We met them at the airport. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and they had been traveling for twenty-six hours. “You made it! Karibuni! Karibu New York! Sasa? Umeamka? Poa! I’m so glad you all are here!” We gathered the group of twenty-eight travel-weary singers towards one side of the arrivals hall and waited while various members organized luggage or went looking for a restroom. Cell phones appeared one by one.
“So, when can we get a SIM or some phone credit?” asked Mark.
A few others looked up at me with hopeful eyes and I did not answer immediately. Young Nairobi natives are tech-savvy and web-dependent. This first piece of culture shock would be hard to explain: American telecommunications are not quite so cheap or simple as they are in Kenya.
After a couple of days of wandering around Manhatten in small groups, Maureen – one of the more stylish Nairobi urbanites in the group – had a different dose of culture shock. I found her late in the afternoon sharing her story with a handful of other singers.
“They were staring at my hair. People were actually looking at my hair. Black people. Not just one, but many – just walking down the street, they were staring!”
Multicolored extensions are ‘a la mode’ these days in Nairobi. Very young girls may have bright colors like yellow or purple or blue. Hers, of course, reflected her more sophisticated tastes. Braids in shades of golden brown, amber, and dark brown started tightly woven to her scalp in an elegant swirled pattern and then swept together into a thick pony-tail that hung to her shoulders. Back home, she might get compliments, but certainly no stares or raised eyebrows.
“It’s not just because the style is unique here. White people might stare because it’s different or pretty. The black people are staring because it’s pretty and because they know the cost. To have that done here would be at least $100 or more. You must be rich.”
What? The women in the group sat for a moment absorbing both thoughts.
Once we left NYC, we made our way through Pennsylvania towards Michigan. Our audiences in PA were usually 90% white or more. This seemed natural to the choir and there was no clear way for me to explain how or why the picture was skewed. When we stopped to perform at a community center in a middle-low-income neighborhood outside Philadelphia, the handful of residents they saw were black. The volunteers at the center were young, some black and others hispanic. The audience that came was mostly neither and over 40. Did the choir notice?
We made our way out of New England and city gave way to fields and cows. Fields and cows again gave way to suburbs and strip malls, and we found ourselves on the edges of Detroit. Everything seemed roughly comparable to what we had seen before … and then we crossed the railroad tracks. Rows of old-fashioned, brightly-colored townhouses lined the streets. The homes had an air of elegance long faded: decaying roofs and porches, unmatched replacement pieces of wood or trim or paint, and laundry strung catty-corner in visible places. There were more people milling in the streets than anywhere we had been yet, and all of them were black. A few choir members looked up from their ipods or phones or books.
I glanced in the rear-view mirror to check their faces. No one really wanted to say it out-loud or ask the question, but I could see the surprise and curiosity in their faces. This didn’t look like any ghetto they had ever seen. And yet the reality was as startling as it was obvious. Should they feel more at home here or less?
The church that had agreed to host us lived in a single-story, square, brick building that blended in perfectly with its surroundings. Its unremarkable exterior did not look like a church nor did it advertise its relatively plush interior. The air-conditioned sanctuary was nicely carpeted and had cushioned chairs, high-quality audio-visual equipment, and a wide stage area. The pastor and a handful of elders welcomed us warmly. We rehearsed in the space, had dinner in the fellowship hall, and went to change into our uniforms. Once ready, we lined up again in the fellowship hall waiting for our cue to come through the stage side door. Wacu, the lovely alto who stands next to me, turned around and looked at me for a moment.
“I’m a bit nervous for this concert.”
“Well … I don’t know.” She gestured ambiguously. “Maybe because they’re black.”
“But not African.”
“You know … it’s just different. What are the expectations? How will they respond? What will they think?”
I nodded slowly. And what would they think of me? If she thought there was more pressure on her at this concert, I certainly understood the feeling. What would a crowd of black Americans think of a white girl singing in an African choir? And yet, I couldn’t quite shake a niggling thought … we hadn’t yet seen the audience.
The cue came and we walked onto the stage. I almost laughed out loud. Once again, a full house that was 80% white. Here we were, in an obviously black neighborhood, in an obviously black church, and the majority of the audience had driven in from somewhere else. Where were the locals? The handful in the crowd were enthusiastic, but where were the rest? We had come from the other side of the world. Were they not interested or at least curious? No love? No solidarity with their African brothers and sisters?
The conversations about race began to flow more freely among the choir members after that concert.
“Is it true that African-Americans are more racist than other groups?” they asked each other. Different members of the choir each seemed to have a story.
“You know, my cousin (or uncle, or aunt) went to work in Texas (or Washington, or Chicago). He told us that the people who were the most rude and unwelcoming to them, the most racist, were other blacks. Not the Africans, but the black Americans. I wasn’t quite sure how that could be true. But now …”
I had no answers to offer – I have long shared the same sense of confusion. It was a relief, in fact, to hear the questions from their lips. I had so long thought that my whiteness was the root of my inability to understand my African-American peers and the cool distance they kept from me. Color, it seems, is a convenient excuse for a deeper, different reality.
By the time we got to central Michigan, the choir members had begun to notice another pattern.
“You know, Lillis, at least one person from the audience asks about you after every concert.” Several heads nodded and another member hurried over to our conversation.
“It’s true! I got questions from two people yesterday. They ask things like ‘Who is she?’ ‘What’s her connection to the choir?’ or ‘Is she from Kenya?'”
They laughed and I just shook my head. “Tell them whatever you want.”
Where was I from? How did I fit in to this picture? No one really tried to address the questions until Traverse City. At dinner that afternoon, in between jokes that involved the word “taco” (which happens to be the same as the word “butt” or “ass” in Swahili), one of our hosts asked me where I was from. The Kenyans at the table kept quiet so as to let me answer the question in my own terms. I could feel their ears turned in my direction though, so I began with a Kenyan link.
“You know, in Kenya, and in many parts of Africa, where you’re born is the most important thing. Even if you live in a different place all of your life, your birthplace is your homeland.” A few of the Kenyans shifted thoughtfully. “So according to these guys, I must be American since I was born in Indiana.” Noah paused over his meal and I could tell he had a thought brewing. I continued. “For Americans, where you’re born is important, but not necessarily as important as where you spend the majority of your life, or, more specifically, your childhood. I’ve been in Africa for over twenty years so many Americans think of me as being from Africa.”
Noah’s thought had ripened. “Actually, where you’re born is important, yes, but what’s more important is where your father is from. Si ndiyo?” He looked across the table at Maureen for affirmation. She nodded slowly. Next to her, Sarah agreed outright.
“Yeah – in fact, that’s true. Your father’s home is home.
“So then, it doesn’t really get easier for me.” I responded. “My dad was the only one of the four children in his family born in the US – also in Indiana. His parents went to Congo in the late ’40s. His older sister was born there and so were his two younger brothers, but he was born during their furlough year. So he wasn’t born there either, but he grew up there and speaks several of the languages. Isn’t that just as troublesome?”
“Ach. He’s from Congo!” Noah pronounced this as though the conclusion was obvious and the description unnecessary.
I raised my eyebrows towards him. “You know, white Congolese are a very rare breed. White Kenyans are a bit common, but white Congolese? Most would say it’s not possible.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s from Congo.”
Maureen looked at me and paused, as if understanding for the first time. “So, you’re Congolese.”
And that was that. They finally had a story that made sense to them. It didn’t change my friendship with them, nor it didn’t make the other questions go away, nor did it help the audience members watching us, but at least there was an explanation to offer the curious. Their ready acceptance of this was a surprising relief.
That same night after the concert, a woman from the audience addressed the issue of my color from her perspective. When she came up to me after the concert, I offered her a few cobbled pieces of my story and then added, “In Kenya, my presence in the choir is perhaps curious, but not a big deal. They are used to white people being present there. I’m not sure why here it feels so different.”
“I think it’s because, here in the States, we’re used to black faces in white crowds. If you had a mostly-white choir with a few African-Americans, it wouldn’t draw much attention. But we’re not used to a white face in a black crowd. It’s just really unusual.”
There you have it: Expectations. Who gets to be the majority? Who gets to determine the norms of interaction? Who mixes with whom and on what terms? What defines our affiliations? Does the door of interracial interaction only spin one direction: is it really more okay for blacks to assimilate in white communities than for whites to assimilate in black communities? Is color then the real issue? Or is it in fact a problem of power? An additional layer of complexity follows when one realizes that the realities surrounding these questions are not actually the same in Africa as they are in the US. In both places, however, crossing the invisible color lines (wherever they lie) is a quick and sure way to challenge expectations and uncover deeper realities of ignorance and insecurity that exist on all sides.
What then shall I say? The best way to discover your own language is to learn another. The fullest understanding of self comes by uncovering what you are not. For my Kenyan choir friends exploring the USA for the first time, the questions and answers surrounding identity may end up being simple. For myself, I know that my skin hides the truth and that truth will never be simple – I am a child of mixed heritage. I have a Fatherland and a Motherland and they are not the same. North America is my Fatherland and sub-Saharan Africa is my Motherland. One schooled me, trained me, and disciplined my way thinking. The other nurtured me, carried me, and molded for me a space in which to grow. To try and divorce the two is about as easy as separating sand from dust at the edge of a desert; about as possible as dividing salt water from fresh water at the mouth of a river. That I live caught between and defined by two unique worlds is a reality that has taken years to accept. It may take a lifetime to understand. Those I meet may be confused by it and many whom I love may never understand it, but the sun will continue to rise: each day a step of faith with hopeful eyes on the horizon.
I laughed a few times reading things. Thanks for writing!
Lillis–you write with tremendous insight and understanding. Wish I had been near where you all were performing–would like to have heard you.