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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 27.2 (2006) 54-86

The Impossibility of Return
Black Women's Migrations to Africa
Piper Kendrix Williams

I was on an international flight, traveling from New York to Paris, when an older French woman inquired about my origins. She began with the questions about where I was from that seem to attend many trans-Atlantic encounters, deftly moving from geography to race when seemingly exasperated by my answers of America, Connecticut, and, finally, the place of my birth, Atlanta, Georgia. She finally asked, "But where were your people from before that?" Clearly she was asking about social or racial origins, not national ones. I told her I was African American with African, European, and Native American ancestry, but because I could trace back seven generations in the U.S., I could not tell her where "my people were from before," although Africa seemed a good if not vague and oversimplified answer. Of course, I had to wonder, "before" what, the Atlantic slave trade, miscegenation, (un)forced migrations, returns and departures? This woman's need to know my race exemplifies the preoccupation many people have with origins, other people's as well as their own. It is as if she felt that when she could identify me within an established place or origin, she could then "know" me. Thinking of it in this way almost immediately becomes problematic, for it revolves around fictions of identifiable origins and consequently complicates for personal, individual identities that recognize the intersectional nature of race and gender.

The idea that people's origins are somehow clear and not clouded by diverse histories, migrations, and relationships is for me a romantic (read: unrealistic) one, especially for blacks in the African diaspora, for whom "Africa" the continent, and not a particular nation, must be the answer to the question: "Where were your people from before?" As complicated a notion as the idea of identifiable origins is for me, many people who locate themselves in a larger diaspora engage in just this kind of thinking—seeking and claiming origins, for in fact to imagine "home" is to imagine our beginnings. And while this is often a process of construction rather than repossession, it is commonly figured in the popular imagination as a linear migration back to our origins. Because the [End Page 54] idea of origins invokes racial, ethnic, and national identities, other shapers of individual lives, including gender and the ways it intersects with these other identity markers, are often neglected, if not negated. As a black woman who as a college student journeyed to Africa and lived in Zimbabwe for six months, I know well the pitfalls involved in envisioning the continent as home. In 1993 I was a student at Spelman College, a historically black woman's institution, when I arrived in Zimbabwe and was quickly identified not as black or African, but as "colored," or someone of mixed race. I was not seen as a black woman returning to some ancestral origin; rather I was seen first as a woman, then an American, and finally someone of "color." My own teleology of return was first complicated in these experiences.

The texts I discuss in this article focus on women's migrations to Africa. The complexity I wish to explore centers on the several migrations inherent in these journeys, which are in many ways "migration horror stories."1 Carole Boyce Davies thinks through the ways literary representations can complicate ideas about gender as women migrate between families and home. Davies argues that

the mystified notions of home and family are removed from their romantic, idealized moorings, to speak of pain, movement, difficulty, learning and love in complex ways. This complicated notion of home mirrors the problematizing of community/nation/identity that one finds in Black women's writing from a variety of communities.2

Thus while seeking out a place of origins or home is a conflicted process for men in the African diaspora, for women the migration...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0334
Print ISSN
0160-9009
Pages
pp. 54-86
Launched on MUSE
2007-01-17
Open Access
No
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