Abdul and I, we’ve known each other since he came running toward me one night with open arms and a wide smile, declaring: “It’s so good to see you!” I had never seen Abdul before in my life, but how could I turn down this beautiful, smiling face? I met him midway, for the first of many embraces to follow. Later, we would find many more things connecting us: two young brown queer people from a continent far away, removed from our memories of streets bursting with people like us.
Now, years after that first meeting, we sit in a coffee shop talking ourselves in circles and trying to find the elusive center. Over cheap wine, red and white, we speak of us and them – “them” being our friends, our American, overwhelmingly white, hipster friends with seemingly coasting lives — and the things that separate us.
They do not understand how hard it is to be “us,” how easy it is to be “them.” This conversation is nothing new; Abdul and I have repeated it many times over, in different states of sobriety, in all temperatures and settings. Standing in my kitchen many evenings later, we find the word that had sat on our tongues during all those impassioned talks: privilege. I often find myself often thinking of “us” and “them,” the “us”es ever-changing, the “them”s moving in tandem. I feel distant, disconnected from many worlds — the one I came from, the one I live in, the one I want to live in. I am an island. I cannot be part of this place, because it is nothing like me. But I cannot afford not to be part of it. I must engage with it, because to fail to do so is to fail to exist, to cease to be. I am a political statement, I am blasphemy, I am screaming in a dark night, I am here. I am real.
For me, for Abdul, there is no choice but to maintain a relationship with this world, this society and its problems. We are required to be in it, denied the privilege to choose what matters — because it all matters. It is life or death. It is the breath in between. Abdul and I are outliers within the marginalized, still trying to comprehend this beast and its parameters. Our newness in this country means that we have entered a world in which nothing is ours, without the language to describe it, or the loss.
We were once brave, even prideful souls, eagerly separating ourselves from the Kenyan soils — he the sandy aridness, I the red hills — to find ourselves defined as less because of who and what we appeared to be. Even more disconcerting than this discovery was the slow reveal. The taking of our agency was implied, left for us to figure out on our own. It was deceitful, this new world.
Abdul and I return to the coffee shop many times over. We sit on tiny bright red chairs. The vintage jukebox sits behind me; giant sci-fi and horror movie posters we no longer notice plaster the walls — we could be in a malt shop in the ’50s. Except we know we could not have been at ease in any malt shop in the ’50s, because we are black. Malt shops are the stuff of movies, of an imaginary shared past.
Our animated leaps threaten to knock over the table, the cheap red wine loosens our thoughts from their reins. But I have learned not to ask certain questions, not to demand certain answers. I do not ask about war; I do not ask about loss, or what happened to him before we both came here.
This evening, with the winter light outside playing in the trees, the people making their way past us outside the windows, he tells me. He tells me of war, of hiding, of running, the imminent urgency and simultaneous waiting. He remembers this: July 1989, a dusty Volkswagen. It is about 6:30 in the evening, the big, bright orange sun on its way to setting. He has escaped the war that seems determined to rage unceasingly. He crosses the border from Somalia into northern Kenya, that indistinct part that is more Somalia, but by law Kenyan. He is in the front seat of his father’s car, eight years old, his head sticking out the window. He remembers the air. “I know you won’t believe me, but it was different.”
He remembers the air. He had never breathed air so rarefied, so lush, so luxurious. It was the taste of freedom. He tells me he licked it. To taste it, savor it. He laughs at this, and I laugh too. We are flushed with wine, with excitement. Over time, though, he tells me, “the smell dies”; it is not the same.
I know that feeling. It was December 2004, and my mother and I had just landed on the tarmac at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. I still recall the cold air in the invented space between the airplane and the terminal, as our feet dared a leap into a new world. I was seventeen. The air had been different for us then, the lights brighter, everything grander.
There is no longer magic in the air.
“It’s like trying to reclaim that first high,” he tells me. I jot down his words, wine-slanted notes in a notebook I later bury and forget to find.
At 17, as a Kenyan transplant in the Midwest, I discovered I was black. Well, “became aware of my blackness” is a better way to put it. Not that I had never noticed the darkness of my skin, or combed my fingers through the ringlets sitting atop my head while watching blond and brunette hair effortlessly carried away in the wind. But I’d never had to contemplate my black identity, its meaning and repercussions in a racialized world. I had been a girl, a teenager, a student, a Christian, a poet (or so I thought), a dreamer, a cynic, but I had never understood what it meant to have an identity based on the color of my skin in relation to the color of other people’s skin. I had been spared the hardship of growing up in a racist society. While we had our “isms” (nepotism, tribalism, sexism, heterosexism), racism was not one of them. Growing up in Kenya had imbued me with a different notion of diversity, one that I had always taken for granted.
Context is everything, and the black American experience was not something I could easily contextualize as an immigrant. Colorism was the closest I had ever come to a preferential system based on skin color, in a country filled with 40+ tribes, Kenyan Indians, Arabs, Europeans, and a refugee population from Sudan and Somalia, where the ravages of war uprooted people faster than peace could be found. I had thought of myself only in terms of my tribe, my family, its geo-identity. An oft-asked phrase was, “Where does your family come from?” This conveyed to others everything they needed to know about you — who your people were, what lands they came from, who they knew, and what they did.
Then, ten years ago, on American soil, I found myself repeatedly scouring every inch of space, looking for myself. Not some existential notion of it, but rather the representation – people like me. Everywhere I went, there was a running tally in my head, as if once I hit some magic number the unease of being a racial minority would suddenly wash away and I would be swept up in a sea of beautiful black and brown faces that confirmed I belonged here.
I slowly dug deep and settled into my own skin, becoming comfortable in the visibility of my newly found identity as a black person in America. Yet even this presented a new hurdle. How could I reconcile my own African identity with blackness in America, defined by African American culture and heritage? Our histories, our lived experiences differed, yet on the surface we were one.
My history was one of Ngai and Mumbi, descended from the heavens. They bore nine daughters, who formed the nine clans that defined the identities of the Kikuyu tribe. My history was of a farming people who tilled the rich red soil along the rivers and in the valleys. Who had their land and their dignity stripped during the dark colonial era, whose descendants would go on to gather in the forests outside Nairobi, carefully laying the foundations of the Mau Mau rebellion that would usher in Kenyan independence. My lived experience thus far was in the context of a young nation coming into being in the 21st century, discovering democracy and wading into the murky waters of free-market capitalism.
In America, I felt like a fraud and simultaneously cheated out of my Kenyan identity. I had become more visible while losing touch with parts of myself. As an African immigrant, I often found myself feeling “not black enough.” Some black Americans did not view me as one of them due to a lack of shared history, and the assumption that I maneuvered this society as if anything could be mine — a hunger bestowed on recent immigrants who blindly believe in the American Dream and that it is ours to attain. White people regarded me as a peculiar thing, and alternated between blatant ignorance and fetishization of my brand of blackness.
Part of being marginalized is being prevented the nomenclature to define yourself — you are asked to exist within already defined spaces and thoughts. I was expected to fill a mold I had not known existed. The appropriation of a form of black identity, one that aims to create caricatures of blackness to be packaged and consumed, assaulted me in my greenness and naivete.
For us — Abdul and I — there seemed no other option but to assimilate and fit in with mainstream notions of black culture. But with the assimilation of culture comes the transference of some trauma. The learning of racism and the various ways it is institutionalized and socialized in this country is humiliating and horrid. I may have learned the manifestations of racism faster than most immigrants, dropped into a mid-sized college city notoriously referred to as “White Cloud” in my first six months — I was a walking target for white people who felt their community was being infringed upon by immigrants, a black population steadily flowing in from a violent ridden and impoverished Chicago, and the ever-expanding international student body at my alma mater. My white professors regarded me as “exceptional” due to my ability to put together a string of English words that made logical sense; the campus was rife with racist graffiti; a homeless man told me he thought I was beautiful, except he “didn’t like them in that color”; we called the police to report that we had been victims of a violent crime, and the first thing they asked was “Was he black?” (He was not.)
A black man in America knows not to wear a hoodie up outside, and this black woman learned that too. Once, while we were attempting to walk to the gas station in hoodies and basketball shorts on a warm summer night, the police swept onto the grass outside our apartment and barked, “HEY, YOU! Come here!” There were bright flashlights in our faces, and then they saw that we were two young black women. “Sorry, we thought you were men” was the only explanation offered to us. We never made it to the gas station. Instead, we made the walk back to our apartment, breathing freely only when the door thudded behind us.
The disgracefulness of it all makes you want to shout. We recount stories of failed assimilation, futility in understanding the mechanical operations of new spaces, our immigrant narratives becoming lost in the face of that most basic of human urges: the need to belong. We sometimes find ourselves trying to become invisible within the black community, within the national fabric, trying to simply fit in. But we can never truly assimilate — our love for fufu, injera, and ugali lead us to our places of communion at the table. The beautiful tongues handed down to us from generation to generation still flow out of our mouths, each syllable a tribute to our forefathers. The slip of the tongue — the words we have not yet learned to say the American way — betrays our accented English. They ask us where we are from when they realize we are different, and that question becomes more complicated as the years turn, bleeding into one another, making us forget.
There is a kind of hard beauty in being lost, in the uncertainty. It gives you room to think of all the possibilities, the many ways things could be. It is the same beauty that comes with being in the minority: the beauty of awareness, of altered perception, that we are looking at the world through a different lens. This can force upon you a consciousness of yourself and society. In a time when race and identity weigh heavily on the collective consciousness, occupying our eyes, ears, and tongues, we are forced to see this thing — talk of this beast — and how far we have come, how much farther we must go.
For “us,” it’s never left — the feeling, the knowing, the understanding of what blackness means. I cannot afford to disengage from the knowing because my successes, my failures, my acceptance, my chances here are all tied to the knowing. Race never leaves my mind. Within this national conversation we are having about police brutality, state violence, and quotidian racism, I have found myself consciously cloying to my black identity, and defending the right to make this about blackness. To make enfranchised, white America see that I am different, that the life I live is unlike theirs, however much we may want to live in a post-racial society. Though I personally maintain a complicated relationship with race and identity as an immigrant to this country — never having been one of the original victims of America’s conquests, yet living, all the same, with the repercussions of its actions — I still must take part in the national trauma, in our shared history, insistent on my distinctness, clamoring to be recognized in this discussion about what race means to you, and to me, and the distance that separates the two.
Kari is a queer writer who was born and raised in Nairobi and spent her formative years in the Midwest. She is a Third Culture Kid trying to find the balance in 3. Her work has appeared or will be featured in anthologies on LGBTQ Writers from Africa and Voices from the Lesbian and Queer Feminine Perspective, as well as on Autostraddle.com. Follow her on Twitter @the_warm_fruit.