Pretending: The Selective Embrace of a Culture

What am I ?

A strong African-American woman.

A mother.

A wife.

Not a pretender.

As I prepare for a birthday celebration, I think of the family that is preparing to come together. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews gathered in the home of my aunt Tanya, to laugh and share memories. If only the good ones. I'm an outcast in my family. Some would call me a traitor. A disparager of my history. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love myself, and my family; yet I refuse to involve myself in generations of conformism. Everyone knows a person in their family who speaks a little too loudly; yet their speech is the truth. I am that person. From sitting on the porch eating watermelon, to listening to loud rap in a cadillac, my family is plagued by self-imposed stereotypes and a habit of pretending to be who and what they are not.

Now before I go further, you may ask; why bare this all in blog devoid of earth-shattering revelation. I answer; for my daughter; that she may understand where I am coming from. The daughter that is so hard to reach, so hard to understand. I must start somewhere. and that somewhere is here. (I must admit the semi-anonymity is kind of catharic).

But back to me.

I was born in Wisconsin. My mother, Bethenia, a world-trekking Nigerian-american in love with her new country. A woman that began with much potential, and who now exist in a vacuum of self-pity. But before you judge me too harshly, please read on.

While on a UWM college trip to Guerrero, Mexico she met a afro-mexican man named Alfredo.

"Alfredo Diallo and my mother Bethenia in 1949 or 1950, posing near what I believe to be the ruins of Guerrero Viejo (My mother would have never stooped to live in such squalor and trust me the scythe in his hand is just for show)"

If this were a movie I'd be preparing myself for a long happy ending but there is none. He, from all accounts and purposes, embraced the stereotypes of his people; never holding a steady job, drinking heavily, and never reaching higher than low level farm work to make his living. As you can tell from this dated and only photo I have of them together, making a good impression was not high on his list of prioritites. My mother sought to travel the landscape. Surevey the surroundings and histories of that land. And from what I know, all she got for her trouble were pock marks froom various insect bites that never healed. My mother on the other hand used her time there wisely, nursing for the red cross and other factions. While I don't seek to blame my father for the mistakes I made, he does, rest his soul, have much responsibilty. My mother was a weak woman, and he took advantage of her kindness for personal gain. I know little about him. Heard little and saw even less. He seemed to have no use for me. Maybe the few times I did meet him my hostility at his nonchalant treatment of my mother showed through, and he became wary of me. I only have one picture of him, with my mother. (Not suprising seeing he found my mother to be more and more repulsive as tme went by). Yet not just out of personal preference but frugality. They were poor but their poverty was not inevitable. My mother was highly intelligent and could have went farther in the world than a village in mexico. Yet that is another story in itself. Yes he stayed with her until his death. What we call nowadays playing house. Sometimes my mother, harboring him in her humble milwaukee home. Sometimes she, living with him in the rural scene of Chilipancigo de los bravos. But never once visiting Nigeria. A fact I found dismissive of her African heritage. No mention of the beauty of THAT foreign land. My mother chose her path, and I unfortuantely made mistakes on mine.

A little bit more history then on to the meat of my essay.

My mother and father were kind enough to take in my daughter, Fada, when she was but four years old.

"My Fada-bu in 1997. (She'll kill me for calling her that but I don't mind. shoot she'll probably kill me for writing this essay!"

I sometimes felt my daughter had a great affinity for her grandparents, and like any good parent, sought to encourage that. Even when they took her to live with them, I did not object. Of course I had my own issues and it was convenient to have someone caring for my daughter yet I had by no means lapsed in my responsibilty for her. While I worked out my issues they cared for her the best they could. I trusted them with my daughter, and she returned safely after her grandfathers death. Yet I believe that time changed her. Yes she was only four. But that is such an impressionable age and I fear the impression left upon her was one that harbors disdain for some core parts of her history. All because of the prevalence of stereotypes and images that I believe have permeated her mind.

And now we come to the core of my argument.

"Racist.. No?"

A watermelon eating negro. No one wants to be indentified with that.

"Classic Stereotype"

And eating chicken? Now that's out of the question.

"The Zuma Rock in Nigeria"

But speak of the beauty of the Nigerian sunset, the forestry and the earthiness of the people and there is no equally strong response. Yet the older my daughter gets it becomes apparent she has chosen one part of her culture over the others. My daughter is a beautiful and strong girl. Yet being a woman myself I know the danger of identity confusion. I know what I am. My license, birth certificate, and social security card all identify me as an African-american woman. Of course my dna is comprised of both black and latino blood, yet I feel that that dna does not dictate my character. My husband is a strong handsome black man. And I have birthed three beautiful black daughters. To choose to identify with a certain racial group is in my experience pre-ordained. An Elephant can't pretend to be a Flamingo. A Flamigo can't be a Rhinoceros. And Blacks can't be White, Latino or Chinese as much as they may want to change.

And in this next paragraph,I am speaking to my daughter, Fada, and every teenage girl of African-American descent.(As she always addresses me with that no reservations way which causes so much drama. *smile*)

The color of your skin will never limit you. Only the color of your heart. To be disparaging of your African history is shameful not only to your family yet to your people. And I know you would never proceed to PURPOSELY your parents or those who raised you. Love for a people does not make you one of them. Four years in a place does not make you a citizen. Anyone can learn to speak a language. The most of a blood type is dominant over the lesser of a blood type. A quarter is not a whole.

"What 25% Looks Like On Paper"

The other seventy-five percent is a history rich in memories and experience that should not be ignored.

"My husbands family, from left to right: his great-grandfather George, his wife Ethel and their daughter Annie (posing in a more dignified setting as you can see)"

"My mother (center) with two friends in 1946"

"Me and my niece Toy. A reminder of OUR future."

Now I know some people will have strong reactions to my words. I have stated this opinion to friends and co-workers and been called bitter and close-minded. This is not true at all. Yes I may be angry at the lack of family history available to me because of the plight of our black ancestors. Yes I may be upset at my mothers choice of a mate which has left an undeniable mark on my daughter and I's sense of being. And I may just be a mother who wants her child and others like her to understand the importance of accepting who you are. It does no good to pretend to belong to a culture that does not want or accept you. My mother pretended to be an all-knowing globe-trekker and look where it got her. My father I know next to nothing about; through no fault of my own. And as for my daughter, I refuse to lose to her own loss of identity.

I know you young ones don't like to hear preaching so I'll finish now; hoping that something was learned through all of this. That maybe in a bit of relating my history, I can help you have a desire to learn and love yours.


We are what are most. What we love most. Who takes us in their arms and says: "It will be alright". Not WHO we WANT to say those things.

What am I?

A strong African-American woman.

A mother.

A wife.

Not a pretender.

And my girls,

That's what you CAN BE TOO!