“Where are you from?”
“I’m from the United States, Boston to be exact”
“No I mean where are you from, from”
“Okay where are your parents from?”
“They are from Ghana”
“So you are from Ghana then”
“Yes I am but I live/grew up in Boston”
“So why do you not say you are from Ghana”
“I don’t know”
The aforementioned conversation snippet is usually how conversations start with some African people I meet. I recently got into a contentious debate with a Cameroonian guy about the intersectionality of my gay and Ghanaian identity. He asserted that I can’t be a gay African/Ghanaian since its an oxymoron. He said I had to choose one. As in, If I wanted to be gay, I had to stick with my “African American/western” identity and live openly.
I have always had an existential identity crisis growing up. I didn’t know where I belonged sometimes. I was either too “white” too fit in with the “blacks” (I was mostly referred to as an oreo throughout high school),or I was too bourgeoisie to understand the plight/struggles of “African-Americans”. And my favourite was that I was too “westernised” to call myself Ghanaian or African. Include the gay bit and it complicates everything.
As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I wasn’t bothered with my racial identity when I was growing up. Heck I used to select “other” or change my “race” on every standardised test I took. For all my university applications, I didn’t check my race section (I still get a lot of criticism for that as most people claim that it would have enabled me to get loads of scholarship since I’m considered a minority). While I didn’t care about racial politics, I cared about my Ghanaian heritage and Pan-Africanism. I got offended when ignorant remarks were made about Africa or when people called Africa a country. I remember when I came back to the US after spending a few years in Ghana , I was asked by a couple of guys if I slept in a hut and chased lions for fun. I was soo mad that I just gave them deathly stares. Yet I still identify with my “Americaness” when I am outside the US. Every time some asks me where I’m from I say Boston, U.S. instead of Accra, Ghana. Why is that?
Interestingly, when I’m in the U.S., I am very critical of it and embrace my Ghanaian heritage yet once I’m outside the US I defend it’s actions like a true patriot. Identifying as a gay male complicates this even further. I wouldn’t say being gay is my primary identity and will probably go as far by saying I’m “post-gay”. But then I realise that being gay has shaped my view of the world and certain aspects of society. So at the end of the day I’m just a person with so many characteristics who happens to be gay.
Going back to the argument I had with the Cameroonian guy, he asked me how I call myself a gay Ghanaian if being gay is considered to be unnatural and carries with it a criminal offence. While this is certainly true, I don’t have a myopic view of Ghana. Sure it sucks to be arrested for being who you are but there is certainly more to Ghana than its criminalisation of gays. He then asked me if I will ever live in Ghana. I honestly couldn’t answer that question. I lived in Ghana for the very first few years of my life and left at a very young age. Including my early years, I have lived in Ghana for 8 years (not consecutively) out of my 22 years in this world. My parents plan on moving back to live in Ghana for good in a couple of years. My older sister also wants to move there after she completes her Ph.D. My younger sister and I are the ones who have said we wont be moving back in the foreseeable future. My Ghanaian friends from university all say they will be moving back to Ghana since there are more opportunities for them there than anywhere else. While I admire their decision, I think they were semi brain washed by a lecture we attended on the emerging “Afropolitan Movement” and the urge to reclaim the African continent and change it.
My inability to answer the question posed by the Cameroonian guy allowed him to speculate that, I didn’t want to live in Ghana because I want to lead my “gay lifestyle” freely without being arrested. Funny enough this guy does not identify as gay but he sleeps around with men and he’s moving back to home to Cameroon. He says he is going to fulfil his “traditional African” duty by getting married, having children and continue to sleep men in similar situation. I told him what he is going to do is wrong on so many levels since he is going to make someone’s daughter very unhappy and also if he’s going to marry her why must he continue to sleep with men on the side in secret. He told me who am I to judge him. He also said if I was a proper Ghanaian, I will go back home and fulfil my traditional duties and fully embrace my Africaness and make trade offs (by trade off I reckon he meant extra martial affairs), but instead I have been corrupted by the Western world and I want to live in a “free” world.
Talking/arguing with the Cameroonian guy got be thinking as to why I wouldn’t want to move back to Ghana someday. I know I am not ashamed to be Ghanaian (I used to be offended when people used to tell me that I had “African” features growing up as I always saw myself as American…) but then again I have no claims to Ghana besides the fact that I was born there. Both my parents are American citizens so I automatically became one when I was born. I don’t even have a Ghanaian passport (will that finally make me a full blown Ghanaian?). Yet I can speak two of the most popular languages in Ghana and I know more about Ghana’s history than most of university friends who grew up in Ghana all their lives. I have been to all ten regions in Ghana while most people have only been to 2 or 3. Perhaps its the gay thing that is holding me back but wouldn’t that make me a hypocrite since I said being gay does not define me?
As a sociology major in university, I began to theorise to help me situate myself in this crisis of identity. Stuart Hall argues that there has been a decentering
and dislocating of identities. He postulates that the post-modern subject is conceptualized as having no fixed, essential or permanent identity. Essentially, with the post-modern subject, identity becomes a ‘moveable feast’ formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems, which surround us. Hall contends that with the post-modern subject, the ‘inner core’ or core identity of the individual has been displaced due to the fact that identities are no longer static and constant. Individuals can now change and transform the way they represent themselves in society. People can now assume different identities at different times.
With this being said, do I fit Stuart Hall’s definition of post modern subject? Am I continuously transforming my identity to fit particular situations and contexts? This raises the question about human nature and how we love to compartmentalise and label everything but I wont get into that now. So right now do I see myself as a Ghanaian-born gay American, a gay American with Ghanaian origins, or an American of Ghanaian descent who just happens to be gay? This is hard.