the blackgirl table – a bipolar self portrait — 1997

Before Samuel Doe’s coup d’etat in 1980, Liberia had one of the most successful democracies in Africa.  For this reason, Liberian immigration to the United States was minimal[1], including [2] mostly international students and visiting scholars.

In the decades following the war, the major migrations occurred in 1991 and 2000 during the heights of the two armed conflicts, and Liberian communities have continued to grow in the northeastern United States.  New York, Rhode Island, Washington DC, and Minnesota have the largest concentrations of Liberians. Despite the wintry climates of these states, a stark contrast from the two-season equatorial heat of Liberia, like many other immigrant groups, Liberians generally settle in insular communities.  Immigrants will live with family or friends first, like my family did, before finding jobs to support average family sizes of 5 – 7 people.  My family lived in New York for a short period when I was a child, but we settled close to my mother’s sister in the least likely place many would expect to find African immigrants—a town called Spring in a state called Texas.

My mother and father both hold advanced degrees, and although initially they held blue-collar jobs while getting accustomed to America’s professional and social hierarchy, they were eventually able to climb the ladders of their respective professions by the time I reached middle school.  Contrarily, there are exorbitant amounts[3] of Liberians and other African immigrants whose education overseas is not considered accredited here.  As a result, many who have to quickly find a way to sustain growing families settle for occupations as day laborers, or take on burdens of small business loans to open restaurants and hair-braiding salons.  This group includes intellectuals, accountants, doctors, engineers, architects, professors, business owners, bankers and sometimes even politicians.

The reality of a drastically downgraded social status, alongside the national tradition of racism and xenophobia, cause many African immigrants to become hopeless and socially harsh or reclusive.  The hopelessness usually manifests itself at home as, like other immigrant groups, they pressure their children to excel academically to be able to enjoy the luxuries of the American dream that they were too late or too foreign to achieve.  This creates great emotional strain and shifts in identity for young African immigrants and first-generation Americans who struggle with both pleasing their suffering parents, (who frequently invest all of their financial resources in the child’s education), and the desire to assimilate into mainstream American  culture.

blackgirl

By the time my family moved to the suburbs from New York City I had become inconspicuous—not only sounding and dressing like my classmates, but acting like them as well.  Every day after science class I entered the lunchroom to a table where the other black girls sat and gossiped, an array of brown faces with glossed lips, stiff, pressed hair that hung anywhere from right below the ear to down our backs, each stubborn strand refusing to stay down when we turned our heads.  If we were beautiful then, we did not know it.  Confidence was much too tiresome a pursuit, much easier to perpetrate in those days than actually fight for.

In a waspy, southern, Texan school in the mid-nineties, they called us the blackgirl table. We did not mind it because they also called the seven of us cool.  They knew my name and found it “neat” that I was African, especially when they saw my mother at the grocery store wearing a traditional kente dress rather than one of the many pairs of jeans or professional suits that hung in her closet.  However, although I was a similar phenotype as the girls at my table, I understood that I was different.  The table presented a culture that gave me comfort in a sea of white faces.  But when I went home, another story and culture awaited me—akin to what I saw at the table, but still worlds apart.  I was so young but clearly understood that this would be the story of my life—treading the in-between of black and black, finding the balance.

One day I was lost in my daydreams. I had even gotten in trouble for ignoring my science teacher in class after she repeatedly called my name.

“You okay?” a friend asked from across the table.

I realized I was daydreaming again and quickly nodded my head.  I invited them to my house after school and two agreed.

Later on inside the house my mother stood in the kitchen cooking what smelled like fried okra and baked chicken.  Her briefcase was on one of the kitchen chairs, and she had two stacks of papers on the table that were weighted down by a red pen.  My friends saw her and hugged her and I sensed that something was wrong.

“Go put your things in your room and come talk to me,” she said.

I led my friends to a shared room where my sister sat on the floor with a few of her friends as they listened to music.  My friends joined them and I headed back to mother.

“Yes?” I asked as I approached her.

“Your science teacher called my job today. She said you aren’t paying attention in class.”

“I am,” I answered in a way not confident enough to assure my mother.

“It doesn’t matter if your grades good.  You keep daydreaming and the people will think you sick. You hear me?”

I nodded.

“You hear me?”

“Yes,” I said.

She pulled me to her and hugged me.  She kissed my head and I could tell that she had tasted the fried okra since it hung from her breath.  As she hugged me, the other girls left the room and were now headed out of the house to the neighborhood corner store.

“Come on,” my sister said, and I followed the five of them.

The corner store was at the end of our street, a little over 200 yards away from our house.

The store had roughly five aisles of goods and a wall cooler that stored beer and softdrinks.  The shelves were organized in way that sunflower seeds were right beside a generic brand of deodorant and below eight different assortments of prophylactics.

“Hello,” I said as we entered.

They were two men at the cashier, both white.  One was noticeably older with thick glasses and a bright red face.  Neither of them spoke.

“Just get what you want so we can leave,” my sister’s friend said and reached for the sunflower seeds.  We roamed the aisles and stopped in front of the candy.  I could not decide what I wanted, so while the others headed to the freezer for their drinks, I stayed in the aisle.  Through my peripheral I saw the younger cashier look at me from the end of the aisle.  I smiled at him.  His face remained stiff—his eyes stone.

“Which one will you have?” he asked.  I was told how to answer these questions by the members of the blackgirl table—where conversations included situations like this and the burden of racism—that I quickly learned after moving to Texas—came with having my skin color.  We had all been followed before, but it was the first time that someone had spoken to me after watching me as intently as he was.  I nodded, yet my spirit sensed that something was about to go desperately wrong.

“Everything okay?” my sister asked and approached me.

“Yeah,” I murmured and we headed to the cashier where the other girls waited for us.  By then one of my friends was fidgeting and noticeably disturbed by the storeowners demeanor.  She shook her head and bit down onto her back teeth, holding back what I knew were tears setting at her bottomless brown eyes.

“Sorry I took so long,” I said softly.  I placed my candy bar on the counter and waited for the older man to ring it up.  It was eighty four cents and I reached into my pocket for the three quarters and dime that I had stuffed into it before leaving my room.  I placed the three quarters onto the counter and reached for the dime but I could not find it.  I checked the other pocket but it was not there.  I placed my hands into my back pocket but it was no use.

“What do you need?” my sister asked.

“Nine cents. I thought I had a dime,” I said.

At once the girls reached into their pockets to help me pay my deficit.

“Just ridiculous,” the cashier murmured as we searched.

My sister slammed a quarter onto the counter and the shout from it echoed.

“What’s ridiculous?” she challenged him.

“Ol’ racist man.  Just give us our change so we can go!” her friend added loudly and

noticeably upset.

“Racist?  Who’s racist?” the younger man asked from behind us.  We turned around.

“You’ve been watching us since we walked in,” her friend added.  “We don’t wanna steal

anything from your raggedy store!” Her voice broke.

“That’s it, then!” the cashier said throwing the change from my purchase onto the counter, so hard that some pennies flung onto the floor and landed at our feet. “Get on out of here then!  Get out before I call the cops!  We don’t want trouble–just get out!”

The man’s face turned more crimson as he shouted.  We did not bother picking up the coins.  A couple of us headed out of the store embarrassed and humiliated; my sister and the rest stayed behind in a full-out screaming match with the two owners.

I did not want to leave my sister behind, so I held the door and coaxed her to follow me outside before things the confrontation became too difficult for us to navigate.

“Let’s go get your mom,” my friend suggested.  I closed the door and started to follow her when I heard a loud crash.  I turned around quickly as my sister ran outside with tussled hair and tears dripping from her face.

“Run! Come on!” she yelled pulling my hand.  The younger store owner followed them out of the store and waved a broom stick in his hand.

“Get out of here!” he yelled as we stomped the concrete on the road back to our house.

“You niggers!  Get on out of here!” he yelled and his voice hit the back of our heads as we fought the deafening wind.

“Niggers!”

Our feet hit the pavement and I heard sobbing all around me–the running cries of my sisters and friends.  We had done nothing wrong but were suspected of it.  The unfairness, the injustice stung.  My friend and I held hands and I pulled her as we ran.  I squeezed her hand to try to carry on some of her pain—to free her from what I knew may have hurt her more than it hurt me.

This was her war.

“Get on out of here!” he shouted until his words faded and were lost in the wind.

And as we sprinted and the memory of the word flew past us and our heads swayed against the wind from side to side, as once again I left my innocence behind me to stampede among trembling and wretched spirits, children forlorn in a maze of hatred and violence, I wanted only to see my Momma–to press my face into her core until the sound of the world wholly stopped.  Wanted to see beyond the tears but they kept coming down.  Wanted to return to the grim fantasies of my daydreams but I could not find them. The gasps and the struggling breaths of my friends pressed hard against my ears.  Wanted to turn around but I was not sure if I would see the old man waving his broom, or a child buried in smoke and gunfire.  Could not pull from the butterflies of my mind.  Could not hear more than my sisters crying.  Could not see my home though it was so close.  Could not see my Momma though I knew she was there.  Legs and stomach hurt from sprinting.  Thoughts a blunder and I was finally awake.


[1] Statistics from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) show 27 Liberian immigrants from 1925 to 1929. During the ten years from 1970 – 1979, the number was 2,081.  In 1991 alone, the INS granted protective status to a recorded 9,000 Liberian immigrants.

[2] All of the Liberians we boarded with before finding a home of our own were family members and friends who had come to America for school and stayed.

[3] This of course excludes African immigrants from rural areas who settle in refugee camps during conflicts and are granted refugee status by INS, a significant amount of whom do not speak, write or read English.

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