Activators

Heritage from an African American Perspective

Written by Jamal Grant

The word ‘heritage’ is a loaded term—it means many things to different people. It symbolises culture, family heirlooms, a sense of identity and sometimes even wealth. My relationship with this word has been ever evolving throughout my life. Growing up in the northeast of the United States to Trinidadian immigrants, the thought of my heritage rarely crossed my mind. My insular world shielded me from some of the questions of identity and my ties to the cultural food of my parents’ Caribbean homeland provided me with all the heritage I thought I needed.

As most school-aged students, I learned about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow and other forms of hatred and racism that existed in the United States. I read about Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to desegregate a school in Louisiana in 1960. These stories of trials and tribulations evoked feelings of sadness and empathy within me, but also pride and dignity. Despite my pride and dignity, I felt an accompanying disconnect from some of these narratives of the Black struggle in the United States. For I was of the ancestry of Trinidad and Tobago, which I thought at the time, meant that my history was vastly different than that of other Black Americans who were descendants of the enslaved peoples of the United States. I spoke to my father about these feelings that left me a bit confused about my own culture and identity. He shared with me the history of slavery in the Caribbean and that our ancestry was, in fact, not nearly as separate from those descendants of enslaved peoples in the United States. I travelled to Trinidad a few years later with a new purpose and sense of curiosity. I had questions about our culture, I visited museums, I sought out the African heritage that was hidden in plain sight within my Caribbean culture. This was the beginning of a cultural revolution in my world and in my mind. For the first time, I genuinely felt a need to connect to the continent that had always seemed so distant. I had a desire to better understand it, and in turn, better understand myself.

I travelled to Trinidad, the American South, Detroit (where rich African American history resides), Rwanda, and most recently, South Africa. Each of these trips helped bring understanding and closure in some areas, but often opened even more doors to questions and curiosity. In these visits, I watched the puzzle pieces to my life, my history and my heritage come together to form a picture that has continued to guide and ground me as I seek to understand and fulfil my purpose.

When I had the opportunity to visit South Africa in March of 2019, I was re-exposed to the philosophical concept of Ubuntu. While I had heard the word before, it took on new meaning as our research group (AseResearchFilm.org) sought to better understand inequality on the continent. Ubuntu as a philosophy, which is often translated to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”, became the soundtrack to our lives as we pursued our desire to better understand ourselves and our responsibilities as children of the land. To us, the concept of Ubuntu was not a political philosophy, economic structure or business model but rather, a guiding philosophy that should be infused into all aspects of any society seeking to care for its people. In Ubuntu I did not just discover a new philosophy that would colour the lens through which I view the world, but I discovered a part of my heritage that I’ve been seeking my whole life.

The heritage that I carry encompasses so much of who I am—my history, my family, my culture, my food and my aspirations,  but the newest addition to my heritage: Ubuntu, is one principle that I hope every heritage, community and society adopts into their own.

“I am because you are”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *