Dear sir traveling past me at 7th & Spring in the Ford F-150 Raptor this past July 4th,
I hope this message finds you well. Our encounter, albeit brief, was quite impactful! As I’m sure you remember, I was walking home with a few friends on the beloved birthday of our nation when you ever-so-slightly slowed your passing vehicle to offer me a bold suggestion.
“Go back to Africa!” — you said sharply and with conviction. Our eyes only met for a moment before you were turning down the next street, leaving me with an eyeful of bumper stickers cataloging your patriotism from over the years. The sincerity in your voice was palpable, so you’ll have to excuse me for being a little confused that you decided not to stop to have the conversation in full.
Moved by your thoughtful recommendation, I took some time to meditate on your words. I too take community seriously and it’s important to remember your heritage, your history, and all those that came before you. After days of careful consideration, I decided to take your advice — I was going to exercise my birthright and move back to Africa, a continent I’d never set foot on before.
To really get the ball rolling, I first needed to figure out where I was buying a plane ticket to. Your suggestion, while brilliant, was broad. You can’t just book a flight to Africa — ha — I was quickly getting a sense of your humor! As I’m sure you’re well aware, Africa has 54 countries. Quite a selection and a little overwhelming if I’m honest. As I scrolled through the list of recognized states, I had an astonishing realization.
I had no idea where in Africa I was from. Buddy, you see the rabbit hole you sent me down?
I was born in America. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. And even their parents were born here. After that, the trail kind of goes cold. I’m not sure if your family came through Ellis Island, but you know how you can go there and look in the books to see exactly when your family arrived and where they were from? Looking into my family’s past is a lot like that, but imagine the books are empty (and if they’re not, they don’t list names, just prices, genders, best guesses for ages, heights, and weights). Needless to say, I was stumped.
Lucky for me, it’s 2019 and there’s a lot of technology at our disposal. I got a DNA test from Ancestry.com and a few months later my results were in. 35% of my genetic makeup was from Benin and Togo (two smaller Western African countries wedged between Ghana and Nigeria). Another 26% was from 17 other countries across Central Africa. More overwhelming news! How could I go back to Africa if I couldn’t even tell where the hell in Africa I’m from? Moving back was proving to be a little harder than you made it seem, pal — but I wasn’t going to let you down!
I decided to just take a leap of faith. I was mostly from Togo, so that’s where I’d make my move!
My excitement started to grow. My move on the horizon. Finally, I’d be able to connect to a deeper part of my past. I really started to wonder why you thought to suggest this to me — like a fairy godmother, you appeared at exactly the right moment to set me on a course that could forever change my life. Just the other day, I saw in the news that more and more people are getting the same intervention you gave me — concerned citizens across this country are passionately recommending that their fellow countrymen and women go back to their lands. How brilliantly thoughtful! You may have started a movement! I even heard some people chanting “send her home” about a minority congresswoman. I have to admit, the cheering made it seem like they were open to paying for her travel. Now I don’t mean to sound ungrateful about our interaction, but what a generous group that must have been.
But back to me — despite the expatriate days of Hemingway fueling the romance of it all, moving to a new country brings a lot of paperwork with it. Immigration is a big deal these days. A Google search told me I’d need to start with a visit to an embassy. Benin and Togo have four across the US and Washington DC has an office for both. Bingo. The most bang for my buck was in our nation’s capital— an important factor as I’d started a little nest egg for the move. Needed to save money where I can since SOMEONE wasn’t going to pay for my trip — just kidding!
Excited and optimistic, I arrived in DC. I started with the Embassy of Togo. After telling them about my journey so far (don’t worry, I told them about you starting me on this whole adventure) and my interest in moving back to the motherland, I was told quite bluntly that I would need a visa.
I have to admit — I was a little shocked. My blackness, as you seemed to imply, surely should have been enough. What more proof did I need? I’m African. I should be allowed to go home. The embassy worker said the best I could do (at least without a job sponsoring me or my parents being citizens) was a multiple entry visa allowing me 90 days total in the country. Three months isn’t really a move — it’s more like a long vacation.
So I made the fifteen-minute walk up Connecticut Avenue and popped into the Embassy of Benin. Wouldn’t you know it — the same story. I didn’t qualify.
So here I was, surrounded by the buildings that power our beautiful democracy, with my Visa-less blue passport. A passport from the country I was born in, but as you reminded me, am not from. I have to tell you — I felt a little played. Then I started to wonder if you knew all along. Was this some sort of strange lesson?
A fat grin blossomed across my face — “My man,” I said, laughing to myself with my passport shaking in my hand.
You sent me on this wild ride just to show me I was already home.
I’ll never forget you.