Where Are You From?
“Where are you from?” Fell like his lips like honey as we sat across from each other at some obscure hipster coffee shop.
“Virginia” I responded just as sweet. He looked puzzled. I smiled awkwardness stretching the corners of my mouth far too wide for comfort. “No where are you really from?”, Virginia I said quick and sharp. Then with drawn out deliberate tones and pleading for an acceptable answer dazzling in his eyes-- “Where are your people from?”
His words fell this time like when you are clumsily re-racking too heavy weights at the local planet fitness.
Surprisingly I get asked this question a lot and I still do not really know how to answer. Like most African Americans my extended family tree has been cut to what might describe as a stump. For example my maternal grandmother is 99, the oldest of 14, and was raised in Pine Bluff Arkansas to parents that were children of sharecroppers but then the story gets cloudy. My paternal side of the family is a bit more complicated as he was not raised by his biological relatives. My mother once told me we might have some relatives in the Bahamas, but every statement seemed to have an asterisk or a question mark, never a definitive statement, never a period.
It was not until I was in college when I met first generation immigrants. There they were, able to pull out a map and point to a small village or town where their lineage like beautiful braids weaved their way through time. They knew their greatest grandparents by first name and jealousy formed a stiff lump in my throat. My history suddenly became inadequate, quaint and incomplete. As a girl who lived in the gap between lusters blue magic hair grease and jollof rice and fish stews, I couldn’t help but wonder if my collard greens with neck bones was not good enough for the melting pot.I returned home from school and I remember offhandedly saying to my mother that African Americans didn't have culture. Her face cracked and fell on the linoleum. “What?” I said defiantly. “What do we have? Slavery is our only shared experience” She simply said “that’s not true.” We continued to eat with silence as our new main course. Seeing the hurt in my mother’s eyes, I apologized, cleared my plate and went to my room.
What I didn’t know then as a defiant college freshman was that in that short exchange, I erased my entire lineage and left only smudges of shackles and bondage. I erased my mother’s sacrifice and my fathers determination, I voided my great aunts’ tenacity and uncles’ perseverance and the hurt behind my mother's eyes were the chains clinking and clanking shut not by a callous master but at the hands of her own daughter. As an African American we are taught in school that our story starts with our involuntary immigration and though this is undoubtedly untrue, but look at what we have created with the debris. Cornrows that once detailed escape plans to freedom are now worn on Parisian runways, recipes created from the scraps that were served are now enjoyed from coast to coast in soul food restaurants, our generational fables are now the backdrops for blockbuster movies like Black Panther, we are the culture, the influencers, the cusp of innovation and invention and the poster children of the strength that lies in the diaspora. Our culture is in hot iron burn diagonally sprawled across your forehead head on school easter sunday. It’s in the “What yall know about this?’ said like a prayer that you too will join me in the electric side or boogie oogie woogie at the backyard barbeque. It’s in the jiffy cornbread fresh out the oven and the durags when we wrap our heads for sleep. It’s the groove in our walk and our incantation of our talk. It’s been in the highest public office and the harlem street corner. It has filled museums and house parties. It’s in the southern baptist handheld fan and the clink of stripper heels in Atlanta. Its in the Civil rights Movement and the marches on Washington. So when people ask “where are my people from” I just smile and say “How much time do you have?”.
Madelynn Poulson is an Academy Award viewing performing artist and writer from Hampton, Virginia. She graduated from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in acting and is currently pursing her artistic goals in New York City. Through her work she hopes to capture and celebrate her bold, sometimes painful but always glorious journey as a young black female artist. Her most recent work can be found at madelynnpoulson.org and @medusa.poulson on instagram.