‘ñibbi‘ means “to return home”
One warm Senegalese evening a few weeks prior to my return to the States, I went to my friend Joe’s house. Joe is a bit of an anomaly in my experience in Senegal: a single middle-aged man who owns property. With his heavy dreads tied up behind his head, he experiments with traditional arts and accumulates a wide group of friends within the rasta community. They gather nightly in his small home to smoke weed and drink beer; the things they must hide from their families. Surrounded by these peace-loving pescatarians, a familiar question finds my ears: ‘How is Senegal? Are you enjoying it here?‘ I say yes. They ask me where I’m from. ‘Ah! New York! Well, New York is nicer than here, no?‘ I tell them Dakar and New York are simply different. Joe leans over and expresses how hard it is to hear a foreigner, a toubab, tell him that she is enjoying his country when his own people cannot enjoy it because they are so poor. My friend Momo, a musician who had met my parents, protests, saying ‘Althea is no toubab! Her father is black.‘ Joe looks me square in the eye and pronounces that I am a toubab.
Looking back at Joe I first feel sympathy. I do, after all, enjoy many of the luxuries he imagines toubabs are afforded. For example, upon my return to the States, I fell quite ill, which, in some ways, was a relief because falling ill in the States does not present the same perils that are evident in Senegal. Hot water is summoned mechanically. Rest is easily found in our quiet, spacious homes and temperpedic beds. I don’t personally have a temperpedic bed, but every mattress in America feels like a temperpedic bed after experiencing what’s available in West Africa. In my family, I am surrounded by organic food, hundreds of vitamins and supplements, essential oils, aromatherapy, and just about any medical specialist is a dial tone away with my insurance card in hand. I can no longer afford the luxury of taking these things for granted.
On the other hand, ironically, I had come to Joe’s home seeking a distraction, seeking relief, because I had just found out that my cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t very close to him, but the experience, the sudden death of a family member in an all too stereotypical manner within the African American community, joins a host of others that continue to haunt me.
After my return to the States, once I had recuperated, it wasn’t long before I could see more clearly the gloom that hangs over the country. Moreover, not long after my return, my uncle, the father of my cousin who had been killed, also passed away in an incident that certainly seems related to my cousin’s death.
Recently, on the train home from the city late one evening, not long after my uncle had passed, a young white couple was confronted by two train conductors for not having tickets. I looked up from my book, dipping out of my bubble. The young blonde man was wearing a black hoodie and baggie jeans. A disintegrating backpack was slowly sliding off his shoulders. He was also wearing an expression of smug apathy I recognized from classmates who didn’t do their homework in public school. One of the conductors loudly pronounced that this is the fourth time, as if to make an example of the man. They ordered him to get off at the next stop, as usual, and disappeared as I mentally begged them not to leave.
I took another quick glance at the man, making every effort to be discrete. He bore the same absent wide blue eyes, paired with an irreverent grimace, that gave him an undeniable likeness to Dylann Roof and James Eagan Holmes and Adam Lanza. I patted him down with my eyes, looking for any bulges in his baggy clothing. I thought of what could be in that backpack. Then I wondered if 600-pages would stop a bullet to the head or if my kora’s gourd, resting in the seat next to me, would protect my vitals.
That’s when I realized I was already being held hostage by my own fear, my own sense of having put myself in inescapable danger. It besieges me every now and again, particularly here in New York, and especially on public transportation. Sometimes I can only freeze in the hopes that no movement breeds no movement. Other times, I’ll switch subway cars every stop just to beat the odds.
I know that it’s unreasonable; that the odds keep me safe, even if there have been 249 mass shootings, on average one a day, so far this year in the United States. But I do think I carry a certain paranoia as an African American, one that’s been heightened yet again since my cousin and uncle’s passing. Perhaps it’s because, ever since I was a little girl, my father told me that I must emit an air of “don’t fuck with me” in public. Perhaps it’s simply sharing genes with escaped slaves running north and guerrilla Indian warriors hiding in trees with their arrows. Perhaps it is just my own experience with danger coming out of nowhere. Whatever the reason, I am sporadically paralyzed by a certain expectation that even the most mundane evening could inexplicably turn into a nightmare, as it has for too many members of my family on my father’s side.
When a black couple replaces the poor white one at that next station, I am suddenly unshackled, because chances are this tall brown man may have already been patted down today. Chances are he isn’t stupid enough to carry a weapon on him. Chances are he’s well aware that black men are rarely vindicated by claims of mental illness.
Long after the white man has gotten off the train, the conductors returned to my car, still discussing the white couple. “…to avoid another awkward situation! ..” I heard one say as they pass by me. His disgruntled tone was verging on hate, and, as I look around this car, I wonder if not everyone here is being held hostage by their satin neckties and pearl necklaces; if somehow it isn’t exactly this upper class suburban population that has inherited such a fear. “Evil sown by a man will grow on his children’s heads,” as the Yoruba proverb goes.
When that black couple came onto the train, I realized that I bear a racism as informed by fear as anyone else in the United States. They say that fear breeds hate. But I would say there is something missing in this equation; greed breeds fear, which breeds hate. The American obsession with individualism and acquiring wealth produces a deep fear of the poor. That fear is remedied by hating the poor that don’t look like ‘us’, and we can see that hate is reinforced everyday by our culture: Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists to the cheers of a crowd; police vindicated after shooting our young unarmed black men; Obama referred to as a monkey by state officials; our bold disregard for the asian slave labor necessary to produce most of what we own; the glorification of white beauty standards weaved into Beyonce’s scalp in the form of $145,000 worth of Norwegian hair.
Looking back at Joe now, surrounded by his friends, smoking weed after a big shared plate of food, I know that he has no fear about getting shot in his community. No fear of being unable to pursue certain work because of his dreads. The cops are not going to storm his house, shoot someone or give someone else a heart attack looking for drugs. He does not realize that not having these fears is a luxury most black people don’t experience in the rest of the world. Whatever wealth he pictures us Americans having is real, but no amount of wealth can buy the security he feels in his community. No ivy league education, world travelling, or luxury accommodations can buy you out of the African American experience, I can tell you first-hand. No matter how many people perceive me as black, or not, Joe’s questioning of my blackness is a luxury that I am not afforded, because I will always be deeply tied and informed by my experience as an African American person. That’s what being an African American person is.
One of the most puzzling parts of my experience in Senegal, more puzzling than Africans telling me I wasn’t black, was watching African Americans encounter the country, the continent, and feel that they were surrounded by their own people. Every single African American I met there, especially the new comers, would be so taken aback by being surrounded by other black people, by what they considered their own kind. At first, I found this unsettling and even scary. How could someone who didn’t practice the same religion, speak any of the many languages, or understand the culture feel that they were amongst their own an ocean away from their home? Senegalese people don’t even feel that way about one another; the Wolof, for example, do not trust the separatist Lebu, even though their language is nearly identical, and certainly their appearance by American standards. But we, as African Americans, don’t see or understand such diversity, because we are homogeneously defined by the West, and every time I would hear an African American express a kinship with Senegalese people, especially if they didn’t even understand the languages being spoken, it would show me how deep the imprint of the West’s definitions of race, largely forged by white people, has been made upon us. On the other hand, maybe they are just expressing a longing to exist in a culture where they are not subjected to hate powered by fear.
A few days later, I returned to Joe’s home with my kora. It is an honor to have a korist visit your home, demanding no fee, no less. The electricity is out, and I have the stunning revelation of how well I can play in the dark. When I finish, a small crowd of Senegalese men has formed, clapping. One man notes how incredible it is to see a foreign woman playing the kora in a big group of Senegalese men who do not know how to play, if not a little shaming. Joe laughs and yells out ‘okay, Althea, you are a black person!‘