I Am Who I Am – Reflections of an African-American Ambassador in Zimbabwe

Posted by Charles A. Ray
March 20, 2012
U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray Looks at a File

I'm an African-American who came of age during the turbulent years of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, when the process of dismantling the legal and institutional barriers faced by minorities began. It was a time when many Americans of color sought their roots in the culture from which their unknown ancestors came. People adopted African names, wore what they assumed to be African dress, and listened to African music -- all things that gave us a sense of self and identity that institutionalized discrimination and neglect had taken away from us.

It was a time when people spoke of "going home to Africa." Now, I want to be absolutely clear about this: I am intensely proud of that part of my heritage that sprang from the continent that is the cradle of humankind. But, I must also be honest; as someone who for the past fifty years has lived on four continents and worked in or visited nearly fifty countries, I think of home as the place where I came from, not the place where my ancestors -- known and unknown -- came from. That statement will, no doubt, not go down well with many, including many hyphenated Americans who mistake pride in the culture of their forebears for "belonging" to that culture.

I have a rather strict view of culture -- I believe that you cannot be "of" a culture unless you grew up "in" that culture. You can like it; you can even have a surface understanding of it; but, you cannot be of it in the way a person can who grew up in it and who takes its norms and practices for granted. Imagine if you will an Asian child, adopted at birth and raised in the U.S. Midwest. Even if that child is taught his or her native language while growing up, the first visit back "home" will show that he or she is an outsider. I've seen this many times in Asia, and I know that the same holds true in other cultures as well.

Often, I'm asked if, as a U.S. diplomat of African-American descent, I feel that I am at home in Africa. Well, I've done two official tours of duty in Africa -- one in West Africa and one in southern Africa -- and have visited six or seven other African countries. While I thoroughly enjoyed each visit, at no time have I felt a sense of home coming. Why is that, you might ask? Consider this: unless an African-American is from the Gullah community of the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, or a recent immigrant from Africa, or, like our President, the child of a mixed marriage who knows where the African parent came from, he or she has no way of knowing from what specific place in Africa his or her ancestors came from. In cultures where tribal and clan identity is well established, if all one has in common is skin color, the sense of difference -- of being an alien -- can be profound. An African, upon meeting an African-American who doesn't know the language or culture, and whose tribe or clan cannot be identified, must feel the same.

So, the sense of "coming home" is just not there. What I do have is a pride in knowing that my ancestors came from somewhere here. In that way, I am truly Pan-African; not of any particular place on the continent, but of the entire continent. I can't speak for other ethnic groups, but I believe that deep down inside it must be much the same. Maybe not so emotional for those who have not been oppressed or discriminated against, but there nonetheless. Something like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," who speaks the language, but who is not understood.

I am a number of things, but culturally I am an American. More specifically, I am an American from the state of Texas, with all that it implies. You can, if you wish, hyphenate me, but you cannot make me something I am not. I'm comfortable in that skin. I know who I am, and if those who meet me take the time to get to know me, that will be apparent. It might not make them comfortable that I don't conform to the stereotype they have in their minds, but I only ask that they exercise patience and take me for what I am, rather than bemoaning that I am not what they first take me to be. I think if we all accepted who we really are, and did the same for everyone we encounter, the world would be a less hostile and more welcoming place.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. In honor of Black History Month, the Zimbabwe-U.S. Alumni Association hosted Ambassador Charles A. Ray on February16 for a discussion on “Being an African-American Ambassador in Africa.” Ambassador Ray was inspired to write this blog following a lively discussion of cultural differences, preconceived beliefs and what it means to be an American.

Charles A. Ray has been the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe since November 2009. Ambassador Ray's prior diplomatic assignments include U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia from 2002-2005, in addition to positions in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Guangzhou and Shenyang, China. During his 29 year career as a diplomat, Ambassador Ray has worked with kings, presidents, soldiers and human rights activists on a variety of issues. He is also a 20-year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 1982 with the rank of Major. Ambassador Ray is a native of Center, Texas, and the author of 12 novels and two non-fiction books on leadership. He and his wife, Myung Wook, have two sons and two daughters.



Andrea G.
March 21, 2012

Andrea G. writes:

I am of a mixed heritage, grew up in the Caribbean.I migrated to the U.S and have been living here for over thirty years. I have also lived outside the U.S. amongst expats and military personnel for several years. I am happy in my own skin and feel like the Author that one cannot claim a culture he has not grown up in. Like our African brothers and sisters we may share the same skin tone but not the same culture. It is as foreign to them as they are to us. An Ambassador from Africa once told me several years ago " those outside Africa of African heritage are sons of daughters of slaves. We were never slaves" I came to understand what that meant several years later.
Love the article. Thanks for pointing out what many have felt but reluctant to share.

Jennifer P.
March 22, 2012

Jennifer P. in Canada writes:

I appreciate this article for this opportunity to "meet" online someone else who has the experience of home, and fitting in, being defined by development of mind during many years of development, rather than defined by blood and by physical geography. We know home by the experience of fitting in. We know ourselves and our place. There is a naivete expressed in the article I am, human to human, happy to see in the sense of being happy to know some have been spared the experience of truly being lured, trapped, and forced to endure almost two decades of hostilities. Within the majority of the people, I think accepting who we are is a good step forward, then seeing what our skills are and constructing per real skills matters, too. However, what about embezzlers and despots for example, who accept who they are, have the skills they have, want to continue at everyone else's expense, who want to have a place called home, who want to have a legal system which says what they do (feed many for free at the deliberate sacrifice of a few) is okay. They want to live. I think we Americans, British, and leaders in many countries have the civilized and human right to say we reject the option of giving a legal home to embezzlers and despots, for example. I know that type of character was hardly what Charles Ray held in mind in his article. Different from misunderstanding, I have over the years learned the importance of specifying some limits and some counter-examples to what holds for the mainstream.

Simbarashe M.
May 24, 2012

Simbarashe M. in Zimbabwe writes:

Ambassador Ray, a few particular words in the last paragraph of your blog post spoke to me. The words " I know who I am, and if those who meet me take the time to get to know me, that will be apparent. It might not make them comfortable that I don't conform to the stereotype they have in their minds, but I only ask that they exercise patience and take me for what I am, rather than bemoaning that I am not what they first take me to be."

It is probably highly unlikely this post may get to you but I am forced to look for ways to move my pending application with your embassy forward. I am in a situation where I am trying to convince the visa officers at the consulate in Harare that "I don't conform to the stereotype they have in their minds", but as the process of interviewing candidates for visas lends itself to skepticism, I am fighting an uphill battle. I am a Zimbabwean who has lived in the Midwest for 8 out of the last 10 years, first through Rotary Youth Exchange followed by 4 years of higher education and then 3 and a half years working for one of the top accounting firms in the world. Unfortunately I made a couple of mistakes in my early years in the US and although I am ready for any consequences as it relates to my visa, I cannot seem to get a decision from the people I am dealing with and I have been stuck in limbo for the last 6 months.

I wake up every day full of hope that I can go back to the life I was living and continue fostering relationships between different cultures. If the visa officers look at my life from a different angle they would see a person who has volunteered time to help people of different cultures come together through Rotary. My recognition for this as a Paul Harris Fellow shows that I am dedicated to this cause. I firmly believe in your statement expressing that "if we all accepted who we really are, and did the same for everyone we encounter, the world would be a less hostile and more welcoming place." I am hoping for a quick decision on my visa in order to know that I can/cannot go back to the US to continue these efforts, and if not, look to pursue those efforts elsewhere.

Thank you, Simbarashe M.


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