By Phillipe Wamba
Dutton. 384 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Mark Mathabane
To many black Americans, affinity for Africa is an essential ingredient to a healthy sense of self and identity. Activists such as Malcolm X and intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois have passionately embraced Africa as an antidote to American racism and the psychic legacy of slavery. Others, like Washington Post journalist Keith Richburg in Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, reject the very notion of black America's kinship with Africa. Enraged by the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left hundreds of thousands dead, and repelled by the widespread poverty in many African countries, and the corruption, brutality and greed of their governments, Richburg thanked God that his ancestors had made the middle passage to America.
Phillipe Wamba elucidates black America's love-hate relationship with Africa in his beautifully written and well-researched book Kinship. The book is essentially a personal and family memoir. Yet seamlessly woven into the Wamba family saga are insights into the complexities and challenges, myths and misconceptions surrounding the often idealized relationship between black Americans and Africans. Wamba sets out to make a case -- and a persuasive one -- that the two groups should forge "a meaningful and functional sense of unity" despite differences of geography, culture and history. The son of a black American mother and a Congolese father, Wamba writes with the perception of a psychologist and the perspective of a historian. His love for Africa is unmistakable. But that love doesn't preclude objectivity or self-criticism, nor does it prevent him from honestly rendering opposing points of view. Wamba factors in the role of experience, temperament and sensibility in shaping our perceptions of self and of reality. He sensitively highlights the ambiguities black Americans feel toward Africans and vice-versa, and points out that identification with Africa entails more than skin color, an African name or African clothing. Take for instance the following passage in a chapter appropriately titled "Middle Passages."
"I was born both African and African American, but it took years for me to understand what that duality could mean. . . . My blackness has been the bridge that has linked my two identities, the commonality that my split selves share. But it often seems a tenuous link. And not just for me. I have traveled the world, with my race as my constant companion and curse, and everywhere I have seen black people bewildered by a strange tension between feeling powerfully bound by what they share and hopelessly repelled by what they do not."
The feeling of being powerfully bound to Africa outweighs that of being hopelessly repelled. The reason, as Wamba points out, has to do with the depth of the emotional ties black Americans have to Africa, ties that led Bishop Desmond Tutu to say that "there are things we are often unable to articulate, but which we feel in our very bones, things which make us, who are different from others who have not suckled the breasts of our mother, Africa."
Wamba experienced this visceral connection when he met his father's mother, to whom the book is dedicated, for the first time in Zaire. He describes their meeting in a deeply moving passage that deserves quotation for its poetry and insights:
"I had heard of my grandmother's failing health, but I had trouble accepting that the woman whom I had known only as a proud and impressive figure in a photograph, a woman who had raised my father and his eight brothers and sisters, had been so severely betrayed by time, losing her strength, her vitality, and even the use of her legs. I wondered at how difficult it must be for my father to see her like this. And I felt guilty. I was twenty-four years old, but this was my first time ever meeting her, ever speaking to her. I felt I was hopelessly late -- if only I had seen her in her prime, heard her tell the stories and sing the songs that our father had repeated for us when my brothers and I were younger, and watched her effortlessly hoist a basket of cassava onto her head or a plump child onto her back."
Kinship is replete with such telling vignettes, among them one about Maya Angelou's marriage to a South African anti-apartheid activist. In chapters such as "What is Africa to Me?" and "Drumbeats From Across the Atlantic," Wamba discourses on music, politics, religion, food, fashion, literature and other subjects to show that the ties between black America and Africa are deep and abiding. These ties are what led reggae singer Peter Tosh to say that "No matter where you come from, as long as you're a black man, you're an African."
Mark Mathabane is author of the forthcoming "Ubuntu," a novel about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.