I mentioned this briefly in my Americanah post, but it bears repeating; I didn’t “process” the fact that I was black until I moved to America for school. (In Ghana, 99.9% of the population is black, and tribe is the main self-identifier, so blackness is a moot point). Obviously, I knew what color I was, but until I arrived in Illinois, i’d never been confronted with the implications of my negritude.
Of being categorized and having personality traits assigned to me before I even opened my mouth.
Of having assumptions made about what music I must like, what films i’ve surely seen, activities in which i’d naturally love to participate. It was discomfiting, and exhausting.
However, the more worrisome by-product of my #teamredbone designation, ( I had to ask someone what a redbone was after a few people yelled it out to me on the street lol) meant that I would be called upon to speak on issues, seemingly on behalf of the entire race. Especially at my predominantly white college, where i was often the only black person in class.
However, I knew my experiences as a recently landed African did not compare to those of someone who was black American, and had experienced racist macro (and micro) aggression their whole lives.
Besides, I was TERRIBLE at identifying it.
Case in point:
In French class, groups of two were assigned a francophone author and asked to do a short story board presentation. The last group to go had picked Senegalese author Sembene Ousmane. They propped up their board, and began…your standard student presentation, as rendered by a reticent Korean boy and his female counterpart; a bubbly blonde from middle America who I shall dub “Becky”, partly because I’m petty, but mostly because i can’t remember her actual name.
“………..words words words…..-and here we have a picture of him. Isn’t he cute?” she asked brightly, giggling as she pointed to what should have been Ousmane’s image, but was instead a picture of a grinning chimpanzee.
Okay. Hold on to that thought for a moment, because there are a couple of things to note:
* It was the last ten minutes of the period right before lunch. Everyone was either spaced out or fidgeting.
*She breezed through the remainder of the presentation in the same bubbly tone in which she had begun.
* The only black people in the class were myself, my homie and fellow GH export Irene, and our French PROFESSOR (who also happened to be Ghanaian). He didn’t seem to notice either.. but i later found out his neutral expression was rather the weary resignation of having dealt with hundreds of white college kids over the years. He knew this song well.
* The minute the class heard the words “the end”, there was a mad scramble for the door.
No reaction faces. No hands raised in indignation. No concerned conversation with the professor after class. In-fact nothing at all to indicate anything the two had done was problematic.
But Irene and I had remained in our seats after class, clearly sharing the same nagging sensation that we had just witnessed a crime and watched the culprits walk away.
We walked in pensive silence to the student lounge, put our bags down and finally looked at each other.
“Okay, what the hell just happened?”
“I have no idea. That was definitely racist right? Right? I mean they used a monkey.”
“WHO did WHAT?”, came a voice from behind us. Another black (American) student had overheard our conversation. After we recounted what had happened, he was having none of it.
‘Oh HELL no!” he said, storming out.
When I tell you within 20 minutes the study lounge was full of students who had heard about the monkey incident and wanted to confirm it for themselves. FULL. Irene and I started to get nervous; this was zero to one hundred real quick.
At lunch, people kept coming over to our table.
“Oh my God! Is it true this white girl called you guys monkeys?”. Like most rumors, the facts were already getting distorted.
We were back in the study lounge in the afternoon, when someone came to summon us.
The Dean of Student Affairs wanted to have a word, as he’d heard about a possible incident of racism involving us.
Jezors. The more time went on, the more it began to feel like we were the ones in trouble.
But we went to the office, and sheepishly recounted exactly what had happened, stressing we hadn’t even had time to figure out her/their intent- which could possibly be gross stupidity and nothing more.
He looked dubious about that, but he thanked us for coming and we left.
Other students caught sight of Becky and ol dude emerging from the Dean’s office later that day.Word is she was bawling so hard he had to guide her, as she kept repeating to no one in particular how she didn’t meeeaaaaan it. He remained stony and silent (he didn’t speak English that well, so chile he may not have understood half of what was going on lol)
When Irene and I next attended French class, the pair were absent. They had gone to see the Professor and told him that under the circumstances, it was best if they just dropped the class. He had agreed lol.
I’d see them from time to time (my college was very small) and I would feel guilt, almost an urge to say sorry, or offer an explanation. This is something that frustrates my 2018 self, and probably contributes to blacks thinking Africans are meek, or ass kissers of white people. What they don’t understand is that when you’re not from somewhere, you can also feel like you don’t belong there either. Rule number one of being a foreigner in someone’s country is you lay low, keep your nose clean, and focus on your grind. Stirring up controversy is NOT the wave. The last thing you want is to draw attention to your presence or rock the boat. Because it might end with you getting your visa snatched.
I am happy to report that by senior year, the Mizz Musings you know today had taken shape. By then, i was getting my open letters published in the school paper, dragging people for their toxic caucasity, and sleeping the more soundly for it. See, I’m a quick study, and I had some powerful teachers…
Kandra, Ebony, Jalana, Yaa, Roychelle, Angie, Clara….and on and on.. who taught me to forge a new, unique self-identity for myself, as a black but also African woman in America, by example..and in demonstration. I was watching ladies, and i picked up something invaluable from each of you… thank you.