Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Am Who I Am – Reflections of an African-American Ambassador in Zimbabwe

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

In honor of Black History Month, the Zimbabwe-U.S. Alumni Association hosted Ambassador Charles A. Ray on February 16 for a discussion on “Being an African-American Ambassador in Africa.”  Ambassador Ray was inspired to write this blog following a lively discussion of cultural differences, preconceived beliefs and what it means to be an American.


I’m an African-American who came of age during the turbulent years of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, when the process of dismantling the legal and institutional barriers faced by minorities began.  It was a time when many Americans of color sought their roots in the culture from which their unknown ancestors came.  People adopted African names, wore what they assumed to be African dress, and listened to African music – all things that gave us a sense of self and identity that institutionalized discrimination and neglect had taken away from us.
It was a time when people spoke of ‘going home to Africa.’  Now, I want to be absolutely clear about this: I am intensely proud of that part of my heritage that sprang from the continent that is the cradle of humankind.  But, I must also be honest; as someone who for the past fifty years has lived on four continents and worked in or visited nearly fifty countries, I think of home as the place where I came from, not the place where my ancestors – known and unknown – came from.  That statement will, no doubt, not go down well with many, including many hyphenated Americans who mistake pride in the culture of their forebears for ‘belonging’ to that culture.
I have a rather strict view of culture -- I believe that you cannot be ‘of’ a culture unless you grew up ‘in’ that culture.  You can like it; you can even have a surface understanding of it; but, you cannot be of it in the way a person can who grew up in it and who takes its norms and practices for granted.  Imagine if you will an Asian child, adopted at birth and raised in the U.S. Midwest.  Even if that child is taught his or her native language while growing up, the first visit back ‘home’ will show that he or she is an outsider.  I’ve seen this many times in Asia, and I know that the same holds true in other cultures as well.
Often, I’m asked if, as a U.S. diplomat of African-American descent, I feel that I am at home in Africa.  Well, I’ve done two official tours of duty in Africa -- one in West Africa and one in southern Africa -- and have visited six or seven other African countries.  While I thoroughly enjoyed each visit, at no time have I felt a sense of home coming.  Why is that, you might ask?  Consider this:  unless an African-American is from the Gullah community of the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, or a recent immigrant from Africa, or, like our President, the child of a mixed marriage who knows where the African parent came from, he or she has no way of knowing from what specific place in Africa his or her ancestors came from.  In cultures where tribal and clan identity is well established, if all one has in common is skin color, the sense of difference -- of being an alien -- can be profound.  An African, upon meeting an African-American who doesn’t know the language or culture, and whose tribe or clan cannot be identified, must feel the same.
So, the sense of ‘coming home’ is just not there.  What I do have is a pride in knowing that my ancestors came from somewhere here.  In that way, I am truly Pan-African; not of any particular place on the continent, but of the entire continent.  I can’t speak for other ethnic groups, but I believe that deep down inside it must be much the same.  Maybe not so emotional for those who have not been oppressed or discriminated against, but there nonetheless.  Something like ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,’ who speaks the language, but who is not understood.
I am a number of things, but culturally I am an American.  More specifically, I am an American from the state of Texas, with all that it implies.  You can, if you wish, hyphenate me, but you cannot make me something I am not.  I’m comfortable in that skin.  I know who I am, and if those who meet me take the time to get to know me, that will be apparent.  It might not make them comfortable that I don’t conform to the stereotype they have in their minds, but I only ask that they exercise patience and take me for what I am, rather than bemoaning that I am not what they first take me to be.  I think if we all accepted who we really are, and did the same for everyone we encounter, the world would be a less hostile and more welcoming place.

Charles A. Ray has been the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe since November 2009.  Ambassador Ray’s prior diplomatic assignments include U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia from 2002-2005, in addition to positions in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Guangzhou and Shenyang, China.  During his 29 year career as a diplomat, Ambassador Ray has worked with kings, presidents, soldiers and human rights activists on a variety of issues.  He is also a 20 year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 1982 with the rank of Major.  Ambassador Ray is a native of Center, Texas, and the author of 12 novels and two non-fiction books on leadership.  He and his wife, Myung Wook, have two sons and two daughters.