By Clinton Etheridge
I joined Peace Corps Gambia and went to Africa in search of my Blackness.
I was born in 1947 and grew up in Harlem in the 1950s, coming of age during the civil rights movement.
My mother and father hailed from North Carolina, which I visited in the 1950s. I experienced Jim Crow up close and personal in the segregated restrooms of the Chesapeake Bay ferry and the segregated balcony of the Plymouth movie theater in my mother’s hometown.
Although dehumanizing, experiencing the Plymouth Theater and the Chesapeake Bay ferry did not kill me. These acts of segregation were not violent like the beating of the Freedom Riders in 1961 or the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963.
But the Jim Crow segregation I did experience strengthened my Black identity and helped me better understand the civil rights movement.
In 1965, I went to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia and became a founding father of the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS). Like so many young Blacks of our generation, we in SASS were “Black and proud”—and fascinated with Africa. We sought to identify with Africa by wearing our hair in afros and dressing in dashikis.
Although a shy unlikely leader, I became SASS chairman my senior year at Swarthmore and led the Black students in the weeklong non-violent occupation of the admissions office in January 1969 in support of greater Black enrollment. Unfortunately, the president of Swarthmore died of a heart attack during our non-violent demonstration.
His death became one of the most traumatic and controversial events in the 20th Century history of Swarthmore College. However, I was able to graduate from Swarthmore in June 1969—but had no idea of future plans.
I taught math for a year at Mercer County Community College in Trenton, New Jersey following my graduation from Swarthmore. But Africa pulled at my heartstrings.
So I joined Peace Corps Gambia from 1970-1972. At that stage of my life, if I hadn’t joined Peace Corps Gambia I probably would have gone to Africa some way, somehow – if only for a short visit. But for two years, I saw Africa from the bottom up, serving and giving back as a teacher and living at the level of the people in a Gambian compound as a Peace Corps volunteer.
But most importantly, I was able to formulate my own answer to the critical question posed by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen about Black American identity: “What is Africa to me?”
What is Africa to me;
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
—Countee Cullen (1903-1946) Harlem Renaissance poet