An Introduction to Myself as a Writer and a Thinker
At age 5 is when I first noticed that the United States of America was not my home.
At that time my single mother and I moved just outside of Detroit MI, to be in a ‘better’ area and go to a ‘good’ school. A better area that had an elderly white woman living in the garden encircled home across the street and a mixed race couple that had an olive colored daughter for me to play with next door. A ‘good’ school that had more than the occasional white kid in each class. Even if it was just by a little percentage, I noticed at a young age that the more whites I saw around me, the safer I would be and the better I would be treated. I had enough experiences to prove that by the time I was 5 years old.
At age 8 I remember thinking to myself after bubbling in [African American] on a form at the doctor’s office that I wasn’t really American and I wasn’t actually African so I must not be anything.
I knew that I wasn’t American because American holidays did not relate to me: Thanksgiving is about 1white man’s harmony with Indians (problematic), Christmas celebrates a the birth of a Jesus that never looked like me (problematic) and I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween because it was the ‘Devil’s Holiday’ (in my mother’s words). I also was sure that I wasn’t African because I didn’t celebrate any African holidays, couldn’t speak any African languages, I had no knowledge of any country in Africa that my family was connected to and I’d never even been to Africa or known a person that had. I was born in Pontiac, MI; an hour bus ride from Detroit and by 8 years old had never traveled more than 20 miles outside of it.
My government name is Amani Carithers. My first name is a name that my mother heard while watching tv, combined with a last name that effectively erases all that I ever was before a white man entered my bloodstream. My dad is the only man I know with this last name because the man who passed it down did not contribute at all to raising my father. He left my dark chocolate colored grandmother (never married and the oldest to wait to have a child) almost as soon as he entered her life. His only purpose served was to filter ancient blood and erase what was before. I’ve never been to a Carithers family reunion. My mother’s last name, having never married my father, was always Wilson (a surname like those of many emancipated blacks who adopted the names of important figures such as presidents).
I have no living brothers.
Therefore the Carithers surname will never carry on. I explain this to illustrate how my last name represents America’s failure to black children on a national scale. (*) We’ve proven this since Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test in Brown vs. Board of Education, that black children as young as 3 years old recognize their displacement and inferiority in relation to whiteness as a result of normalized racism embedded in American culture. My last name symbolizes this disconnect yet connection to whiteness that a lifetime of blackness is forced to combat with. With an aim to relinquish America’s attempt to whitewash me…
…as a writer I rename myself Amani Sawari.
In the same way that my last name was assigned to me by the same government that enslaved my ancestors, slaves were assigned their names by their owners with complete disregard of their actual name. Some surnames reflected the work one did, like Cotton. After emancipation a few blacks who chose to abandon their former owner’s surname took the last name ‘Freeman’ but most did not make that decision. As a result, 3 generations post slavery my father and I are still slaves. In The Genesis Years Elijah Muhammad writes, “You are still called by your slave-masters’ names. By rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America. He knows that. You have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them.” Carithers is more than a name, it’s a title and a label that I now knowing this choose to free myself from, especially in my writing and thinking…
… I n sawari ara mi.
I am discovering myself.
In an attempt to free myself from the identity that the state forces on me, a slave, I searched for my own surname in the same way that hundreds of newly emancipated slaves did as early as 1863. I have always desperately wanted to connect to my roots that were stripped from their soil but without stories from elders or any knowledge of family historical traditions beyond those created in America I will never know what a DNA test or historical document can’t tell me. During the slavery period blacks didn’t appear on the census until around 1870 (rarely recorded even as property or inventory), while whites’ American records are intact as far back as 1700. As a result of US failure to recognize human life in the past and today, I must search for a surname of my own. In searching I found that many Africans brought to America were from West Africa and in that area there were over 75 more common languages spoken in conjunction with over 50 additional less common languages. Out of all of those languages there was no guarantee that slaves transported would even be able to speak to each other, let alone master English. Even so, today American English is the only language my family speaks.
English on my tongue represents the relentless destruction of my culture yet I use it every day.
Yoruba is one of the four official languages of Nigeria, a country that many slaves were transported from. I found the word ‘sawari’ while looking through Yoruba vocabulary. Sawari is Yoruba for discovery. In addition to being phonetically appealing it also describes the complex and enlightening lifelong process that I’ve been involved with as a young black person living in the United States. I am on a journey of discovery, on a road to discover who I am after being failed by an American school system that taught me to respect the ‘Presidents’ who advocated for the torture and enslavement of my ancestors for their own ‘conveniences’. Thomas Jefferson wrote about these conveniences on his deathbed when he finally admitted to the evils of slavery, “I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us…until we shall be forced, after dreadful scenes and sufferings to release them in their own way, which, without such sufferings we might now model after our own convenience.” He like many of the most highly regarded people in my birth country, the United States of America, perpetuated the worst evils on my people. How could African-American possibly represent a group? It is highly confusing, offensive and contradictory by representing the oppressed-oppressor or whiteness-blackness. Like my last name, Carithers, the term ‘African-American’ is nothing more than a label that reinforces the mental slavery that continues to exist in America. My writings are a combination of my research and reflection that I share in order to add to a forever widening conversation about race relations in America, search for a solution for my desperate community and show my pride in being a member of the black diaspora.
Originally written: August 23, 2016
Bear, Storm. “Black History: Slave Names.” Bilerico Project RSS. Bilerico, 7 Apr. 2008. Web. 23 Aug. 2016
Muhammad, Elijah. The Genesis Years: Unpublished & Rare Writings of Elijah Muhammad Messenger of Allah (1959-1962). Maryland Heights, MO: Secretarius MEMPS Publications, 2003. Print.