My teacher Avon Gillespie told me the story of how he stumbled into Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers with her group singing on a street corner in L.A. They were trying to keep the peace during the Watts riots and Avon recalls that when he heard the music from afar, he was attracted like bees to flowers and stood there transfixed, feeling like he had come home. Growing up as a middle class black, he was in the higher branches of his culture and now had discovered the roots. And I remember saying: “I envy you. That will never happen for me.”
I felt this again going to the W.E. DuBois Center in Accra, Ghana with my student/teacher/ friend Tom Pierre. He was making connection after connection with the exhibit, including DuBois’s connection with the Howard University fraternity Tom had been a part of. I loved the exhibit, but could only admire it all from the outside while Tom was in the inner ring.
Tom is one of the few African-Americans who has come on this Orff-Afrique trip and in fact, this was his second time. The first time, he was one of four who was called up specially to the Chief and hung his head while the chief gave him a necklace (see photo) and said: “Welcome home.” It was again a profound moment that I lamented I would never have.
Despite my great admiration for, connection to, debt to African and African-American culture, I’m painfully aware of my white skin here in Ghana. None of it comes from the Ghanaians, but from my own sense of coming from a very different place. But where is that place? Where is that home where someone will put a necklace around my neck and say “Welcome home.”?
My grandparents were Russian Jews who emigrated from Vitbsk, Belaruse at the turn of the century. When I went to Russia many years back (though not Belaruse), I wondered if I would feel some deep connection. But I didn’t and perhaps partly because they were the oppressed Fiddler on the Roof Jews who the ruling class was trying to get rid of. To make matters more complicated, my parents brought me up as Unitarian and tried to pass as such so my father would have less hassles in his business life. Heck, naïve me didn’t even know I was Jewish until my older sister broke the news to me when I was 11 years old! I visited my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins regularly and they sat around eating gelfite fish and playing pinochle and arguing in loud (but affectionate) boisterous voices, but somehow it all went over my head. And then it made sense. When my sister went to Israel as an adult, she reported back that she felt like she was back in those gatherings. And oddly enough, despite the fact that I have traveled to some 60 countries, Israel is not one of them. Perhaps when I finally go, I’ll feel that deep-in-the-blood sense: “I’m home.” Or not.
The poet David Whyte once gave a seminar on Coming Home and I asked him this question:
“I’m Jewish by blood, Unitarian by upbringing, Buddhist by choice, I’m bicoastal growing up in New Jersey and moving to San Francisco, I play jazz piano mixed with Bach and Debussy, Ghana xylophone, Balinese gamelan, Bulgarian bagpipe, Brazilian samba, Irish tinwhistle, cook burritos, miso soup, gazpacho, Greek salad, etc. read Dickens, Chimananda Adizie, Basho, Rumi, Isabel Allende, Machado, etc. So where is my home?” He replied: “At the crossroads between them all.”
Fair enough. And truth be told, it’s an interesting place to be. But the feeling of finding your people and your culture that is truly family, the place that takes you in when you need it, where folks look and talk and move and feel like you, well, I envy it and am saddened that I will never know it. I will always be an outsider.