Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Appreciation (36) …out of Africa?

Appreciation (36) …out of Africa?
Torrey Orton
May 4, 2011

"Ask him when he came out of Africa?", she said quietly.

We were in the fourth day of four in a leadership program for journalists. The group of 9 held six women and three men from seven countries/regions: Indonesia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Irian Jaya(Papua) province of Indonesia, PNG, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands. They spoke 15 or twenty languages between them and no one language was competently held across the whole group. Individuals often had 5 or six, including English, pidgin, family or clan languages and a national language. So there was a constant play of interpreting throughout the learning activities. I was the only non-islander English speaker in the group. I was also 30 years older than everyone but Jason, who was about 50. Jason held down the darker end of the colour spectrum for which I anchored the lighter, with everyone else spread out in between* - the ethnic Indonesians closest to me, the Papuan next and the others following to Jason.

Our program included five segments, in this order, on personality, stress management, culture and leadership, negotiation and conflict management, and mentoring/networking, all with an orientation to the leadership demands of being a journalist in their respective contexts. The culture segment opened the door on a range of shared histories among us, and the overall shared history of European colonialism. In the process of exploring the cultures in the room I pointed out that we all come out of Africa. This was news to everyone.

At some later point in our excursion through negotiation and conflict management I mentioned to the group that there is published research evidence about the out-of- Africa claim and I had the book – Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Jason jumped at it, along with another – Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – which explains cultural success in geographic terms, as well as the unintended depredations of Christian colonialism (germs, mostly).

On reflection, I have to admit that saying I come out of Africa has a very low face-value truthfulness about it. A case of the mind's eye getting it wrong to any unbiased observer. I just don't look anyone's 'black' or tan or Asian, or…Italian. The research shows (love that frame!) that my relatives are traceable to a female origin out of Africa quite a while ago. But it is demonstrably obvious that I'm not black or tan or anything other than fading lily whiteish. And it is even more incontrovertibly clear that I didn't come out of Africa in any comprehensibly practical sense. Talk about an inner truth?! The genes shape us but the appearances make us.

And so the quietest group member, and occupier of a prime position in the darker range, Fijian Dorothy said, pointing at the leader with no clothes running the training – me:

"Ask him when he came out of Africa?" she posed quietly.

And three of us – Diana, Jason and I - broke into unstoppable laughter, with tears, which lasted three or four minutes, reigniting as they do with recollections or repetitions of the cue line "Ask him…" I've since repeated it enough to drain the trigger of its tickle.


*I recalled as I was entering the culture segment of our work that I had first encountered the colour conundrum 45 years ago as a beginner high school teacher in New Haven, CN, USA. This was particularly the first time of my really being a minority person for a bit. Years later in China it was daily for two years – a more shaping experience. At that US time I devised a simple experiment. In English classes with a majority of blacks and an ethnic multitude of whites, I offered an exploration of the substance of the terms 'white' and 'black'.

We (including me) lined up in a horseshoe (so everyone could see everyone else) whose gradation from darkest to lightest, and back, was agreed by all. The result always was that some self-identified 'black' kids actually were over the line into 'white' and vice-versa, as agreed among the participants in any particular line-up. (This kind of perception is the empirical origin of the current identification 'mixed', which is established in the identity stats of the UK census and an ongoing subject of discussion in the US). The kids had little trouble agreeing on the fade from light to dark and vice-versa, yet clung energetically to the soundness of their practical judgment that the difference was black and white clear!! Black hung with black and white with white. Therein the dilemma of the difference which is not, but is!

This dilemma is played out in both light and dark communities as they privilege the other in their beauty gradings – for some purposes. The lights approve tannedness among themselves (even fake tan!), but get queasy with permanently tanned members of their 'community' (maybe they've got a bit of dark the lights suppose) and the darks approve with envy the lights of theirs while at the same time reserving true darkness membership to the darkest (nearest to Africa??). What a human mess. Was 'mixed' cooked up to bridge the unbridgeable distinctions without creating a discriminatory difference??

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