Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's in a Name?

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Council of Negro Women
Congressional Black Caucus
Smithsonian National Museum for African-American History

All of the above represent people from the same racial/ethnic background. I've been called them all to describe my ethnicity, but I've never really been sure which one most accurately describes my ancestry and identity.

Before I left for Liberia, I remarked half-jokingly to everyone who asked, "I'm taking my first trip 'home.'" I've lived all over the US and no particular region of the U.S. felt like home. I often wondered if I'd feel most at home in the "motherland." I got my answer last week.

One of my primary responsibilities in Liberia was to speak to students about American life and answer all their questions. I was a bit overwhelmed by their perception of America as the land of milk and honey overflowing with all things great. In an effort to instill some national pride, I told the senior class something I felt was very important.
"As you all know, our president is Barack Obama a Kenyan American. That's quite a large step for us in America. But of our 44 presidents, not one has been a woman. However, here in Liberia, you all have the first female African president. That's a major milestone! It's something that should make you proud to be Liberian. And you know what else? While I am proud to be American, sometimes I wish I knew a little more about where my forefathers came from. It would be nice to know if I was Liberian or Nigerian or where specifically in Africa my ancestors hailed from. You all have that. Most of you can trace your ancestry back much farther than I can. That is something most of us Black Americans do not have. Be grateful for that."

One of the students, stood quietly and said somewhat shyly, "We have decided. You are Liberian. You are one of us, sister." At which point...I erupted into a sack of tears and snot. It was a very kind gesture on their part and representative of the treatment I'd received the entire time I was there. I was looked at with curiosity, but somewhat like a prodigal daughter.

And yet... I missed the U.S. Not just the amenities like consistent running water, water pressure, 24 hour electricity, street signs, GPS, cell phone reception and wireless internet (although I certainly missed those). I missed... the United States, my home. My complexion makes it absolutely clear that a significant portion of my ancestors came from Africa. Nevertheless, my more recent ancestors have invested so much to ensure that this place we called America is somewhere we can call home. They marched, they protested, they prayed, they worked. They raised families, they saved, they sacrificed, they worked. They pushed, they pulled, they listened, they worked. They bit their tongue, they washed someone else's clothes, they borrowed from neighbors, they worked. And today, my peers and I reap the benefits of their work.

The term African-American is a conscious effort to be culturally sensitive and acknowledge Black people's distant but very relevant history. I appreciate that and I don't think Americans should forget or fail to acknowledge the story of how we got here. (Rewriting or editing of history is something I take major issue with... shots fired at the removal of nigger from Huck Finn... but that's another post.) However at some point, Americans need to recognize that Black Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans and others are not the sprinkles on the American cupcake, we are the yellow...errr chocolate cupcake itself! Do White people consider themselves European Americans... or just Americans? As Smokey Robinson said, "God knows we've earned the right to be called American Americans."

I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to see Africa and I look forward to visiting again. But I'm also grateful to call America home. African-American is appropriate for my Nigerian, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and South African friends who have moved to the United States, but for me... the term "Black American" fits best.

What say you? What do you want to be called and why? What are your thoughts? While you're thinking about that, please watch Smokey Robinson's Being Black. I think he sums it up rather eloquently:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Photos from Liberia!

Our first day at the school's campus.
I don't have time to write too much, but I wanted to send pictures to give you a brief idea of what's happening here.

As the youngest person here by far, I've been designated as the scribe of all events, the record keeper, and the videographer, so I have lots of pictures and videos. My other primary responsibilities here in Brewerville, Liberia are to observe the reading classrooms and lead a workshop on creative lesson planning for reading comprehension. Those who know how corny I am and how detailed my curriculums are know that this is a passion of mine!

I'll send you all updates as I can.
Four year olds reading in groups. This young lady explained to me that she was teaching her groupmates how to read becauase she is "ahead". I love the peer to peer work!

With the ROTC Class. Didn't know they had that overseas.
The pump for water (which we aren't allowed to drink) is bigger than this girl, but she had serious determination and obviously lots of experience.

One end of the spectrum.

And the other end... a resort.
Interesting depiction of Jesus.

Forgive the sweat, I am about 3.5 inches from the equator though. :)
My connection is a little too slow for videos, but I will post them later.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Hair Post (Live from Liberia!)

In the whirlwind of preparation, I didn't get the chance to let you all know ahead of time, but I am in Liberia with the Lott Carey Mission School, visiting with students. Please forgive the typos, lack of pictures, and any other aesthetic concerns. I have to type quickly while I have electricity!

I've started and stopped this blog post several times because my feelings on hair range from "I am not my hair" to "my hair is a major part of my image and presentation to the world." I've come to realize that both statements are true.

Last week, a very good friend of mine remarked that he saw a black woman and a white woman seated next to each other on the train. with identical ponytails. He said he was "sad." I immediately responded defensively, "With high dropout rates of black boys, I find it hard to be particularly sad about something like a woman's choice in hair style." I added, rather curtly, "Women across the world from all cultures struggle with the concept of beauty; white women tan, Asian women shade their face from the sun, and black women straighten their hair."

My own hair journey isn't particularly unique. I haven't had a relaxer in over 5 years, and about two years ago, I colored my hair for the first time. Usually, my hair is pressed straight, but every now and then I wear my hair in it's natural wavy/curly state. There is a divide within the natural community about whether pressed or colored hair is natural, and while I respect all sides of the argument, I consider my hair natural.

I'd love to say I went natural in an effort to throw a metaphorical punch at the Western standard of straight, silky, soft, and as my friend says "wispy" hair. But that's not true. I'm natural because it's healthier, it rids me of the (expensive) dependency on relaxers, and I love the versatility of being able to switch from wavy to straight. Plus, natural hair is less irritated by heat and color than chemically processed hair.

Typically when talk begins about people straightening their hair to look white and the cultural/political implications of this or that kind of hair, I reflexively reply that "the style of your hair is a personal choice. It's all beautiful if it makes you happy! It's just haaaaair!"


I landed at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. At the time of writing I have seen dozens of Liberian women in the streets, at the mission campus, and of course at the airport. While their clothing ranges from traditional to American and their features are by no means homogenous, one thing is almost universal: they all have some type of hair supplements. Weaves, wigs, braids, long silky ponytails, lace fronts... you name it, it's here. I couldn't believe it! I've always naively believed that in Africa, I could find a strong contingent of women proud to wear their hair in its natural state. Of course I knew that the world has been infected by the belief that straight hair, fair skin, and light features are most attractive, but I desperately wanted to believe that in Liberia (the descendants of freed American slaves!) there was a dedication to tightly coiled, rich, dark and kinky hair.

As I said before, I dismissed my friend's claim that the matching ponytails were "sad." But I'm beginning to understand the sentiment. In this oppressive heat, I can't imagine being so driven to add more hair to what I already have! What would the world be like if the standard was tightly coiled, kinky hair? Or better yet, what if we lived in a world where an Afro, locks, straight hair, curly hair, braided hair, wooly hair, silky hair, and all other types were seen as equally acceptable?

Could this happen? I'm not sure. Is your hair a reflection of who you are or simply a hassle to deal with in the morning? Is it sad that people feel the need to change the texture of their hair? Share. I will share the comments and this post with my brothers and sisters here in Liberia.