This is Black History Month in the United States. I am a Black man and I am an American, but Black History Month is not a celebration of my history; it is not about me. I came to the United States when I was a teenager. I came from what is now the Republic of South Sudan; at that time, it was still part of Sudan. In fact, I had been part of the civil war that led to South Sudan’s independence. But, as fraught with danger and excitement as my life had been, it was not part of the Black American experience.
My ancestors had never been enslaved in the south. They had not picked cotton, tobacco, or rice. They had not been raped by White men or sold down the river and away from their loved ones. On the other hand, the threat of slavery had been much more immediate for me. Arab raiders from the northern part of Sudan regularly came to our region to steal our cattle and possessions and, yes, sometimes to take my people, the Dinka, into slavery.
My family had not suffered under Jim Crow and segregation. My father did not have to have “the talk” with me or my brothers. Nor did I feel somehow different from my neighbors. In our region of Sudan, almost everyone had black skin like mine. While the Baggara-Messeria Arabs whom we called Murallen sometimes killed Dinka men, there was no lynching, no mime of justice, no claims that one of us had raped some innocent women. Although, I have to admit that rape did go on, and it was expected that the raped woman would marry her attacker.
I had never heard of an underground railroad. My people had never followed “the drinking gourd.” But I had fled my region of Sudan and walked hundreds of miles to the refugee/training camps in Ethiopia and from there back across my country to Kenya. But, those marches, difficult as they were, were not flights of fear but rather the movement of an army committed to battle for our country.
Neither had I found the deep and simple faith of Black America. I was raised in our tribal traditions and found Jesus by listening to a Catholic priest who was determined to support our national movement. If there was a thing, I did have in common with the Black American tradition it was the realization that my tribal gods were clearly not able to protect me from oppression. Clearly, the God of Europe and America was stronger.
Although I had heard of Martin Luther King Jr, I had not marched with him. I had not been to the mall in Washington DC to hear his dream. Instead, I had listened to another dream, particularly one articulated by a man named John Garang de Mabior. His was a dream of a free country, one in which every person could have an education and could make a contribution. It was to fulfill that dream that I came to America, to go to high school and college.
Yes, I have experienced some racial prejudice in America. Sometimes the prejudice has been from Blacks who assume that I must have grown up swinging from vines like a Black Tarzan. Sometimes the prejudice has been from well-meaning people whose limited knowledge of Africa has led them into assumptions, such as I must be Muslim or I won’t follow rules, or I must be angry at Europeans for colonizing my country. Actually, the British were rather indifferent to what went on in our region; they didn’t even create a good network of railroads as they did in most of their colonies.
Sadly, some White people assume that I will be dishonest. They don’t know that at an early age I learned my people’s code of honesty. Some have assumed that I would be dirty. It must have surprised some of my co-workers, especially at Circle-K, when I was so preoccupied with cleaning the store. They didn’t know that I was taught to take everything seriously. For me, doing my duty perfectly was a sense of pride. Many assumed that I would be lazy. They don’t know that at a young age we were trained to do everything possible during our time in the refugee and training camps. Others thought that I couldn’t speak English. Perhaps the funniest assumption was a positive one. As a Black man, I must be able to play basketball. I was too proud to admit that I couldn’t so I forced myself to practice until I could play decently.
So, what do I take away from Black History Month? It reminds me that Blacks in America have not been treated fairly. Well, the unfairness of life is something that history, all history, teaches us. Twenty years ago. I was at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It was horrifying to learn about the Holocaust. While I was there, somebody gave me a copy of the “Diary of Anne Frank.” Reading that book made me realize that as difficult as my road had been, there were many others whose suffering had been much worse.
For me, Black History Month is a reminder that we must try harder to respect one another, live in peace with one another, and help one another. Life should not be a struggle of one against another but an opportunity to cooperate and by cooperating to lift one another. Be our skin black, white, brown, of any color. Be our faith Christian, Muslim, Hindu, tribal, or whatever from. Be our language Dinka, Arabic, English, or some other tongue. Ultimately, for me, Black History Month is a reminder of a simple injunction from Jesus. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
~ Deng Mayik Atem
Publisher of Ramciel Magazine