I heard — or rather, read about in Vanity Fair — that Barack Obama likes to write in longhand. Well, I’m sitting here in a Burger King parking lot on Sherman Way in North Hollywood, charging my electric vehicle and and writing on a pad on the steering wheel. What’s on my mind that’s making me write longhand? There’s no other way to say it: I feel that a recent misunderstanding with my extended Tanzanian family members is something that needs to be addressed.
I. Am. Sorry. For. Using. The. N-word. On. Instagram. Without. Context.
See, my daughter’s mother is a Tanzanian national and we have engaged in various forms of cultural, domestic and physical violence over the past 13 years. I’m a émigré to the U.S., born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine (or Kyiv, as it’s spelled in Ukrainian language, which I don’t speak or write). I was 11 years old when my mother, her parents and I emigrated to the U.S. to join other family already here. My daughter was born in Ohio, in May 2005. About 3 months after she was born at Galion Community Hospital, her mother and I strolled around Easton Mall in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, I was in my early twenties, toiling away as a $10/hour general assignment reporter at the Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum, a daily newspaper in the county west of Galion in northeastern Ohio. This a rural area, one where a Confederate flag flew on a porch just a few doors down from our house. I was at the mall’s bookstore hoping to find a book akin to “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.”
I picked up “Dreams From My Father” instead. The book’s yellowish cover and Barack’s story — the Kenyan-Kansan background — made me buy it after reading a few pages. I finished the book in three days. As a college-educated journalist, up to that point, I was trained to hear all sides of the story and to remain objective. However, with George W. Bush managing to beat John Kerry in Ohio, I felt that the next POTUS candidate needed to be someone just like Barack Obama. I told family. Including babu, the patriarch of the Tanzanian family. My daughter’s mother always talked about her “uncle” Bernard Membe, someone the Obamas know from their visit to Tanzania. And the Bush family. And the Clinton family. I doubt President Donald Trump would know where Tanzania is even if the CIA smacked him upside the head with it.
I’ve looked up to Tanzania since I learned they looked up to the Soviet Union since the independence in the 1960s. Babu, family patriarch had visited Moscow, and our cultures, which put a premium on higher education, more or less meshed well. An engineering professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, babu published textbooks and earned north of $150,000 per year close to retirement. I respected him while he as alive and now that he’s passed on, I still think highly of him.
Hate is an interesting phenomenon when misdirected. See, babu had no clue that became Islamic-leaning in 2002 on a visit to Israel. Virulent bigotry and ignorance from privileged folks in Black/African community was new to me. While my daughter’s mother and I didn’t work out as a couple, I’ve managed to remain cordial with babu, his wife and other family. At their invitation, I visited Dar es Salaam in 2007, went on a family safari down to the ancestral home in Mbamba Bay in southwest Tanzania and even received a visit from Membe while staying at the house in the Kinondoni neighborhood of Dar.
I grew up without my father’s presence in my life, so staying involved in my daughter’s life was and remains a priority. Regarding my father, psychic distance is something I’ve got over when I visited Ukraine in 2006 and saw him. Plus, I stay in touch with his family on the East Coast, even if he and I haven’t spoken since 2013. Communication by proxy across the globe is just what’s needed sometimes.
I try to stay optimistic and positive. However, things went south recently. What made me go off the wall lately? Well, domestic issues. When things got heated with my current girlfriend, a black American from Denver who works in reality TV production in L.A., the drama escalated into my use of the “n-word” multiple times. It’s something I’m not proud of, especially when I think about our 3-month-old son.
While it’s reprehensible by a white man to use the n-word, I want to make it very clear: It’s very apparent that there’s nothing white about my cultural perspective. It’s all grey. Raising racially ambiguous children and being a cultural critic essentially means that I’ll always challenge societal definitions of race, color and ethnicity (I still recall that one time that a Los Angeles Times staff reporter I met through a Times-hosted program, a white woman, told me to lie about my ethnic background on an application to METPRO, the Times’ program for minority students and people of color).
The way I see it: It may not be the wisest choice to use “nigga” and “nigger” and have to brace for blowback. However, it’s worth it when there is context for discussion. Censorship isn’t going to work for me, in particular because I approached this subject a decade ago in a paid opinion for The Root.
I actually believe the sensitivity over the word n-word is what’s holding the U.S. back from overcoming a painful, hindering cultural divide. I’d address how the Indian subcontinent and Arab world and east Africa got over their slave trade that preceded the transatlantic slave trade, but that’s better done on the ground in Tanzania and Zanzibar, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in and around the Indian Ocean.
That’s neither here nor there. Sticking with facts on the ground is a must. My goal with this essay is to provide context to those that I’ve offended. I am not asking for forgiveness so much as sharing my point of view (one of the songs I’m feeling this year the most just so happens to be titled “Point Of View” and its by Bob Marley’s grandson Jo Mersa Marley and his uncle, Bob’s youngest son Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley). Thanks for reading and stay blessed through 2019 and beyond.
Slav Kandyba is an award-winning investigative journalist, cultural essayist and owner of Soundbizgrp Strategies, a media strategy advisory firm based in Los Angeles.