Don’t Forget You’re Black

In America, if you forget that you’re black someone is always there to remind you.

Sitting in the passenger seat next to my father as we drive into our new neighborhood, I heard, “Stay in your lane, NIGGERRRRR!” and looked over to see a lanky white guy in denim overalls sticking his head out the car window and glaring at my father. “NIGGERRRR!” The word bounced in my head and with each thud of it, my mind cringed. My father had shaken his head and chuckled.  (An African-American person is more likely to have had a more expressive reaction that my father did. The word is more sensitive to African-Americans.) My dad would probably still chuckle today if someone were to call him a nigger. They reminded President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign trail. Said he wasn’t a “real American,” called him a straight up nigger in some places. Please, even Jesse Jackson said it. I still hear reporters on television referring to President Barack Obama as, “Mr. Obama.” I still read news articles in which he is referred to as “Mr. Obama.”

I almost forgot that I was black one day.

I guess I had forgotten to put the label on that morning before I left the house.

I went to a restaurant with friends, one of those Chinese ones that serve food so greasy, food so junky, so yummy that you just wanna shoot yourself after eating it. I almost never got a chance to eat the stuff because we were ignored by the restaurant staff. So my friends and I led ourselves through the foyer (the goldfish in the fish tank looked like they were being well taken care of) and then we selected a table. And then we called a waiter to tend to us. And then we called the waiter to take our drink order. And then we looked for the waiter because it seems she had been swallowed into a black hole in outer space. Oh, wait, no she was with the group of white people who had just arrived. She relieved them of their winter coats. (My own coat had more room on the seat that I did.) Our waiter led the other party to a table. And she took their drink orders. She brought out the drink orders faster than you can say, “waiter,” but we had said waiter, my friends and I, we had said waiter plenty of times. Because we hadn’t gotten our drinks, the ones we ordered a long time ago. Waiter! We haven’t got our drinks! I only asked for room temperature water with a slice of lemon at the side. You’re lucky I didn’t ask you for an organic lemon because then you may have had to go to Whole Foods Market to buy it and we all know that’s not gonna happen.

I’m black. My friends are black. Caramel, mahogany, creamy brown, chocolate, chestnut, it don’t matter. We’s black. So we got our food after everyone else in the restaurant had eaten to their stomach’s content and had put on their coats and had gone home and had wished they had never eaten another helping of general tso’s chicken because the monosodium glutamate  in it makes you feel strange afterwards.

I bet they had a good time, because my friends and I, we almost didn’t. We didn’t even concentrate on the lackluster service of our waiter. All she gave us was attitude. Attitude for what? Because you don’t think we’re gonna leave an adequate tip?

I remembered that night. I remembered that I was black.

This famous 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live, by Norman Rockwell has become an iconic image of the civil rights movement. It depicts Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, on her way in to an all-white public school in New Orleans on November 14, 1960 during the process of racial desegregation. Because of threats and violence against her, she is escorted by four U.S. Deputy Marshals.

This famous 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live, by Norman Rockwell has become an iconic image of the civil rights movement. It depicts Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, on her way in to an all-white public school in New Orleans on November 14, 1960 during the process of racial desegregation. Because of threats and violence against her, she is escorted by four U.S. Deputy Marshals.

I was raised in America and I traveled here and there. I’ve even been through Appalachia. Appalachian America is a country within a country. In Appalachia, racism is believed to be worse, perhaps because Appalachians themselves, have it bad.

Like many in Appalachia, this girl lives in poverty

Like many in Appalachia, this girl lives in poverty

They’ve been dubbed “America’s forgotten people” since the early 20th century. I visited a small rural country in West Virginia…the heart of Appalachia…and my blackness shone and glittered in defiance, surrounded by blondies and brunettes everywhere from the local Wal-Mart to the church to the honky tonk where I took my first attempt at clogging. (Clogging is folk dance accompanied by bluegrass music and it involves slapping your feet on the ground, it’s akin to Irish traditional dancing.)

Life in America can be harsh and the identification, the labeling, the branding of black people is everywhere.  CNN’s “Black in America” series reinforces that black is real, so the Nigerian guy who professed to me that he is not black, that he is just a darker shade of the range of human skin tones can maintain that perspective because he has never lived in America. But of course, he doesn’t know this.

America is a land where black people must still prove their worth and the value of their history. The teachings that Egypt’s pyramids may have actually been built by the ancient Greeks or that Queen Cleopatra was not black are dismissed.  Some historians emphasize the influence of black Moors on contemporary Spanish culture. They assert that Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, was black— didn’t you see his lips? They promote the school of thought that Africa-originated indigenes in present-day Central and South America created the famous ancient stone sculptures that we know today.
There is an understandable fear of being ignored, a fear that the achievements and contributions that African Americans made to the US will be ignored. School teachers hardly go beyond Martin Luther King, Carter G. Woodson, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks when it comes to teaching black history.

What about murdered African-Americans whose killers were never tried, never convicted?

And then there’s the Emmett Till tragedy…

Eyes on the Prize: Emmett TillThe Emmett Till StoryTimeline of the murder of Emmett TillJustice delayed but not denied.

The notorious murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 still elicits strong emotion among Americans. Emmett, a Chicagoan, was visiting his family in Mississippi. Before leaving Chicago, Emmett’s mother has warned him about the South, that racism is strong there. Emmett left for Mississippi. At a grocery store, Emmett had whistled in affection at a white woman. A few days later, Emmett was abducted, abused and murdered by white men. His decomposed corpse, discovered in the Tallahatchie River, was so mutilated that police could only identify it by Emmett’s ring. In Chicago, Till's mother makes the decision to conduct an open-casket funeral to let the world see what has happened to her son.

The notorious murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 still elicits strong emotion among Americans. Emmett, a Chicagoan, was visiting his family in Mississippi. Before leaving Chicago, Emmett’s mother has warned him about the South, that racism is strong there. Emmett left for Mississippi. At a grocery store, Emmett had whistled in affection at a white woman. A few days later, Emmett was abducted, abused and murdered by white men. His decomposed corpse, discovered in the Tallahatchie River, was so mutilated that police could only identify it by Emmett’s ring. In Chicago, Till’s mother makes the decision to conduct an open-casket funeral to let the world see what has happened to her son.

I’ve got a friend who had never heard of the black national anthem, that is “Lift Every Voice And Sing.” And when she told me this, I was quite surprised that someone raised in a America had never heard the song, “Life Every Voice and Sing.”

But I remembered.

That she’s Nigerian and Nigerians in America often don’t know much about African American history. The only reason why I know some is because I grew up in a somewhat conscious household. Then, I remembered that she attends a predominantly white and Hispanic high school, so that’s why she “talks like a white girl.”

Then I remembered, that her parents may have been the kind who prefers that their kids either play with fellow African immigrants and white Americans, never befriend the African-Americans. “My parents are ok with my white friends, not the black ones,” a Nigerian girl living in Atlanta told me one day.

A Senegalese friend of mine told me that her father had kicked her out the house when he learned that she had African-American friends during her high school years. Even myself, I was told not to be friends with the “black Americans,” in my high school.Well, then who was I supposed to talk to? Lithonia High School’s student population was 99.9% African-American.

“Black Americans are afrocentric,” one West African guy told me with a scowl on his face. He spit out the word “afrocentric” as if it were poisoning his tongue.  Africans in the U.S. and back home often describe “black Americans” as racist. In their minds, policies like affirmative action sound like nonsense.

And African-Americans should stop crying about the past. But they don’t understand.

But they don’t understand. Africans often come to the U.S. and begin formulating negative opinions of African-Americans, favoring to call them “Black Americans,” perhaps to disassociate their dark-skinned fellows from Africa. They say they don’t go to school, they live on welfare and subsidized handouts, they are killing themselves in gang violence, and all the guys are in jail.

Remember, Nigerians were rated in the 2006 American Community Survey (along with several independent Houston-area surveys) as being the most educated immigrants in the U.S. So you’re likely to find one living in Texas with a Master’s degree at 24 years old, wondering why her African-American neighbors did not complete the Bachelor of Science program, opting instead to work full-time.

“If I can come to this country as an African immigrant and become successful, then why can’t African-Americans do the same? They’ve been in this country for centuries yet look at them. They have failed.”

A Ph.D.-holding relative of mine would ask this question a lot. I’ve heard it repeated throughout discussions among Africans living in the U.S.

Africans often come to America and they become lawyers, medical doctors, university professors, home owners and they look back

Inmates at the state prison in San Quentin, California. June 2012.

Inmates at the state prison in San Quentin, California. June 2012.

at people who have the same skin as they do, who don English names (or created ones like Shontayveus), and they see the gap between them and they wonder why? Why? There are nearly 1 million African-Americans in prison. The percentage of African-American college graduates is relatively low.

“If I can come to this country as an African immigrant and become successful, then why can’t African-Americans do the same? They’ve been in this country for centuries yet look at them. They have failed.”

Look my fellow Africans: It’s not that simple! So you came here and bagged four academic degrees and you own your home. I’m proud of you, but let’s understand that you as an Africans living in America do not have the same type of oppressive historical baggage as the average black man living in America may have. Don’t you know about baggage?

One day all them bags gone get in your way,” sister Erykah Badu preached that message straight to the bone.

 

“If I can come to this country as an African immigrant and become successful, then why can’t African-Americans do the same? They’ve been in this country for centuries yet look at them. They have failed.”

They’ve been here for at least 400 years enough time to get something going for them, you say, but also enough time for a lot of damage to be done…for the esteem and ambitions and dignity of  generations of a people to be crushed.

Police in Birmingham, Alabama release dogs on African-American street protesters

Police in Birmingham, Alabama release dogs on African-American street protesters

They sat at the counters of public restaurants with spit dripping down their faces and swarms of angry people yelling curses at them. Their families were ripped apart and children grew up without knowing their father’s name. Black women were raped, sexualized and dehumanized. And this continued not for 5 years, not 20 nor 100. It went on until the 1970s and continued in the ‘80s in other forms, need I mention the crack cocaine epidemic? It’s still going on, need I mention institutionalized racism? The rise of gang violence in communities across America.

Just go get yourself a big booty hoe.

My fellow African people, let’s refrain from judging African-Americans until we can grasp a greater understand of their struggle, their experience. You have seen black presidents and heads of state come and go in your native country (though a bunch of them were either despots or tormented idealists), but you at least had a black president. And you had a parliament or a national assembly dominated by blacks and your bosses are black and the senior political reporter on your T.V. screen back home was black.

That’s not the case in America.

In your home, back in Africa, you were not black. You maybe didn’t even know you were black. You were just a human. Or actually, you were probably, Wolof or Ewe or Tswana or Yoruba or Luhya. But nonetheless you were a human.

In America, black is black. It’s compounded, and concentrated, emphasized and regurgitated, rearranged, relabeled (nigger, negro, colored, African-American, black, Afro-American), forced upon you whether you want it or not.

 

 

In America, if you ever forget you’re black, someone is always there to remind you.

By Chika Oduah

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12 responses to “Don’t Forget You’re Black

  1. Amazing write up. I always took for granted how much I had it good in Nigeria. Subsequently living in America revealed to me how different things were. Thanks for having such a unique experience and sharing it with us, Chika. 🙂

  2. Hmm, stumbling upon this article and reading it, I’m left with……. rage. It’s unintentional rage, but notheless rage against certain ungreatful people who have the audacity to come to this county, off the backs and contributions of my people. Yes, MY people, and turn their nose whilst running away from much dire circumstances back in their “wonderful homeland.” This is exactly why I haven’t allocated an ounce of concern towards African people or an African objective. Economical or social wise, in America or on Africa. And I think I’m going to explan to others of my community why they shouldn’t either.This is exactly why I’m in support of measures to crack down on immigration. Period. I’m writing to my congressman.

    • We have to work together … the way you’re speaking is exactly the way our white detractors want us to speak and behave b/c divided we fall while white supremacy reigns! We have to smash through the ignorance in our communities on both sides of the Atlantic and forge a bond that will free and uplift us – its the ONLY way …!

  3. Yes we wont forget we are truly black…but many Nigerians, born and has spent most of their lives in Nigeria tend to forget they are black. Their accents speaks volume of who they think they are…

    • You people are stuck on race. Race is based on skin color, hair texture, shapes of of noses, eyes, skulls, and bone structure. It’s stupid because it causes so much confusion. We are not the same as the Africans. The concept of race did not exist until the 1750’s, before that everyone identified themselves by their tribes, countries, and languages. Our tribes were different from the Africans that sold us into slavery. BTW tribes are bloodlines. We were not related to the tribes of Tyre and Zidon. These are the tribes that sold many of us.

    • Nobody in the world demands indian immigrants to be aware of how it is to be a gypsie, a romani. They never even think about that, alltough the language of the romani people is a very close to the indian marwari. Why anaybody demands from african immigrants to identify with african americans.

  4. “Because in America, if you forget that you’re black, someone is always there to remind you.”- Same here in Canada. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been here, I will still never be accepted as a true Canadian. I speak English better than they do yet they ask me every single time “Where are you from?” I had a friend who is African-Canadian and his family has lived in Canada since the 18th Century or so, a lot longer than many European-Canadian families, yet they ask him the same question. It’s frustrating when you’re made to feel as though you don’t belong in your own country.

  5. Given that Obama’s father was from Kenya and not African-American, is not a conclusion of your argument, Obama is not black. He was brought up by his mother and grand-mother who were of Anglo-Irish background, he was in no manner brought up black. He was in no manner constrained by the shackles of being black. Would he ever have considered the path he took as possible were he black? As yet America has not had a black President ?

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