Twelve hours ahead of my loved ones on the east coast, I woke up and donned my favorite black t-shirt with an emblematic white X on its front. I was celebrating my Fourth of July with an eclectic group of expats in Kuala Lumpur, and made a point to pay tribute to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Celebrating America's independence without acknowledging the black experience would be a hollow show of theatrics.
Born to Sudanese parents in an Arabian city, my introduction to American patriotism and race relations came from the classroom. Indeed, it was my 6th grade teacher who brought to the forefront the implications of my identity as a black person in the great United States of America. After warning the class of its belligerent scenes, my teacher continued to place "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow," a PBS documentary on race relations in America into the VHS player. I sat intently with a notepad and pen in hand ready to jot down notes for a possible exam.
The film did not spare us any grotesque images of the KKK's brutality. The burning of churches, shooting and lynching of black men on the street left me in a state of agony. I could not sleep for days. If people wanted to kill me because of the color of my skin, then surely I was not expected to resume normal activity. I found comfort in the fact that my apartment was on the 8th floor -- no one would dare climb up eight floors to kill me, I reasoned.
The 50-minute film ignited the adoption of a new reality. It forced me to come to terms with a part of my identity I had never before grasped as a child in the Middle East. The concept of race had yet to "materialize" in my conceptual terrain. While I lived in Saudi Arabia -- where ethnic tensions are high -- never did I think I could be defined solely by the color of my skin. My community was in no way homogeneous, indeed everyone hailed from a different country and was of varying hues and ethnic backgrounds. My community was so diverse and international it rendered me unable to identify race as a defining component of ones identity.
But as I watched the documentary, I discovered that I had to conform to a new reality--to an American reality.
In an instant, my ethnic background had little relevance in the American racial discourse. If my great-grandparents were in America, they would not be Nubian chiefs; no, they would have been enslaved, deemed sub-human. And in this realization the African-American narrative became my own. I became a descendent of Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Owens, and Angela Davis. The freedom fighters of a people I had little in common with historically, became my freedom fighters. As I began to weave my own narrative into the tapestry of America, I had no choice but to pay homage to those who fought so that I may earn a prestigious education, work in corporate settings and actively demand for my rights without fearing imprisonment or violence.
My Nubian ancestry engaged in a sophisticated waltz with my newfound identity, and the two never left the dance floor.
My story, like the story of millions of black immigrants in America, is a testament to the evolving definition of Blackness. For while I may not always fit into its confines with my soft curls, Arab culture, Middle Eastern features and love of Mediterranean food -- there is no question that I, too, am African-American. Indeed, these characteristics are Lego parts in the construction of my form-changing identity. I don on my black identity just as I donned my Malcolm X t-shirt, just as I depend on my Sudanese networks to navigate foreign Muslim landscapes and just as I rely on my Arabic proficiency to earn free dinners and favors in Arab countries.
And while it is important to recognize categories as we study systemic patterns and develop macro-level policies for society, the American black-white paradigm is a misleading one for it oft eclipses the true diversity of its people. This categorization can prove to be toxic.
Conflicts facing minorities in Burma, China and Sudan (to name a few) are plagued by questions of identity, origin and migration. The oft-violent confrontations are a result of an unwillingness to redefine what it means to be of a certain ethnicity, nation or peoples.
As human populations shift, migrate and conglomerate in cosmopolitan spaces, embracing the fluidity of identity may no longer be choice--unless you're keen on starting regressive confrontation.
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