Too American for Africa, Too African for America

 'African American' has never been a term that resonated with me. 

I hadn't even visited the continent until I was 26 when I spent 10 days traipsing through South Africa with my eldest sister, and even then, I didn't fit in.

"Sistah! Learn your language!" a native cleaning lady smile-shouted at me in the bathroom of a trendy Johannesburg restaurant on night 2. Her half-joking, mostly irritated face has stuck with me ever since.

"But English IS my language," I said forlornly as I walked back to my actual sister, relaying the encounter, saddened by the fact that I had not spontaneously learned either Afrikaans or isiZulu upon landing in the motherland, and confused as to why I was chastised like a child by a stranger.

"They do that here, just ignore it," she replied to me, plying me to return to my previously jovial mood with delicious wine and friendlier locals.

I encountered several other people who made me realize at a startling rate that I wasn't really African. I was just black, and a light-skinned black at that.

"Is she coloured?" asked several people when they met me.

"No, she's black," my sister would reply in mixes of languages, but always peppered with English.

"What did that person just say to me?!" I would ask my sister, incredulous, having to learn all the designations for natives vs. whites vs. others. I had to learn even faster not to take it personally.

Back Stateside, it's a completely different story. It's all very Jay Z: "Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/ Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga/ Still nigga, still nigga/ O.J. like, "I'm not black, I'm O.J." ...okay."

I speak English, but not African American Vernacular English (AAVE). My hair is 4C nappy, but my skin is light. I grew up southern rural collared greens and syrup sandwiches poor; not big urban city ghetto gangs pink weave and club banging poor. 

And yet, I remember playing just down the street from my house and being told to "go back to Africa." But I'd never been. I remember the dark-skinned black girls in elementary and intermediate school jeeringly asking me "when are you gonna get you a perm?" before calling me nappy and laughing at my humidity puffed, previously hot comb pressed hair. I remember old white women thinking I was a gardener instead of a patron at a public park. I remember being called a nigger - hard "-er" - by parents in Kentucky. I remember being called "that colored teacher" by students. I remember a white boy commenting on a student's Facebook prom picture with me in it, stating, "Is she a nigger? She can't teach me, but she can suck my d*ck tho." 

I sometimes think of the white people who have asked to touch my press and curl, relaxer, box braids, twists, and faux locs and I said "sure," hoping to fit in with them. I remember the ones I denied and their disappointed, embarrassed, and angry faces. I remember a white friend greeting a "stereotype of a ghetto, black, undereducated, mid-20s former classmate of our in a fake "black-cent," gesturing wildly with her hands. I asked her why she spoke that way to her but never to me. 

She replied while laughing and ushering me into the bar, "you're not like one of those black people!"

I remember being fetishized by American white boys, degraded and lied about by American black boys, feeling like I'd found men who I could actually date in Johannesburg, and then leaving after a fortnight. 

I remember Egyptian men questioning my ethnicity, Chinese women trying to speak to me in broken Spanish assuming I was a Latina with braids, and random white people across my travels staring at me before asking with the same smile, "what are you?" 


I constantly feel that I can't "go back to Africa" - I have never lived there, do not speak the languages, and do not understand the cultures enough to feel at home in one of her 54 countries yet. 

I do not feel at home in America - I try to connect with my southern roots, but get bogged down in the history and effects of slavery, racism, and oppression, always struggle to see the beauty of my ancestors through the pain of what they endured here. 

Africa never had me. America doesn't want me. White people don't understand my struggle. Black people don't believe someone who looks like me has struggled enough.

I feel as if I am too much and not enough all at once. Just lacking too much to belong. 


  1. Great piece! So thought-provoking. Grappling with issues of race weighs on me constantly. Grateful to you for sharing this. I hope getting it out provided some levity.


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