I got invited to speak at Oxford. Yes, Oxford as in the oldest university in the English-speaking world! I spoke there several years ago in October during their Black History Month since the United Kingdom celebrates it to coincide with the school year opening. I still pinch myself whenever I think about it. Was I really asked to talk about my book, my life, and my ideas? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks to a chance encounter with an Oxford co-ed of color when I spoke about my book at the American Library in Paris. She rushed up after my remarks and insisted that I come to Oxford for a similar talk.
“Uh? Well, yeah, I can do that. Just tell me where to sign!” I thought to myself. She took my contact information. “I’ll be in touch,” she said and left as quickly as she had approached me, without my getting her email so I could follow up.
After more than a year, one of her colleagues from the university’s African and Caribbean Society wrote me with an invitation. And as I thought earlier – just tell me what I have to sign.
I arrived by bus from Heathrow and was met by a quite jolly co-ed and her friend who would be my ‘handlers’ during my two and a half days on the history-packed campus. As they escorted me to my dorm, I peppered them with questions; the most pressing for me was “Well, where are you from?” And then, I was nonplussed.
One told me that her mother’s side came from Ghana and her father’s from Nigeria. “Granny’s still in Accra and we talk to her all the time. We get our recipes from her because they are still the best,” she laughed. The other replied, “Daddy’s from Cuba and me mum’s from Antigua.” Both of these girls had visited their relatives more than once.
Why was I speechless? I expected to hear, London or fill in the blank town in England; just as black Americans in the States would have answered, Cleveland, New York, or Paducah, when asked.
I wove delight and wonderment into my speech that night by emphasizing how lucky they were to know where they came from, unlike so many of us black folk in the States who don’t know much, if anything, about our roots.
During the following reception, I asked as many as I could the same question. I swilled down every country, every subtle difference in accent, and every nuance of comportment. It was a heady experience because I felt their sense of place in the world. Yes, they were British but they were so much more than that.
I had to chide them a little, however, because they had used a photo of Josephine Baker in her French Red Cross military uniform to advertise their BHM activities (below) and didn’t know who she was and certainly not where she came from.
“She’s from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri!” I told them, trying my best to appropriate Ms. Baker’s je ne sais quoi.
For more information on the Society, please click here.
For the complete article I wrote on cultural identity, please follow this link.