Barrett Holmes Pitner on Why Blacks Can’t Go ‘Home’


A trip to a friend’s wedding on the ancestral homeland in Greece made me realize: If I tried to do that, I’d have nowhere to go.

Earlier this month, I attended a wedding on a remote Greek island about five hours outside of Athens. I know, my life sounds pretty awful; but the trip was more than a vacation under clear blue seas among sandy beaches. The wedding was held at the bride’s ancestral home, where distant relatives greeted them with open arms. As an African American, I did not anticipate my friend’s connectedness to a foreign land and culture to be such an alien sensation for me—and in many ways I hoped it would not have been—but during this weeklong sojourn the scale of my disconnectedness to a foreign land weighed heavily on me.

The wedding party was an eclectic, global crowd with representatives from all across the world, and we all gathered in a tiny villa and then an even tinier Greek Orthodox church to witness the marriage of two wonderful people. A new union was building upon the cultural and familial foundations that generation upon generation of forefathers had created. We all felt the significance of the moment.

As with most weddings the father of the bride said it best. At one point during his speech, he thanked his daughter and new son-in-law for selecting his ancestral home as their wedding site. He spoke about how his family has had a recorded history on this island dating back to the first census, conducted by its former Venetian occupiers, more than 500 years ago. (He could tell you the name and location of one of his ancestors from the 16th century!) The father’s family had come to America more than 100 years ago, yet the connection to the island had never ceased. Fighting off tears, he told the newlyweds how this wedding, this union, and this joyous return home had meant more to him than words could ever express.

I remember listening to his speech and fighting off my own emotions, wondering if America’s black community—my community—could experience emotions similar to those of the father of the bride. At that moment, I knew that there was not a place in the world that I—and probably countless other black Americans—could return to and have an emotional connection that was similar to the man’s standing before me.

I knew I could come close to that feeling, while still missing the mark. My family has a documented history in Charleston, South Carolina, since the beginning of the 19th century, and we’ve been in Prattville, Alabama, since the 1840s, so I can see how a significant familial event in either location could elicit a groundswell of emotion from my parents. Yet black Americans have always had that natural American desire that is a yearning for a connectedness to an ancestral homeland that can enhance our American narrative of success and survival. But when we search for that foreign connection we inevitably will fall short.

As far back as the 1820s, free people of color had gone to Africa to escape American oppression and “return” to their “homeland.” But upon their arrival, most behaved as colonizers, not returning sons. They had returned as black Americans in search of freedom and opportunity, and not as Africans with a desire to reconnect with long lost family members. They had been away for too long, their ancestors kidnapped and terminally severed from their villages and homelands. In the intervening centuries, new American customs had become too rooted in their psyche.

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Source: The Daily Beast | Barrett Holmes Pitner