Culture, International Relations, Race Relations

The Odd American

My nickname used to be “Crazy American Girl.” It was given to me by a friend from Suriname (a small country in South American next to Guyana.) Funny thing is, I never knew I was American until I met her and she pointed it out to me. The only labels I truly identified with was “young” (still am), “Black,” and “female.” And now that’s it’s been 10 years since I moved to this city, I also proudly identify as a “New Yorker.”

Ever since I came to New York I have been constantly approached by African men. In South Carolina, where I’m originally from, there isn’t a large community of Africans. When I got here though, I discovered people from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. I liked them, they were proud of where they were from and they laughed at all of my jokes. They thought I had spunk. They came in all shapes and sizes and some of them even had businesses. (LOL, actually, I think every single African man I’ve ever met owned or wanted to own his own business. Never met one who was unemployed. But that observation is for another post.)

A lot of them introduced me to things I had never seen, heard, or eaten, and I love trying new things. Hanging out with brothers from the Motherland is very exciting to say the least! But sometimes, I feel like the odd one out. In the presence of mostly Africans, particularly at a traditional event, I recognize the differences between cultures and the tension that I feel is so thick it can be cut with a (_insert ancient African cutting tool here_).

Recently, I was invited to a traditional event, where the person who invited me graciously asked me to perform. I was honored, yet a little concerned. I’m a jazz singer. All music definitely has its roots in Africa, but the big band style of jazz that I sing sounds distinctly American and I wasn’t sure if it would be very pleasing to African taste. (You wouldn’t go to an Italian restaurant and order Bangkok Chicken.) I didn’t have time to change my repertoire before the show, plus, why should I have to? I think people enjoyed it, but what no one enjoyed was the awkward silence following the just regular silence that followed my greeting “Hey, everyone! I’m so happy to be here. And well, I’m American…”

Looking back on it, even as soon as seconds later, I know it was a bad choice of words. With me being the ONLY female who was not in traditional African attire, (I was told just to be casual) I already felt like a black sheep. Wearing all black. I felt so out of place in the cold and drafty banquet hall because I walked in beyond the time of being fashionably late (I was also told the party wouldn’t be jumping until after midnight, and those words led me to believe that no matter how different I looked I would be able to be lost in the crowd!) and there weren’t that many people to fill such a large space. I walked in during a speech. My black pumps click-clacked against a tile floor. (I learned from a previous unrelated experience to always dress a little dressier than a casual dress code.) A man escorted me to my seat and a woman in traditional attire immediately came over to me and asked me if I wanted food. I had eaten already, so I politely declined. But even the white woman sitting next to me was wearing a gele. I was nervous and uncomfortable so I started emailing myself this very post.

I thought I was coming to a paaaarrrtttayyyy! Or at least a party. But like my sister said “No liquor? That ain’t a party, that’s a meeting.” Glad I pre-gamed beforehand. But there’s no cute guys my age here, no 20-something girls at all, well, at least none wearing black stretch pants, except me. Talk about an awkward black moment. I feel like a black sheep walking in. Where’s the music? You can hear a limb drop in this place. But that’s the thing though. Let me hip you to a bit of African culture. They like to give speeches at their parties! Looong drawn out lectures. Well I guess the real question is… Can I be myself in the midst of such tradition, especially when it isn’t mine? That’s huge. But I guess we all have our insecurities. I feel way too slutty of a dancer for these people. I might embarrass myself even more if I get up. Plus I just don’t feel like dancing. It’s cold in here and my joints are locking up. But of course one of the keys to power is knowing how to fit in any situation. And also feeling secure that when you don’t want to do something, you don’t do it. I don’t wanna dance. And that is ok. I feel like a caged bird that wants to fly our of her ca-

That’s when I was brought up to the mic and I said, as if it wasn’t already so obvious, that I am American.

It didn’t go unnoticed. My African friend who invited me was like “Why do you say that you are American? You are very Pan-African in my opinion. You wear your hair natural, you’re cultured. Why all of these divisions? We are all brothers and sisters.” As if I already didn’t feel lame enough that no one laughed at my not so funny joke, this guy who’s like a big brother to me is telling me that not only did it look ridiculous, but it was actually offensive.

Anyhow I think that at the end of the day it’s not a big deal. I got to meet a few people who were interested in my singing, and even a real live queen. I enjoyed myself, because it was a new situation and it led to this post. I learned. Maybe next I’ll just be proud of all of my inappropriate clothes, and dance right out of them like no one’s looking. Or, more likely, I’ll try to blend in and not offend anyone. But you know what? I’m kind of liking this feeling of being different and standing out, no matter who I am.

P.S. I couldn’t find a video on YouTube that really spoke to what I experienced that night, so I decided to do one myself:

Maybe being the “Crazy American Girl” isn’t so bad after all.

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