Yesterday, I was watching this op-ed video from The New York Times, about the African migrant crisis taking place in northern Africa and the Mediterranean. It was galling and eye-opening, to see people, my people, on a small little inflatable raft leaving the coast of Libya for Italy. This video is about 15 minutes long–and you should watch it, even though content warning–you will see people (needlessly) drown, antagonized, and beaten.
World immigration patterns can be easily lead back to how Europe and America have had their little grubby hands in people’s governments, installed dictators, and caused political and social upheaval–and that’s just the post-colonial part of history.
What’s happening on America’s southern border is mostly America’s fault. Our involvement in Central American affairs has caused a vicious boomerang effect of displacement. The same can be said for what’s gone on in sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. The same can be said for what’s gone on in Haiti.
And that’s why I’m here in America now, because my parents were escaping some unlivable conditions as medical professionals. They were part of a brain drain in the 1970s that Ghana has yet to recover from. In that video, there was a Ghanaian miner talking about his experience of being on that raft–it was harrowing to listen his story and the story of other sub-Saharan Africans.
Seeing this video reminded me of the cost of immigration–not only for those who immigrate, but for their children as well.
I’ve been of the mind since I came down here to Florida for grad school and wrote about my own family’s experiences of living in the States that basically, it wasn’t worth leaving Ghana to live here. It was out of the frying pan of one post-colonial shit show into another much longer post-colonial shit show–although it was more of a slow grind which took years to manifest.
A lot of what my family went through, I still sometimes think it may not have been as bad in Ghana. We lost the familial and cultural ties that would have at least protected me and my brother from a man slowly losing his grip on reality. We would have had my mom’s mom, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, and all the other extended relatives that we don’t really have now. My mom has said that being in America made my father’s mental health issues more profound.
But then I think about all the people willing to risk their lives to leave countries like Ghana and Guatemala. They aren’t stupid to try to leave so they can actually have some semblance of a life. My parents weren’t stupid or foolhardy to leave Ghana to try to make it here. It just was that the options, as they were then as they are now, were pretty bleak–and even bleaker now.
My parents immigrated quite easily because they were medical professionals and my dad served in the Air Force. But you’ll never have someone’s green card waiting for them at the airport like my mom’s was waiting for her. That brief era of openness is over.
This morning, after waking up from a dream about my former youth group pastor and his now ex-wife, along with my former pastor and his wife (by the way, it was a nice dream), I realized that my lack of thriving here or dreams realized right now is tied to so many things outside of my control.
Yes, there’s the racism and the sexism–things I wasn’t really brought up to think that they affect me personally, but clearly they do.
But it’s also not being American enough and at the same time, knowing that this fish-of-water experience is very American. That’s a big thrust of the memoir I wrote in grad school.
So why the dream about my old church? I thought how much I was left out of social situations as a teen because of my parents–mainly my mother–being so controlling about my whereabouts. And to be a teenager in America is very much about freedom and hanging out with your friends.
When I was in my 30s, I went back home one Christmas and I was hanging out with another friend who told me about how she and other friends of ours were always hanging out at this lake that I had only been to once. It’s mainly because I lived on the other side of town and didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 18. But it was apparently a big part of their social experience that I didn’t get to be a part of–AND I had only hear about it almost two decades later.
Yes, there’s the pain of having missed out on some social gatherings. There’s also the social education I feel like I missed. There was a lot of American naturalization and socialization that I just did not get as a Black American woman. And that knowledge gap has been costly.
I’m pretty sure I have the mind and heart of a Ghanaian, but if I went to Ghana, I’d be seen as American.
And that’s not just a Ghanaian phenomenon, by the way.
Last month, I was interviewing this British man who I couldn’t quite place his accent because it almost sounded Australian. But he had been here for about 14 years. He said that when he goes back to the UK, people say he sounds too American.
It’s like what my second thesis advisor said–when you leave the land, the land will forget you.
So America is my land. But unless I have a family of my own here, I will probably never have deep roots here. And I believe that’s why I lament when people leave my life, because I’ve had to construct my own sense of cultural identity and place without the land that has already forgotten me–a land that really never knew me–with every word I would say in Ghana being some shibboleth of betrayal.
I don’t have any lasting traditions of my own, or familial memories of what we do–except one (highly appropriate for this time of year) where my mother would drive me and my brother around neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights.
Other people have been better at this creating roots and traditions in a new land, but I’m terrible at it, mainly because so much of it was centered around church and Christian culture (and thus, white American culture) . So leaving that has made me even more rootless.
It just seems that whomever I meet now, it will never be like having a true family of origin, like my grandmother, like my extended family (which is quite large just on my mom’s side).
To them, like to the friends who were in my church’s youth group, I’m auxiliary. I’m not a part of their base. I’m not foundational. And I never will be.
I’ve had a real nasty, persistent naivete about people, especially white people. And it means that I act a little too recklessly (and that’s partly due to not really having a foundation or homebase). But grad school was a rude and needed awakening to the perniciousness of whiteness.
It was like I had lived with a dormant fungal infection that bloomed when I moved to a different part of the country. It was an education my dad was trying to give me, through little talks we had about his growing up and his life in America. But because it was so wrapped up in bitterness (which now, I can almost not blame him for), I couldn’t really understand it until it basically made my grad school experience a waking nightmare.
A lot of that, again, was tied up in the church, so by leaving that behind, white supremacy was on full display, and the inherent unfairness and hypocrisy that is its bedrock. I got hit in the head with it many times.
Honestly, it’s partly why I’m in this dump of a house with this semi-retiree shut-in. But when I look at the big picture of where my life is situated–the deep shame I’ve felt for my lack of success is completely unfounded (although sadly, it’s hard to let go of).
Instead, I should be proud of myself.
My story is one of resilience despite ridiculously shitty odds, unfathomable obstacles, and just good ole American fuckery.
It’s not about what I didn’t get or didn’t do. It’s about the alchemy I used to get where I am today despite all of the shit that was in my way.
If I can go back in time to change things, there’s not much I could do to navigate my lifeboat in another direction. Maybe I would have had a little less suffering, but not much. Essentially, I would have to have had different parents and have been born at a different time and under different circumstances. But then, I wouldn’t be me.
So, at the not-so-tender age of 41, I give up.
I don’t care if I don’t fit in here in the U.S.–or anywhere, really. Humanity is quite tribal, and yet my own parents come from two different ethnic groups with two separate languages, two different naming (of children) systems.
I’ve always been out of place…
As I’ve grown older, I’ve strived to fit in with myself–with all the sensitivities, the anxieties, the rages, the passions, the penchants, the peculiarities…in my own private country, population of one.
So now, I’m most always concerned if I am betraying myself. I want to stick up for myself more because at least I can rely on my own loyalties.
So what can I do, in such a fractured world that doesn’t really want me to succeed, with the clipped and edited lineage that I have? As I have always done–the best that I can. If I am not doing my best, that’s really the only way that I have failed.
Although I’ve definitely tried too hard, there’s some relief to know that right down to my cells, I’m divided. This is not supposed to be easy just because I had smart parents, that I am smart myself, that I care about people, that I really try not to be an asshole.
I have essentially thrived in a hostile landscape.
Even though I’ve “given up”, I haven’t given up on living.
I want to not only be happy, but I want to remain sane and safe. I want to continue to take good care of myself in the best way that I can.
Maybe it’s impossible to find roots anywhere, to have my own lasting community with anyone. But I still have to try because I’m a human being. This is what we do.
I’ve had a lot of barriers and constraints, and yet I’ve thought I was a lot more free than I was. And that’s important because I’ve been so hard on myself because I know what I am capable of–but I’ve never really been a full place of freedom and expansion to be that person.
And, I may not ever experience that seemingly mythical place of true, open space to flourish. And, that’s rough to hear. It’s tough for me to fully accept. I’m a relentless fighter, and I know that’s what’s kept me alive.
But there’s some grace in this acceptance. It means I can stop putting pressure on myself to be this superhuman.
Now, it’s time to figure out, within this cramped space, who I’m supposed to be, who I already am.
My little childlike heart doesn’t like to hear it but…life is unfair and hard and cruel. But, because it is also brief, you’ve got to try to make a life for yourself with whatever you have, with the shitty hand you were dealt…as you sit with people who know the game better than you and with the cheaters.
I’ve been really mad at myself for not knowing how to play the game, but I’ve done all I can to learn. My parents, even in their narcissism, did the best they could to teach me, but the way Ghanaian society is, it’s never just up to the parents to do that, to offer guidance, love, and support. So they were doing their part without the orchestra of the rest of the family to support us. And truly, nuclear families are really just a recent American construction, but they’ve always been failed states. Family has never just been about parents and their children.
And, I’m pretty sure if my parents knew how complicated America was, especially for Black people, they’d be better at conveying that knowledge and wisdom to me. But they were trying to figure it out for themselves and used church as a crutch to get through. It kinda worked, kinda didn’t. I can definitely hold them accountable for being narcissists, but nothing else. America is a hostile place to live if you’re not a rich white cis straight male.
So the people trying to escape Central America and Africa are just like the people who escaped Nazi Germany and famine-stricken Ireland (which I would blame the UK for)–just all trying to live a better life in hopefully a better place. I’m still not sure if America is that better place for me, but I really am done with blaming myself for being “too much” and “not enough” in a such a capricious place.
I mean look at who is POTUS right now, along with his whole corrupt family. I’m definitely not the problem.
I remember hearing when I was 18 or so about how being 40, you learn about how much you don’t know. And I can attest to this truism. I know so little.
But the more I learn about myself and the world I live in, the more freedom I have to be myself, even when there’s poverty constantly nipping at my heels or as I try to withstand existential loneliness’ daily campaign to try to take me out.
There’s some strange comfort to know that it’s not supposed to work out the way I had it in my head, that these “failures” were baked into the cultural fabric of American society.
It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be horrifying. It’s supposed to be dehumanizing and demoralizing.
You’re not crazy–the system is.
But when you’re an immigrant to America, that’s the exact opposite of what you’re told. And capitalism will just tell you to work harder (for who and to what ends?).
And it’s OK to say that life right now is a hellscape. It’s not fatalism–it’s reality. And by embracing what is, then you can have the knowledge to change it.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are things I still want to achieve. But I can’t accomplish this to the tune of the “American Dream”.
That I’m still here and alive is something I need to be more and more grateful for instead of resenting. I was never meant to survive this–from my very birth, which was fraught with complications.
And this is where saying that life is about the journey, not the destination really makes sense. I may never get to that place of “home” or “community” or “family”, but I still have to journey to these places. Maybe they won’t look like how I thought, but I have to believe they exist, and that they exist for me.
It’s why people make arduous journeys leave their war-torn, coup-riddled countries to come to an unfair place like this one or one like Italy. These foreign places are just a little less unfair enough, and they have a just little bit more room for people to just be.
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