By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
Adriana and I are both descended from Europeans, but our modern families each include multi-racial branches. In these blogs, we usually discuss translation, language, communication and information. Occasionally, something pushes our buttons and we feel compelled to step outside of our usual parameters. Adriana is perhaps more advanced than I am in that she seldom considers the fact that she has blond, blue-eyed cousins, black cousins with frizzy hair and all shades of white and cinnamon-skinned colored cousins in between: to Adriana a cousin is a cousin and, while she dresses in vivid colors herself, she is effectively color-blind to racial differences: a cousin is a cousin. I do consider the fact that I am from a multi-racial family and I am very proud to have two black branches, two Hispanic branches and an Asia one in my family.
The best starting point for this conversation is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech.” He said that he wanted people to be judged by the content of their characters, not by the color of their skin. The color of one’s skin is determined by the amount of melanin in it. The amount of melanin in a person’s skin is a pitiful standard upon which to base the overall judgment of a fellow human being.
Unfortunately, the question of race and prejudice is not as simple as measuring the content of melanin in a person’s skin. In India, people of the same race but of different castes are discriminated against as a matter of course. In the on-going cataclysm in Syria and Iraq, mass-murder is being committed between and among people of the same ethnic group whose religious practices diverged over a thousand years ago.
Those, and other similar struggles, are not what we want to discuss here. We want to focus on Africa, Africans, and African Americans.
Anthropologists and archeologists agree that Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in Africa, then spread out from there in various waves at various times. All human beings are descended from African ancestors, however much supremacists of other modern races might wish to deny the fact.
That’s all very ancient pre-history. We’d like to focus in more closely on recent history.
Millions of black Africans were kidnapped in Africa and were sold into slavery throughout the “New World.” After the slave trade was abolished, and after the slaves in the New World were emancipated, they were still treated as second-class—or worse—citizens. The Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s America did a lot to improve conditions, but it could not and did not eradicate the prejudice that was imbedded in much of America’s psyche.
(As an aside, my own paternal grandfather was a “Southern Gentleman.” He always claimed that he’d treated “his Nigras right.” One day, in a supermarket in late 1960’s Los Angeles, he admired the black babe-in-arms of the woman ahead of us in line. “That’s a right nice pickaninny you have,” he said. A pickaninny was a child fathered by a white slave owner and a female black slave. I wished the ground by the check-out stand would have opened up and swallowed me, I was so mortified by my grandfather’s insensitive, retrograde words.)
A couple of decades ago I hosted a children’s party for the social club to which I belonged. Those parties used to be called “Easter Parties” but because our membership had recently been joined by both Jewish and Muslim people, we called the party “A Celebration of Spring”—and as Adriana would put it, “The most amazing thing about Spring being the multitude of colors confounded in peace and harmony!”—An American woman recently arrived in Switzerland came up to me and asked for information about another club event. I told her to consult the black woman in the $500 sweater and pointed to the woman. The American woman laid her hand upon my arm. She said, “They tell me that you’ve lived here in Switzerland for a long time. Nowadays, we don’t call them ‘black,’ we say ‘African American.’”
I replied, “That would be pretty stupid because Judith’s mother is from Nigeria and her father is from Cameroon. The reason she sounds like an American is because her father was on the staff of Cameroon’s diplomatic mission at the UN and Judith grew up in NewYork. Judith is not ‘African American,’ she is African African.”
That conversation got me to thinking about other Africans I knew or had met. There was a Sudanese doctor who had been shunned by his native community because his father was a Muslin Arab, his mother was an animist black African. There was an ethnic Berber from Tunisia who had married the younger sister of a friend of mine. I knew several white people who had been born in Rhodesia, who had fled Zimbabwe. I was acquainted with both black and white South Africans. I had met the descendants of Angolan colonists of Germanic extraction, and a Ghanaian chess wizard who was as black as the pieces on the board.
To me, the most moving Africans were a Hutu, who was a deputy science minister in the moderate Hutu government of Rwanda. Marcel was married to a Tutsi. When the genocide broke out, Marcel and his family headed, on foot, towards the border with Zaire (as that part of the Congo was referred to at the time.) Marcel’s name was on the “kill on sight” list but the Xerox machines ran out of paper and ink and otherwise broke down, and the Kill Lists had to be copied out by hand. Marcel’s name was providentially left off the list—a life preserving typo—at the check point through which they passed.
When I left the USA over 30 years ago, the term “African-American” had not yet come into fashion. During my over 30 years here in Europe, I have met many people who hail from Africa. Some have a lot of melanin in their skin (they are “black”), some have very little (they are “white”), some are North-African Berbers, some are the descendants of white colonialists, many are mixed-race. “Africa” is a geographical designation. There are many different ethnic groups, some black, some white, some in between, who come from Africa. To use the word “Africa” as a code word for a large amount of melanin in the skin is misguided at best.
From my perspective here in Europe, I object to people who have a lot of melanin in their skin as being referred to as “African American.” This sweeping and inaccurate appellation could also refer to dark-skinned Tamils and people from Southern India, to Australian and New Guinean aborigines, not to mention the millions of descendants of black African slaves who blended into the populations of Central and South America.
The people of African heritage who have blended into the populations of Central and South America do not think of themselves as African anything. They simply consider themselves to be citizens of the countries in which they—and many generations of their ancestors—live.
And there is a further question: where do you draw the line? I know a woman of Portuguese extraction whose skin takes on a remarkable tan. When she returns from a holiday in the Caribbean she is much darker than President Obama, Hallie Barrie or Morgan Freeman.
What is “black” and what is “white?” Is it a variance in skin pigmentation, is it a question of perception, or is it a question of sociological orientation? I know a Korean boy who was adopted into a Swiss-German family when he was only a few months old. He could be a type specimen for the Korean ethnic group—a squarish head and straight vertical slits for eyes. But when he opens his mouth out comes one of the most classic and hard to learn and speak of all the Swiss-German dialects. He doesn’t look like a Swiss-German but when he speaks it is clear that he is deeply imbedded in the culture and the language. No one listening to him could doubt that he is Swiss-German down to his roots.
People like Adriana and me have difficulty understanding what inter-racial and inter-cultural fusses are about. People are people and language is language. There are sometimes barriers in between. We at Adarve Translations cannot correct racial prejudice, however much we might want to.
What we can do is to provide a bridge between Old World prejudices and our current inter-connected universe. We’re all in this together. There is a very old expression, to cut off one’s nose to spite his face. That expression implies an abject disconnect from the real world, and a descent into irrationality.
Here at Adarve Translations we are color-blind. The amount of melanin in one’s skin is a ridiculous determinate. We try very hard to change problems in one language into solutions in another language. The skin color of the client doesn’t enter the equation.
We like how the South Africans put it at the end of Apartheid: they wanted a Rainbow Nation. The South Africans haven’t yet managed to really create a Rainbow Nation where everyone enjoys equal status. We at Adarve Translations haven’t gotten there yet, either. We do our best to come up with the most accurate and sensitive translations of the documents and recordings that are entrusted to us. Sensitive questions of race, prejudice, cultural and religious differences are a hard row to hoe. Only time will tell if we’re getting it right.
We think that we’re getting it right, and we have much hope for the future.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.