Real Talk: On Being Black American in Africa

When you are Black and American, you spend a great deal of your life trying to figure out how patriotic you realistically can be when your country at best, tolerates you and at worst, actively tries to kill you. It can become a cliché in the 21st century for youngish, educated Black Americans to ceremoniously announce a sojourn to the “motherland” to reconnect to their roots. I have often found great pleasure in mocking these over-the-counter Africans who buy up all the cowrie shells and shea butter from the 116th Street market in Harlem, get on a plane to Ghana and begin kissing its dusty pavements proclaiming, “I am home.” I understand the sentiment; to be considered a nuisance by the country your ancestors built for free almost forces you to search for a connection to the homeland you have vaguely become familiar with through poetry readings and classes at your HBCU of choice.

When I decided to move to Africa, I was clear that I wanted to avoid the cliché of “I will go to the promised land to find myself; the land where all that ails my people can be healed.” After having traveled to several countries, I was certain that a country on the African continent would be comforting as a place to live because I would blend in more than I had in Mexico, India and Europe. I would not go with expectations of rebirth and a self-righteousness that cause real Africans to roll their eyes at us and real Black Americans to find us obnoxious and quite frankly, boring as hell to talk to at parties.

It has been 8 months since I moved to Rwanda in East Africa. Within this time, I have traveled to Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana. What I have learned about myself has been very telling and hard to admit. No, I have not become a cliché. What I have become is very confused and torn about how I feel as a woman of African descent and an American who has somehow managed to survive the slow genocide her country has consistently perpetuated on her people for several centuries now.

When You Realize That You, Too, Are a Colonizer

I possess a blue passport.

Those five words don’t seem very powerful, but they are. Because of my blue passport, I was hired at a higher pay scale than my African colleagues who teach at the same international school as I do. Some of these colleagues have taught for significantly longer than I have. To be hired as a “local” in many industries is to be openly told: Your lack of western privilege will cost you.

Because of my blue passport, I have strolled into African nations with very little questions asked of me. Not only have I not had to wait anxiously to see if my visa has been approved, I have not had to even apply for one sometimes. I literally just get off a plane, go stand in a line, hand over my passport and 30 dollars and am told: Welcome to our country; I hope you enjoy. My Rwandan friends cannot even be guaranteed this privilege within their own continent. They can travel to Uganda. They can finagle their way into Kenya. If they want to leave the continent, access to the UAE is pretty easy, but…America and Europe…uhm…no.

I think about these blatant barriers that lie between me and the many people I encounter each day who could easily be mistaken for my cousins. When my other Black American friends and I get together and discuss our experiences here, I fall silent when they begin to complain about how the price doubles for everything when you open your mouth and the moto driver or the landlord or the shopkeeper realize you are not Rwandan. They complain about how unfair it is without acknowledging that even paying THREE times as much as the Rwandan who wanted to rent the same house as them does not preclude them from still being able to afford a trip back to the states for Christmas (a ticket that comes with a $1500 price tag, IF you book far enough in advance).

The conversation never seems to turn to the awkwardness of paying your housekeeper twice as much as most people, but her child is still always sick and her school fees overdue and when you choose to give her extra, you are pretty much only sacrificing buying a new purse from a fancy shop in town. No one finds it upsetting that the “real” stores with “quality” linens and “soft, yet sturdy” cotton clothing come at the price of the local shop keepers having to move out further from Kigali, taking their children who had some access to “city schooling” back to the village. During our commiseration, we gloss over how trying to learn Kinyarwanda is thought of as “cute” even by Rwandans because we know English so if we are going to take a stab at another language why not a more useful one, like French?

How can you ever fully connect with your Rwandan cousins when you know with absolutely no doubt that if another genocide breaks out you would be at the Embassy within minutes, flashing that blue passport while your cousins tried not to get macheted into tiny pieces by their cousins?

When You Trade Unapologetic Racism for Unrelenting Sexism

Lindiwe Mazibuko, the 35-year-old woman who led the opposing party of the South African parliament, stood up to the sitting president and questioned his involvement in yet another corruption scandal. Jacob Zuma, the 73-year-old husband of five wives (one committed suicide presumably because death was more desirable than marriage to him) responded to this grown woman’s well researched accusations. Zuma did not address Mazibuko as “Madame” or “Miss.” He called her a little girl. On the parliament floor. While cameras rolled.

A bunch of male leaders in Kenya got together to discuss toughening their rape laws. Some bizarrely progressive power broker wanted to put the idea of spousal sexual assault on the table as a punishable offense. Not only did the majority of his esteemed colleagues find this ridiculous, one of them was quoted as saying: If I want to have sex with my wife, then I. WILL. Have. Sex. With. My. Wife.

A well-meaning Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda decided to turn the focus of her weekly conversational English class into a discussion about gender equality. The class, made up of mostly men, were eager to discuss how to make life better for their wives, sisters and daughters. They were all for gender equality as long as they could define and patrol its borders. Yes, their women could be equal as long as they were not expected to now care for children, do domestic chores and be held accountable for their womanizing. The discussion ended with one male pointing out that “I don’t see any gender equality in the Bible so maybe it is just not God’s way.”

Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks often about the contradictions she faces as a woman born and raised in Africa, but who has spent a vast majority of her adult life making a name for herself in the west. Since I have sort of been stalking her for several years now, I am familiar with many of the interviews she’s given about her experiences. In one interview, she mentioned that if she is being picked up by a limo in New York City and gets a look from the driver, she is more likely to think he is wondering, “What is this black person doing in a limo?” If she is being picked up by a limo in Lagos, that same look is probably the driver wondering why any woman who is not on the arm of a prominent businessman is deemed important enough to warrant a limo.

The validation I feel whenever I look up at billboards and see people who look like me is indescribable. When my friend lost track of me on a beach in Ghana and texted me saying: At first, I was like, just look for a black girl, but then I realized…, my laugh was even heartier than her’s because I, too, took for granted that this was how I often searched crowds for other black folk. I still fight back a tear when I stand up on a plane to go to the bathroom and there are so many black faces that the one or two white people stand out. And their faces of poorly masked discomfort tell me they know it. Not even the animated figures in the safety video look like them. The cartoon people, like the models in magazines and the actors on television, reflect my image. This privilege – to not have your entire existence erased – bestows a power on one’s psyche that I have, until now, underestimated.

However, what am I to make of the constant reminders that my gender requires me to shrink into a ball, accepting my second class status as a mandate from this supernatural being called God? In large and small ways, women on this continent are asked to do what all Black Americans are forced to do: grit their teeth through humiliation after humiliation and wisely choose the battles worth their risk to fight.

My friend, Rob, a Black American male who left the states when he was 18 and has not returned in over 15 years openly talks about how “breath taking the sexism is here. This place makes me so glad to have been born a male because I would’ve been stabbed somebody.”

I think of Rob’s privilege when I watch passengers on the tro-tro in Accra, Ghana. The women request the driver of the dollar van to stop in a meek, imploring tone. “Mate, Mate,” they whisper in a 12 year old girl’s voice, “bus stop, please.” The men just pound on the side and the van stops. Walking along the streets of Accra, taxi drivers pull alongside me and beep their horns. When I say I don’t need a taxi, they continue to drive alongside me trying to convince me that I do need them. After ignoring them for a few moments, they drive off. When I observe male pedestrians, their strategy for getting a taxi differs drastically. They simply flag one down WHEN they need it. Once, I saw a taxi pull up to a Ghanaian man. He gave him a cursory “no” and without another word, the driver sped off. No trailing beside the man as he walked, demanding him to “get in the car. I will take you where you want to go.” This man’s no was taken as a final answer. Why wasn’t mine?

Friends back in the states continue to ask me to talk more about my experiences here. One friend wants to have an extensive conversation when I return home for a visit. When asked specifically for my take as a Black American, I find myself at a loss of words. I don’t know what these people want me to say. Should I tell them that my 8 months in Africa have caused me to question even further the west’s demonizing of the continent, but that I also have realized I had allowed myself to give into some of the fantasy of the “the motherland” over-the-counter Africans have created as an understandable way to defend and protect our ancestral homeland? How can I verbalize that I have no desire to return to the country that seems disinterested in fulfilling its promises to all of its citizens, yet I am not protected from injustice and inhumanity here in the promised land, either?

12 Responses

  1. Hi Keturah, Thank you for sharing your experiences and insight, I am under no misgivings about the second class treatment of women in Africa or the active genocidal agenda toward black people here in the US and the uncomfortable relationship with patriotism and allegiance. I understand the pride (which causes the happy kind tears to fight back) of experiencing your existence as a black person being the rule NOT the exception. I get (all of) your explanation about the mixed emotions from each position you occupy as An American & A black woman, all of it is very complicated and very identifiable. I HEAR YOU and I SEE YOU. Be safe, take good care of yourself and keep being a blessing. p.s. You could never be boring to talk to at a party 🙂

  2. Hi Keturah, I often find myself having the same experience when I travel in Latin American countries. Is it because we are women? Women of color and blend? Please and when I open my mouth things get more expensive. We hold the blue passport which I think should be gold because that is the value. It seems that life is unfair and full contradictions. I can only control how I react to those contradictions and try to make the unfair…fair if all possible. I know one thing that gets me through…I treat everyone from the CEO, artist, philanthropist, i.t. person, dentist, maid, teacher, cab driver, bartender the same.

  3. My flight from Nairobi stopped in Frankfurt. I thought I could do the same thing the white passengers did: walk off the plane. But I was stopped short with a hand to my chest: “Passport! Passport!” I never even got it all the way out my pocket. But he saw the blue. “Pass through. Pass through.” The Kenyans behind me are likely still in line.
    As for sexism, I heard women in Kenya complain that their every demand for equal rights and fairness was met with “That’s not African.”

    • Jarvis, the way men here summon up, “That’s not our culture” to justify all manner of fuckery…I can’t even. A Black American woman I met here who recently married a Ghanaian man said HE told her early on into their courtship, “Whenever an African man starts summoning up ‘culture’ he has probably done something he knows is wrong and wants you to give him a pass.”

  4. Terrific, terrific writing and observations, K-girl. Such extraordinary dichotomies. The comfort and privilege of the West next to the brutality of racism. The comfort and belonging of the continent next to the brutality of sexism (and bullshit internet connections). What an insane planet.

  5. Bullshit internet connections = more real talk

  6. Reblogged this on knowledge of self and commented:
    “When you are Black and American, you spend a great deal of your life trying to figure out how patriotic you realistically can be when your country at best, tolerates you and at worst, actively tries to kill you…

    …The validation I feel whenever I look up at billboards and see people who look like me is indescribable… The cartoon people, like the models in magazines and the actors on television, reflect my image. This privilege – to not have your entire existence erased – bestows a power on one’s psyche that I have, until now, underestimated.”

  7. I love the term “over-the-counter Africans” that you coined!

  8. I. Love. This. Thank you so much for sharing

  9. Very enlightening! One forgets about sexism. Africa is not home but it can be an adventure . You decide how long you want it to last.

  10. Thank you for writing this, sis. As a black American woman, I feel you and relate to what you’re speaking to here. I lived in Nigeria for a year, and my experience there was very complicated and so many things. While I loved not having to navigate white racism and microaggressions with the frequency I did in the States, I also experienced very complex and challenging politics about my American-ness, and found it difficult to reconcile the sexism I and many other women experienced on a daily basis. All of it is difficult to put into words – the intersectionality between race, class, gender, and so much else – and I appreciate you sharing your experience.

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