Coming to America
On becoming African-American
While my father was still around, he and my mother revered all things “African.” Kente cloth covered and protected our bodies like saran wrap. My parents didn’t like Dove, Irish Spring and Lever 2000’s suggestion that soap should be white or light-pastel. Cleanliness was next to godliness and since God was Black, our soap was black too. Glade plugins, Lysol air-fresheners, perfumes, colognes and lotions were for white people and those who wanted to be like them; we freshened our air with incense, scented our bodies with oils, and moisturized our skin with shea butter. We would have been Amish had we been white instead of black, and lived in Lancaster County instead of Bed-Stuy. But seeing that I was black and living in Bed-Stuy, Rumspringa came earlier than expected.
Although all-things “African” had been exalted in my house, this was not the case for project kids at P.S. 40, nor the “best of the brightest” at P.S/I.S. 308. It was at those places where I learned that there was a world’s difference between how we’re raised, and how we grow up.
“Ugh, why are you dressed like that?”
“Because I’m black.”
“I’m black and I don’t dress like that… is you an African booty-scratcher or something?”
“An African booty-scratcher?”
“Yeah, an African booty-scratcher. You know, Africans always scratching their asses because they’re dirty?”
“Where’d you get this from?”
“You know how on TV they always show all them ashy-ass Africans, starving and shit?”
“What channel is this?”
“Wait, you don’t have cable?”
“No, my mother—”
“Dammmmn!!! You don’t wear regular clothes and you don’t have cable? You must be African.”
“My mother says we’re all African.”
These kids treated Africa like an inside-joke. All anyone would have to say is “Africa,” and everyone would click their tongues against the roof of their mouths and laugh. I would have shrugged it off had it only happened once, twice, or maybe even three times, but after months of insults stacked on my shoulders like poker chips, all bets were off. The odds were against me and it was because—to them—I was African. From then on, all things having to do with Africa had to be forgotten.
I no longer wanted to use the black soap because, like it had been suggested at school, I could no longer tell if the soap had removed dirt or put it there. I began to hate incense because the ashes discolored the carpet and shea butter became suffocating. I had already began taking my brother’s clothes while he was asleep, placing them in my book bag the morning after, and changing into them before I got to school. The fact that my brother was 12 years older than me didn’t matter; better to reign in ill-fitted Iceberg than serve in tailor-made Tanakas. I had almost forgotten everything; I was almost regular, I was almost Black. And with the precision of a Grandfather clock, life had decided it was the perfect time to marry my sister to a man from Ivory Coast, West Africa.
I am generally grateful for life’s generosities, but this was one of the rare occasions where I felt life had been a little too generous. I hadn’t even become Black long enough to take my shoes off and here came this African man in his Air Max ‘95s. Strangely enough, he didn’t strike me as African. He didn’t wear dashikis, sandals, or kufis. He was draped in DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, and Polo. I didn’t know what Prada was until I met him. He didn’t even click his tongue! He spoke a language more sophisticated than the Queen’s English: He spoke French. I wasn’t sure which “Africa” my parents or classmates had in mind but they both had it wrong.
According to my mother, he respected his elders—something we “American” kids knew nothing about. He worked hard—another virtue which “eluded” us. And most importantly, he was really African—something we hadn’t been for a long time. Although my family loved him—my mother especially—I had missed the boat. I was already deep into hating Africa and I could not look back now. I was still in the process of forgetting, and though I didn’t want any reminders, I kept getting them every time he visited.
“Who’s that? Is that my son-in-law?!”
“Yes Ma, it’s me. I brought you more shea butter and black soap.”
“Thank you! I can’t tell you where it all goes.”
I hid the tubs of shea butter and black soap under the sink behind shopping bags, along with incomplete homework packages, letters from teachers about these incomplete homework packages, and several attempts at forged notes promising something would be done about it. But no matter how hard I worked to forget what I was hiding Soap under the sink, his presence was something I always had to confront.
But except for the few gestures of respect and deference to my parents though, he didn’t talk much. When I’d go to the Bronx to visit my sister on weekends, he was rarely there—and when he was, he’d slip between French and English like a pillow in its case, flipping it at whim to let us know that he wasn’t to be slept on. He’d speak French to sugarcoat the shit he thought; flip to English to agree with our plain-vanilla thoughts; then flip back to French to remind himself that he didn’t like vanilla. My sister caught on and learned to speak French—picking up teeth-sucking as part of her education—to show him that shit had not been as sweet as his French suggested. When he found out that she learned French, he flipped the whole mattress on her and spoke another language that he and probably eight other people in his family understood.
There had been a disagreement between them while I was there one weekend. They shouted at their highest volumes to each other in French. I couldn’t understand anything being spoken, but I understood everything being said. It wasn’t a matter of following the ball; it was about knowing the players. I knew that my sister was smarter than her husband; I also knew that she knew this. But I also knew that her husband thought little of women, and nothing of their intelligence. Yet, here he was losing a shouting match on his home court. He was embarrassed.
After seeing how the French language had betrayed him, a bittersweet subtlety slipped from his lips like licorice. In plain-vanilla English he said, “This is exactly why I shouldn’t have married a black girl.”
“Whatchu just say?!”
“You heard me! I was told to stay away from you black American girls because you’re all niggers and it’s true!”
“Ok, so we’re the niggers?! We’re the niggers, but you left Ivory Coast to come here? We’re the niggers, but you wanted to marry me? We’re the niggers, but you smile all up in my mother’s face, talking about Africa when you could care less about it. I don’t know what it is about y’all niggas thinking y’all are better than us but you’re gonna learn real soon about who’s the nigger here—and it’s not just us.”
There was nothing else for my sister’s husband to do besides storm into the bedroom, grab his jacket and bushwack out of the house, swinging the front door so hard behind him, the bell in the peephole chimed. I looked at my sister, who refused to look back at me. She went into her bedroom. I turned my eyes back to the television. Beneath the laugh tracks on Martin, I could hear my sister murmuring to herself like a Vietnam War veteran: “I’m the nigger? Nigga must be bugged. No, you the nigger, nigga.”
Nigga was major a part of my American curriculum. A nigger was something black people as Kings and Queens of the largest and most beautiful continent—Africa—never were. A nigger was something which only existed because Europeans wanted to possess what didn’t belong to them: the land, the gold, the resources, and bodies of Africa. A nigger was something to be possessed; something to be owned. This is why Europeans took liberty in kidnapping, transporting, buying, selling, renaming, whipping, raping, killing, maiming and castrating niggers: niggers belonged to them. Everything the nigger did was for them; everything the nigger thought was for them. Everything the nigger was—the nigger was for them. This them, of course, was white people. Since this society belonged to them, deciding when to be a nigger was the perennial question for black people in America. The fact that our survival rested on this uncompromising fact is why my mother and father lost sleep trying to keep the world a safe distance from us. They understood this question because they had to answer to it their whole lives and didn’t want us to.
As admirable as it may have been for my parents to protect us from the world, its whiteness, and its incessant need to make niggers of us all; this admiration was swiftly undermined by the fact that we depended on the white world for State “benefits”—Welfare, Section-8, Medicaid, and public schools. No matter how hard my mother and father resisted this truth, it became something I had to confront it. If we were Kings and Queens, why were we on their welfare—instead of them on ours? No amount of Kente cloth had prepared me for these conundrums and each time I left the house I felt stripped, naked. I had been sent into the world alone and it was only a matter of time before I started to think that the white world’s estimation of us was true. My attending public school; my disgust with Africa; my hiding the Shea Butter and Black soap; my stealing my brother’s clothes; my private use of profanity and the word “nigga” was proof of this. I wanted to believe what my parents had taught me about the world—what kid doesn’t? But I couldn’t.
I can see now why my father left. There was nothing for him to really do: Our rent and utilities were paid by Section-8; our food was paid for by Welfare; our health was secured by Medicaid; and now, even our education was out of his hands. These benefits were dependent on him being decrepit, destitute, and departed. Everything we enjoyed from the State came through my mother, not him: it was only her name that could be on the lease; it was only to her those food-stamp booklets were given; it was only her who had the power to sign off on our immunization records; it was only her who could sign us in and out of school; and finally, it was only her we listened to. He tried to convince her we didn’t need their money and benefits. But we did.
There was no amount of oils, incense, or music he could sell that would provide what the State provided. That was the hard-truth. My mother knew; I knew; my two little sisters—young as they were—knew; Heaven knew; everyone seemed to know this, except for him. None of us liked it, but we understood. He couldn’t—it all became too much for him. And when violence—his last refuge of control—didn’t work, there really became nothing left for him to do but leave. All of these things led me to cling desperately to the word, “nigga.” It was the only word that repudiated my parents’ romanticisms and reckoned with my reality. It also gave me insight into what the other kids’ at school were going through and connected me to them—“So this is what being a nigga feels like.” It was watching how black people used this word that I learned the difference between being the world’s nigger and your own.
Nigga did not only describe the lives loathed; it also described the lives loved. Far too often, these lives—loved or hated—were a part of the same life, and no one using that word could say anything about someone else that they were unwilling to say about themselves. This is what I realized the more I used it. Nigga could not fly from your lips if you were not implicated when it landed. People used nigga because that’s how they understood themselves. A nigga was anyone critiquing a world they were a part of.
“Them little niggas keep making all this noise outside, Imma hurt one of them. I got work in the morning.”
“Oh, nigga please—those kids ain’t bothering you. Just last week your loud, drunk ass was outside howling like a damn werewolf and ain’t no one said nothin’ to you.”
In the tone, tenor and tempo of conversations overheard, nothing about the use of the word nigga was really about other people; it was really about the self. That word was an afterthought for the people I grew up around; not a premeditation. My use of the word became so fused with my personality I barely noticed it was there. What I began to notice was its so-called absence. This “absence” presented itself anytime I found myself around white kids who not only wanted to say the word, but wanted me to give them permission. I had come to understand that a nigga was any and every one, so the fact that I was being asked permission meant that some people were, and other people weren’t. This was revelatory.
“Why are you asking me permission to say ‘nigga’? You wouldn’t ask me permission to say pancakes.”
“Well it’s different, Yahdon. When you say it, everyone laughs and thinks it’s cool. But when I say it, everyone thinks I’m racist—which I’m not. I mean, look at us.”
“Like, I fucking hate racists bro.”
“Ok. What does that have to do with you wanting my permission? If you really want to say it, just say it.”
“No, bro. Because if I say it, and I don’t have your permission that makes me racist and I fucking hate racists.”
“And so, what? You think you’re going to say ‘nigga’ and then drop my name like it’s a password? Nah, nigga.”
“That’s fucked up.”
My white friends made a lot of assumptions about the nature of our relationships. There was the assumption that I was friends with them because they weren’t racist. Racists were evil, and my being their friend was a testament that I didn’t see them as evil, but as good. There was the assumption that they were good because they were friends with me. After all, an evil white person would never be friends with a black person no matter how hard the black person tried to prove that they were different from the others. And there was the assumption that I was different from “the others”—the bad niggers: I didn’t blame white people for all of my problems; I took responsibility for my actions; I worked hard. I was different because I had made it to where they were: their classrooms; their houses; their dinner tables; their parties; I was different. Since I was different, so were they. They were different from evil white people because they never owned slaves, didn’t believe in race, and didn’t see skin color. Only if they—the bad niggers and the evil white people—were more like us—good people—everything would be different. From these assumptions, I learned a lot more about my white friends than they learned about me.
I learned that my white friends saw themselves as living in a world that, apparently, didn’t live within them. My white friends thought this country’s history implicated everyone else, except them. My white friends were “exceptional;” my white friends were “special;” my white friends were “better.” Because they were “better,” they assumed our friendship made me better too. They couldn’t have been more wrong—not just about me, but about themselves. Long before I met them, I met people just like them—and they were not white; they were black.
Black people were the first people I had ever heard using the word nigga. The difference was black people had accepted its responsibility. They knew what the word described—its history and implications and were tied to it. Regardless of what they already knew about themselves privately, they knew that in public they were niggers. But they also knew that they needed jobs, and money, and food, and shelter, and family and love—they knew they needed to survive. Guilt was a luxury they couldn’t afford, and survival was nothing to be ashamed of. Even when there was a survivor’s guilt, it had to do with the deep understanding that living exacts incessant culpability. Niggas knew what they did—or had to do—to get where they wanted to be, but there was no judgment. A nigga had do what a nigga had to do. Watching the black people in my neighborhood, I learned that possession was not a matter of asking; it was a matter of taking. And taking meant that, whether you knew the weight of your actions or not, you were going to have to deal with the consequences. What we called that price was your life.
What my white friends were really asking was permission to own me, but they didn’t want the responsibility that came with ownership. They wanted was ownership without the price. They wanted to say the word nigga without being racist. This is what I was for. But my permission had nothing to do with if I saw them as good or bad; it had everything to do with them proving to themselves what they already thought: that they were good white people. A racist white person would’ve just called me a nigger without asking. They were asking, and in their minds asking was courageous.
In my mind, asking was cowardice. No one I’d ever seen using nigga had ever asked for permission. They didn’t need it. They were niggas—and for better or worse, they understood that. These white kids didn’t, which is why I would never give them permission to say it. They wanted to call someone a nigga and instead of paying the price, they wanted me to cover the bill. When it was clear that they wouldn’t get my permission; they no longer accepted my use and wanted me to stop saying the word as well: “Well if I can’t say it, you shouldn’t be able to either.” Both requests were denied. I had already lost too much being someone else’s nigger before and I’d be damned if I was going to let it happen again.
In using that word I was admitting that theirs was my world too. I was admitting I wasn’t any different from those bad niggers. These white kids didn’t want to hear that. When I refused them permission I became uncontrollable; arrogant; uncivilized; ungrateful; just short of eloquent; a heathen; a savage; disappointing; untrustworthy; threatening; dangerous; I became all of the things they’d never considered themselves and everything I already knew I was: a bad nigger—just like my sister, Sarah.
While Sarah and I didn’t share the same father—which made for a completely different adolescent crucible in most instances—we were closer in condition because we shared the same mother. Sarah was 17 when she married her husband. He, being six years older, having money, and speaking another language, thought this was enough to treat my sister less like a wife and more like his daughter. Nothing could be done about the difference in age, and he always got Sarah what she wanted when she asked. But he never had any intention of teaching her his language, French. That would have made them equal and he didn’t want equality; he wanted control.
As long as she stayed in her place, the impromptu trips to 5th Avenue, the cars and credit cards were unlimited. But everything maxes out eventually. When her husband invited people over to the crib and they only spoke French, she realized she was being pampered, pacified and pedestaled for a reason. By not teaching her French, Sarah’s husband made sure he got what he paid for: an American wife who would sit pretty, smile and do what she was told without talking back. Even if she wanted to resist what was happening, she could only do it in her language, never in his.
With her requests for French lessons denied, Sarah decided that she’d learn by herself. Her husband’s teenage sister had just moved in with them from the Ivory Coast. She came for the education and was trying to learn English at the same time Sarah was trying to learn French. And in the same ways Sarah was being controlled by not being taught French, Sarah’s sister-in-law was being controlled by not being taught English. The only difference was Sarah’s husband didn’t actually know English well enough to teach it to his sister—so he asked Sarah to teach her. I’m sure what this really meant for Sarah eluded him. But many things did.
I’m sure Sarah’s sitting quietly so she could internalize the attitudes and dispositions of foreign phrases eluded him. I’m sure Sarah’s willingness to withstand his ridicule of her mispronunciations in public so she could fix them privately eluded him. I’m sure Sarah’s secret pact with his little sister to help her grasp American grammar if she reciprocated in helping her acquire an authentic French accent eluded him. I’m sure the laughter from Sarah and his little sister’s sessions—because they finally understood each other’s language for the first time—eluded him. What didn’t elude him was Sarah’s gradual emancipation.
Eventually he noticed how Sarah was not only correcting his little sister’s English but correcting his French now, too. He noticed how Sarah had more to talk about in his language with his friends and family than he did. He noticed the compliments: “You should be proud of your wife for learning French on her own;” “You never told us your wife was this smart;” “you never told us your wife was funny.” There were a lot of things he couldn’t tell because there were a lot of things he didn’t know. His insecurity forced him deeper within himself. He stopped speaking French around Sarah and began speaking Mandigo, his other language. As quickly as he had abandoned French, Sarah was discovering Mandigo. There was no language he could hide behind where Sarah couldn’t find him. Every time she found him, she found herself. Her self-discovery was rapidly changing the terms of their marriage. She was coming to understand that he did not love her and she did not love him—probably never did and, ultimately, never would. This, I assume, is what they were arguing about that night.
I finally understood why he never spoke much: He didn’t want to be found out. He liked that my mother’s romanticism for his Africanness had transformed him from beast to beauty. What he didn’t know was my mother’s rosy picture had nothing to do with him, and much less to do with Sarah. My mother’s African pride was her last refuge of protection from the same world he’d been trying so hard to acclimate himself to, the same world that had taken her husband and my father. Every step he took to be a part of this world was a step away from my mother’s persuading Sarah to stay with him. This invested Sarah with enough morale to disenchant the fairytale. With nowhere left to hide, he was exposed. He really thought he could whip Sarah back into shape with the threat of being a bad nigger, not yet realizing that this was not Sarah’s fear, but his. Being a bad nigger was the very thing which allowed Sarah to marry him in first place. Alas, he refused to accept this. It probably never crossed his mind.
He probably took Sarah as a challenge and thought his money, his age and his language were going to change her. He probably thought he was going to prove that what happened not so long ago to us was not going to happen to him. After all, it wasn’t his family which was brought over on cargo ships. His family was flown in through JFK. This, along with everything else, was to prove that he was no one’s nigger. By making Sarah his nigger, he was going to prove that he too knew the American way of doing things better than us. What he underestimated was the painful truth about “his language:” He learned his the same way we learned ours—by being someone’s nigger.
Maybe if he had accepted these things and taught her, he would have spared himself the embarrassment of being owned in his own language. Maybe if he had accepted these things, he would have learned that there were things about this world, this country, America, that couldn’t be changed by anyone alone. Not even him. He would have learned that no amount of money, languages spoken, good deeds, or maturity was going to spare him the fate of being someone’s nigger. Maybe then he would’ve realized that there was a world’s difference between being someone else’s and being his own. I wonder if he learned by the time Sarah divorced him.