Meeting Africa By La Vonda R. Staples
7/9/2012 9:53:46 AM -
Africa? Where did I meet her? I first heard of her from a real live African when I was in the fourth grade. Our teacher, Mr. Driskill, thought it would be a learning experience for an African to come and talk to his class. I attended Toussaint L'Ouverture Elementary and I have to confess that there wasn't a single painting or representation, or even a story told about Haiti or the Revolution which would create the first independent country of Black people in the western hemisphere. In 1977, in those urban classrooms of St. Louis, we weren't taught about Haiti. We had no lessons whatsoever regarding Africa. It was as if our Black teachers as well as our White teachers had met and decided, in unison, that they would allow us to believe we were the only Black people in the entire world. That's hyperbole of course but the results of the truth are the same. I don't recall if Africa was ever pointed to on a globe or a map.
The man who came to speak to our class was from Nigeria. I don't remember his name. I remember he was a man who didn't possess one more pound than he truly needed. Not skinny. Just compact. I can't tell you if he was tall or short. He didn't really sear himself into my memory. I can tell you that the entire class was an embarrassment. I felt it then. I feel it now. All we did was repeat the same lies and myths about Africans. We asked, 'Do you have more than one wife?' We asked, 'Do you live in a house?' We asked, 'Do you got a lion?' He grew frustrated. Mr. Driskill didn't stop us or reprimand the class for the crazy-house laughter that filled the room each time our guest would attempt to answer. Our visitor attempted to show us different views of African cultures. When he started to dance, the laughter of arrogant ignorance escalated to a raucous cacophony. No one was without guilt. We all laughed at this man. That African man who wore African clothes, ate African food, and spoke and African language. We, Black American children, believed that he was ridiculous in the definitive sense: subject to ridicule. I don't know if any of the other students remember that day. But I have always remembered it with shame, guilt and regret. I owe him a fervent apology.
Africa hid from me for many years. I didn't consider her and she didn't present herself to me. It wasn't until I was 21 years old and married. My husband Jack met a man named Nassir. He was from Nigeria. Jack and Nassir became great friends. So much so that Nassir became my oldest son's godfather. When we moved from our apartment across the street from Nassir to a townhouse about 60 miles away we missed him. But not for long as he moved next door to us after a few months. Once we no longer lived in the city and had the ability to walk in the suburbs, sit by the man-made ponds, and spend long nights around a backyard fire Nassir began to teach me about his particular African culture. His mother was Fulani and his father was Hausa. They were from Northern Nigeria. They were Muslims. They were also a family with four mothers. Nassir's father was a polygamist. Here was an opportunity I wasn't going to let go by. I was quiet and let him slowly teach me about his life. He told me how he left his mother's house at 12 and learned to take care of himself. He told me how his father's first wife (his mother was the fourth wife) was given the title of 'Mama' and how he called his mother by her first name. He had 26 brothers and sisters. All very well educated. All very happy with each other. I saw their photos and I don't think they were faking for the camera. I would learn, later in life, that African culture dictates that children are precious. I would also learn, in more than one political science course, that there were cultural aspects of Islam which gives the birth of sons, the gift of a son to a father from a mother, an especially blessed event. Before I read one book I knew this from Nassir. Our second child, Jack and I, was also a boy and he weighed nearly ten pounds. Nassir came to the hospital before anyone else, held my son, and said his name, 'Grant, Grant, Grant.' He rolled the r's off of his tongue. He pronounced the 'a' with an 'ah.' Grant is 21 years old and I've never heard his name pronounced with such abject elegance and meaning. Nassir and his wife never had any sons. Not then. Not now.
I think another decade passed but I'm not really sure. Many things happened in my life and most of them were not good. Since I never graduated from high school I took a high school equivalency examination (the GED). I know I was 31 when I took it and I scored so high that I was given scholarship funds for college. I started at community college and then I bounced around, never really declaring a major. Along the way I met Africa in my macro-economics professor, Dr. Remigius Onwumere, a cab driver from Ethiopia named Allilinge Mulat, and also a math teacher named Dr. Lateef Adelani. East Africa and West Africa now had faces and names. I was Dr. Onwumere's best student. Possibly because I was very polite and most likely because he noticed I was non-verbally upset with people who came to class late and asked, 'what I need for my grade' and 'what's gonna be on the test?' I was Mr. Mulat's favourite face at the Red Sea (the only Ethiopian restaurant in St. Louis at that time) because he knew I was going to listen, intently, to how hard it was to get a job in his field. He drove cabs because his degrees weren't accepted by United States institutions. I re-met him many years ago at the department of motor vehicles, we were both renewing our driver's licenses, and he was once again Dr. Mulat. He was always Dr. Mulat to me. I remember he would tell me all the wonders of American citizenship. He told me and not the other way around.
Dr. Mulat told me, while we were waiting for our numbers to be called, that he'd spent eight years driving cabs at night and attending university courses during the day. He earned an American doctoral degree and re-joined academia. Through all of his struggles he never forgot me. He knew me as soon as he saw me. He was very happy to give me an update on how he brought his wife and children to America. He had never given up or turned away from his dreams or goals.
I was 36 when I enrolled at the University of Missouri at St. Louis in spring 2002. I might have possessed about 60 credits after four years of part-time community college study. I had met Africa in hair-braiding salons along the way. The city in which I reside is not a popular destination for African immigrants. I had yet to have any prolonged contact or relationship with Africans living in America. I had yet to have any real conversations (real conversations being those not in a school or a bar) with an African. I did have conversations with those who were African American and lived in Africa. Accra, Ghana to be specific. Two men who were callers to my radio show (I never said I had a boring life) would brag on and on and on about their other 'homes' in Accra. Where, they claimed, that 'the Black man is king' and anyone could 'hire young, pretty girls to clean house for about 10 dollars a week.' They would also, when they came to the radio station, whisper to the men about what else they would do with these housekeepers. Of course the men would come back and tell me what they said. I ended up feeling very disgusted with the Ghanaian women for allowing this treatment. I didn't know anything about GDP, living standards, and I didn't stop to think that the men more than likely were lying on the Ghanaian girls. You see, I had no frame of reference for the things I'd heard.
I never even had a class on the subject of Africa until fall of 2002. I enrolled in 'Africa to 1800' with Dr. Adell Patton, Jr. He told me his story. The next semester I enrolled in the successive course. My African inculcation continued when I took the graduate level form of the course as a student in the graduate history program. I also took a course called, 'Energy in the 21st Century' and wrote my research paper on the effects of petro-chemicals and liquid natural gas on the ethnic groups of Nigeria.
Thinking deeper, it wasn't even my idea to write about Nigeria in that energy class. It was Dr. Hsieh's idea. He was interested in China's involvement in Nigeria's oil markets. I went to him for research paper ideas. He offered Nigeria. I took it. That was how I learned that a Nigerian wasn't just a Nigerian. I read about Yoruba and Igbo long before I met the family of Dr. Valentine Ojo or Idika Agwu. I read about Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people. I also read about the Ogoni Nine and Port Harcourt and pollution and burn-offs, and every type of capitalism despotism that befalls a people who are cursed with petroleum without power.
I took a course in African politics which really didn't go so well. That low point was banished from my mind when I took a writing course with a Nigerian professor. A gigantic, booming, congenial spirit named Adeniyi 'Niyi' Coker. If I had to pick a single person responsible for my creative writing, it has to be him. He is the first person to earn a doctorate in African American history from Temple Unviersity. The thought of reading, 'Afrocentricity' by Asante never entered my mind 'til Dr. Coker talked to me about perspectives in storytelling. Later on this perspective would cost me the loss of a few grade points when I took a course in African Anthropology. I undertook an unsuccessful argument with the professor regarding the climax of 'Things Fall Apart.' The accepted climax is the murder of the station manager and not Okonkwo's suicide. When I got through arguing I was still wrong. I earned an A- for the course. The only person who applauded my efforts was Dr. Valentine Ojo. Dr. Ojo had declared, on several occasions, that I had no right to discuss Africa. Great, in his words, was my ignorance. But on this occasion Dr. Ojo was pleased because I had argued the African side, the African story. I had learned one thing: that there was another story, waiting to be told.
My meetings with Africa became so frequent that there were barely any lines of demarcation. Each time we met, she and I, it became harder and harder to let her go. Each tiny piece of her, essence of her, became something like the panes of a quilt for me. I collected scraps and I cherished them and sewed them together into a body which only makes sense to me.
Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, Dr. Patton and his wife became kind of like academic parents for me. He guided my academic footsteps. He caught the African 'bug' and had never been the same only child and single son of share-cropping parents from a past filled with racism, bigotry, and endless days of picking cotton in the Arkansas sun. After completing his doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin he took every opportunity to do research in East and West Africa. His wife told me all of her experiences traveling with her husband and children. They lived in a few West African countries as members of households. This information was invaluable to me. I was bound to each and every word. Dr. Patton also visited South Africa. Until the moment Dr. Patton showed our class his slides, I had never seen any other image of Africa except those on the news, in the papers, and in Black magazines such as Ebony, Jet and Essence. I sat in his class and didn't sleep. I couldn't take my eyes, not even for a second, from the mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. Some part of me won't accept that Africa has such beauty until I see it for myself. I believe it exists but there is always the burden of what came before. The difference for me today is I desperately want those beautiful slides, photos, and paintings to be real. Everything 'they' have ever said about 'us' would be made into felonious lies. All of the images I had learned to accept without exception were all miserable. Famine, war, hunger, female abuse, and violence. How could I be anything if I my home was in such a state?
I did have occasional meetings with 'happy Africa' outside of the university setting. Here and there I would see programs or events such as Budweiser's 'Great Queens and Kings of Africa' calendar series. I would go to poetry readings and drum circles. I think I recall meeting a few non-hair braiding African women, maybe, in the international grocery store or at the mall. I owned one lonely dance video called 'Dances of Africa.' You know I never even questioned why there was a dance called, 'Dhambala' on that video. Later I found out that Dhamabala came from Haiti and then I found out that it actually came from the Congo. But you see, we're getting to the point in my story where everything starts to cross back and forwards. I find out one thing is one thing and later on I find out it's actually another and later I find out it's both. These are the greatest moments of my meetings with Africa. When I find out that something actually has a 'home.'
At this point I have to do some serious review. I never met an African, in the flesh, until I was in the fourth grade. I think I said that. But I did see Africans on television, the evening news, news magazine programs, and there was an endless stream of African children on religious fundraising programs. All of them veiled in flies, crying tears which did not have an opportunity to dry, and their problems, we were told, could be solved for just 32 cents a day. Africa, from the beginning of my life, was a place where fat White people took the time to beg for money while children all around them expired from lack of nourishment. The brown children would crawling around on crippled hands, legs, and feet. Standing in doorways with helplessness and hopelessness in their eyes and playing in piles of trash, with no parents to be found. The Whites who came from America seemed to be their only hope (along with the 32 cents)
I always wondered why the fat White people didn't give them some of their food. The commercials came on late on Sunday nights and sometimes on Saturday. I would ask my grandmother, 'Grandma, how come they don't just give the children some of their food?' She would tell me to turn the channel. And I did.
I tuned it out. There was poverty around me in my neighborhood. I never knew what it was like until I was about ten years old. That's when I was in the fourth grade in Mr. Driskill's class. It's no wonder I was so cruel to the African man who came to visit. He was telling us how lucky we were and I didn't feel lucky at all. I was abandoned by the only parents I knew when my grandparents moved and left me with my mother. There were no more tables, sagging with the weight of opulent dinners my grandmother would take days to prepare. I was in no mood to be sensitive of anything I couldn't see. I couldn't relate. So I laughed.
I've reviewed these images so many times in my mind. I don't know how I kept running into Africa. Did other Black people have the same experiences? We never talked about it except to say how lucky we were that we weren't starving over there with 'them Africans.' Occasionally, I would see someone wearing 'African clothes' which was generally a dashiki. I never even saw someone wearing a boubou at home until I was over forty. You might think I'm being dishonest, obfuscating a truth to make a point. Unfortunately I'm opening my mind to you and showing you the images which have been locked inside for so long I had forgotten they were supposed to be secrets. Since I became acquainted with Africa I've been ashamed of ignoring her for so long. This is my root. This is who I am.
I never would have had to face this, I truly believe, if I hadn't climbed to the ninth floor of one of the buildings at the university I attended and knocked on the door of Dr. Jean-Germain Gros. He let me in. We had already talked. I needed help teaching a course on sub-Saharan African history. I passed my classes with the highest grades (most of the time). I had done research. I'd written papers on Nigeria, Rwanda, and Senegal. Yet, when I looked around his office at all of the photos I still stopped at one and said, 'who is this?' He said, 'you're joking.' My face told him I wasn't. The man in the photo was Kwame Nkrumah. I could recite the years of each nation's independence because it was part of the curriculum for the Cold War. I was trained very well but I had no experience and I had yet to gain a feeling or rather, an affinity, for Africa. I had no affection for Africa. I hadn't yet found myself in any of the thousand faces in hundreds of books. My ignorance on that day, broke the bough, severed it completely.
And the next thing I knew I was angry. I was livid. I was horrified to learn that we had spent entire semesters on the Vichy government and not one of the books on my graduate list contained a single mention of the Congo-Brazzaville government under DeGaulle in October of 1940. There was no mention of any American involvement in the arrest of Nelson Mandela. There was no mention of Africa with the exception of the occupation of Northern African in World War II and the use of African troops (among other nations) in the Battle of Verdun during World War I. That's all I was taught and until I walked into the office of the angry-looking Haitian professor Dr. Gros, that was all I knew.
I don't know why he put up with me. If he and I were dogs I would be a golden retriever and he would be an undersized pit bull. Our personalities are completely opposite. If there were ever two people who were most unlikely to make friends on a deserted island - that would be the two of us. But there must be a reason in all of this because like Dr. Patton, Dr. Gros had also caught this wonderful African bug. I think for him it was in Cameroun where he undertook his research for his dissertation (something to do with cattle). He eventually made a second home in Ghana. Wherever he goes, he carries my gratitude with him. If he hadn't shamed me and picked on me so very badly, I would never have examined myself. When I met him I wouldn't even call myself an African American. Now? How can I escape it?
He came to my home once. He is a man with very few relatives. From the walls and the bookshelves and the tables my great-great grandfather, my great-grandfathers, my great grandmother, and my grandparents looked back at him. The first generation were slaves and they were as black as asphalt. Gradually we became lighter and lighter because of the addition of a Choctaw great-great grandmother and great-grandmother. It would be absurd to think that my great-great grandfather walked out of slavery and into freedom with a biracial child under one arm, now wouldn't it? We started out as African as one could possibly appear to be and yet I wouldn't admit that I was an African American. Can you wrap your head around that one? Unlike many African Americans I know who my enslaved relatives were. I know where they lived while in bondage. I know what jobs they did. I can go and hold my grandmother's hand and touch a hand that touched the hands of the man who as a slave for 35 years and yet I wouldn't admit to an African past until the day that grouchy little Haitian man confronted me.
At that point and after that point, I must confess to you that I cannot give you specific persons, times and places for African meetings. It seemed as if he had broken some kind of spell or curse because now my people were evident, abundant and at every turn I made. I loved it. I love it.
Eating African food is no longer a generic experience for me. I can choose East (Ethiopia) or West (generally Nigerian). There is no longer a such thing as 'African clothes' for now the daishiki has been joined by caftans, boubous, wrappers, head ties, and just plain old Black and beautiful. Wearing nothing more and needing nothing more than shea butter and earrings. You see, I'm free of something else. I'm free of the need to fit myself into a standard of beauty which is detrimental to me. I'm free of a standard that really has no place and is illogical. Before there was a blonde Marilyn Monroe there was Nefertiti and Queen Tiye and Nzingha and Sheba. There was also Sarah, wife of Abraham, so black and so beautiful that her husband never quite accepted that she belonged only to him. The first face to be called beautiful, the first feet to ever dance, and the first breast to ever feed a child were all the property of African women. What relevance does a decade have to hundreds of centuries? None. None whatsoever.
In accepting the acquaintance of Africa I have become familiar with all of me and I have begun a journey away from what I have been told. I experience Africa. I sit down with her. I talk to her. I gaze at her. I'm in love with her and in loving her, realistically, I'm also loving me. And that's the point of all of this while she peeked at me, when I hid, when we met over and over again it was for the sole purpose of me. She has redeemed me and reclaimed me. I am no longer afraid. She is no longer a horrifying vision. She's the place which used to be my home. I have gained a new feeling for Africa. I claim her proudly but with an onerous burden of sadness. Not for her. For me. She mourned my loss a long time ago.