Friday, April 03, 2015
Cultural Disease/White Paranoia
Ethnicity and the Will to Love
Who is the black male? What is his role in society? How far have we come from slavery to the point where he establishes himself as modernist, conscious and an intellectual? Are we driven by a prison system which furthers his plight as criminal? What role does the police play in conquering any notion he has of himself as human? Are race and gender issues therefore applicable in certifying how we relate to each other within communities both black and white, lesbian and gay?
How are we defined by ethnicity --- ?
In the East Village of New York City in the late 70's urban life was a mish mash of locals who had relocated from other places in the Midwest of the United States or other countries and set up camp for what was a combination of low life and artists. Among them were the Latinos and Blacks who later spearheaded a drug and crime culture.
Could it be then said that this was a neighborhood governed by ethnicity? What was an identification of a racial group were places like Harlem or the Bronx where mostly a diverse group of Blacks and Latinos lived. Places like Washington Heights which has been inhabited by Dominicans over the years.
I am not privy to the idea of Russians, Italians or Polish living in Brighton Beach and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn where most of these ethnic groups are centered. Certainly Queens, New York has the most diverse group of ethnicity anywhere in New York, especially known for it's Greek culture.
I ponder the thought of ethnicity in my life. I was born and raised Ghanaian in the city of Accra. My father is Fante and my mother is Ga. I identified mostly with my mother since my father traveled for work and had been living in the United States. Culturally I was raised by maids from the villages and got my education at the Royal Preparatory. I also lived on my grandmother's compound where I went through growing pains getting scorned by my elders.
The notion of being African always had a tint of foreignness to it. My particular maid often spoke about Bollywood movies she had scene as well as American movies imported into the country. My aunt also was a go-go dancer in Sweden and she brought home ABBA records. I do recall our white American neighbor at the Airport Flats as well as a Dutch girl at school.
The sentiment of being African was encouraged by the food I ate and the language of Ga which I spoke. There was the entity of living in Ghana having my relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins all living with me. But all of this was taken away when I moved to New York. At the age of ten I hadn't developed a full identity. I was a pre teen with a sense of faith and courage but I was heading into an unknown situation which I welcomed with excitement.
But once I was situated I quickly became aware of cultural differences. I sensed that I was different from my classmates. There were very few blacks. And those I was introduced to did very little to recognize me as a friend. The ones who showed respect were whites and Latinos. And thusly there has always been this divergence between who I was as a black boy in America and who my friends were.
At that young age I grew accustomed to the media and pop culture. I quickly became aware of television programming, cartoons and eventually cable pornography. I reacted to the perceptions of white characters in television shows. As much as I enjoyed black comedies, I grew to hate the maid we had brought along to New York. Her presence as an uneducated black woman with bad skin and an afro disturbed me. There was a particular television show called Different Strokes about a white father who had adopted two black children. This show was one of the many I watched as a young boy.
Increasingly the societal white disease became more pragmatic in me where I would close my eyes when the two black characters appeared on the television screen. I had no idea why this was. I hadn't and couldn't draw a conclusion for myself. At the same time I was having issues with eating. I had a Latin classmate and neighborhood friend who was obese. Circumstantially my parents thought I was afraid I would turn out like him. But I think it was deeper than that. It was a combination of the cultural disease I was experiencing.
My parents sent me and my three younger brothers to an all boys parochial high-school. I was quick to make friends with some Black Americans but I identified more with the white classmates who listened to the same music I did and watched the same movies. With the commercialization and birth of rap and hip hop culture I was able to gain an advantage. I became aware of popular hip hop acts and I experienced this culture not through people, friends or classmates but through the media, television shows, magazines and the radio.
And so my development and relationship to the status quo that was black nation and politics was through a social and cultural experiment. In retrospect I identified myself as black based on my role as a child of two African parents and experiencing hip hop culture in all its relevance. But at the same time there was a resistance, not forcefully but through maturity.
I started studying at the School of Visual Arts. While there I was introduced to semiotics and French literature. I studied texts by several French philosophers. My love for language grew strong. Roland Barthes' book Image, Music, Text was like a bible. And so I had grown distant to black philosophy. What was slavery texts and books by black authors was foreign to me. The suggestion of being an artist also brought about European ideologies central to the artists we studied.
At another college, Hunter College, I was introduced to the philosophy of Negritude, which made available several novels I read by African authors. At this point I was undergoing a circumstance of finding my African identity. I began reading Kwame Nkrumah's biography. And when my youngest brother committed suicide I changed my Christian name of Arnold to my birth name of Kofi. I began exploring my talent of poetry, recalling memories from Ghana and writing about them. At this time I wrote my unpublished novel, Gorilla Head, about an African who lives in New York, undergoes a cultural transition and eventually gets one lucky chance to visit his homeland.
All the while I was making transitions through my personal life. All of whom I identified with were white American or European. It wasn't until I laid eyes on a Ghanaian girl while studying at Visual Arts did I question my love for white girls. It took us ten years to start our romance but it was well worth it. She was my only black lover and to this date I recall our brief four months together as she died of an aneurysm. Otherwise my love affairs have always been with Europeans and white Americans.
There were moments when I would see an African girl and I would recollect moments when I was studying at the Royal Preparatory. I was surrounded by some beautiful Ghanaian girls or my particular neighbor at the Airport Flats who had an attraction for me. Throughout my experience in New York I was consistent in my thinking and influences from art and philosophy and music. My friends were white and my influences were white.
I had met with a priest and gotten advise in finding living space. I had suffered a great depression times before and was in therapy. He suggested I could use this as an advantage to find housing. This became a circumstance that changed my life forever. I spent ten years living in transitional housing with uneducated, street types. This was a life lesson as I saw a side of New York I had not imagined. My middle class lifestyle was turned upside down. I was consistently faced with dangerous situations. But I was building a reputation. I was gaining credibility.
I have found my own living space in a black neighborhood. When I did I was inspired to do another social and cultural experiment on myself. I started writing poems in the black voice. It was perhaps cliché as I wrote in the jive Black American language, at times street, at times inspired by the blues. This sentiment also brought me back home to my family where I made amends with my younger brother. Our relationship, his along with my parents, inspires the very little recognition I have to ethnicity left in my life.
I eat the African cuisine and I speak the language of Ga. I also serve as a link to friends of my parents and other family members.
My current status is a reflection on ideas that pertain to art and philosophy, creativity and spirituality. The cult of my being and person is that of a person who has lived an extreme life. My roots are consistent with my strength in self identity and repairing the wounded soul. Granted there has been help along the way from psychologists, psychiatrists, priests and family members.
I don't answer to a particular ethnicity. My life identity is philosophical. As a black man my roots are African. I identify with Black Americans, Latinos and others of an indigenous background. But given the circumstances of my life I am compelled to live it through my creative visions.
Once I accept the freedom to be myself and not feel compelled to socio-politicize my life, I will be able to find a balance of love which overwhelms everything and everyone.
At heart and in my mind I am black. But I come from the notion of love. I am a creative being.
That is the message. The will to love.