What's Your Tribe?
"What is your tribe?" The question may sound strange if asked of a person in these United States, but given today's multi-ethnic world of racial conflict it seems to me quite appropriate.
My initial exposure to race and tribes came over 75 years ago when I was a child living in Monrovia, Liberia, the African nation founded in 1820 by "Free Slaves" from the U.S.. Being the son of a Black American diplomat gave me fascinating experiences in the "Dark Continent." My first Liberian friend was the son of an American Black woman and a male descendant of the original Black immigrants or so-called "Americo-Liberians." He later explained that there were 11 native tribes in the Monrovia area alone: the two indigenous Kpelle and Vai tribes and nine others -- Kru, Mendi, Bassa, Goia, Kranh, Lorma, Geesee, Mano and Gio. This early introduction led to my fascination with the source, definition, and nature of tribes.
My further education came with the 1937 movie "King Solomon's Mines" in which the African natives were depicted as ignorant, uncivilized, child-like savages with pierced noses, rings through their ears and wearing grass skirts – none of whom looked like the Africans that I recalled as a child. Nevertheless, I was proud of how Paul Robeson, playing a supporting tribal part, projected a manly dignity and intelligence despite his humiliating stereotypic role. Years later, when I learned that he was a Rutgers graduate, Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian, and a Columbia Law School alumnus who had passed the bar exam, followed by an outstanding theatrical and musical career, my admiration of Robeson's courage in surmounting such demeaning casting was raised even higher.
My third experience with race and tribes came when I was the first Black attending a graduate school of international affairs in segregated Washington, D.C. On one occasion my white classmates and I patronized a neighborhood restaurant where the owner questioned my ethnicity or race, asking, "What is he?" "I don't know what you mean," a classmate replied, "but I know he has a lot of Irish in him." On another occasion while touring the Capitol, I encountered a group of visiting Africans from the former French colony of Ivory Coast who did not speak English, so I decided to help them out in French. A nearby white person overhearing my translations asked me, "What tribe are you?" Because I was Black I must therefore belong to an African tribe.
Reprinted with the permission of the Journal of Urban Youth Culture.
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