Amma Ababio, an immigrant from Ghana winner of the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards, writes about identity and assimilation
I was born in the heart of the Ashanti region in Ghana during the second term of Jerry Rawlings’ reign.
I was sheltered from the violence and corruption around me. I was a privileged child. I did not live in a shack made of mud and sticks. I did not have to beg on the street to provide money for my family. I did not have to walk for miles to collect water from a stream in a clay pot to drink. I did not have to cry myself to sleep because I was hungry. I lived in a lavish apartment with my parents and two sisters. My parents had successful businesses. There was running water to drink when I was thirsty. I had housekeepers who would make me food when I was hungry. I was surrounded by loving people who looked and sounded like me.
When I was 4, my father won visas in the immigration lottery. I remember my mother telling me that I could not shave my hair any more because little girls in America did not have bald heads. That meant that I could not take the monthly trip with my father to the barbershop to get my hair cut; instead, I went to the hair salon with my mother to get my hair braided.
In what seemed like just days, I went from playing soccer with my cousins to the Ghanaian embassy. I held tightly to my mother’s hand until we were in the German airport. In an instant, I lost her hand. I walked aimlessly around the airport for half an hour. I was overwhelmed by the sea of white faces I saw. I began to think that I would never see my family again. One of the police officers who saw me projected my face onto the various screens around the airport. I saw those same white faces finally stop to look at me. They looked at me with pity, then asked me a series of questions. I cried even harder, because I did not know what they were saying. A wave of relief came over me when I saw my father’s face among a crowd of police officers. He held me close, and I did not let go of my mother’s hand again.
• • •
We lived in my eldest uncle’s basement until my parents found employment. In the first day alone, I realized that I was no longer in Ghana. I was accustomed to eating my meals with my hands, but my aunt called me a bush girl every time she saw me eat with my hands. My favorite dish was fufu. It gave me comfort and reminded me of home.
However, my cousin called me various names until I convinced myself that fufu was disgusting. I began to eat rice like her to stop her from taunting me. One evening, my uncle made Jell-O for my sister and me to try. I did not want to try it, but my uncle insisted. He took a spoonful and tried to feed it to me; I refused. He grabbed my arm, then forced the red Jell-O into my mouth. I felt the spoon clink on my teeth as the Jell-O stuck to my throat. I gasped for air and wriggled free from his grip. I ran away from him as quickly as I could; I did not want him to see me cry. When my parents were able to make enough money to rent our own apartment, I was relieved that I did not have to be in that house for another day.
We moved into our new apartment in spring 2003. It was cramped and reeked of a concoction of different illegal drugs, but it was ours. I was comforted by the three families nearby that also were recent Ghanaian immigrants. I was able to help my parents decorate the apartment to resemble the one we had back home. Because we moved from Penn Hills to East Liberty, I had to change schools. Fulton Traditional Academy was a short walk away. I held on to my father and eldest sister’s hands as we walked into school every morning. First grade was not as difficult as kindergarten because I knew how to speak English well. The English language no longer segregated me from my peers.
My parents did not speak English around my sister and me. When they picked us up from school, they spoke our native Twi. I responded to them in English; I did not want my friends to know that I was not born in the United States. I had a slight accent, but no one picked up on it.
My name was the only clue to my Ghanaian roots. My kindergarten teacher Americanized my name by calling me “Uh-Mah.” She did not even attempt my last name. At the tender age of 6, I no longer was Amma Beniwaa Nyarko Ababio but “Uh-Mah.” I was repulsed by the sight and sound of my name.
As I went through middle school and my freshman year of high school, my name was not the only aspect of my identity that repulsed me. I was disgusted by the coarseness of my hair, the hand-me-down clothes I wore and, especially, the color of my skin. I caked my face with harsh skin-lightening formula and prayed that my skin would become as light as my friends’.
I wore heavy black jackets in the summer to avoid the sun’s rays on my skin. However, the lightening formula worked slowly, so I resorted to baby powder. I mixed baby powder with water, then smeared it on to my face. Over time, I changed myself to the point that I could not bear to look at myself in the mirror. I was afraid of the person who would look back at me. I only wanted to look like the American teenage girl: white-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.
• • •
During a discussion in my sophomore English class, one of my peers denounced as barbaric and uncivilized the Igbo culture described in Chinua Achebe’s novel, “Things Fall Apart.” My world history textbook devoted a measly two pages to ancient African history. I scoffed at their ignorance and cultural incompetence. Over a plate of jollof rice, I told my eldest sister about my textbook and my peer’s comments. She laughed and said, “I don’t know why you care. Ain’t like you know anything about Ghana either.” I rattled off the main imports and exports of the country. Then she asked me, “What you know that ain’t from Wikipedia?”
I was silent.
She was right, I knew nothing about the country that I left behind in elementary school. I knew nothing of the Ashanti region that I was born in or the rich culture of the Ashanti people. I knew nothing about who I was, but I knew everything about who I could not become. I took it upon myself to do what my textbook could not: write a thorough history of the Ashanti people.
It began as a project to fulfill a requirement for world history class, but it ultimately became my redemption. I conducted research online, then the library, but I was dissatisfied by the information those sources gave me. My father was delighted when he read the description of my project. Over dinner one night, he told me about my paternal grandmother and namesake, Amma Nyarko. My grandmother was one of the main advisers to the king of my father’s village, Akrofuom.
Four of my grandmothers before her founded cities: Huntaitai, Sikaman, Amankyim and Akrofuom. My grandmothers who founded the first city were slaves who were able to escape from their shackles. I could not find any written documentation of my grandmothers in either the library or on the Internet. When I wrote down their stories, I felt the essence of my grandmothers inside of me.
I presented my research to my peers in my world history class. I attempted to educate them about my culture, but they did not understand the significance of it. Eight days after my presentation, my peers asked me whether I lived in a shack made of mud and sticks, had to beg on the street to provide money for my family, had running water to drink and had to go to bed hungry. Their questions filled me with rage, but then I realized that it was not their fault that they had those misconceptions. My presentation was not enough to erase the countless misconceptions they had about my country and my continent as a whole. Their fatal misconceptions were shaped by the cultural incompetency of American culture. I could present to them a hundred times, but my attempts would be futile because my presentation was overshadowed by their fatal misconceptions. I finally saw that my culture was a speck of dust in their eyes that they will continuously wipe away.
As a poor, young, black woman in the polarized “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” as Gloria Watkins calls it, I have only two options. I can either be a subordinate to my white counterparts or assimilate into a society that is lethal to my developing mind.
In the words of Jean Genet in his memoir, “Prisoner of Love,” “In white America the Blacks…are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.” My grandmothers were not the ink that gave the white page a meaning in Ghana. Like my grandmothers, I refuse to be the ink that gives the white page a meaning. I refuse to lose my dignity, self-respect and identity to assimilate in a society that does not respect who I am and the culture that I embody.