2014 February 01

Weeks 8 & 9: Jaxas

my kora playing featured in a Sonatel commercial! Scroll down for [unrelated] photos

Dear Internet,

Apologies for no updates last week. I’ve been working a lot, which is a wonderful new development. Unfortunately, however, having more experiences means sorting out my experiences is more time consuming.

This week’s theme is “Jaxas”, which means ‘a mix’ and is how a biracial person such as myself (my mother is a caucasian American of French descent and my father is African-American) would refer to themselves in wolof. It is also the title of one of Sahad’s songs, which I’ll be posting soon.

Before I get into that, however, I’d like to tell you about the red vespa I’ve been traveling around with in Dakar. A few weeks ago, after a show, my friend Matthew, an American percussionist who lives here in Dakar, picked me up on a white scooter. I looked at the thing with wide eyes; recognizing it from my dreams. You see, in 2011, I became a seasoned taxi driver negotiator (you can pretty much get anywhere in Dakar for $3 USD), car rapide passenger (a form of public transportation also referred to as ‘rolling coffins’), and shot gunner in my friend’s massive Range Rover, singing at the top of my lungs to roots reggae as we sped down the winding coast of the Atlantic. I would watch the black, shiny globes of helmets atop motorcycles and scooters zip past us in traffic and think, ‘If I ever come back here, I want to get around on one of those.’ Remembering this promise, I set out to get my driver’s license (never before much motivated to have it) a few months before my departure date. I finally received it in the mail only a few days before getting on a plane to Dakar. Upon my arrival, I realized that I didn’t quite know the city as well as I remembered and driving conditions were as frightening as ever; many streets are heavily blanketed with sand blown in from the sahara and missing street lights.

Looking down at Matt’s scooter, however, reified the hope of commuter freedom for me here in Dakar. Riding on the back of it, I asked him “how much did this cost you?” “You shouldn’t have to pay more than $600 (USD) for a scooter like this – I can’t remember how much I bought this one for.” “Where did you get it?” “Koloban”: you can find just about anything at Koloban, though it is one of the more dangerous outdoor markets in downtown Dakar. After I dismount from my sweet, fiery little red vespa people look at me with disbelief when I tell them that I found it there. “You?! You went to Koloban? Alone?!” “Yes,” I say as I raise my eyebrows, smirk and nod knowingly, just a pinch of arrogance as I bend their notions of what’s okay for a light-skinned American girl to do here on her own.

While owning a scooter has lived up to my hopes of freedom, one must also roll with the punches and Dakar’s streets can often feel like a boxing arena. From flat tires, to cabs backing up into me, to broken speedometers, I feel like I’ve experienced all possible things that could go wrong in the past two months and yet also know that it is just the beginning. Still, driving along coast line, my silhouette cloaked in the velvety night, I feel so liberated as I hear the waves crash along the shore below; for the first time in my life only the stars can spy me zooming from place to place. The trials and tribulations of having this freedom feel like a negligible part of the adventure.

I often arrive at work at the International School of Dakar on my red vespa. As I take my helmet off, revealed by the sherbet colors of sunrise, I can feel my identity change from a performing musician to a first-grade teacher, which is what I was for most of last week. I am only supposed to be teaching in the music department, but they were rather short-handed, and I was happy to sub for a teaching assistant, if only for the extra cash.

Leila, one of the 6-year-old members of the class I had been working with, skipped up to me with a huge smile on her face on my third day. “Miss Althea! Miss Althea! Hi! This is my doll and that’s my mom!” A blond woman walks up behind her and shakes my hand. “So you’re Miss Althea. Leila has been talking about you all week. She keeps saying ‘mom, mom – there’s a teacher with curly hair like me in my class!'” the mom chuckles. I look down at Leila looking up at me, her smile now diminished to a mildly embarrassed smirk.

The contrast of her cafe au lait skin tone against her mother’s cream color stirs a flashback to my elementary school days. I remember well not looking like any other kid in class. Too white for the brown kids, too brown for the white; a social context shaded by socio-economic realities I was far too young to comprehend intellectually at age 6, and, yet, emotionally, understood complexly.

As a child, I felt my appearance betrayed my membership to the African-American community; the only side of my family that was consistently warm and welcoming to my sister and I. As deep a claim as I’ve always felt to my African-American heritage, my whole life has been spent processing and accepting that there is one aspect of the African-American, and more broadly black, experience that will always be denied to me: the experience of being perceived as black. This realization came fully the last time I was in Senegal in 2011 when a group of Senegalese boys in my neighborhood explained to me why the word ‘nigger’ was okay for them to use. Staring back at them blankly, I could only hear my dad (who has lived as much of his life in a segregated society as an integrated one, and retired only recently as the head of African-American studies at Syracuse University) explain to me firmly why I was never to use that word when I was Leila’s age. This word is an American word, one with which my African-American family has had a much more personal historical experience with, and yet I must step back and accept these Africans explaining this decontextualized resurrection of an oppressive American relic to me. Despite my deep personal knowledge of it, there is very little I can say that will be meaningful to them on the topic. Being a biracial person, though my experience is both white and black, it is also neither white nor black in this way.

Accepting my experiences for what they are, however, doesn’t make them easier to grapple with. In second grade a group of my black male classmates collectively spit on me for telling them that I was black. I can feel the spit ricocheting on my skin, at least emotionally, each time a person looks me square in the eyes and says “no you’re not” in response to me telling them I’m black. It happens a lot more often than you would think.

People all over the world fetishize biracials, making race-based value judgements that reinforce what makes growing up biracial so difficult. There is a biracial model who looks over her bare, toasted almond colored shoulder and smiles alluringly at you as you drive around Dakar. In french, the billboard reads: ‘suddenly, you look in the mirror and you’re perfect, perfect white™’ – it’s a skin bleaching like soap.

Senegalese women with their hair set stiffly in place, their make-up impeccably set, their tight skirts just pushing the line of risqué, and their high heels far beyond anyone’s comfort zone, often shoot me looks of disdain as I walk into a club beside Daara J or Nix in my casual pants, conservative top, and sneakers with my natural hair and naked face. Le Jahmo Band, the collective that performs with Daara J, give me reports of women demanding who I am and why I get access to band. The observations they make of me seem to relay that the combination of my skin tone and position in this music culture is somehow an insult to them personally. I always look back at these women – their thin yet curvaceous bodies and elegant faces wrapped in beautiful dark, smooth skin –  with astonishment. Their beauty is so evident to me I don’t think they need to put in half the work they do with their appearance. Moreover, I can’t comprehend how they could perceive me as their competition. They never assume that I, too, am a musician until they see me on stage. Even then, my privilege seems undeserved.

To some degree, and perhaps then some, they’re right about my privilege. I have been granted access to this community because I am an anomaly as a light-skinned female korist anywhere in the world. The privilege of learning the instrument is a question of the arbitrary position I was born into, not a testament of my own personal hard work. However, if I was dressed differently – more made up – I know that my privilege would not be so questioned. “Why don’t you ever put on a nice dress, girl? Some nice shoes?” my friend Mo asked me. “Would you ask me this question if I was a man?” I respond. He laughs. “I get enough threatening attention as it is, I don’t want to invite more.” Mo nods with understanding, but there is no way he could possibly understand.

Looking back at 6-year-old Leila, however, I know she already understands, even if only emotionally, like I did at her age. I know she’s been told how lucky she is to be biracial and yet already also knows the many ways in which she’s not. I know we’ll always be able to spot a deep, resonating sameness in one another, and those rare others that look like us, from across a crowded room. And yet that sameness is predicated on deep difference as well. We are a gray area: both black and white, and yet neither black nor white. A mix. Jaxas.

Until next week, much love,


Alec and his new kora


Alec and his new kora

the tree that grows out of a wall in bois sakre, giving it it's name (it is mysterious to everyone)


a tree that grows out of the wall mysteriously at bois sakre, giving it its name

Boabab in Ouakam (photo by Alec Saelens)


a boabab in Oakam (photo by Alec Saelens)

Concert announcement for Sahad and the Natal Patchwork at Charly Bar


concert announcement for Sahad and the Natal Patchwork


earlier: Namenala