feature: “i learned to be black in america, while still not being ‘black enough’ for some”

September 24, 2014

It was in America that I learned to be black. In the predominantly small white town we moved to in Upstate New York; in the nasty ways young kids behave to other young kids they perceive as different, dangerous. In the way my seventh grade teacher evaded my innocent question of what the word “coon” meant. It was during lunch, with the chaotic buzz of several dozen prepubescent children going on when I approached her and posed my question. Her large, brown eyes looked into mine for a fleeting moment, before looking away, scanning the room for an answer, a culprit, perhaps. She never did explain that word but I learned all I needed from her nonanswer. I learned to be black in the way, at the onset of high school, I was all of sudden referred to as, “What up, G?” by a girl in my neighborhood who had just filled herself up with a dose of mid-90s rap videos on MTV. When, after watching Poetic Justice, my sister and I came home, tossing the n-word around casually, cracking and snapping on our bubble gum all the while. That word left our vocabulary as quickly as it arrived. We never received a pass.

By Wambui Njuguna, AFROPUNK Contributor *

It was in America that I learned that I was not really black enough. In college when I was the producer on a radio show; the emcee a feisty, gap-toothed, diminutive -sized girl from the West Indies. Upon hearing my British-inflected English, she spat out that I was a ”white girl!” On the eight hour bus ride from the North Country to New York City where I had some of my first encounters with Black and Latino kids from the city. The Urban Youth. When I squarely asked one boy whether all Black people listen to hip-hop and wear their pants down low. He calmly replied, ”No,” and after a beat, added, not without a sense of humor, “…but they should!”

It was in America where I learned I was more American than most Americans. When I had to study American History in order to pass the naturalization test and be granted citizenship. I got a nearly perfect score, answering nine out of ten questions correctly. I forgot who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” (It was Patrick Henry). All the natural-born Americans I spoke with where unanimous in their ignorance of the answer to that very same question. It was in America where I learned I was not really American enough. In graduate school when applying for work overseas as an English language teacher, a visiting South Korean professor from the department discouraged me from applying to a certain university job vacancy since they were looking for native speakers of English. I had to dig into my family history for that one, letting her know that not only is my mother English (from England), but that I grew up speaking English and went to English-medium schools in Nairobi.

It was in this land, where wave upon wave of immigrant stories continue to unfold, where I learned I was Black and Not Black Enough and too white and not native enough. I remain waiting for the final and grand admission into what it means, truly, to be an American. Or not.

This piece first appeared in Cristina Henriquez’s Tumblr project called The Unknown Americans Project on 08.07.2014.

* Wambui Njuguna is an Ashtanga Yoga teacher based in Helsinki, Finland. A true blue third-culture kid, she was born in Kenya, moved to the US at the age of ten, and has worked in South America and the Middle East. She has written for elephant journal, The Helsinki Times, The Seattle Globalist, Ananda magazine, Rebelle Society and Afro Punk. She is the English editor on Petri Räisänen’s book on Ashtanga Yoga and is currently involved in the Finnish-English translation of Räisänen’s second book. When not involved with yoga, she can be found checking books out at Helsinki’s state of the art public libraries, blogging about being a yogini mama, and dreaming of a sewing room, complete with mannequin. Connect with Wambui on Twitter and Facebook