In the book “Americanah” from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the main character Ifemelu described that she never felt black until she moved to the US. This idea resonated with me. Americanah by the way is one of my most favorite books of all times and I am reserving a whole post for my thoughts on the book. Coming back to the notion of feeling black in America, I would admit that I felt a different kind of black in every city I have traveled to, since I left my home country.
Black in New York: I was one of many but I belong to a stereotype, to a profile. “BLACK”. I couldn’t quite grasp what the stereotype was but I could tell people identify me as part of a group. In language school, my classmates were from Asia, South America and Eastern Europe for the most part. They kept asking me about elephants, lions, giraffes, etc… I found it quite amusing that those people imagine I had those animals as pets. For one of my classmates in particular, HappyBee, it seemed that she felt sorry for me. And it took me a while to understand why Happybee had so much compassion for that special something in me. She insisted on taking the check every time we went out. Once, she had asked me to buy her some root vegetables at a market close to my house because, you know, “vegetables were cheaper in the ghetto”. Anyways, I brought her the vegetables and she insisted on paying me the $3 I had spent. She wouldn’t forgive herself for taking” $3” away from me. I then started to understand what group they put me under. The poor African kid who couldn’t afford much, similar to sad skinny children which according to commercials you could feed with only 50 cent a day.
Black In Wisconsin: I later moved to Wisconsin and saw a similar pattern in behavior. For most people I ran into, I was the first person from Ivory Coast they had met. Many asked me the same questions about wild animals but it went further. Some wanted to know if we had electricity, cellphones, most modern necessities in general. BestG from Ghana was more amused than I was by these inquiries. He decided to feed our non-african friends’ imagination by stretching stories. He had once convinced his roommates, that he had lion soup for breakfast every day. They believed him! BestG would stretch his stories further. He had also convinced my coworker that every Friday, women walked around topless in the streets. I am not too sure what his intentions were with this last statement. Truth is, I wasn’t amused that people believed I lived in a jungle; I wasn’t amused that people wanted to hear me make wild tribal noises. I simply wasn’t amused by so much ignorance.
Black in China: The people I was travelling with noticed it before I did: many stares directed at me. Then I got asked to be in a picture. I proceeded despite my confusion. “You guys know that I am not famous right?” I remember thinking this as I was part of more and more pictures. My travelling companions teased that I was the star of the group. I get it; I was the only black person travelling among a group of Caucasians. But there had to be something more to make the motorcyclist in X’ian turn around completely to look at me, to make the father in Shanghai beg me to take a picture with his family, to make the masseuses in Beijing fight over who would get to do my massage. Then, there was GiddyPee at the Pearl Market, overly animated and enthusiastic to tell me about her merchandise. I could read the curiosity and the confusion in her eyes persistently starring at my light brown straight extension. She openly asks me why I was so dark. I had answered that question once before, to a five years old. This time I wasn’t sure how to address this grown woman concern. I look at her perplexed and before I can answer, she touches my arm and looks back at her fingers. I am assuming she had expected to get some black, like from a wet painting. I can tell she is disappointed. Before I leave, she caresses my hair; the texture too was amazing to her. At the end, I did enjoy my temporary “fame” in China until I felt exasperated because to so many I was almost an Alien. skin color.