“Living in Between”

Arriving at Goree Island

Arriving on Goree Island

As a result of growing up in a southern home where we were often considered a bit different by our contemporaries, it is no wonder that I would choose to live my life abroad. My parents, who grew up in segregated Texas, raised their children to remember who they were, where they came from, and that we are where we are because of someone else’s sacrifices, struggles, and triumphs. I am so grateful for those lessons, and I consider myself blessed to be an African-American woman who is comfortable enough in her skin to live anywhere and to call any place home.

But Africa has always held a special place in my heart. Like most love affairs, this rapport has had its valleys, its summits, its joys, and its heartbreaks. The reasons for which African-Americans choose to live in Africa are myriad. Some, like me, have careers in the development field, and therefore, live and work abroad. Others have opted to flee racism, capitalism, materialism, and the “rat race” in hopes that the Motherland would caress them and hold them to her bosom. I know some come seeking Africa’s gold because they have done enough research and risk analyses to know that African investments often yield the greatest returns. I love how no matter where we are, the sisters and brothers always find one another. We know one another by our swagger, by the look that comes along with being descendants of those who loved us through slavery, through Jim Crow, through Civil Rights, and to the White House! We greet each other abroad-like we do at home-because we SEE ourselves.

As a person of faith, I know that I am here “for a time such as this.” Even when I first step foot on the continent in 1990, I do not recall thinking that I had reached “paradise” or “home.”  I did not put the burden on Africa to embrace its daughter – though I thought that would happen automatically, because in my mind, African blood ran warmly through my veins like the Senegalese men and women who were around me, therefore we were kinsmen. Much to my surprise, I was often referred to as “toubab” (Wolof term denoting a foreigner). I could live with that term if it were not the same term that was used to describe my fellow Caucasian travelers. It was at that moment that Africa showed me that in this context, identity is bestowed – not proclaimed by the individual. As a student studying in Senegal, I spent a lot of my time arguing the merits of my AFRICAN-american-ness in vain. I talked about the similarities  between southern African-American and many West African cultures. These elaborate and well thought out monologues fell on deaf ears. A male university student closed our debate when he said, “Show me your passport, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For him, the issue of race, identity, and belonging were really that simple, and I was not a citizen, a daughter, or a sister of the continent.

One of the many beautiful images on Goree Island.

One of the many beautiful images on Goree Island.

Almost 25 years later, I walk the fine balance of belonging and not really belonging. I live in between worlds. I love living in West Africa. I love the convenience that life in the US provides. I love that Senegal is peaceful. I still appreciate that in the US, I can call the electricity company and get service without leaving my home. I can even expect electricity to work consistently – provided that I pay my bill on time. I am grateful that my family and I live in a place where family is still valued and where I can be a professional female who’s also a wife and a mother, yet still have time to reflect because all my free time is not spent on domestic duties.

Texans often think that the state is a country unto itself, so the notion of choosing to live away from the state baffles many. However, when I lived in the US for a two year period, I realized that I did not fit in there anymore either. My worldview had changed after being away for so long. The American political nonsense turned my stomach. The abuse of religion horrified me. Ignorance and intolerance seemed to become an acceptable way of being.  And it struck me that though many Americans knew the system was corrupt, empty, and problematic, the ability to change it, seemed impossible – and the attempt to do so even un-American. During that time in the US, I longed to be in a place where I was in between. Now I know that my life is about the journey – not the destination. I no longer need to have all the answers or have a perfect plan. I shed that American tendency some time ago as Africa taught me that we really have much less control than we think.

As an adult who still has a curious and adventurous spirit, I hope that I have the opportunity to continue to live and explore other countries and other ways of being. Mark Twain said it best: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I take comfort in this truth when I think about the fact that my husband and I are raising our Black son abroad. All kinds of questions arise.  Are we raising a child who will be comfortable in his skin? Will he know that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made” so he can just be, because His Creator has made it so? Will he find his voice among African men, as well as with the brothers back home? Will he know, like his mom, that people who know who they are, can live comfortably anyway? Will he stand assured that the best place to be is comfortable in one’s own skin?

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10 thoughts on ““Living in Between”

  1. Wow! Great blog..very inspiring and awesome to get an insight into your life in Senegal. And so true how when you are comfortable with yourself..home is where you be. Can’t wait to read more!

    • Thanks for your comment. There’s this expression in French (that doesn’t translate well in English), but it’s “être bien dans sa peau,” which means to be well in one’s skin. I think living outside one’s country and one’s cultural context requires being well in one’s skin. If you’re not, the challenges can be overwhelming. But I’m excited about having a forum in which things kinds of ideas can be discussed, particularly for people of African descent.

  2. Hello sista, I am delighted that you invited me to comment on your well thought out blog. Because I got to know you so deep down and personal , I know your sentiments are true to life and real…. A delightful read that I will share with many.

  3. Great blog, Tracey! I sometimes feel the same way when I go to Mexico considering I am not fluent in Spanish (which is a disgrace, I know). I love the country, I love the history and the culture but feel like such a tourist when I go. It hasn’t helped either that all my life I have been told I don’t “look” Mexican. Maybe that is why I want to identify with my Mexicaness so bad and probably why I get so nervous when I do speak Spanish because I feel that I am being judged. I am really looking forward to reading about your life in Africa. Give that precious son of yours a big hug and kiss from me.
    Love you!

    • Katie, I LOVE it!!! I remember there was a sister in college who struggled because she was a non-Spanish speaking Mexican-American. I recall her expressing the exact same feeling of being judged by her Latina sisters. Just so you know…you are the baddest Mexican-American sista I know! But language is HUGE…even on the continent. I have seen folks shamed and their identity questioned because they don’t speak their indigenous language. Here, it seems to be a measure of just how “Senegalese” you are. I also like the fact that you mentioned that you don’t “look” Mexican. I’m curious to know about how people navigate those murky waters of identifying themselves with a certain group, while the group mau have doubts about whether those folks belong. Who determines what it means to be Mexican? How it that cultural and psychological identity determined? Can the individual decide? Or is that left up to a group? Which group? What I have come to accept is that notions about what it means to be Mexican, Asian, Black, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, “normal” – and yes, American, are constantly changing.

  4. Thanks for your perspective! It’s because of your travels to Africa that I was afforded the opportunity to live abroad for several years too!

  5. Hi Tracey

    I love the honesty that you speak, I find your blog to truthful and in depth with reality sending messages to us all about making a transition from one way of living to the next. I enjoyed reading your intimate thoughts, concerns and cares for your son. I believe that the deep rooted love for expression that flows in his parents blood will also flow within his.

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