There’s a running joke among black people who weren’t born and raised in America, but who, at some point in their lives, moved to America, that goes something like this: I didn’t know I was black until I came to the USA.
Those aren’t always the exact words, but I think you can understand the point. In a nutshell, it’s commentary on/criticism of this social construct known as race. It’s kind of a messy thing, isn’t it?
I enjoyed this 40-minute NPR interview with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discussing her new novel, “Americanah,” and thought I’d share it.
In it, she discusses being a Nigerian in the USA, and the adjustments she had to make when she first came to the States as a 19-year-old, to attend college. She shares some humorous stories, that I, as someone who was also born in Nigeria, but who moved to the USA at a much younger age than she did (I wasn’t quite a teenager yet), found myself nodding in recognition of – stories on her early struggles to adapt and come to terms with this thing called race, and *blackness*, as it’s defined in this country.
Essentially, learning what you, as a black person in America (no matter where you’re from), should think and feel, and how you should react or not react to stimuli, as if we’re a monolith. We live in a world were conformity rules over individuality, so there’s constant pressure to fit in – and maybe even more specifically, fit into the group that you’ve been assigned by the larger body politic, if only because of the color of your skin.
It all can get very touchy I think, when we start highlighting our differences, even as black people, all over the world. From what I’ve observed, on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s sometimes a sense that one wants to feel superior over the other, or looks down at the other. No one wants to be at the bottom of global society’s hierarchy, I suppose.
But, inevitably we’re all African, right?
As Chimamanda does, I could also tell many stories about my early experiences in the States; for example, recalling the way white Americans treated me in high school and college, as an African in America (as opposed to an African American), believing that they were paying me a compliment by telling me things like, and I’m paraphrasing: “you’re not like the others.”
I remember being perplexed back then, not really understanding what exactly they meant when they implied things like that, wondering who these “others” were that they were referring to.
I was young at 14 years old; I’d been in this country for a year or two, working very hard at just trying to fit in – especially with the black American students at my majority white (I’d say 99% white) Catholic high school in Columbus, OH. But I didn’t quite fit in anywhere with my thick non-American accent, the awkward and uncertain way I carried myself in this good ol’ midwestern, conservative, Christian, Republican city. I couldn’t dance, I wasn’t much of an athlete (at least initially – I would go on to play a year of football, was on the track and basketball teams, before graduating), I was kind of a nerd, etc. In short, I wasn’t all those things that I was expected to be as a black kid in high school in America, and in a weird way, I was looked down upon for that reason, while my *blackness* (if you will) was questioned – and interestingly, not only by white American kids, but black American students challenged me on that front as well.
It was all truly very perplexing for my pubescent mind, having to understand where exactly I fit in, coming from a country (Nigeria) where I never really had to contemplate these ideas – although, coming from an educated family, I was certainly aware of the social construct we call race; even though I didn’t know at the time that it was a social construct. But living in a country for much of my life (until I left for the States) in which practically every single person around me (including in government, at school, everywhere) was also black, I hadn’t experienced a world in which people who looked like me were considered a minority. I didn’t have to acknowledge the presence of other races; even though I knew they existed, given that I watched a lot of British and American movies as a kid. But watching, reading or hearing about something is entirely different than experiencing it first-hand, when you’re essentially forced to almost constantly be aware that you’re *different* and in effect, unwelcome.
Eventually, of course, I would come to understand it all as I aged and lived. During those early years, I spent a lot of time alone; when you do that, you are kind of forced to come to terms with yourself. You have time to think about everything that is life, and try to work your struggles out in your own head.
But those were some of the roughest years of my entire life, and I couldn’t wait to leave and go off to college! All I can do now is look back at those years fondly. If anything, they made me tougher in every way, forcing me to mature a lot sooner than my peers, and become self-aware.
And having lived in the States for the last 30 or so years of my life, this is where I consider home; although as I get older, year after year, I can’t deny that there’s a pull to return to where I was born – something that I think is mostly rooted in a desire (or maybe even feelings of obligation as well) to continue the work that my father started before he died in the 1990s, when he entered Cameroonian politics in order to bring about real and very necessary change to the country (starting with unseating a despot of a president, who still remains in power after 35 years).
Noteworthy (and humorous) is that, as an adult years later, after living in the USA for so many years, when I’m around Nigerian or Cameroonian relatives or friends (especially those not in America), my *African-ness* (if you will) is sometimes challenged. “You’ve become too Americanized,” they would say; “You’ve forgotten where you came from”; etc; mostly said in jest, but still irksome at times.
But all one can do is grin and bear it all. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is that I know who I am, and I’m OK with who that person is.
Like I said, I could tell all kinds of stories about my early experiences as a *new* African in America, in the early 1990s. But instead, I’ll just hand the mic over to Chimamanda to wax philosophic, since she does it all a lot better.