Below is an excerpt from chapter six in 50 Shades of Black, edited by Carlton Mackey (2013). The first volume within a larger series, the book grapples with the issues of race, class, sexuality, skin tone, and diversity, and incorporates a multitude of perspectives. Titled “Eritrean,” my chapter examines the role and influence of my background, culture, upbringing, and heritage in the process of my own identity formation and engagement with the broader world.
[[Transitioning to another one of my favorite hairstyles, the Afro, there exists another underlying story, unknown to many. In my new environment, the US, the Afro is synonymous with the Civil Rights struggle. One outgrowth of the movement was its offer of a renewed sense of identity to the black community, particularly through a redefinition of personal style focusing on an appreciation of African beauty and aesthetics (consider the “Black is Beautiful” concept). With Africa being characterized as natural and exuding pride, what could better espouse this statement than the naturally, untreated hairstyle known as the Afro? Thus, for blacks, the Afro epitomized black pride, while at the same time rejecting notions of mainstream assimilation and integration.
While my Afro does make a political statement based on struggle, it is not one based on the black American experience. My Afro does not represent “Black is Beautiful,” it is not a return to natural, it does not present testimony of a rejection mainstream assimilation, nor does it showcase the sentiments of a longing for lost “Africaness.” No. My Afro is a statement of utmost honor for the Eritrean Tegadelti. The contributions and exploits of the Tegadelti, freedom fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), are mythical and legendary. Spending over 30 years in the barren, dusty deserts and harsh mountains of Eritrea, they persevered and delivered freedom against all odds. As a famous Time Magazine article discussed shortly after Eritrea’s independence:
“the Tegadelti should never have won; they were outmanned, outgunned, abandoned or betrayed by every all – simply put, their cause was hopeless. They won by force of character, and a unity and determination so steely that not all the modern armaments, superpower support or economic superiority of the enemy could withstand it” (Mcgeary and Michaels 1992).
Out in the fields, up in the mountains, and down in the famous, labyrinth-like trenches, the Tegadelti were known and revered for their unwavering commitment, principles of equality (such as placing women at the same level as men), steadfast devotion to the cause, and absolute fearlessness in the midst of danger, darkness, and destruction. Leading a Spartan-like existence, the Tegadelti were also unique for their iconic Afros, often having an Afro “pick,” fashioned out of wood from the wild, jutting out from their hair. Thus, my Afro is an honorable “shout-out” to the superheroes of Eritrea – the Tegadelti.]]
Beyond imbuing me with a profound pride or an understanding that anything is possible through hard work, my heritage instills a deep sense of obligation. To my mother. My brothers. My sisters. Asmara, my birthplace. Eritrea, my country. To those who sacrificed for it. Lives. Limbs. Families. Everything. And to those working today…endlessly, resolutely, and diligently to defend and develop it. I am blessed…I have been given much. Examples of excellence to follow. Golden standards to maintain. Quite simply, it is my duty. My responsibility. My honor. To give and contribute as much of myself as I can.
**For more information on 50 Shades of Black:
- Website and Book: http://www.50shadesofblack.com/
- Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/50shadesblack
- Video – Book Release and Signing (June 2013): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmWCq6ie3z8
- Editor, Carlton Mackey: http://news.emory.edu/stories/2013/11/er_profile_carlton_mackey/campus.html
- Follow 50 Shades of Black on Twitter: @50ShadesBlack