Walk of Faith: Camino de Santiago, Spain

Before beginning this alluring journey to walk on the sacred path towards God, I had various concerns regarding how the journey would be like? Being a solo traveler, what kind of people would I meet? With just a handful of words from Spanish vocabulary, how would I communicate with the local community? Even though I expected my whole journey to unravel beautifully at different instances, I couldn’t stop asking myself these questions. After finishing my journey, I can positively say that it has been one of the best trips I have had so far, and, one day, I am definitely going back to walk on the path of Camino de Santiago again.

El Camino de Santiago, in English is called ‘The Way of St. James’. It is a 100-year-old ritual. It is believed that the body of St. James, the Apostle was discovered by a shepherd in a field in Galicia in 9th century. The name of the route comes from the St. James’ name Camino de Santiago meaning Walk of St. James.

My curiosity to explore the journey began with my research on the walking pilgrimages of India. After studying the sacred landscapes in India, I wanted to experience Western pilgrimages, specifically Europe and build a study of contrast and similarities between the pilgrimages of both the continents. Camino de Santiago was on the top of my list because of its worldwide popularity and enriching walking experiences as described by pilgrims.

I attempted to walk the last 120 kms of the pilgrimage, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. I reached Santiago by a flight and then took a bus that took about 4 hours to reach Sarria. It is a picturesque village in the arms of Galician mountain range. I stayed at a small Albergue that was 5 min walk from the Cathedral. After lunch and a stroll in the village square, I decided to attend the evening mass in the cathedral. The whole mass was in Spanish and everyone around me in the Cathedral seemed to be in their 40s-50s. Though I don’t understand Spanish at all except “Hola!” and “Gracias!”, it was quite captivating and the aura of the place felt quite spiritual. My objective was also to talk to as many people as I could and learn about their journey, intentions of this pilgrimage and how did walking through these sacred landscapes evolve and affect them. I met a 25 year old man from France, named Florlan Ernesto, who had begun from France and been walking for 10 days to reach Santiago. He mentioned that this was his second time coming for this journey and that he was quite close to his deceased mother who had been doing it for about 50 years. He wanted to continue her tradition as a legacy and thus had started to walk on the pilgrimage a year ago. He also was a godfather to his son’s daughter and wanted to pray for her well-being that had inspired him to walk on this journey.

The next day, I stepped out of the Albergue with confusions as to how to move forward in the journey. The warden of the Albergue told me that the yellow arrows, scallop shell and a couple of other symbols mark the clear legibility on the way and GPS or any map is not required to reach the next destination which was a village named Portomarin. The scenic path towards Portomarin was through a dense forest, rolling grasslands with beautiful mountains around and meandering roads. I met a German woman, Wiebke, who must have been in her early forties. After introducing myself, I couldn’t stop myself but ask her about her reasons for doing the walk. She mentioned that her friend had done it a couple of years ago on the route that goes right outside her house in her hometown. She had seen the movie “The Way” and was also reading about personal experience of a man who had done the walk. This all inspired her a great deal that motivated her to give it a try. She had a family in Germany but she decided to walk by herself. She was a lovely companion. The journey was also made interesting by a group of young Spanish men I came across while walking, and who were singing lovely Spanish songs.

Portomarin is a beautiful village on a hill near the river Minho, 15 miles from Sarria. After walking for 15 miles, I was exhausted and drained with energy but the approaching view of Portomarin was profound. I met a Chinese girl in the Albergue who told me she had a few days off from work and this walk sounded adventurous to her that’s why she had been walking for 15 days and had planned to walk even further for 20 days. She wasn’t religious or soul searching, this was just a fun trip to her. A quick lunch and short nap later, I went to explore the village. It had an interesting spatial design with a big open square in the center and the cathedral, shops and restaurants around the square. The topography was a little steep with streets going up the hill towards the square.

Departing from Portomarin next morning, I began walking towards Palas de Rei, my next destination for the journey. This time, the route led me towards hill top and the view from there was breathtaking. The hill top was surrounded by open tracts of grasslands, trees and other hills with patchy farmlands and clusters of settlement at places. I could gaze at the view for hours if I stayed. Halfway through my destination, I was reunited with Wiebke, the German woman. That’s the remarkable thing about this journey. You see the same faces, who you started the walk with, at different instances of the walk. Apart from the signage that make one feel associated with the feeling of a pilgrim, the wish “Buen Camino” becomes a delightful tradition that you follow whenever you pass a pilgrim/pilgrims on the way.

 

Palas de Rei was a bigger town than the previous two. The evening mass at the cathedral used to be the perfect way to end the day even though I didn’t understand what they said in the mass. I would always see lot of familiar faces showing up at the mass and it became an important pilgrim ritual for me. The next day, I left for Melide that was 12 miles from Palas de Rei. This part of the walk was mostly thorugh forests and farms. Even if I would walk alone, I never felt lonely or vulnerable in my pilgrimage. Beautiful rolling landscapes and Spanish villages felt safe.

Melide was more developed and bigger than all the previous ones. The streets were busier, there were more shops, restaurants, café and a commercial center. There were local markets and streetside vendors for clothes, food, shoes etc. that made the local galician ambience more vivid. I met two Spanish girls in the Albergue as we shared a room. They had come from Seville to walk the last 100 kms as they had graduated and wished to get a job. Through walking, they believed that they are paying respect to God who would fulfil their wish. One of them translated the evening mass for me in the Cathedral. The priest praised the pilgrims and congratulated on their journey so far. He said with each step, we were reaching closer to God. The small town square was enlivened after the mass with restaurants and coffee shops with pilgrims dispersed and explored their options.

The next destination was Arzua. What was surprising about one of the bars on the way was it had a slot machine. After reaching Arzua, I explored the town and local food, highlight of which was spicy fried green chillies. The next morning, I began walking towards Amenal. With reaching closer to Santiago each day, my curiosity was increasing to see the final destination. The spatrial fabric of the landscapes was slowly transitioning into more urban from country as the walking paths became wider, even the ones next to highways. Amenal wasn’t really a village but an extremely small settlement with a hotel for pilgrims to stay at.

     

The final day of my journey towards Santiago was very exciting. I reached a hill while walking from the top of which I could see Santiago de Compostela. Each walking step towards the city was pumping energy into me and my enthusiasm levels were at its best. My arrival was anounced by decorative boards along the roadside that were decorated by embellishments from pilgrims. After reaching the town square, I made my way towards the cathedral through through fervent crowd in the narrow streets. The first sight of the Cathedral was eternal. Beautiful scupltures carved all over on the walls described the story of years and years of pilgrimage the cathedral has witnessed and it stood as a palimpsest of built material and pilgrims’ emotions. The inside was equally beautiful. Main chamber was adorned with glitterinmg gold sculptures of Jesus, angels and other saints. The whole aura was quite heavenly. The evening mass was in Spanish and I could ony understand a handful of words but it still gave me goosebumps and I felt proud as a pilgrim. After collecting my certificate of pilgrimage, I started exploring the town that felt as if it belonged to a different era, with talented musicians giving a wonderful background score on the streets, local ice cream shops and restaurants with authentic flavors and a charming pink sunset sky. I felt light as air, melting slowly in the cool winds, absorbing my journey into my soul.

     

 

Saloni Chawla
Graduate Teaching Assistant
Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

 

References

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About Colombians’ war and peace, and other peace processes in the XX – XXI centuries.

For Colombia’s political history, the last couple of weeks were simultaneously the most promising, frustrating, intense, unpredictable, and confusing. Between September 26th and October 7th, 2016, a peace agreement was signed, voted and rejected; there was a risk of ending the ceasefire; the peace process was supported by massive rallies; there was no plan B ready, not even by leaders opposing the agreement; and, if all this does not sound confusing enough, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.

This is not the entire story, however. As with any other peace process, this is a matter of a long and complex political history.

School affected by war in rural Colombia. Photo by Jesus Abad Colorado. Source: BBC Mundo

School affected by war in rural Colombia. Photo by Jesus Abad Colorado. Source: BBC Mundo

Unlike Colombia’s conflict being framed in terms of mere terrorism, which assumes there are “bad guys” who should be defeated by the “good guys”, the country’s political violence has developed between conservatives and liberal guerrillas since very early on in its republican history.

More recently, after the 1948 event known as El Bogotazo, confrontations between liberals and conservatives scaled in cruelty and intensity to the point that the 1950s are known, even today, as the time of La Violencia. As a result of the huge social inequities, marginalized territories, and the inherited issues of the 50s combining with the socialist revolutionary environment in Latin America, several political rebel groups emerged in the 1960s and 70s. From those came the three largest guerrilla groups:  M-19, which disarmed in 1990 after a process that resulted in the 1991 constitutional reform; the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), which has approached peace negotiations still in progress; and FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo), the largest rebel group in the country, and the protagonist of events these past two weeks. A fourth large paramilitary group, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), emerged in the 1980s not as a political movement, but to defend private properties where the national army could not guarantee safety. The AUC went through a disarming process in 2006, which has been highly questioned due to both its lack of transparency and because of evidence of State’s support in some paramilitary attacks (more references about this topic here).

One more thing—drugs. Drug-dealing and other illegal economies permeated almost every one of these nonofficial armed groups, which added the “easy money” factor to an already complicated picture. Read more about Colombia’s political history in the work of David Bushnell, Jorge Orlando Melo, Marco Palacios, Alfredo Molando and Paul Oquist, among others. There are more than 400 entries at the library catalog about political violence in Colombia . Also, you can find additional resources about connections between drug-dealing and war in Colombia here.

This most recent and internationally visible peace process with FARC was a 4-year negotiation of a 52-year long conflict, with previous attempts to reach a peace agreement occurring in 1982, 1991, 1992 and 1999-2002. Other conflicts in the last 32 years which were resolved through peace processes have lasted between 4 and 21 years long.

. List of conflicts solved by peace process between 1984 and 2005. Source: School of Peace, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona

List of conflicts solved by peace process between 1984 and 2005. Source: School of Peace, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona

On August 24th the negotiation team from the Colombian government, rebel leaders and international observers announced in La Havana-Cuba that an agreement had been reached. The same day, the Colombian President announced a bilateral ceasefire. The agreement would be signed and brought to citizen vote, so an intense campaign period for and against the agreement began. With significant presence and support from international observers, the peace agreement was officially signed on September 26th by Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño –“Timochenko” after four years of negotiations. One week later, on October 2nd, the vote took place. In spite of all poll predictions and the overall national and international optimism, the “No” campaign at 50.21% won out over the “Yes” campaign by the very small margin of 0.43%. Such a close race combined with almost 60% of potential voters not voting revealed a deep polarization, not between people wanting peace and people wanting war, but over what is the best way to achieve a collectively desired peace.

Results from the vote on October 2 to support or reject the peace agreement. Source: Colombia's National Registrar

Results from the vote on October 2 to support or reject the peace agreement. Source: Colombia’s National Registrar

Uncertainty and frustration came next. Leaders of the “No” campaign did not have a plan B for the process and showed to be a very heterogeneous group. The deadline was announced as October 31st. Faced with going back to open confrontation, citizens across the country brandishing mottos like “Don’t leave the table” and “Vigil for Peace” turned out for massive rallies to keep negotiations alive. These rallies included voters both for and against the agreement, as well as those who did not vote, and such strong public support pushed all parties to remain in dialogues. The Nobel Prize awarded (for some, too early) to President Juan Manuel Santos, adds an extra push to guarantee that a more robust and politically legitimate agreement is achieved.

Citizen support to the Peace Process, October 4th 2016, Bogota, Colombia. Source: El Tiempo

Citizen support to the Peace Process, October 5th 2016, Bogota, Colombia.
Source: El Tiempo

Huge challenges remain ahead. The most urgent one is that all parties—the government, FARC leaders and the heterogeneous (somewhat erratic) opposition—manage to re-negotiate some points of the agreement, which are seen as “immovable” for both sides of the table. As observed in other international processes and complex political peace negotiations, the political will to compromise and commit to an agreement is critical. Compromise and agreement are required not only from combatants and politicians, but from every single citizen. Scholars point to such cases as South Africa and Rwanda as examples of compromise by parties through a special transitional justice system. Regarding this need for compromise, the School of Peace from Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (AUB) show how in all of the 11 processes listed above, groups that fought during the armed conflict occupied influential political positions as a result of the peace process. In fact, one of the issues that generated fierce rejection from the opposition to the agreement is that it guaranteed political participation to FARC leaders.

Even if agreement is reached, an even larger challenge remains:  Everyone—government, rebels, and civilians—fulfilling their promises. This, analysts say, is a key factor in preventing new armed confrontations from emerging, and scholars argue that in Sri Lanka, Liberia and Nepal the failure to fulfill agreements generated new waves of violence.

In any case, other international peace processes reveal that civil wars are rarely terminated by the victory of one of the parties. In the 2016 yearbook of peace processes developed by UAB’s School of Peace, of the 61 conflicts that ended over the last 35 years, 77% did so through a peace agreement, and 16.4% through military victory of one of the parties. However, there are still 56 active armed conflicts distributed across the world, which, in  the 2016 yearbook, includes Colombia. Other countries with active wars are India, Senegal, Mozambique, Ukraine, Philippines, and Thailand (south).

Conflicts and Peace Building, 2015 map by School of Peace, UAB

Conflicts and Peace Building, 2015 map by School of Peace, UAB

Read more about armed conflicts and peace in Pakistan and African countries through the work of Adam Curle and Birgit Brock-Utne. Other important scholars on peace building and conflict resolution are Gene SharpJohan Galling, Betty Reardon, Roger Fisher and John Paul Lederach.

The yearbook asserts that “The culture of negotiation is now a reality”. As both a Colombian citizen and one of many people across the globe who wish to have a better world someday, I wholeheartedly hope that the culture of negotiation can be a reality in Colombia. Two Colombian films which offer a beautiful and intense experience of the complexity of the county’s political violence—and are available to the U of I community through Kanopy Streaming—are Los Colores de la Montaña by Carlos Cesar Arbelaez (2010) and La Sirga, by William Vega (2012).

Explore more about political violence and peace processes in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Also, explore the documentaries and films about Latin American history through Kanopy Streaming. This database includes films about political history, covering topics such as the Cuban Revolution and ‘El Che Guevara’, Nicaragua during the ‘Sandinista’ period, the consequences of violence in Guatemala, Peru in the aftermath of political violence, and the disappeared people during the Argentinian military regime, among many other documentaries and films.

If you want to delve more deeply into research about political history around the world, visit our International and Area Studies Library. Our subject specialists in Latin America, Africa, Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, Central Europe, Central Asia, and Global Studies/Political Science can always guide you with more specific research advice. See you there!

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Louis Riel, the Métis, and the Making of Modern Canada

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Map of Rupert’s Land in North America, the extent of the territory administered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The recent Hollywood blockbuster The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an 1820s fur trader left for dead after a bear attack in the wilds of what are today the states of Montana and South Dakota. While the plot is partially fictional, much of actual North American history is referenced, including the harshness of the conditions surrounding the fur trade of the era. While some French-Canadians have condemned the film for its depictions of French-speaking voyageurs as lawless and immoral compared to the heroic American character portrayed by DiCaprio, the film is a strong contender for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. But where does the fiction end and the real history begin in this cinematic tour-de-force?

Before we answer that, let’s fast-forward from the 19th century back to the 21st for a moment. If you happen to be walking down the streets of one of Canada’s major cities like Winnipeg or Montreal, you might come across the name “Louis Riel” on certain government buildings and other official landmarks. You might suppose that this Riel fellow was a local hero, perhaps an important statesman or leader of some other kind from the pages of a history book. Given the French-sounding name, you might suppose that Monsieur Riel is somehow implicated in Canada’s origins (in part) as a colony of France. On all of these counts, you would not be wrong. But the deeper truth of Louis Riel’s story is as complex as any in North American history, and, moreover, essential to the establishment of the modern nation of Canada.

Chances are that while walking down the same hypothetical Canadian street, you would also likely be within a few miles’ radius of a certain department store called the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), often referred to today simply as “the Bay.” But, back when this particular company was founded – 346 years ago – it had a slightly longer, more ponderous title, as we will see shortly.

Cover of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography

Louis “David” Riel, Jr. (1844-1885) was a Métis (French: “mixed” – compare to Spanish mestizo or Portuguese mestiço), a descendant of both French fur traders and Canadian First Nations peoples such as the Cree. This distinct and semi-nomadic group, now recognized by the Canadian government as an Aboriginal people by the Constitution Act of 1982, represents an important phase of North American and especially Canadian history. For centuries, colonial-era French, Scottish, and English trappers ventured deep into the wilderness of what is now the northern United States and central Canada to supply the aforementioned Hudson’s Bay Company with commodities such as beaver pelts, highly valued in Europe for their quality and utility. Many of these intrepid men married women from the various First Nations groups and settled down with them to start families in small communities near the many lakes and rivers of the region. Such a community was the Red River Settlement, where Louis Riel was born and raised, on the site of what is today the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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Original illustrations by Ronald Searle in the satirical The Great Fur Opera: Annals of the Hudson’s Bay Company 1670-1970

When France’s hold on the North American continent fell suddenly to the British at the culmination of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Year’s War) in 1763, French-descended and -speaking peoples such as the Quebecois and the Métis were, in many ways, at the mercy of their new colonial overlords. However, in the case of the Métis, many had already moved far to the west of the more populated areas of Quebec and Ontario (then known as Lower and Upper Canada, respectively) into what are today the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. For approximately a century thereafter, the relationship between the Métis and the Hudson’s Bay Company – established by English charter since 1670 as “The Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay” – would continue as it had in the same spirit of “heroic commerce,” as some historians have put it. Therefore, these lands were not yet a part of the soon-to-be sovereign Dominion of Canada, but instead made up an unincorporated territory of the ambiguous “Rupert’s Land,” as the drainage basin of the gargantuan Hudson’s Bay had been called since the British had claimed it via the Hudson’s Bay Company in the seventeenth century.

In 1869, when the newly independent government of Canada – though still under allegiance to the British crown as the ultimate legal authority – began to expand its jurisdiction into territories west of Ontario, including what is now the province of Manitoba, the local Métis, First Nations, and also various European or Euro-descended settlers were presented with a precarious dilemma: fight for independence or become a part of the new nation of Canada?

Louis Riel was the most prominent leader of the camp in opposition to these expansionist plans envisioned by Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Riel had been educated in Montreal and thus spoke English and was well-versed in the political dynamics of the time. When the surveying of the land began, Riel immediately was able to begin negotiations with the mostly Ontario-based prospectors and administrators that sought to establish the Red River area as a new province. At one point, Riel was even elected to Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. As Riel would soon find, however, these newcomers’ plans did not consider the specific rights, cultures, and land claims of the original and historical inhabitants. Moreover, much of the Canadian government’s plans included displacing the mostly Catholic Métis with white, Protestant Ontarians. Conflict seemed inevitable.

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Louis Riel circa 1884. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Riel fought against the standing powers more with his voice and his pen than with any physical violence for the more than fifteen years of his involvement in the conflict. To avoid threats to his life, he spent long stretches of time in exile at the Métis settlement of Pembina, just across the U.S. border in Montana. However, because of his implication in the controversial public execution of an Anglophone settler named Thomas Scott in 1870, Riel was eventually convicted of high treason against the British crown in 1885 and was executed later that month by hanging. Meanwhile, back east, a majority of the Francophone population of Quebec seethed in opposition to such severe sentencing.

Though Riel was executed, his story and that of his people were integral to the cultural and ideological foundations of Canada, including its French, British, and First Nations heritages (and the mixtures thereof). In recognition of the man who is now considered the Founder of Manitoba, in 1992, the Canadian Parliament established the third Monday of February as Louis Riel Day, a statutory holiday celebrated in Manitoba that coincides with Family Day celebrated in other Canadian provinces. This year, Louis Riel Day falls on Monday, February 15, 2016.

The historian Thomas Flanagan writes, “Louis Riel is perhaps the most prominent name in Canadian history. In his brief political career, he personified the enduring antagonism of Canadian history: French against English, native against white, West against East. Not surprisingly, there is intense controversy over the significance of his life. He has been called a rebel and a patriot, a villain and a hero, a madman and a saint – and still the debate continues.”

As for the Hudson’s Bay Company, today it stands as the oldest merchandising company in the world.

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The Hudson’s Bay Company’s flagship store in Toronto, Ontario, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For more information about Louis Riel, the Métis, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the founding of Canada, check the links shown above as well as the following books available through the University of Illinois Library:

Adams, Christopher, Gregg Dahl & Ian Peach (Eds.). 2013. Métis in Canada: History, Identity, Law & Politics. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press.

Andersen, Chris. 2014. Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: UBC Press.

Bliss, Michael (Ed.). 1974. The Queen v Louis Riel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bown, Stephen R. 2009. Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900. Chapter 5: “Empire of the Beaver: Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company.” New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Flanagan, Thomas. 1992. “Louis Riel.” Historical Booklet, No. 50. Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association.

Huel, Raymond (Ed.). 1985. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel/Les Ecrits complet de Louis Riel, Volume 1: 29 December 1861 – 7 December 1875. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: The University of Alberta Press.

Rich, E.E. (Ed.). 1958. The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1670-1870, Volume 1: 1670-1763. London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society.

Sprague, D.N. 1988. Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885. Waterloo, ON, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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Project Genesis: The Reveal

ancdna

A screenshot of the e-mail notification the author received, alerting her that her AncestryDNA results were ready.

On May 4th, I got an e-mail that informed me that my DNA results had been processed and were available to review. I was nervous, almost as you might be in anticipating the results of an exam, and anxious, like when you’re sitting in reception, waiting to be called in for an interview. Would I ‘pass’? Was I ‘good enough? Would I find out information I in fact wanted to know? I logged into Ancestry DNA, and the image below depicts what I found.

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A percentage breakdown and map of the author’s ethnicity estimates. Percentages of 5% and higher are included here. Benin/Togo: 30%; Nigeria: 23%; Cameroon/Congo: 14%; Senegal: 6%; Great Britain: 9%; Europe East: 5%

Eighty-one percent of my ancestry stems from West Africa, including people in regions that reside today in Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Also, nineteen percent of my ancestry is European, the largest region represented being Great Britain. The image is a recipe, in a sense, for who I am. I have generous helpings of the French and English-speaking African Gulf and a pinch of the United Kingdom. This data represents my ethnic background and I felt myself walking taller and prouder as I began to process what this new information meant. Wanting more from my latest revelation, I began to seek out people I trusted who were also of African descent to help me to make sense of my findings. Did this data merely confirm what I suspected all along? Or was there more to it? My investigation led me not only to amplify how ideas of identity and ancestry are interpreted, but also to uncover some of my own biases. I interviewed a series of people who helped me to understand the diversity of perspectives related to heritage and some of their nuances within.

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Bust of an African Woman by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, 1851. Photo Credit: Mary Harrsch

The first of these was Dr. Assata Zerai. She’s an associate dean in the Graduate College, a sociology professor and the new, incoming director of the Center for African Studies. Like me, she is African American, having been born and raised here in the United States, and shares not only the legacy of slavery, but also common phenotypic markers of Sub-Saharan African ancestry: brown skin, highly textured hair and full lips. When I asked her if she had ever considered requesting a DNA test like mine, her response was, “Not really.” As a self-identified Pan-Africanist, acknowledging a connection to the continent and its diaspora was more of a priority to her than knowing what specific regions represented her ancestry. Dr. Zerai’s research, professorship and mentoring, after all, regularly engage discourses regarding black populations. Some of her forthcoming publications, for example, address questions of healthcare in Nigeria, clean water in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and masculinity in Zimbabwe. For her, blackness is not necessarily something one verifies via chromosome counts and markers; it can manifest itself as a lifestyle through the people she cares for, the investigation she pursues and the scholarship she intentionally engages. For her, the likelihood of laboratory results meaningfully impacting the path she has already chosen is low.

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A mosquito net draped over a bed. Photo Credit: Beatrice Murch

In the same effort of accessing my community to help me to interpret my results, I sought out Victor Jones, the Visiting Recruiting Specialist in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Victor is from the Southside of Chicago, and, aside from being a professional wrestler and a major R&B aficionado, he is also a Christian minister. The preservation of the black family is a continual concern for him and encouraging young people towards higher education is an integral part of his work. Interestingly, Victor says, “I don’t call myself African American. I prefer ‘black.’ I can’t readily trace my roots back to Africa.” Moreover, if any visit to Africa involves exposure to extremely high temperatures or sleeping under mosquito nets, he is simply not interested. “I don’t want to be outside of my comfort zone,” he said, claiming he would never live abroad. It was perhaps here that I began to realize that there were some myths in my mind that I had not yet confronted. Having spent the last 13 years on college campuses, I blindly believed that everyone wanted to go abroad and that the major obstacles were the price of plane tickets and short-lived vacation time. Learning that someone I knew opted to pass on opportunities to see the world stopped me and caused me to check my assumptions. While the African continent represents part of our shared historical past, the need to intimately know it is not necessarily pressing to all black peoples. For Victor, ministering to local populations and creating strong, reliable bonds with them takes precedence over international travel.

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Sgt. Franklin Williams, home on leave from army duty, with Ellen Hardin. Baltimore, MD. 1942 Photo Credit: Black History Album

These two interactions reinforced the ideas that not only do African Americans—or blacks, depending upon one’s self-identification—eschew a monolithic set of preferences regarding what we call ourselves, but also the lack of information regarding our heritage does not necessarily make members of these groups feel less than whole. Some African American people are satisfied with their identities within a U.S. context. And, beyond that, a narrative that begins with slavery in North America is not necessarily a problematic one for those who ascribe to it. While understanding that there is an inextricable link to the “Motherland,” there is also a rich history and arguably separate identity here within the United States. Who am I to suggest otherwise? My reaching back into the annals (or lack thereof) of history in a search for self is just as valid as those who reach out and around them for the same purpose.

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A depiction of “Sankofa,” a term from the Akan language that is used within many African American circles to symbolize the value of knowing one’s history. Photo Credit: Shannon Rose

My interviews, however, did not stop there. I wanted to get some feedback from some people who came from African countries. Surely their experiences were different and therefore their opinions, too. I next spoke with Dr. Maimouna Barro who is the Associate Director of the Center for African Studies. She teaches a course called Introduction to Modern Africa and, after making wudu (an Islamic cleansing ritual) and completing her afternoon prayers, she relayed to me her thoughts on seeking ancestry. While Senegal is the place she calls home, she clarified that “If you dig deeper, I’m not just from Senegal.” She then gave me a brief, multi-generational genealogy that included places of origin like Guinea-Conkary and Mauritania. These revelations highlighted another gap in my thinking. For example, if an ethnic group moves from home to a new site, much like with the displacement of Native American tribes along the Oregon Trail, are place markers a reliable source of ethnic identity? For example, I was born in Los Angeles, but that tells nothing of my father’s immigration from Costa Rica and my mother’s family’s migration from Louisiana or anything about our ethnic identities. So what does it mean, then, to submit one’s DNA to a laboratory and to pay for a map that matches one to places? Do we not really want a match to people? Not the imaginary boundaries we have assigned to land?

mapofalsavetrade

A map depicting the distribution and quantities of African people sold into slavery throughout the world. Photo Credit: Maddeler Halinde

Thomas Mukonde, a Zambian graduate assistant in the Undergraduate Library who works in both reference and instruction, was my last interviewee. He said that while tracing DNA seemed interesting, he would have to justify the cost. He knows, for example, that his parents represent the Mambwe/Lungu and Bemba ethnic groups and stated that he does not have a full need to explore his background as someone who is African American might. Moreover, based on his experiences as an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., he found that attempts to connect the African and African American student communities did not fully develop. “The only thing that unifies us is a history of oppression,” he said. “Africans in Africa were colonized. They were deliberately educated to become subjects or citizens. These education systems were very efficient. I don’t know how much Africa remains in the Africans who stayed on the continent.” Thomas suspected that within African American communities, despite and amidst centuries of deep repression, there was a preservation of African customs. Yet, history may have been overly effective in erasing some of these cultural manifestations on the African continent.

 

Work Author or Editor Available in our Library?
The Fire Next Time Baldwin, James Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Black Feminist Thought Collins, Patricia Hill A print copy is en route.
The Souls of Black Folk DuBois, W.E.B. Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Out of One, Many Africas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa Martin, William G. and Michael O. West Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
How to Be Black Thurston, Baratunde Yes, as a print source.
The Mis-Education of the Negro Woodson, Carter Godwin Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Slavery and Social Death Patterson, Orlando Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.

As with all of my intellectual inquiries, Project Genesis has brought me more questions and conversations than answers. What I found, however, was that at the same time that I was trying to dispel myths, I was working from a space of assertions I assumed to be true, and my investigation continually challenged them. How do I feel about my results? I was surprised that Benin and Togo factored in at all because in my mind, I had mistakenly ‘othered’ the regions as they are Francophone and not Anglophone; I was expecting a large swath of my ancestry to be West African, and I was right; I had an inkling that part of me was Nigerian, and that was correct; I was also a little disappointed to not have any Native American group show up in my results as my family lore suggested, as it does in many African American families, that we shared a lineage with some group(s) indigenous to the Americas. Some lingering queries address many issues: If they were to submit DNA samples, would their results be identical to mine? If I am 19% European, does that mean I’m white? Were I to ‘return’ to West Africa, what would await me there? This process taught me anew that the words ‘history’ and ‘identity’ more often than not should take on plural forms, and also that speaking to trusted people is key to finding one’s truth. For more sources for research on black ancestry, as recommended by the interviewees in this article and the author, see the table above. Below you will find an advertisement for a University of Illinois course led by David Wright that explores some of the same issues raised in this piece. Click here on Project Genesis: The Quest to see the first half of this series and be sure to like the International and Area Studies Library’s Facebook page for more articles like these.

englandafro

An advertisement for the cross-listed ENGL 274/AFRO 298 course with study abroad component that explores slavery and identity led by David Wright at the University of Illinois.

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