Palimpsest People, or How I Learned to Read a Map


According to, I am composed thus:  

Benin/Togo, 40% 

My grandmother went to Ghana and a woman touched her face and traced a path across her forehead and down her nose and back three hundred years. You’re from Mauritania, she said. I googled “people of Mauritania,” looking for my face, my mother’s face, some face that I could recognize as belonging to me and mine. But there was no face like mine. Brown skin—yes, on faces three hundred years distant from mine. And it turns out the woman was wrong. We are not from Mauritania. We are from what the maps say is Benin and Togo, connected by rivers, separated by a line. Is the ratio 20/20? 30/10? 10/30? Can you see it on my face?  

Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples, 34% 

King Leopold II of Belgium killed ten million Congolese for rubber. The Congo Free State. The Congo-Free. State. He took their hands for trophies? Proof that he could? Proof that he was Lord and Master of a nation whose land he never set foot on? Maybe not ten million, some Belgians say. Maybe five or one million—will that ease your conscience? Or will you forget in The Great Forgetting. Forgetting is a luxury for those who are desperate to remember what they cannot remember because they were not given the opportunity to know.  

Ireland and Scotland, 6 % 

My mother stopped for a pint in a pub in Ireland and the man from Ireland in Ireland stood at a microphone and told the crowd, We have an intruder here. And the crowd laughed. And my mother laughed because laughing requires less air than screaming. My father’s mother’s mother was an Irishwoman and the family was very proud of that fact.  

Ivory Coast/Ghana, 5% 

The government asks that you refer to their country as Republique de Cote d’Ivoire in the language they’ve re-purposed because languages can be killed—easily, so easily. The Ivory Coast. The Gold Coast. What else do you have for me? Blood Coast? That works.  

Nigeria, 4% 

The science says that on a molecular level, 4% of me belongs 5,425 miles away. And if I go 5,425 miles away, will 4% of me sigh and say, It’s good to be home?

England, Wales & Northwestern Europe, 4% 

England abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery altogether in 1833, thirty years before the United States, without 620,000 corpses to fertilize the idea of America. It’s better over there, they say. Ghosts might say different. They might say, There is no better. There is no over there.  

Norway, 3% 

My father lives in Sweden which was once Norway, or Norway was once Sweden, or whose line is it anyway? They treat him well over there—he’s black. Not African.  

Mali, 3% 

Mansa Musa I (have you heard of him?) was so wealthy historians cannot agree on how much money he had. But when he was alive money wasn’t money; money was gold. The tangible gold that he must have counted has turned into dust and myth and history. Have you heard of him?

Italy, 1% 

When I was 17, my mother and I went to Italy and all the men touched her face with the tips of their fingers and pulled them back slowly as though they expected to come away with some residue of cioccolato. One man licked his fingers and I hope he was haunted by the aftertaste.  


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