“assimilate: a. to take in and utilize as nourishment: absorb into the system. b. to take into the mind and thoroughly comprehend. c. to absorb into the culture and mores of a population or group.” Merriam Webster
It wouldn’t be until many years after I left my grandmother’s side as well as the country of my birth when I would finally enter the halls of an American university and was finishing up my course of preference, that “it” would dawn upon us, the expanding group of black students. The “it” I’m referring to was the set of ideals about claiming our humanity as part of the Black race and possibly coming up with a curriculum that we insisted would be called “Black Studies.” Thus we beheld the birth of the Black Studies movement.
They were momentous times in which I would recall with nostalgia my childhood discussions with my grandmother on the veneration of the image of the Black Christ of Portobelo in Panama. Although I found myself many light years away from my youth I recognized how it had been then that I’d become a part of the “Black Christ,” the moment in which He had adopted me.
It was also a time for me to grasp how little I knew about my Black heritage and culture. I started sharing what little I did know by introducing an improvised image gallery of the most popular saints of the black race who were part of the spiritual and cultural pantheon of our Latin America. It was a time in which I remember being a spiritual babe although I was already a mature man way past his adolescence and the age when I was always positioned at my grandmother’s tired feet, washing them and caring for them as I listened intently to her tales and reminiscences, falling in love with her spirit and with her memories of life as she had known it back in Panama.
I yearned for those days when I was so close to my paternal grandmother and for her stories so that I could share with her all that was happening to me and my discoveries of my own culture in that far away land up north. I imagined her responding to me with some facts about our own ethnicity, the West Indians of Panama. Things that were, as yet, unknown to me; things that she would have revealed to me with utmost seriousness.
“You don’t know, Son, how many souls have been lost out in that jungle or the mountains, or have been lost braving the sea trying to reach Portobelo,” she would tell me repeatedly. I could not have imagined that these stories about the tenacious faith of the devotees of the Black Christ that she would tell me over and over again would serve me as pillars in my appreciation of my intangible culture; that part of my cultural makeup that I could only touch with my spirit, like our music and literature.
I appreciated having been born in a country with a revolutionary culture, the Silver Roll, that had never been rebuilt and allowed to retell its story. It was revolutionary in the sense that they, in their own simple and determined way, had dared to resist the mentality of “assimilation.” I emulated them in my insistence in loving myself and actively changing my course in life to thwart the temptation to adopt cultures and histories which, at their base, rejected in its entirety people of my race.
My response to the pressure to assimilate, to become completely like the people who, even today in the twenty first century, insist that I speak in the manner of the oppressive white race using intellectual arguments that they approve of and not my own in using my own experiences, was clear. How could I betray those beautiful experiences that my beloved grandmother related to me with such love and fervor?
They were part of our Black oral history that had to be told the way they were handed down to us for us to understand what made us so unique and powerful. My reasoning was sound, it seemed to me, as I observed the look of astonishment on the faces of my black college friends as I showed them the images of Black saints and martyrs of the Church. Some of them could not help but envy me my roots to a beautiful Black culture that I had decided not to assimilate away from.
This story continues.