It is exactly 24 hours from the time I am scheduled to leave for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City in route to my first-ever trip to Africa. I am going to Nigeria, to do a series of speeches there, to meet the people, to absorb the continent from which my ancestors were taken as slaves and brought to America so many far away years ago.
I am beyond excited, especially because I’ve had other opportunities to travel to Africa in the past: I had a free trip to Senegal sitting there for me just a couple of years back, but I was in the middle of my Congressional campaign here in Brooklyn. And in the early 2000s I had a plane ticket to South Africa in my hands, purchased by me, but I never used it. Why? Because I didn’t fully explore the costs of getting there in terms of shots and other expenses, and simply didn’t have the extra cash at the time. And, truthfully, my mind and spirit were in very different places back then. I didn’t feel the sense of urgency that I do now.
So for years Africa has tugged mightily at my spirit, asking me to come home, to visit her, to spend time in the geographical space where all of civilization was born. Back in the day, when I was a college student at Rutgers University and was becoming politically and socially conscious, my growth was fueled by digesting as many books and documentary films as possible about Africa. In fact, my introduction to the continent was through my work, as a first-year college student, in the anti-apartheid movement. I knew vaguely of Africa at the time, and what I knew was presented largely through the often negative and destructive images that depicted Africans merely as violent and warring factions, or as starving beings desperately in need of water and food. Nothing more.
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Other than this, of course, like all Black kids of my generation, I sat and watched every single episode of Roots on television with my mother. But the fact is Roots was more about slavery and Black America than our beginnings in Africa—so it didn’t spark any desire in me to learn more about African history. Not even close.
This is why learning of Africa through the movement to liberate South Africa transformed my thinking, began the process of washing away an entire early life of profound self-hatred, and, for the first time in my life, gave me a land base with which to connect. Except for Native Americans, the original “owners” of this land, every people in our nation come from somewhere, be it voluntarily as immigrants, or through force, as was the case with our ancestors. And through the years since college, as I evolved as an activist and writer and I encountered so many Africans from Africa studying in America, or permanently living in America, or Americans of different races and cultures who had visited Africa, or had lived or worked there for extended periods, I felt a great guilt that I had not gone.
Yet somehow I was subconsciously afraid to make the journey, afraid of what I might feel once I landed, afraid that I would be so pulled emotionally by the experience that I would not want to return home to America. And afraid that because my ancestors are centuries removed from there that I would be a foreigner in the most uncomfortable and unpleasant ways. But in the past two years the desire to go had grown so enormous, so great, it had so filled the belly of my spirit that I determined I couldn’t put it off any longer.
The question was how was I going to go—how could I possibly afford such an expensive trip while still recovering from the costs of two Congressional campaigns in three years, and other debts that were mounting? Some people laughed at me, with a good deal of sympathy, when I suggested aloud, on more than a few occasions, that it would be great if someone could just bring me to Africa. Indeed, both Africans and Americans seemed to be patting me on the head with pity whenever those words dared drop from my lips. But then it happened. Miraculously.
Dorsey Spencer, my fraternity brother in Alpha Phi Alpha (the oldest Black Greek-lettered organization in America) emailed me just a couple of months back and asked if I still wanted to come to Africa to speak. I had forgotten that he reached out to me a year or two prior, informing me that he was working at the American University in Yola, Nigeria. I was in shock. YES!
I didn’t care what they wanted me to do, what the topic was to be, nothing. What I knew was that the God I believe in very deeply had answered my prayers and I was finally going to Africa. Overcome with emotions in that moment, I just cried. I thanked Dorsey profusely, again and again and again.
Finally, it is not lost on me in the whirlwind past days that I’ve had, that we’ve all had: Hurricane Sandy caused great destruction to my adopted hometown of New York City and surrounding areas like New Jersey, where my mother still remains without heat and hot water. For sure I’ve offered her a hotel or my condo apartment (which she ironically helped me purchase) but she refuses, completely. I am praying her lights come on today, before I get on this plane to Africa in the morning. I’ve visited her, given her money and batteries for her flashlights per her wishes, but she will not budge. She is a senior citizen, a beautiful one at that, but very stuck in her own ways of seeing the world.
And, alas, there is the presidential election. I would argue this is far more important than the 2008 election, will be incredibly close, and will have great repercussions across the globe, especially for people of color, for people of African descent. I cannot imagine, if President Obama loses, explaining this to people in Africa. Or explaining it to myself, for that matter. I am hoping for the best, that Barack Obama wins re-election.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org