Thursday, February 14, 2013

Being black in Africa

I have often been asked the question, “what’s it like being a black American in Côte d’Ivoire?” so I figured I would address this here.

Sometimes it’s like this:
In a taxi on the way to a Saturday morning yoga class with two (white) American friends, the driver kept referring to me as his “sister” to back him up in a discussion about how Ivoirian women prefer girl children. Exasperated on my behalf, my friend said, “She’s not your ‘sister.’ She’s from America like us!” The taxi driver expressed shock and then excitement; he turned around and asked if he could shake my hand. “I’ve never met a Black American before! I see them on TV, but never before in real life!” He proceeded to chuckle and shake his head in astonishment the whole rest of the trip.

Or it’s more often like this:
Taxi driver: “is she [referring to me, even though I am in the car] American like you?”
Friend: “Yes. But, you can ask her yourself”
Taxi driver turns to me: “but really where are you from? Everybody knows where they come from… your ancestors are from which African country?”
Me, incensed: “Do I really need to explain the whole slave trade to you right now? They didn’t ask the Africans they took off the boat which country they were from and write it down. The slave traders didn’t care (I might have used more colorful French here, I was in a bad mood)”
Taxi driver: “I guess that makes sense…Well I heard Michael Jackson traced his heritage back to Guinea. So you could be from there too.” (Guess which country the taxi driver was from… go figure)

I get it. I represent an anomaly for many here, because when they meet Americans, eight times out of ten (or higher) they are white (i.e. aid workers, embassy folks, etc). From first glance, I don’t particularly stand out – I have been told that I have Bété (Ivoirian ethnic group west-central part of the country, Gbagbo’s ethnic group) legs – though my accent to a good ear has English tones. When a taxi driver discovers this and I am alone, I lie and say I am from Ghana. Why? Because I don’t want to deal with people asking me to help them get a visa to the US (i.e. help us, my sister. We are both black you should help us, etc). Only once has this plan backfired when the taxi driver knew Ghana a little too well (Oh, what village are you from? What language do you speak? etc). If I am with some of my lighter skin (read, white) friends, I become even more noticeable because I am speaking English. I once had a dude chase us down the street because he was sooo interested in talking to the Black woman who spoke English. Saw the same dude less than an hour later when I was alone; he didn’t take special notice of me. 

I guess it is frustrating because I don’t want to be the exotic token. It’s true that I can answer, after being asked four times in the same conversation, really where are you from, my grandmother is from Cape Verde (though also born in America), which I do sometimes. They nod their heads and say ok, that makes sense (because me being from America doesn’t make sense…); But I am only a quarter Cape Verdean, don’t speak the language and minimally identify as such. I don’t want to diminish the rest of my history that is directly tied to the slave trade and American history, and yet I find myself sometimes having to do this. It’s equally frustrating when they say, “but no he or she [referring to a white colleague] is a real American.” My people have been in the US for longer than every one of my white Fulbright colleagues here, who are descendents from European immigrants that arrived in the late 1800s, early 1900s. From what my grandfather has researched, the Davis side can be traced back to at least the 1790s! Argh!

On the other hand, it certainly has its advantages. The people I work with love to show me off as “Obama’s cousin” (though, they know good and well Obama and I have little to no chance of being related considering his background). I have embraced my “Bété”-ness, even adopting a Bété name: Ouzua (which now some colleagues only refer to me as). I blend in when I walk down the street… maybe they see me as different from Ivorian women, but for all they know I could be from some other West African country… in other words, I don’t usually get harassed for money or to make “new” friends any more than an Ivoirian would, compared to my white colleagues.

But the “discrimination” (maybe too strong of a word) doesn’t just apply to West Africans ignoring me or being intrigued by me. In Ghana, I have a memory of sitting in the cafeteria alone eating lunch one day. Some UCLA study abroad students (some of whom I had actually met earlier) came in. They saw another white study abroad student, and immediately went to sit with him. I sat there, appalled. I wanted to stand up and shout “hey, I am American too!”

In short, living in and travelling around West Africa has made me think about my identity as a black, African-American, woman. I would like to learn more about other African-Americans’ experiences here, and maybe one day I will write a book. In the meantime, I try not to get too annoyed when asked where I come from. I try to feel out whether the taxi driver (because nine times out of ten, they are the most interested) is going to ask me for a) more money, b) a visa, or c) if I know Beyoncé; or if he is just going to have a nice chat with me about how cool my country is. That’s when I decide to claim my American-ness or pretend to be from someplace else. 


John and Tahira said...

Very interesting and funny. This blog post should be read to the many ignorant black Americans who say they don't want to go to any African countries because all African people hate black Americans. It also sheds light on the frustration black Americans can feel about our own American history. I am really enjoying hearing about your experiences. By the way, can you vlog too and upload to YouTube so that we can experience Cote d Ivoire in motion picture? That would be awesome.

Willie Davis said...

Interesting experiences. You were not quite lying when you told the taxi driver that you were from Ghana. The mtDNA of your great grandmother (paternal side) matches two females out of 266 people who were tested from Ghana. You can find that in the DNA PowerPoint presentations that I sent to you last summer.