Becoming Black: Facing Race for The First Time

Members of St Lawrence's African Student Union
(A reflection of my first weeks at St. Lawrence in Canton, New York, USA)

I laid in the dark room, the taste of salt-water still dominant in my mouth, exhausted and with a pounding headache. Breathing in the hot, thick air that still irritated my nose, I turned to my side and looked out the window: the trees wore bright green leaves and stood next to brown and scarlet buildings, the colors of our school. In the distance, I could hear voices I was only familiar with through the countless American movies I have watched in my life. The brick buildings, strange voices, and humid air convinced me that this was a dream, that I would close my eyes and wake up in my own bed with the raw sound of the siSwati language and the smell of freshly cooked maize that hung thick in the air and enveloped you with its warmth. After being in the U.S. for three weeks I had expected to be acquainted with the place and its environment, but with each passing day, I felt more and more disconnected from it. Everything was foreign to me: from the food to the language to the culture. I was confused and lost culturally, socially and emotionally. I could not help thinking if I would eventually find a sense of belonging or if I would be in a constant battle of trying to find where my place lay at St. Lawrence (SLU), or if I even had a place to find.

In my two decades of existence, I have never described myself as “black.” I always knew I was, but it was never something that was of huge significance, the same way I have always been aware that I am African. I had certain expectations of my new environment. After attending a UWC, a diverse environment, fostering the idea of community, I had expected to find a similar environment at SLU. On the contrary, I found it to be segregated. It lacked the “oneness” of the school society that I was so accustomed to. People existed in their own social groups: racial, class and gender. Admittedly, because of the existence of these social groups, I came to redefine myself. I was no longer just another person existing in society.

I landed in Syracuse at 22:04 on a humid Monday night. My first interaction was with a Vietnamese girl. She and I were talking and inevitably, the question, “where you from?” came up. “Swaziland.” “Switzerland?! You speak French?” “No. Swaziland. In Africa.” “You’re from Africa? How come you speak such good English?” Hold on. Here I stood in front of this girl, who wasn’t a first language English speaker, asking me how I knew how to speak English because I was African – in English! That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just Americans that had a single story about Africa – as proven in the following weeks by comments such as “You have an airport in Swaziland?”, “Your English is amazing.”, “Do you know McDonald’s?” – the whole world did. As Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie claims in her speech, The Danger of a Single Story, the media has consistently portrayed Africa as a dark continent with illiterate people dying of starvation and AIDS. And sure enough, if you show a people as one thing over and over again that’s what they become. Undoubtedly, this is the reason this girl that stood in front of me, was genuinely surprised that I had more than adequate communication skills. This is why the Americans found it difficult to see me as an intellectual equal; why they were surprised by my ability to construct coherent sentences in English; why they were surprised I knew SLU existed. Not to mention the comments on my accent, as experienced by Ike in Foreign Gods, Inc. (Ndibe, 2014). Although it does not hinder me from achieving what I want, as it did Ike, it does get constant comments. I didn’t know I had an "accent" before landing in the U.S. I remember talking to a friend and the following conversation took place:
“Fiki, please say my name.”
“Why?”
“I like the way you say it. There’s a certain lingo to it. It’s different – it sounds nice.”
Although I don’t know what exactly he meant by “nice”, it became apparent to me that my accent had come to define me in a way I didn’t imagine it would. I started noticing how I say certain words: like how I would emphasize the “t” in “certain” and most people would omit it. I wondered if I, too should omit “t”s in my speech – or I should turn them into “d”s? Which one was it? Furthermore, although there are People of Colour in American societies, there is still a division between African-Americans and Africans. I remember walking into the Black Student Union - the befuddling scent of sweet and sour mixed with bitter vapors dissolved in the air filling my lungs and the deafening music vibrating through my whole being - and surprisingly feeling more lost than ever. As I stepped in, a dozen pairs of eyes fixed on me, feeling them conduct a detailed analysis from head-to-toe and back up again. No one moved. I felt myself retreat into myself. I blinked once. Twice. There was a sting in my eyes – I blamed it on the smoke. I did a quick scan of the room, searching for comforting eyes. Nothing. I stood there, frozen, as the rest of the room swirled around me. A warm hand grabbed me, pulled me to them and shouted, “Let’s dance!” For a second I forgot how to walk – let alone dance. I took two feebly steps to the right and one to the left, nearly tripping over my feet. My eyes focused on the girl dancing next to us. She was in a low, squatting stance, thrusting her hips and bottoms rhythmically against an overly excited young man who had his hands glued to her waist. The two moved in perfect sync as the rest of the crowd cheered them on. “Try it,” a voice urged me. “Uh – I’m okay. I’m – I’m tired anyway,” I said as I sat next to three girls deep in conversation about Lemonade.  Someone told me they liked my accent and should take pride in it and my origin. Asked for my opinion on the subject matter, I realized I knew about it as much as I did the secrets of the world babies know. A wave of terror hit me: I did not twerk, I did not follow B’s life, I hated the smell that dominated the room. The room was too hazy, and I was lost in the fumes. I couldn’t fathom the culture of the strong, loud, opinionated, Beyoncé-worshippers who overused the word “slay”. So, there I was, in a Black environment; lost. Anxiety kissed me with her cold, gray lips. This further emphasized my newly-found awareness of being an African with an accent. I had had no awareness of my accent, no awareness of my blackness, no awareness of my “Africaness”. Consequently, I found myself defining myself as a “Black, African girl” and proud of it.

In his article, Globalization as a Cultural System, Timothy Taylor argues that “consumption has become even more important in self-definition” (Taylor, 144). In my first two weeks of landing in the U.S, I had an Amazon, Colour-Pop and eBay account for “easier and convenient shopping.” I realized that America is dominated by the culture of consumption and I quickly fell victim to it; as did my Nigerian friend who can be easily classified as a “shopaholic.” She claims that in Nigeria she did not consume as much as she has since her migrating to America merely because the culture here is different; people expect you to own certain products which give you a certain identity, which explained her genuine shock after my suggestion to go to the Thrift Shop. Moreover, there is the expectation back home that as she is now in America, she should own the latest gadgets as evidence of her advancement. I identified with what she was saying. As the day of my departure drew closer, my friends and family gave me a list of things to bring them the day I return home. Where would I get the funds? Through many African eyes, America is portrayed as the land of opportunities and success. This notion is highlighted in Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. where Ike, a Nigerian migrant in America was perceived to be financially stable and was expected to assist relatives and friends financially.

As previously stated, I have opened more than one online shopping account. I find myself spending hours online, searching, lusting, consuming. “Consumption has become an open-ended project of self-creation,” states Douglas Holt. As much as I was beginning to take pride in my newly-found identity, I still fell into the temptation of shaping and reshaping myself to fit into a certain box – a box I would find people who were similar to me. The sweet, sassy sound of Beyoncé’s Formation became my morning anthem and telling my friend she “slayed” her outfit slipped into my vocabulary. I consumed not because I was trying to keep up with my friend, or even the other American students, but in order to play into a certain identity with my consumption habits. In my head, if I consumed more, and certain goods and services, I would start belonging a little more. I would own certain possessions that would give me the image I wanted to portray: strong, Black, African girl (who’s not too Africanized as she’s aware of the American commodities but also not too Americanized and still recognizes her African roots) who possess an admirable sense of nimbleness. In my attempt to find myself, I was slowly losing myself.  Taylor expresses that selfhood has come to be fashioned as much by the construction of identity through practices of consumption (Taylor 144). My selfhood was in a state of imbalance. I thought with the consumption of certain products I would find that balance again.

In all, in my attempt to fit-in, I had the realization that to find myself I might have to lose myself first. There I was in BSU feeling too “white” for the black students, but knowing very well I was too “black” for the white students. I liked Taylor Swift but I also liked head wraps. I was proud of the person I was: An African. But I knew I was more than just an African girl who speaks good English. I was looking forward to learning the new person I could be. I wanted to stay authentic to myself; even though I began questioning what that meant exactly. It was going to be a challenge, but I have always been one to take upon new ones. I have confidence in my ability to adjust in new environments, however challenging. I knew that as much as I had cried myself to sleep, questioning my decision to come here, how I fit into the SLU community lay in my hands. It was in that very moment, looking outside at the brick walls with the green trees next to them, students laughing under its shade – and knowing very well that this wasn’t a dream –  that I decided to get up and go find my place in this new, foreign land.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved reading this piece. You write so well, ngatsi I'm reading a book. Thank you for sharing. I hope you've found your tribe and yourself ❤❤

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