Re: The Best Ones

A strange and disturbing encounter with a man on the streets of Dakar has given me much to think about.

Late in the afternoon I was walking back from the restaurant alone when a small man approached me at the Main Square and said very clearly in English, "You are an American aren't you".

Hearing English surprised me more than being recognized as an American at this point. For one thing I am almost fat compared to the average African man and of course because of Micheal Jordan's influence, my hair is much longer.

"Yes I am" I said, a bit wary that this might again be the beginning of a scam of some kind. But instead he seemed genuinely interested in talking as we walked the short distance to the hotel.When I asked him how he could tell where I was from he said that "Americans are very different from us."

At this point I became very interested in what he had to say.

"Why are we different" I asked and he proceeded to tell me something that was a dark surprise.

With quick authority he said that long ago the slave traders were very careful to only take away the ones who were the strongest and smartest. "They knew it was a long and hard journey" he said, so they only wanted to ones who were most likely to survive. That is why the Americans who come back are the best ones.

This was a stunning theory to hear and it confused and saddened me. I immediately thought of how Blacks in the western world struggle against feelings of inadequacy and the hopelessness of achieving recognition for their humanity. And here was a simple historical logic that seemed designed to make Black Africans feel like discarded, inferior people who were left behind. Suddenly there seemed to be no place where Black people could know that they were whole, free and worthy. There was obviously something wrong with this theory but I was too overwhelmed at that moment to stop and think clearly.

Instead I asked him who he was and if this is what Africans really believed about us.

He told me that he worked as a guide on Goree Island and that, yes, this is something that all Africans know to be true.

At this point we were at the hotel and I quickly took his picture because I knew that this had been a very significant encounter.

As I went up to our room I wondered if he was simply telling me something that he assumes Black Americans want to hear. I wished that I had been quick enough to suggest that it was just as likely that the smartest Africans were the one who had figured out how to avoid being caught in the first place, but it was too late.

My first thought was that this might explain the sense of awed respect that some people here seem to have for us at times but, actually, I know better than that by now. That had more to do with issues of class in this culture and their perceptions of us as being wealthy and free to travel.

The more I thought about what I had been experiencing in Africa, the more sure I was that Black Africans seemed to have qualities of life that were clearly lacking in the West. So many Blacks in the United States have wary, angry and defensive edges that I have always assumed were inherent somehow. I don't see that here. Africans seem to have an automatic sense of belonging to each other, and belonging to this place that gives then a sense of wholeness and spiritual depth despite their poverty.

And I knew that on this continent, it's my reflexes that are off. I could often feel myself tightening when I know I should instead be opening and coming forward.

I obviously have very much to learn from these people.