Monday, November 19, 2012


An American in Africa.

Those are the words that were tagged in my mind’s eye from the moment I touched the ground of Abuja, Nigeria more than a week ago. Not exactly sure why, but they just were. Perhaps because I know in spite of the many years I’ve laid claim to Africa—Mother Africa, the Motherland—that I am, as Amiri Baraka stated in his landmark book “Blues People,” a creation of America, a native son of a far away land. And while we colored folks here consciously and subconsciously have very profound spiritual and cultural ties to the continent, as we call it, I was clear I was going there as an American who had evolved from that enslaved African of so long ago….

And I am now back in America, back home in Brooklyn, New York, severely jet-lagged, waking up somewhere between 3AM and 4AM the past four days, thinking and dreaming of Africa, thinking and dreaming that I am still in Nigeria, still roaming the streets of the tiny city of Yola, these most beautiful people, swaying like the dangling and ancient branches of baobab trees as they push carts full of sugar cane, or gasoline, or wood to warm their homes or their food. Carts, really, pushing against the margins of their lives. Margins that reflect the severe poverty of these stunningly beautiful and spiritually-rich people, my people, that we call Africans.

In their Nigerian faces I see a friend from Brooklyn, or Chicago, or New Orleans, or Oakland. In their long walks along the lonely highways of Nigeria I see my South Carolina kinfolk similarly walking, with a stick in hand, in search of work, love, freedom, possibilities. In their radiant smiles and belly-up laughter I see the joy on my own mother’s face, on her lovely dark-chocolate face, as she navigates the world of racism and sexism and classism in America, even in her golden years. In the weathered brown-leather hands of African elders I see the hands of an old Black woman or an old Black man on a stoop or porch, at church, in a rocking chair, the lines and contours of those hands telling more stories about their lives than a million words ever could. In the genius creativity reflected in their huts made from the material’s of God’s earth, in their ability to walk and balance anything on their heads, I see the magical and magnificent birth of spirituals, and jazz, and rock and roll, and hip hop, I see a people ripped and kidnapped from their native soil, 400 years removed, as I was, from the land of my ancestors, yet what was not ripped up or kidnapped is the uncanny ability to make something from nothing, to improvise, to stick and move as The Notorious B.I.G once rapped, to freestyle on this microphone we call life.

This is in spite of the colonialism and neo-colonialism that still decimates much of the African continent.

This is spite of a Nigerian leadership, not that different from some of our Black leadership right here in America, that is about self, not the people, about power, not peace and love and nonviolence or possibilities beyond their homies and cronies and fancy cars and larger-than-life homes. A leadership at times so rotten and corrupt to its core that you honestly wonder if these leaders even love themselves or the people. For if you really love the people, any people, you would never exploit, maim, murder, and you certainly would not keep opportunities and access to life itself to yourself. Yes, Lord, the world needs to be born again, and that certainly includes places like Africa….

When I was walking from the British Airways flight last Thursday, the bright Nigerian faces beamed and said to me as they said to every Black passenger who passed, “Welcome home!” I paused, stunned, wondering if they knew that this was my first time. No, cannot be, but I interpreted their words to mean just that. Welcome home, Kevin Powell. You may have an Irish first name and and an English last name, born of the legacy of that very vicious and brutal American slavery, but you’ve finally returned to where you are from.

I did not cry as I thought I would, not outwardly, anyhow, but many days later, back here in New York, I was exercising on a treadmill and decided to play the music from Steven Spielberg’s film “Amistad,” about the famous slave rebellion. The first song is titled “Dry Your Tears Afrika.” It is such a captivating song, a combination of traditional African rhythms and classical European music. It is a call, a chant, a melancholy plea, and as I was stepping on that treadmill finally the emotions of my trip to Nigeria burst from beneath the flesh, punctured the backs of my eyes, and I exploded into tears. And I cried and cried and cried. Cried for my first trip to Africa. Cried for the people of Africa. Cried for all I had seen there, all I felt there. Cried because I knew I would never be the same again, because of this journey “home.” And I vowed, on that treadmill, that not only would the remainder of my life, no matter how long or short, continue to be dedicated to helping others, to public service in any and every way possible, but that Africa, now more than ever, would have a permanent place in that work.

Because Africa, however faint and distant, still, for me, was one of the homes I had been searching for my entire life….

Kevin Powell is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and political activist. Through the years Kevin has written for Ebony, Esquire, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Essence, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, and Vibe, where he served as a senior writer. He is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at [email protected]