Becoming ang Being Black in America

This is part two of my series on raising children in America.

In the aftermath of Miley Cyrus’s debacle at the VMA, a Facebook friend wondered why everything in America has to be seen in Black and White, referring to this article, which argues that Cyrus’s attempt at twerking and her entire performance were racist. The reality is that it is hard to not see things as Black and White, especially when the parties involved are black and white. However, I do understand why my friend was so annoyed. As first generation Senegalese immigrants, we “became black” when we came to America because race is not an issue in Senegal.  Although we are the victims of several types of negative stereotypes associated with Africa, sometimes we are not able to recognize some of the nuances of racism. Also, as adults, we are better equipped to fight, avoid, or even downplay situations where we might be exposed to racial discrimination. This is done through playing it safe by sticking with our kind, or not associating with African Americans because we do not want to be put in the same “negative basket” where our black American cousins have been for centuries.

On the other hand, our children are “Blacks in America,” and will be treated as such. There is a difference between how our generation and theirs experience and process racism or racial prejudice. At a very early age, they are exposed to racial difference, and unlike us, they cannot avoid playing or interacting with their peers of different races.

Last week, I took my daughter to a local commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. There, we met a Caucasian colleague/friend with her daughter who is the same age as mine. Our daughters have known each other since they were toddlers and went to the same school for a couple of years. But since my daughter moved to another school, the two of them see each other occasionally. The girls hugged and sat together chatting, giggling, and being cute. A photographer saw them and asked to take a picture, remarking to me that “this is what Marin Luther King’s dream was about.” Minutes later, the duo was joined by another little white girl they both know. I know this girl’s mother through her business and other child-related events in town. The three girls sat together and chatted. When it started raining, people brought out umbrellas and like I always do, I had left mine in the car. My colleague/friend gave an umbrella to her daughter, under which the three girls huddled, projecting a true image of an inclusive and post-racial America. I too could not help but snap a picture of “Martin Luther King’s dream.” As the rain intensified, the second girl’s mother invited me to share her umbrella which was as big as a tent. She also offered to go to her car for an extra one. I declined the offer. She then decided to go get it for her daughter. When she came back, the rain had slowed down. Now, the two white girls had each an umbrella and my daughter was staying next to them watching them play with their umbrellas. When I asked her why she was not playing, she replied: “They say I do not have an umbrella.” When the second girl’s mother heard that, she was shocked and decided to give my daughter the umbrella we were sharing. But when the two girls saw my daughter with the bigger umbrella, they took it away, gave her one of the small ones, and proceeded to play under the big one, still excluding my daughter. By then, I was starting to get annoyed and asked my daughter to come play next to me. She refused and continued to play with the small umbrella, alone. I tried to lure her with a promise to stop by one of her favorite restaurants if she agreed to leave early. She vehemently refused and continued to twirl the umbrella. Few minutes later, she gave up the umbrella and took my phone. She approached the girls while dancing to a Michael Jackson song. I painfully watched as she tried everything to gain their attention. I could see that she was sad that she was being ignored. I had to pull her aside and explain to her that she should never insist on playing with someone who did not want to play with her.

Now, I am sure that the girls’ attitude toward my daughter had nothing to do with the color of her skin. Knowing these girls and their parents, assured me that they were not excluding my daughter because she was “the black girl.”  Also before publishing this post, I shared a draft of it with my colleague/friend because I wanted her to know that I was writing about her child. She revealed to me that the two girls are more than best friends, they are sisters. They have known each other since they were toddlers and carpool every day to and from school. She also said that this kind of scenario has happened more than she could count with other children. Her daughter would be playing with someone but the minute her best friend/sister shows up, the two of them would pick up playing, leaving out the third party.

Despite the fact that I knew in my heart that this was innocent child play, I could not help but think in Black and White. I thought about how this would have played out if I did not know the girls and their parents. Later that night, when my daughter and I talked about it, she wondered why my colleague/friend’s daughter did not want to play with her. I explained to her that there would be times when friends would choose to not play with her, and that it would have nothing to do with her. I reassured her that she was fun to play with, to which she answered: “I know, I always come up with really fun games.” As I walked downstairs, my heart was heavy and I resisted tears. Although I was convinced these girls did not exclude my daughter because of the color of her skin, I knew there will be times when she will be ignored because of her race. She is a Black Girl in America. 

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman who profiled and killed Trayvon Martin, a young black man, gave me tremendous anxiety about raising black boys in America. It made me wonder whether my children would not be safer in Senegal where the color of their skin would not make them into inherent suspects. Some might think that I am being melodramatic but this is a real dilemma for me. It is already hard that my children are a racial minority in their schools and often come home with questions that are very difficult to answer. My daughter is confused about the color black because as she rightfully emphasizes often, “We are not black! We are brown!” She also gets upset that she cannot put her hair in a ponytail like the other girls in her class. These kinds of issues freak the hell out of me and I wonder whether it wouldn’t be easier to pack up and return to Senegal.

I look forward to your comments.

The Difficulty of Raising Children in Two Cultures

I recently read an article  where some interviewees stated that raising kids between the cultures of Senegal and America while residing in the US is literally impossible. While I think that it is in fact possible, it is not easy to accomplish.  Parents must constantly negotiate cultural clashes while being sensitive to how confusions can negatively affect children. Most of our SenAmerican homes tend to naturally favor the Senegalese culture. Our attempts to “not lose” our “Senegaleseness” often lead to our children being taught one thing at home, and another at school, making it difficult for them to reconcile both.

Recently, my daughter wrote a list of chores and said that her teacher had told her that she could earn money at home by doing chores. I was shocked that the teacher had the audacity to introduce her to the notion that she could be paid for doing something I believe any responsible member of a family should do and not expect a reward. But I knew that we live in a culture where this is widely practiced, and even applauded. I had to be smart about how I spoke to my daughter about it. After I recovered from my shock, I asked her to come up with a list of all things that mommy does in the home. When we went over five minutes of enumerating “mommy’s chores,” I asked her to pay me a dollar for each item, each time I did it. Her eyes doubled in size as she realized that she could not possibly pay me. I then explained to her that I do what I do because it is my responsibility as a mother and a member of the family, and that each member of the family has a responsibility to the whole. We do it because we love each other and must contribute to the running of the household, not because we want to be paid. I talked to her about having an allowance and that she would get $.50 for every year of her age. I was careful to explain to her that an allowance is not something we owe her, and that it is our way of helping her have money for herself because she is not old enough to have a job! I also think that the idea of allowance helps children learn financial responsibility while giving them some freedom in acquiring things they want.

This strategy worked out quite well but I must confess that I am not always as lucky with parenting young children in America. For example, I am still struggling to teach my kids that mommy and daddy’s room is not a playground, and that when adults are talking a child does not get involved. One of the strengths of the Senegalese model of parenting is that it is often done within an extended family where other adults and sometimes neighbors, contribute to raising children. Children are socialized to know their place. There is a division of space within the home where children understand playing does not happen in bedrooms. While it is possible to teach these rules in America, it is not always easy because of the nuclear family. Many of our homes do not have other adults other than mommy and daddy. We tend to do everything with our kids. Although I love spending as much time as possible with my children, I think that our nuclear families make it difficult to teach them independence within the home.

Another area where I am struggling is extra-curricular activities for kids. Growing up, I played team handball and never expected my parernts to come see me play. In fact, I do not think my mother ever saw me play. She would hear from strangers about what a wonderful player I was but never found it necessary or important to come to one of my games. I have a vague memory of my father coming to one game but I might have dreamed about that. Although I wished that my parents would see me play, it was not the end of the world. I don’t think it did anything to my self-esteem nor did I feel unloved by my parents. In America on the contrary, parents who do not show up at their child’s soccer practice or play recital are seen as bad parents.  It also seems that American parents want their kids to do it all. Kids are engaged in several extra-curricular activities that they often do not like and parents, especially mothers, spend their week chauffeuring them from one place to another. I refuse to buy into this culture and tell my kids to identify one activity and stick to it as long as they like it enough to invest the time in it. My kids are fairly young and their commitment to a sport or instrument is very short. I am sure there will be a time when they would want to do something consistently. Even then, I would insist that they stick to a maximum of two.

The most challenging aspect of parenting in America is the issue of spanking children. In Senegal, spanking is accepted and used as punishment whereas in America, it is frowned upon and parents who practice it are viewed as abusers. I honestly have mixed feelings about this but I have opted to not spank my children. I have never been a fan of the practice but after having kids, I can see why some parents revert to the stick to keep some children in line. My apprehension is about its effectiveness. If the point of corporal punishment is to inflict pain on the child, I believe it can be accomplished with other means such as taking away beloved possessions and other privileges. I don’t however believe that every parent who chooses to spank their child is an abuser because there is spanking and there is beating up a child. The first when practiced necessarily could be fine while the second is abuse.

Parenting in America is difficult because as parents, we too are caught in between two cultures, yet, we must raise children within this space. Knowing how to negotiate these two worlds is not easy but I think it can be done if we pick what we think is positive in each culture and combine them. This requires a lot of work and trying out different strategies. There are many other parenting areas I struggle with such as religion, food, and language, to which I will dedicate entire posts.

I look forward to hearing from parents. Please share your parenting struggles and tips.

SenAmericanly yours.

When “God” Visited Senegal

I am late to write about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal. I wanted to hear how the Senegalese lived the event since I was heading there few days after the American President’s visit. Seeing the visit unfold on news websites and social media, I was happy that Senegal was put on the world map. For the first time, I saw a picture of an American President and an African President standing next to each other, without thinking about aid or charity. I saw two black men hug each other and it gave me goose bumps. I was glad that Obama reinforced my feeling of relief by speaking about partnership between Senegal and America, and urging the media to depict a more positive image of Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar

I am certain the increased presence of China in Africa has a lot to do with this change in US rhetoric but I am glad it has come to that. I was also glad that Obama was sensible enough to meet with the leaders of civil society organizations who contributed so much to making Senegal into an admired democratic nation.

I was mostly fascinated by the general population’s euphoric embrace of President Obama and his family. People were beyond thrilled that the American President chose Senegal as his first stop during his three-nation tour in Africa. Although I arrived in Dakar almost two weeks after Obama left, his presence was in the air. The walls and bridges were still clad with large banners of him and President Sall.

   Obamabanner

 At the weekly flea market that takes place on the canal from Liberté 6 to Castors, rows of duffle bags with Obama’s name majestically dangled from stalls. Taxi drivers, who had a hint of my “Americanness” because of some “foreigner-detecting radars” that taxi drivers and street vendors magically possess, commented on the power of “Your President” and how his visit made their job so difficult because all major roads were blocked. One of them remarked that “It was as if God was visiting Senegal!” Although the Senegalese are known for their ability to make guests feel at home as the country prides itself in being the Land of Teranga (the art of welcoming guests), Obama enjoyed a special treatment.

 I was not surprised by the level of importance the Senegalese accorded Obama’s visit. Though I have my own issues with American foreign policy, I too was thrilled that he chose to go to Senegal. I however wanted to believe that Senegalese officials had learned their lesson about inconveniencing citizens in order to accommodate an American President, as many would remember how the inhabitants of Gorée Island were forcibly sequestrated in their homes during President George W. Bush’s visit in 2003. Although this did not happen during Obama’s visit, the islanders quietly sat on the sidelines when the presidential family visited the famous slave house.

Goree awaits

On the other hand, there seem to have been some unnecessary security measures in Dakar. On a children’s radio show, a participant was asked to create a sentence about Obama’s visit. He spontaneously replied: “During the American President’s visit, we who live in Yoff could not come out of our homes.” The host was annoyed that the only thing the boy remembered about the event was his inability to leave his home.  But the boy’s answer backs up rumors that in Yoff, the neighborhood adjacent to the airport, there were weird-looking giant men in dark suits whispering in walky-talkies. My brother-in-law who works at the airport did not go to work for the duration of the visit since his office was taken over by American secret service members who apparently left no stone unturned in the building. When he returned to work few days later, he found new air conditioners and concluded that the Americans must have ditched the old ones in their overzealous security protocol. This “Yankee Paranoia” as written in Le Populaire conveys how overbearing the American guests must have been.

But this attitude seems to not have bothered the Senegalese. It was as if these were tiny inconveniences that they were willing to suffer for Obama’s sake. When Bush’s visit left many angry, people told these “#Obamatakh (a hashtag that meant “because of Obama”)” stories with a proud smile.  They commented on Obama’s swagger and how cool he looked with his rolled-up sleeves and charming smile. It is true that many people around the world are infatuated with everything American but the warm welcome Obama experienced in Senegal has a lot to do with his background. As the son of a Kenyan father, Obama is viewed as more than the first African-American President. To many Africans, he is an African who is the President of the world’s most powerful country. In Senegal, he was the prodigal son whose power and presence should uplift the whole continent. They see in him a piece of themselves and the fact that he chose to visit Senegal instead of Kenya, or any other West African nation, was monumental in the eyes of the Senegalese.

welcome-home-senegalWelcome home

This visit was also very important to newly elected (2012) Senegalese President Macky Sall whose popularity is not that great. The presidential Facebook page was updated hourly and the rhetoric was overly giving credit to Sall for Obama’s choice of Senegal.

On First Lady Marieme Faye Sall’s Fashion

There was something refreshing in the picture of the two First Ladies standing next to each other. I was happy that Marieme Faye Sall chose to wear a traditional Senegalese boubou. I personally found the outfit elegant and sophisticated.  

Marieme Sall boubou

But some Senegalese, including talk show hosts, criticized Mrs. Sall’s fashion choices, especially after the news site Guardianlv.com published an article calling for Michelle Obama to give the Senegalese First Lady lessons in travel fashion. I was outraged by such article and was truly bothered by the Senegalese media’s lack of reply on behalf of the First Lady. It is inappropriate and wrong to compare the fashion choices of Michelle Obama and Marieme Sall, let alone decide who should teach who. The cultures as well as the body types are not the same. Most Americans would not get the style choices of Marieme Faye Sall for the simple reason many Senegalese would not understand why Michelle Obama, a woman over fifty, wears over-the-knee dresses and body-hugging pants! The Guardianlv article was simply ignorant of the fact that fashion is cultural. The Huffington Post’ piece was more sensitive to the cultural implications of fashion. I find that because many Senegalese are so in love with the West they tend to see themselves and everything through those lenses. Instead of defending the First Lady and telling the world that the Senegalese would not take fashion lessons from America or any other nation, they chose to publically disrespect Marieme Faye Sall. Inviting stylists who themselves do not have any respect for African identity as expressed in fashion and body image, to evaluate the First Lady’s wardrobe choices, was also out of line. The criticism of Marieme Sall’s clothes showed the complex of inferiority the Senegalese feel vis-à-vis Americans. They probably would have preferred a first lady with an outrageously bleached skin, who wears complex outfits (mostly European-inspired) complimented with kilograms of shiny gold jewelry.

Overall, I think the Senegalese will always remember Obama’s visit as an important part of the country’s history. I am praying it will have a stronger economic impact for Senegal. Afterall, when “God” visits your house, it must mean that your prayers were heard at least.

Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction

 

I was inspired to write about this thanks to a friend’s Facebook status about how Senegalese wrestlers were interviewed in French ― “when many of them cannot communicate well in Wolof, let alone in French.” Although the wrestling match took place in Bercy, France, the journalists who interviewed the wrestlers should have addressed them in Wolof and use interpreters to translate for the French. As my friend noted, when Americans go to France, they are provided interpreters and not forced to speak the host language, even if they could manage a basic conversation in it. As a matter of fact, Juan Carlos, the wrestler from Spain who adopted the Senegalese sport and was among the participants at Bercy, was interviewed in Spanish.  Language is one of the major carriers of culture. Imagine if the wrestlers were asked to perform their bakk, these intricate panegyric chants that often highlight a wrestler’s trajectory while taunting possible opponents, in French! The meaning of such performance would have become senseless, if not comical.

The second reason for this post is Bousso Dramé’s letter to the French Consulate in Dakar, which went viral on social media in the past couple of days. Ms. Dramé won the National Grand  Prix d’Orthographe, a prestigious prize that proved her command of the French language. As the winner, she was supposed to travel to France for an all-expense-paid training in film studies. But when Miss Dramé went to the French Consulate in Dakar to apply for a visa, she was repeatedly disrespected by the staff, as it is often the case for Senegalese visa seekers. To show her outrage Miss Dramé wrote a letter to the French Consulate renouncing the visa as well as the prize. As she states in her letter, “It is time for Africans to respect themselves and demand to be respected by others.” I could not agree more but I feel that respect for oneself starts from being proud of one’s culture and Senegal is too dependent on the French language. The Senegalese educational system is a copycat of the French model and French continues to be the language of instruction. This practice only devalues Senegal’s indigenous languages and shows a severe complex of inferiority. I am happy that the Senegalese have great command of French and are able to win prestigious prizes for it. I however look forward to the day when similar competitions are held for Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, Sereer, and the many other ethnic languages that comprise Senegal’s rich linguistic heritage. Respect for oneself should start with ditching French as the primary language of instruction in schools and adopting Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca― which over 70% of Senegalese speak or understand.  I am not against teaching French in Senegalese schools. I just think it should be a second language like English, German, and other European languages.

French has been imposed on the Senegalese for too long and learning it is a traumatic experience for many.I believe my attitude toward French is because I feel the language was imposed on me as well. Although I initially came to the US as a French instructor, my usage of French has been limited to reading and the occasional conversation. One might think that I ditched my “French roots” in favor of American ones, but that is not the case. I simply do not care much about French. I don’t remember loving French or feeling the need to speak it. Those of you who are old enough to remember le symbole know how traumatic learning French was in Senegal.  To those who did not go through it, le symbole was literally a “necklace of shame” made with some disgusting materials.  In my elementary school, it was a huge cow bone attached to some rags.  Any pupil in 4th grade and beyond who was heard speaking Wolof or any other indigenous language, would have to wear the necklace of shame as a symbol of their faux pas and unwillingness to speak the language of De Gaulle. I never wore that horrible necklace. Not because I was fluent in French as a 4th grader, but because I was good at cheating my peers. I was one of the best students and my classmates probably believed that since I was a good student, my French must have been good too. On occasions I was caught speaking Wolof, I would defiantly deny it and invent a French word. But despite the fact that I never wore the necklace, I was terrified of it. I knew that if word got to my parents that I was caught not speaking French, I would get in trouble. Yes, parents also participated in this “Frenchization” of their children. Ironically, many parents, especially those who did not understand French, found it disrespectful if their child spoke to them in French. So in a sense children were told to switch back and forth from their native language to French depending on the place, as if language and culture are accessories one can wear and take off whenever needed. I know it is possible to navigate languages and cultures but when the switch is forced on the person, it becomes problematic.

Fifty three years after independence, I still cannot comprehend why major effort is not being made to use Wolof. I understand that the Senegalese have appropriated French and made it their own. Actually, I believe that the French language is alive and richer because of the many former colonies that continue to use it as “official” language. This does not change the fact that French is a foreign language for most Senegalese because they do not speak it at home. I believe this is the major reason why the Senegalese educational system continues to be in crisis. Children have to spend a long time trying to master the language before engaging is learning other subjects. This approach makes it difficult for them to learn through critical thinking. Imagine how much better and faster children would learn if they were taught in the language they think in. Primary learning engages both the conscious and the unconscious, and therefore can be best accomplished if done in the language one thinks in. It is counter-productive to force children to learn and think in a language different than their native tongue, and expect them to achieve proficiency early on in order to learn math, sciences, and other subjects.

Although Senegal has come a long way in reclaiming some of its linguistic heritage thanks to the proliferation of private radios, which made it possible for the news and talk shows to be delivered in indigenous languages, the bulk of the effort should be directed at making Wolof the major language of instruction. Some would argue that Wolof is not the only indigenous language, and that adopting it as the primary language in schools might undermine other ethnic languages. I would say that if people have not objected to French being the language of instruction, they should be fine with using Wolof.

I look forward to your comments.

The Colours of Darfur

Most of you probably have a general idea of Sudan, but have you heard of Darfur, “home of the Fur” in western Sudan? For those who the name is familiar, they must have listened to reports on the 10 year-old conflict between the threatening Sharia law-driven Sudanese government and Darfur. The gravity of the conflict has even led some people to talk about genocide in Darfur.

Recently I met Aisha, a young woman, activist and voice of Darfur. Now 21 years old and part of the Fur tribe,  Aisha began to understand the meaning and importance of human rights 10 years ago when it all broke out in Darfur. Unlike the rest of Sudan, the Furs practise their own language (Fur), their ethnic dances and their land offers majestic mountains. Although the Furs are Muslims, ethnic traditions are paramount and must be transmitted to future generations. Aisha describes those Fur traditions…

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Where Are You From?

For my first post, I decided to explore the idea of where a person is from. Having lived between the cultural and linguistic spaces of Senegal and the US, the answer to this question has become less obvious or clear for me. Is where one is from defined by geography, nationality, culture, place of birth, place of residence, language, and other denominations that make one identify with a place as home?

I get asked where I am from at least every time I meet a new person. Frankly, I get annoyed by it once in a while, depending on how the question is asked and when it is asked during a conversation. If it comes up as soon as I speak, I get put off. For me, the listener is trying to define me by my accent.  I tend to believe that from that moment, everything that I say is judged by this accent and what the person assumes about Senegal or Africa in general. I do however understand that this question is valid, and its answer is not always easy. Most times, I reply that I am from Senegal. But is it really true?

I was born in Senegal and spent the larger part of my life there. But for fifteen years of my adult life, I have been living and working in the US. I go back to Senegal at the most once a year. Many meaningful events in my life such as post-graduate studies, wedding, the births of my children, and my first real job, happened in the US. Although the majority of my extended family remains in Senegal, most of my friends now reside in the US. On a daily basis, I speak English more than I speak Wolof and French. As a member of the community that I live in, I pay taxes and benefit from institutions like every American. But despite this obvious fact that my life as it is, happens in the US, I do not consider myself as being from America.  Neither do I believe that Americans I interact with would define me as “American.”

When I go to Senegal, I sometimes feel that I am not from there either. The country as I knew it has changed. Dakar where I spend most of my time during my visits (Yes, those trips are visits because they are temporary and their purpose is to see my family.) has changed. Many times, I have gotten lost in this city that I knew so well. My family sometimes treats me like a foreigner and care is taken to make me comfortable, explain things to me, and see to it that I have a great visit. My nieces and nephews have grown during my absence and I often meet some of them for the first time. The connections I had with my siblings, although still there, have a different nature. I need to catch up on so many things and no matter how many nights we stay up talking, we will never recover those missed moments. I need help and guidance to reconnect with the community. I forget the names of neighbors and family friends. I spend a lot of time catching up about those who moved away, got married, those who died and which families I needed to visit in order to present condolences. People refer to me as sunu gan gi [our guest] or Americaine bi [the American lady]. I am asked about food allergies and whether my children would eat certain things. A family member once remarked that I speak Wolof with an American accent! This frustrated me and made me conscious of my displacement. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think it is an insult to tell me that I speak Wolof with an American accent, although I don’t believe I do. I think the family member was projecting an assumption that after having spent so much time in the US, I should speak in such a manner. Even if I spoke Wolof with an American accent, there is nothing shameful or wrong about it. My frustration was the effect of how often in America I get asked “Where are you from?” This question implies that I must not be from America. To be told in Senegal that I speak my native language like an American would, also suggests that I am not from Senegal―leaving me without a country.

So in essence, I am a doxadeem, someone who is considered a stranger and whose residency status is temporary. But where is this temporality? Am I a temporary resident of the US or Senegal? Who gets to define this status? I believe I should be the one. Therefore, I choose to live in that very hyphen between the two countries, Senegal (—) America. Living in this space allows me to claim both and get the best of what each country and culture has to offer. I can eat thiebou jen for lunch and pot roast for dinner. I can wear my sër ak taille basse in the morning and change into a suit in the afternoon. The way I cook food or wear clothes might even be hyphenated.

Where are you from readers?

Life in the hyphenated space between Senegal & America