I remember being accosted in a Starbucks’ one day after the barista holding my drink mauled my name to announce that my Frappuccino was ready. “Oh my gawd, that is SUCH an interesting name!” one white woman in billowing skirts (yes oo, skirts plural) and smelling of patchouli gushed, as she turned away from the whole wheat, whole grain, free trade, preservative free, gluten free, taste free bagel she was stuffing into her mouth.
“Where are you from?” she asked, mouth full of food. (I always wonder, are white people so wrapped up in everyone else’s otherness they forget themselves? They seem so unaware, talking with mouths full of food, eating during meetings, and unwrapping noisy wrappers on telephone calls. Do they think about these things or are they just things we, as immigrants and other “others” concern ourselves with? My mother would have a fit if I spoke to anyone with even a piece of gum in my mouth.)
“Uh, the South End,” I replied, knowing, but refusing to give the answer she wanted. “No, but like where are you from?” she pressed, as if pinpointing my birthplace would somehow help her wash down her fiber filled breakfast. “I don’t get your meaning,” I responded, wishing she would just ask why I wasn’t white, which was to me, essentially her point.
“She means are you like African or something?” her (probably only) Black friend piped in, before now hidden from view in her voluminous kente cloth…shroud…for lack of a better word. My god, this woman had draped herself in the biggest piece of basic black, yellow, and red kente and doused herself in the strongest perfume she could find, probably because it was labeled “African musk” or something. She reminded me of that scene in Tamra Davis' movie CB4, where Allen Payne shouts, “I’m Black y’all! I'm Black y'all! And I'm Blackety Black and I'm Black y'all!” She probably listened to Lady Blacksmith Mambazo and Malcolm X on her iPod before she fell asleep in her ikea bed. Maybe she gave herself the Black Power fist in the mirror every morning.
“I don’t see why it’s any of her business, but yes. I am,” I responded, unsure of just how to take on this new conversational partner…in this conversation I didn’t want to have. “I’m Nigerian,” I said, looking around for the door as my drink slowly melted in my overheating hand.
“Oh, I feel that,” she said, bobbing her head enthusiastically as if I had asked her a question. Blonde tipped dreadlocks flew in every direction. “I love Africa man, the culture is just so…rich, ya know?” she went on. I didn’t know what she felt. I have no idea what culture she was talking about. But with a sick, perverse curiosity, I decided to ask, “Yes, it is. Where have you visited?”
“Oh, nah. I haven’t been to the motherland just yet,” she said meekly. “But I knew a girl from Zimbabwe in high school, and my life partner’s life giver is from South Africa.”
I stared at her as if she had three heads. What kind of code was she talking? Life partner life gini? She pulled up a picture on her phone and thrust it towards me, “He went back with her last year and sent me pictures.”
Pinching myself for engaging, I looked down at her phone. My brow furrowed as I searched the photo for a life sorcerer or whatever she called it. “These are white people on safari kwa,” I murmured, sure she had shown me the wrong picture. “Yah,” she replied, “isn’t it so cool! Or…well, you’re probably used to it, being from there and all.”
I drew back quickly, cramming my empty hand into my pocket to keep from yanking her head out of her yansh. Why do people always think Africa is a neighborhood? As if I can cross Nigeria street and enter Uganda compound. Safari is never going to touch Nigeria. The first time I saw a lion was in Boston.
“Is it true you guys eat goats and bugs and stuff? My home girl dated a guy from Nigeria and he ate cow’s stomach! I could never eat none of that. Too weird,” she exclaimed as she wrinkled her nose.
“Are you a vegetarian or something?” I asked, trying to keep the anger out of my voice.
“Nope, I just don’t eat weird food, hehe. Regular ole American food for me, I’m not much of adventurous eater” she explained.
As I drove home that day, assaulted with fast food billboards and radio commercials announcing the latest grease-laden specialty, I began to think.
I really find it puzzling that people find it so easy to pick and choose what they want from African cultures. Shaki no fit pass your lips but you can use dudu osun to wash your face and shea butter to oil yourself. Egusi never enter your compound, but you fi enter McDonald’s in “ethnic” and "tribal" kente hipster head tie.
Injera is strange, but Ronald McDonald’s clown self can piece together scraps of mystery meat and package it as a chicken nugget and people will sell their children for a bite. They came out with a fish nugget a few months back and I bet money people would be more willing to eat that cobbled together excuse for fish than to put a bit of stockfish in their mouths.
I don’t know man, when it comes to food, I’d rather grab a piece of fresh goat meat than a slab of genetically modified beef. They’re nuking and modifying and copy and pasting the heck out of American foods, and people continue to eat it.
I’m NOT saying I don’t understand any of the reasoning behind it (because I do), all I’m saying is, I’d be a little more cautious putting something in my mouth that comes from the kitchen of the unknown. It might taste good upfront, but it’ll wreak havoc on your insides.
Physically and spiritually.