a community of family, throughout the diaspora, and a homeland across the ocean, that they can visit to trace their roots. Just like White Americans who go to their European homelands.
The greatest gift I can give my children is an American story that the majority of White Americans take for granted. My Black children know their homeland and know their history didn’t start with slavery in America.
Happy Black History Month!
The original posting of ShaRhonda's article can be found on Educationpost.org.
ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.