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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?

Why I Have Lost My Shit SO Many Times Over Bill Cosby

Throughout my 6-month struggle to actually engage in an authentic conversation in Kinyarwanda, there have been many frustrations as I slip over all those syllables that make no sense in the configuration the Rwandan people have decided equates to real life sounds that people should understand. This is the first time my frustration has been this intense. This is the first time it has taken place with someone who was not my weekly language tutor.

Yes, this fool I am cussing out in English speaks my language perfectly fine. But, I want him to know in HIS language that he has no right to try to negotiate with me. He has no right to silence my friends and expect them to deal with his bullshit.

Why are there about 27 ways to say the number 1 in Kinyarwanda, but no way to say: You dirty fucking bastard. I am going to crack this mother fucking glass over your mother fucking head if you don’t get your mother fucking ass out of this fucking house. Right. Fucking. Now!

This is not my house. This is not my party. This is not even really my fight. But I am mad as hell.

Four months ago, Bill Cosby didn’t realize the mic and camera were still rolling. So, he spoke softly in his sweet Grandpa voice to this reporter who watched him repeatedly refuse to speak about the village of women who are accusing him of using their bodies as his own personal playground. America’s favorite dad looked perfectly vulnerable as he suggested to the journalist: “If you want to be taken seriously by your peers, you shouldn’t show this part of the interview. Maybe you should talk to your superiors and tell them to cut that part out.”

And here, clear across the world, I am standing in my friend’s living room, watching this pig who has repeatedly made my friend feel uncomfortable try to explain to me that I am not speaking to him respectfully enough. That he didn’t mean any harm. That just because I am cute, I have no right to kick him out of my friend’s house.

“I have told you nicely it is time for you to go. I am out of niceties. I do not give one single solitary fuck about how you feel. You need to go.”

I have no idea what this Rwandan Bill Cosby has said to my friend, Cecelia. But, I know she is sitting on the sofa next to him, eyes turned down, body curled as far away from him as possible. Another friend is looking toward me and mouthing, “Come get this dude.” Since I am the only one at the party who knows this fool through someone else, I know it is my duty to rid this fun, lighthearted gathering of this parasite that is sucking the joy out of it.

“Just wait,” he continues to negotiate. “We are having a good time. No problem.”

“No, there is a problem and it is you. Get out.”

Bill Cosby has delivered several performances in the midst of the parade of women – both wealthy and regular folk, famous and unknown, respectable and whorish – who have told the same story over and over and over again. He has joked about these women’s audacious tales, quipping to one female audience member to be careful not to leave her drink out around him.

And here this fool is sitting his ass on my homegirl’s sofa and looking at me as if all I have said is: “You so crazy. Boy, you need to turn it down.”

Unlike all the men in the states who have found endless reasons to explain away 25 women accusing one rich, powerful man of violating them, the men on this night at this party oddly believe one female voice is more than enough. They have no idea why I am cursing in perfect English and horrific Kinyarwanda, but they know both are directed toward one person. And they join me in my campaign to get him out.

“Look, Bruh,” one of them mediates. “We all are leaving anyway. So, let’s just call this a night.”

In the west, in the east, in the motherland, a sole soprano needs the aid of at least one bass and maybe a baritone in order for folks to heed the gospel. Only when the men in the room finally realize something is amiss does the creator of the chaos make a move. He finally takes his leave.

On facebook, people just don’t understand. Why now? Why are all of these women coming forward now? If it happened 30 years ago, why would they wait until NOW? There has to be something behind that, they say. “They” want to destroy his legacy. After the preeminent philanthropist and career-maker in Black culture drugged and berated her before throwing her out on the street, Beverly Johnson did not mention that Cliff Huxtable was a sick fuck to her manager the next day at brunch. Even a whole year later, she hadn’t told anyone that the man who had created a multi-million dollar empire in only a matter of decades had tried to rape her. She, too, must be a liar.

“I am so glad y’all got rid of that man,” my friend Josh says once Rwandan Bill finally gets on a moto and carries his ass away. “When we were out on the balcony talking, he was trying to get me to go into business with him. He was talking about some vaguely illegal prostitution ring that may or may not have involved trafficking women into Rwanda. It was weird.”

“What the fuck? Why didn’t you say something before?”

Josh looks remorseful, but is unable to explain why he didn’t summon up his much more superior Kinyarwanda skills to take that fool down. He just sighs and says, “It was so surreal. I was like, if he is at THIS party with THESE people, I can’t be hearing him right. He cannot be talking about setting me up with hookers.”

Suddenly, I am struck by the image of Cecelia cowering on the couch and I am again filled with rage. “Did that mother fucker actually proposition CeCe?”

“Yes and no. Yes, he said he wanted to sleep with her…like tonight. But, the prostitution/possible trafficking business…that was a private conversation he felt he should share with only me.”

When Phylicia Rashad waxed poetic about how influential Dr. Cosby was in creating a positive image of Black middle class life, she never once launched into a sililoquoy that said: Bill Cosby is an upstanding man of such high moral character. I know in the depths of my being that he would never do what these women are saying he did. Yet, she, too, has been used as evidence that Bill Cosby, like the fictional television character he and a staff of writers created, could not possibly be a power-wielding pervert.

My phone begins ringing. I already know who it is. I assume the mutual friend through whom I vaguely know Rwandan Bill has gotten the text I sent to him, which said something to the effect of: Come and get your fucking friend.

“I told him to get on a moto or I was coming back over there,” the friend begins. “He says he is on the main road getting one now. Is that true or do I need to come and put him on one?”

At this point, I am done.

Done because when Camille Cosby finally opened up her mouth, she said: “We really need to ask ourselves who is the victim here.”

Done because on facebook a person who actually possesses a womb posted: Some of the sex was consensual and what were these women doing there in the first place.

Done because this arrogant, entitled bastard took my own repeated and very vocal NO as the beginning of a discussion instead of the ending of one.

My friend wants to know what Rwandan Bill did. “I know he can be a little stupid sometimes, but tell me…what happened? Are you okay? What has he done to upset you so much?”

Tomorrow, there is supposed to be an exclusive interview with some women who Bill Cosby has not drugged or raped. They are going to tell us how our ears are lying and we should be more suspicious of our eyes. They are going to tell us why all those women who their father and husband did drug and rape should not be trusted. They are going to convince a lot of people that for the sake of dismantling racism, we should tolerate patriarchy just a little bit longer.

Bill Cosby is going to sit his ass on America’s sofa while those 25 women cower next to him. When the camera is turned off for real this time, far too many people will actually ask themselves Camille’s twisted question.

And I have not yet learned the word for fuck in Kinyarwanda or French.

Mission: Fighting the Theft of Girls’ Voices

Anyone who knows me well knows why I became a teacher. A decade ago, I did not get the call to simply teach public school students how to write essays. 10 years ago, I got the call to teach the black and brown students at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS). From its genesis, the road I paved to become a literature teacher merged intricately with the road the universe paved for me to make the world safer for women, children and people of color. While my tenure at TYWLS taught me a lot about the particulars of a single sex school environment, I underestimated how starkly different girls carried themselves when they were educated with boys.

Joining the teaching staff of The International School of Kigali -Rwanda (ISKR) ignited a few assumptions on my part. Generally, my largest assumption was that I would have the most difficult time adjusting to teaching the children of the haves. A career dedicated to the children of the have nots provided me with an arsenal of skills that I assumed would have to be reworked in this new environment. I have found that assumption to be totally unfounded as my current students, who come from all over the world, behave all too predictably like the ones I taught in East Harlem. And their parents seem to ask themselves the same question after 3 p.m. that I ask myself before 3 p.m. If I were to strangle this child right now, would the world judge me harshly or would it understand?

I was only vaguely cognizant of my second assumption: teaching in a co-ed school would seem odd to me for the first several months at least. I did not even consider the difference in the girls because…well, girls are girls are girls. My only assumption was: Teenage boys might get more bored and disruptive in a literature class than their female counterparts. After two months, I am surprised at how often I reflect on all those professional development workshops the Young Women’s Leadership Network sponsored during my teaching career. No matter the topic, each workshop had as its foundation this simple premise: SINGLE SEX EDUCATION MATTERS. Teachers must make concerted, calculated effort to ensure girls do not fold themselves into that dangerous box of polite silence the world will insist is the most appropriate space for them. I do not recall many times in my classroom at TYWLS where I felt myself bubble into a mild rage because my girls refused to own their voice. I talk myself out of a fit of uncontrolled rage at least twice a week at ISKR.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I teach the 8th grade. On Mondays and Wednesdays, 6 boys from 5 different countries seat themselves on one side of the large conference table. 6 girls from 6 different countries seat themselves on the opposite. I instruct all students to write down the day’s critical thinking question about the text we are reading and answer it thoroughly. I watch the 6 boys hurriedly jot down the first thing that pops into their heads. I watch the girls think for a moment, write, erase, rewrite, call me over and ask the same question in at least a dozen different ways: “Is my answer good enough?”

When I ask for volunteers to share their responses, the boys’ hands go up immediately. Sometimes, they don’t even wait for me to ask for a volunteer; they just start talking. More often than not, the responses that come from the boys’ mouths are shallow and barely scratch the surface. I turn to the girls, who have written (in the most painstakingly neat penmanship) the most insightful observations about characters and connections to texts we read weeks ago. I watch them erase their answers. I watch them continue to write long after I have announced we are moving on, as if perfection can indeed be attained if I just allowed them 10 minutes to draft an answer instead of a measly 7.

“I want to hear from this side of the table.” I turn to the girls, ignoring the two eager hands waving in the air.

The girls remain silent. I start to feel the rage bubble in the bottom of my belly. I have made it clear to at least two of these girls that their responses are not only thoughtful, but are more correct than I was even hoping for.

Why are they silent?

I put one of them on the spot. “Yara.” She looks startled and irritated. “Let’s hear your answer.”

She averts her eyes at first and begins her answer the way so many girls here do. “Well, I don’t know if I am right…”

The bubbling makes its way to the middle of my stomach.

“Well, nobody knows how right you are either. The only person who knows the right answer is the author and since he’s dead, I guess you’re gonna have to speak for him.”

She smiles and looks back down at her paper. She begins to speak again.

“Well, uhmm…well, I think the tone is…”

It is only two brief seconds that Yara pauses to gather her thoughts. However, Joseph steals those two seconds with agility and precision.

“I think it is like the tone of the last poem we read because…”

The rage rises to my throat. Not because this impulsive 13 year old boy could not control his vocal cords long enough to wait for his classmate to finish her thought. I can barely contain myself because I am baring witness to Yara’s conscious choice to have her voice stolen. I see in her face the same irritation that I and her classmates feel as Joseph the Interloper casually grabs the mic I explicitly gave to her and only her as if he has a right to it. As if it is better suited to his hands. I see Yara half way open her mouth. I see her close it and lower her eyes to the table.

“Yara, were you done with your comment?” I encourage her to look up at me as I ask her the question again.

Her eyes remain lowered. “Joseph, I appreciate your eagerness and I will get to you in a moment, but we are interested in what Yara has to say now.”

Yara remains silent.

“Let’s hear it,” I insist.

I wish I could connect this trend to a specific country or a specific age group. Perhaps my fits of rage would be assuaged if all of the girls who offer up their voices to be co-opted by entitled males were poor village girls from “developing” countries. If only I could simply say, “Yara is only 13. Maybe Dutch girls are just more dainty.”

But Makeda is not Dutch. She is not 13. She is a 17 year old Ethiopian who introduced herself to me via her I am poem with: “I am a feminist.”

When Makeda whispers to me that she wants to withdraw her name from the ballot as representative on the student council, the bubbling in my stomach that is becoming so familiar I barely notice it shoots through me with a fierceness that is surprising.

“That is unacceptable. Your name will remain on the ballot.”

Makeda does not understand why I am angry. Like Yara, she doesn’t understand why I cannot let her simply choose to fade into the background. After all, it is her choice. It is only an insignificant extra-curricular activity.

“I didn’t know we’d have to give a speech,” Makeda tries to explain as if this will make me understand why she needs to momentarily turn herself into a mute.

“I cannot allow it, Sweetie. This might be selfish of me but I cannot allow an almost 18 year old who is going off to university to major in Women Studies in a year to stand here and tell me she plans on cowering in front of 20 people she has eaten lunch with for the past three years. I will allow you to make your speech last, which gives you a few minutes to jot down something on this napkin. But you will be telling your inzu why you are qualified to represent them on the student council.”

I do not know what to make of Makeda or her friend, Ariana. A 16 year old Italian with two parents who work for the embassy, I am baffled by Ariana every time she opens her mouth to announce the play she has written “is really stupid. I can’t believe the drama class actually has to perform it.” I watch her watch me as I peruse the snappy dialogue she puts in her characters’ mouths and the sophisticated way she uses stage directions to paint the picture of a family who is grappling with a host of problems.

I bite my tongue each time she disparages her stellar work and plan my moments to transform the rage into calm encouragement. In those planning moments, though, I watch her classmate, Kito, very closely. As Ariana consistently dismisses her obvious talent, Kito continues to nonchalantly turn in incoherent, grammatically torturous scenes rife with gratuitous violence that follow no clear plot line or dramatic structure. I talk him through rewrites in which he respectfully defends his choices. When he capitulates to my advice, however, it is only a humble, “Okay. I see what you are saying now.” Not once has Kito denounced these hot ass messes as “stupid” and unworthy of sharing with anyone else.

While I am certain that my girls at TYWLS were not immune to self-deprecation and self-doubt, I struggle to recall many memories in which either of these self-defeating notions were the norm. Girls being anything and everything but afraid in their class discussions. Girls fighting over whose turn it was to speak on behalf of the school at some event. Girls admitting that laziness is the reason why their work was below my and their own expectations instead of attributing poor quality to inferior skills. These seemed to dominant my daily experiences at TYWLS. I took for granted the reassuring comfort of such an environment. I allowed myself to believe that what I and my colleagues had created was the standard.

In this new environment, I decide every day to replace the grumblings of rage with commitments to gratitude. I remind myself to appreciate that my work to mold girls who are blind to their own power into women who are committed to their mission will be more challenging. Isn’t that the exact reason why I left my beloved TYWLS in my beloved New York City in the first place? If I am to continue my mission, I must accept the new shape it has chosen to take and adapt myself to it. The bubblings of rage will not likely subside. I am thankful that they won’t.

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