Friday, January 16, 2009

i'm african, part one: it started with the girl scouts...

i have always felt a genuine connectedness with any african i have ever met -- whether it's someone that i greet in passing or friends that i have made along the way. this connection is so real, it's almost tangible. neither the african in question or i know exactly what it is but we know that it's there and sometimes we are literally jumping up and down in the street, because we are so happy about it. when i tell them that i'm not from africa, they look a little disappointed. when i tell them that neither of my parents are from africa, they look somewhat confused.

when i walk down 125th street, i smile and wave like i'm the newly crowned miss black america. i greet all the africans in french -- the senegalese mommies with their babies on their backs, the haitian cab drivers, the angolans selling things in their little shops, the ladies from places like togo and cote d'ivoire and ghana who ask me if i want to get my hair done, the nigerian students -- and when i do, they light up and call me sister. how cool is that?

"you are a real african girl!" an older gentleman from ghana said to me recently. he blurted it out, like he was so overwhelmed with the idea of such a thing, he couldn't keep it to himself. and he so loved the idea of it, he turned it into a question and posed it to his friend, who smiled softly and nodded in agreement.

this has happened to me ever since i can remember.

when i was a kid, i used to babysit for an adorable nigerian couple -- graduate students at georgia state university who had two daughters. they would show me off to their african friends and say, "look at this pretty nigerian girl!" heh. some of them thought i looked yoruba. the rest said ibo. those were lite beer from miller "tastes great -- less filling" moments that still make me laugh. all of them encouraged me to ask them all the stupid questions i wanted. they would show me pictures and little movies and they would feed me fufu and tell me stories and explain all kinds of things. babysitting for them immersed me in their languages, their culture, their music. it was a pretty cool experience.

but as lovely as they were, they weren't my introduction to all things african. that happened with the girl scouts. (yeah, you heard me right. the girl scouts!)

this may come as a shock to all the blacker-than-thou black folk i know in brooklyn and newark, but it's true: more black folk live in the state of georgia than any other state in the nation. it's been that way for a very long time -- and with the new great migration that's been in flux for the past 30 years or so, our numbers there are increasing. also true: juliette gordon low, the founder of the girl scouts, is from savannah, georgia.

the girl scouts faction that you belong to basically yields to the whim of its troop leader. so if that adult leader wants to sell cookies all year, that's the way the deal goes down. it was the 70s, though, and it was atlanta -- and my troop leader was the epitome of afrocentric. she was evelyn ridley, the blackest woman on the planet -- certainly one of the blackest women i'd ever met. when i say black, i don't mean "of the negro persuasion" -- i mean she had that james brown "say it loud, i'm black and i'm proud" kind of black pride that had all this fire and immediacy up in it. she had a short, well groomed natural. she wore dashikis and wooden jewelry. she was married with kids but she had her own business, she was her own woman. she loved herself. she loved her blackness. she was pleased with her african features. she was savvy, smart, and really really cool. all of this radiated out of her essence as genuine self confidence and joy. when i met her, i knew that she was the fist that stuck out on the end of that afro pick i used every day to lift my blowout. and i loved her for it.

by calling her the blackest woman on the planet, i'm not taking anything away from any of the other black women in my life. but this brand of blackness was something new. in my little kid mind, she belonged in a pam grier movie, fighting "the man" and helping "the community" -- not here with us girl scouts. as it turned out, miss ridley was right where she needed to be.

she brought out a map of africa and made us learn about each country and talk about it, and she didn't stop there. we had all kinds of activities going all the time. we made field trips to museums to see exhibits that pertained to anything african, read books and articles, met and conversed with africans and had job fairs that sparked many of us to seriously think about what we wanted to do with our lives for perhaps the first time. at one point, we made outfits out of african fabric and did a harvest dance, with drummers and musicians and art and everything, and presented it in a big assembly at school. the rehearsals for that one performance were dynamic, instructional and fun.

my niece madison is in the girl scouts. she and her three brothers and her parents live in decatur. she also plays the cello, studies german and is a member of a black girl leadership incentive in her school called "the little corettas," in honor of coretta scott king. they also have formal father/daughter dances, and theater and museum outings. that's a pretty well-rounded life for a little black southern girl. every so often, she'll sell me a box of cookies. hm. now that i think about it, i don't think we ever sold any cookies under miss ridley's jurisdiction.

whatever happened to miss ridley, you may ask? she and my mother became close friends -- so close in fact that when my little brother moniah was born, she was chosen to be his godmother. i see her whenever i go home. she's still got that afro, too -- and i must admit, my blowout occasionally makes a reappearance.

this was my introduction to africa. from there, things got really interesting...

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