Many moons ago, on the first day of an elective class on African Studies in college, my professor handed out a blank map of Africa. She instructed us to fill in the names of the countries. My thoughts raced back to grade school in the 60s where my fourth grade geography teacher handed out a similar outline of the United States to fill in the respective states, including the newly fiftieth state, (Hawaii) that had become a part of the United States in 1959. I passed that one.
However, overwhelmed with chagrin, I felt I had let my ancestors down for not knowing enough about where they originated from or where a part of my soul lies on the vast continent of the Motherland. I had fifty-four blank spaces- a panoply of all shapes and sizes that represented fifty-four countries staring back at me.
Talk about sheer embarrassment, I sheepishly stole a glance around the room to see whether I was the only one lost in translation. I remembered being so nervous that I had wrapped one of my braids around my fingers so tightly it stopped the flow of blood.
For the life of me, I could not remember the name of the country where Tarzan, Jane, the natives, and Tarzan's sidekick, Cheetah the Chimpanzee lived--all I could recall is that the show referred to the jungle as "Darkest Africa." And where did those groups of White men dressed in the nicely pressed safari outfits with matching hats come from? There they were every Saturday morning on our black and white TV on safari in the latest Adventures of Tarzan searching for the "elusive treasures" of the Dark Continent in the 60s.
As a child, I was enthralled with the broken linguistics of how they spoke to the natives, very similar to Tarzan's (Umgawa! Me Tarzan, You Jane, He Cheetah)... and "Me, White man, you, natives, we come in peace." Years later, I was shocked to find that the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, had never stepped foot on the continent of Africa.
So, I moved on to the countries made familiar to me by the African literature I had discovered one day when I walked into an independently black owned bookstore. My life changed! Serendipitously, a treasure trove of glorious literature was right before my eyes. I read book after book as though I was parched and had to quench an insatiable thirst for authors as Nigerian born writers, Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Akinwande Oluwole "Wole" Babatunde Soyinka, South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz.
I failed the test miserably. Yet I did fill in the names of more countries than anyone else in the class, which meant many students handed back a barren map of the continent.
My Egyptian professor was so disappointed, but not shocked that most of us did not know the names of so many African countries, which were now independent of French or British rule. After all, the class was African Studies 101.
This small framed woman taught with such vigor and passion. I learned more in those sixteen weeks about the "elusive treasures" the White men were looking for on the show (Africa's rich resources), the slave trade and the middle passage, colonization, worldwide slave ports, queens and kings, and even how the special tapping of a palm tree could produce a cool glass or bottle of Palm wine.
Our semester ended with the study of the breadth and depth of the complexities of South African Apartheid (Afrikaans and the Boer Wars, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), and so much more). I was awakened to this somewhat parallel universe of the injustices suffered on this continent and our own; two worlds apart, yet the fight for equal rights was profoundly similar, i.e., (Plessy vs. Ferguson to begin the end of segregation in America, and the efforts to end Apartheid in South Africa since 1948).
However, through the class and my previous reads from African writers and my later trips to Africa, I now understood the many misconceptions that had been portrayed in American news, caricatures, books, cartoons, movies, commercials, and in the Adventures of Tarzan.
I even went through an "I want to save my people" phase - I would call home to tell my Dad everything that went on in class (theories and such), that I wanted to "save my people," and connect with my African roots. Mind you, I was raised under the doctrine of the Bible, the Kennedys, and Dr. King in our home.
My Dad said, "Who are your people?" I stumbled over my words a bit--I was surprised he didn't know -"Dad, people who look like us." "Sweetheart." He said, " I worry about you. You can't right the wrongs of the world. Just continue to educate yourself and make a positive difference for all human beings in the world." My Dad knew that was my ultimate goal in life.
However, he broke up the seriousness of the conversation when I asked for money for a college book. I will never forget his reply, "Ask your people!" To this day, my Dad loves to tease me about that phase in my life.
Moreover, after my many trips to Africa, I even changed my middle name from Ann to a Nigerian middle name of Ngozi. My soon-to-be eighty-six-year old Dad, wise and witty as they come, is still my Rock-of-Gibraltar/ my Table Mountain of South Africa.
For the final, my professor gave us that infamous outline again of the continent of Africa. She had contacted an African restaurant and ordered food; we listened to African music by (Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba) as we dined. This time, when I sneaked a look around, everyone was writing swiftly and with certainty as our feet under our desk moved to the rhythm of those African drums and song.