I call myself African. Despite being raised in New York, I was born in Ghana and was raised culturally Ghanaian. I understand the language, Twi, though I don’t speak it very well, which people (mostly Ghanaians) point out and make fun of me for.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this when I was talking to a prospective student. We were talking about being African and I was telling her about the campus organizations geared toward African and African-American students when she asked an interesting question.
“Will I lose my accent, like you, if I come here?” she asked.
“What do you mean, lose your accent?” I responded, trying to stay polite.
“Well I mean you talk like ohmygodlike, like that,” she explained.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I took the situation in stride and decided to ignore it. However, the next week I was having lunch with a friend when he began rattling off the names of some black students. After realizing that I didn’t know most of them, the nagging feeling came back.
Growing up, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Church was awkward because I didn’t feel like I really fit in with the African girls. Unlike most of them, I hadn’t been back to Ghana since I was five. A trip to the homeland was more than just the $1500 plane ticket because you could not live in the west and go home empty-handed. Like most immigrants, Ghanaians view living in America as a gateway to prosperity. Not only was it expected that you bring home money but you had to be prepared to carry an extra bag, separate from your own belongings. This bag would be filled with objects that represented the prosperity you had reached in America. My mother would spend days, sometimes weeks, purchasing and packing toys and clothes for the extended family.
Though they tried, my parents never managed to fully enforce the Ghanaian culture on my sisters and me. After all, we were children in a country that advertised its culture and the accompanying idea of assimilation. So, as you may imagine, I didn’t exactly saunter into church on Sunday evenings. Instead, between the hours of 5 P.M. and 10 P.M., I stood in the youth room, staring at the stains in the burgundy carpet and avoided talking to anyone besides my sister and Mary Ann, the one family friend I actually got along with.
Every Sunday was the same. We would enter the red brick church building as a family and attend the beginning of the service together. The pastor, who was also Ghanaian, would start the service in Twi. After the announcements for the week were made, the children and teens shuffled through the door in the back and were led into the youth room. I would immediately take refuge at the table near the back where the unused games and extra folding chairs were stored. In this spot, I read my books or observed the girls around me.
Being the overly analytical person that I am, I took a mental note of all the awkward interactions in my head and constantly replayed them. Regardless of the interaction, I felt as if everyone was questioning my authenticity.
It was the first Sunday after Easter when three of the older girls in the church decided to venture to my corner. I had brought some of my homework and was mulling over it attentively when I heard their bodies shuffling around me.
“Yeah, she doesn’t even speak Twi,” said one of the girls in Twi. She was wearing a classic dress made of kente cloth. Her hair, which was newly relaxed, was pulled into a tight bun with a weave ponytail attached to the end of it.
The girl next to her, whom I recognized from my apartment building, nodded. They were talking about me. I began fidgeting without looking up. Suddenly, the black skirt and white blouse I was wearing seemed too American. In an adrenaline filled moment, I cleared my throat, catching their attention.
“You know I can understand what you’re saying, right?” I asked. Not knowing why I had decided to do that, I walked away before I could see their reactions.
While that specific incident wasn’t the main reason, I eventually stopped going to church altogether. For me, it was easier to sit at home on a Sunday than to even attempt to make friends.
School was not any better.
Up until seventh grade, I attended my local public school. There, it was easy to be invisible and get lost within the crowd. And that’s exactly what I did. I had a grand total of two friends in middle school. One was my family friend, Erica, who was also from Ghana. The other was Fatima, a Muslim girl whose IQ was through the roof. Teachers always chose her to represent the class at school assemblies, and she had achieved a 100 percent average every single year since kindergarten.
Known for its failing status at that time, the demographic of my school was 45 percent Hispanic, 40 percent Black, 13 percent Asian (mostly from Bangladesh) and 2 percent White/Other. In that 40 percent Black group, most of the students were African-American.
I’m going to use this opportunity to point out that there is a difference between being African and being African-American. A person who defines himself or herself as African-American is usually born in the United States and possesses historical roots in the U.S. An African is someone who was born in Africa and/or is culturally African. There often lies a lot of animosity between the two communities, especially in the older generations. I remember having conversations with my mother and her friends and taking in their blatant racism.
During one such conversation, they were discussing a girl who was now dating a “Black-American” as they called him and brought him to the church. The conversation occurred after my mother and her friends had attended the morning service for church. They were sitting around the kitchen table with the news on the background and the contents of their purses strewn across the table. Occasionally, they would review the passages that were focused on service, but it was largely a gossip session.
“I don’t understand why she won’t date an African boy,” said one woman. The others nodded in agreement.
“It’s a shame,” said another.
“These kids, they come here and they think they can act foolishly,” my mother added. I looked at her and rolled my eyes, knowing that the comment was directed at me.
As their conversation continued I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of their mouths. Most of all, I couldn’t believe how unfazed I was by it all. This wasn’t an isolated incident. If a conversation between two Ghanaians ever turned to America then the next logical step would be to discuss the state of black America. African women and men from my church would often comment on the laziness of black Americans and how as African children, education—and nothing else—was our main priority.
Growing up in this environment and going to M.S. 127 did not go hand in hand. When people chose to pay attention to me, I was often perceived as being “the white girl” in public school. Although I had black skin, I did not speak in the vernacular or about the interests to categorize me, in their eyes, as “being black.” I look back at this now and see it as a gross generalization, but in my twelve year-old mind, this was true all across the board.
While Erica managed to infiltrate the “Cool Black Kids” group through cheerleading and dance, I was left in the dark. I failed to make a connection with my fellow students. Even if I tried, some students would make comments such as: “Oh, Lovia? She’s an Oreo.” And “Yeah, she’s basically white.” I began to internalize their comments and embody what they thought of me. I guess I could say that because of middle school, I began to “act more white.”
The move to Riverdale Country School was supposed to make things better. And in some respects, it did. I started attending Riverdale when I was in seventh grade. On the cusp of thirteen, I was already struggling with my pre-teen years before being thrust into this world that came with a new social order.
“Giant culture shock” is the only way I can describe my first couple of years at Riverdale. With a student body of 1,200 for K-12, Riverdale is a small school that sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by two other private institutions in the Riverdale/Kingsbridge area of the Bronx. With its 27 acres and $40,000 tuition, Riverdale is a reflection of its student body’s privilege. It was not hard to distinguish between those who were privileged and those who weren’t. For girls, the “uniform” changed depending on the season, but items such as Hunter rain boots, UGG boots, Longchamp bags and Moncler jackets remained staples.
At Riverdale, I wasn’t just an African. Because of my skin color and the lack of black students at the school, I, along with other minority students, was unintentionally forced to be the “voice” of the race. This caused a disconnect with my African identity and did not fully allow me to explore my African culture and “American” identity critically. Instead, I just assumed the role and identity that was expected of me.
In eighth grade English, we read Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel Black Boy. The novel, which recounts Wright’s childhood and early adulthood life, explores the racial tensions he faced in both the North and South.
“Does anyone else have anything else to add?” my English teacher would ask at the end of every question or major thought. This would not have been strange if not for the fact that most of the time when she asked that question, she looked directly at me.
As an eighth grader, I was still fairly new to the ropes of Riverdale. I did not participate in any of my classes and refused to draw attention to myself. I knew that my English teacher was expecting me to have some sort of opinion on the novel, but I didn’t. It was experiences like these that made me feel as though I had to be the “voice” for my race. I participated in all diversity events and toward my senior year, used my role on the newspaper as a way to report on issues of diversity at Riverdale.
Today, I am at Princeton. Before coming here, I preemptively decided that I didn’t want to be in the same position. I purposefully decided not to join any activities, including affinity groups, and instead wanted to meet people “organically.” My motto was that if we were meant to be friends, we would be friends, regardless of race.
My new approach to friendship seemed to be working out until one day when I was having a conversation with an African-American friend. They mentioned the names of a few black people on campus and after the fourth or fifth name; I realized that I didn’t know any of them. This worried me. Suddenly, all the confidence I built up about my theory shattered and the only thought that consumed me was that I didn’t know any black people. Coming to this realization was extreme at best. I obviously knew black people on campus, but I felt as if I had somehow missed a “meet every black person” event. I felt my old fears about not being “black enough” resurfacing. On top of all that, compared to students who were straight from Africa, I was not even “African enough.”
These thoughts led me to question my friends on campus and whether people perceived me as a “white-washed” black person. I was determined to meet every black person on campus and let everyone know that I was doing it. This didn’t work and instead caused me more anxiety, as I wasn’t making friendships based on anything more than race.
I blindly assumed and perhaps purposefully deluded myself into thinking that because this was Princeton and it was college, things would change, but they haven’t. I still struggle with finding my place as an African-born, American-raised, private school educated black female. While I haven’t found that place, I am learning that perhaps being “undefined” is my place for now, and that may not be such a terrible thing.