April 10, 2019

DZODZOMENYO | A Ghanaian American Girl Story

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In elementary school, there was one other black girl in my year, and she had the Addy Walker American Girl: a fugitive slave doll who’d escaped with her mother from a plantation in North Carolina to Philadelphia during the Civil War. My mother wouldn’t buy us the Addy doll, telling us that we wouldn’t hold a slave doll and betoken a painful heritage that wasn’t ours — a strict edict heavily loaded with implications about identity. Still wanting me to be happy and fit in, she did what any mother would: she bought me an Elizabeth Cole doll.

Growing up, my parents made sure my sisters and I knew to never allow anyone to classify us as African American, a term that typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people. Not because there’s anything inferior about any other diasporan identity, but simply because I’m not. I’m black. My parents are West-African immigrants and I identify as a Ghanaian American. In the U.S., African immigrants aren’t culturally identifiable by much except that we tend to aspire toward becoming pharmacists, researchers, doctors or lawyers and live in predominantly white, upper middle-class neighborhoods. We comprise 0.5 percent of the U.S. population.

I didn’t fit in with the few other black kids and certainly didn’t fit in with the white kids. To my parents and their friends, I was too American; to my friends, I wasn’t American enough. To the white kids, I was too black; to the black kids, I wasn’t black enough. By high school, I realized that whether or not the people I felt uncomfortable around were black or white, there was some degree of American-ness both of them possessed that I’d never be fluent in. Even though the only black American Girl doll was a slave, at least she reflected a member of American society.

When I got to college, I didn’t even consider joining a panhellenic (read: traditionally white) sorority at first. They were a reminder of the petty cliques from high school. One of my close new friends Amber was Caribbean and African-American and showed me the significance of traditionally black Greek letter organizations. The men and women who join remain life-long members and shining exemplars of black excellence. However, there was a distinction — these orgs aren’t just black. They are culturally African-American.

I can still taste the discomfort of that first dinner with Amber’s housemates, tensing with every burst of laughter over shared cultural references, silently cursing my own tongue for its inability to glide through their lyrical, buttery vernacular with ease. Traditionally black greek orgs seemed like another Addy doll I couldn’t force myself to carry just to feel like I belonged somewhere, but I also know I chose to make my life harder by holding the blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth Cole doll and joining a panhellenic sorority. Knowing I’d struggle in either space, I hung back, like always, on the sidelines of a culturally white space, doing my own thing, not looking like anyone else, not understanding cultural references and assumptions, never being asked and not even knowing how to bring my own culture to the mix.

People at the intersection of multiple, seldom-crossed identities (my nationality, race, and socioeconomic status) often find ourselves accounting for only some of our identities in the spaces we inhabit. My status as a black person has made me more aware of the socioeconomic disparities experienced by many people in my race. But at least I’ve got a doll, right? At least my parents could afford it. There’s joy in the exclusivity of being able to hold the doll and bring it to recess to play with — I was  part of the American Girl Doll club, just like I’m a part of Greek life, even though it, like the dolls, doesn’t represent everyone, is elitist and really only for people with money and forces people to adopt roles that are too limiting. People like me — third culture kids — some of us still buy the doll. We join the club. We accept the part because even if the role we’re playing doesn’t represent us, at least we’ve got screen time.

My African-American friends are, understandably, both curious about my sorority’s perks and wary about the culture and members. I tell them about being one of five black women in an organization of 131. They ask about the weekly mixers — they heard so-and-so was turned away at the door of her srat’s mixer and told to “go back to her black friends.” I tell them I don’t really go, because Chad and Tim aren’t checking for me. They ask about living in a house with a chef. I tell them about living in a house amongst all white women. We laugh about my being asked in the bathroom if, and how often, I wash my hair. I tell them, “It’s difficult, in ways that I didn’t anticipate.” I don’t mince words, but it’s not the full picture either: It’s just as hard, I want to say, as it’d be in your sorority, but without the numbers to shield me: hyper-aware of the timbre of my voice, guilty that the slight difference in our ancestral trajectories afforded me privileges that drastically color our differing experiences.

I don’t regret my decision to join my sorority. It’s easily the warmest and most loving space for me on campus and has introduced me to many close friends. But I also envy my black friends in DST or AKA for their strong sisterhood based on their shared identity as black women. Whether it’s in my sorority or with my African-American friends for our shared history and heritage, I’ve learned to seamlessly slip in and out of unfamiliar, vastly opposite spaces, fitting in just enough to get by, but never belonging. I don’t know if I’ll ever fit into one of these spaces, or whether my own demographic will ever gain recognition.

While not even my parents can understand my struggle  — there’s a whole country of people somewhere that are just like them — I’m grateful that they taught me to not to allow any person to define for me what my experience would be, despite navigating this neo-colonial, patriarchal world as a black, African woman. I don’t worry about whether or not any of my friends will think I’m not enough of one thing or too much of the other when it’s near-impossible as it is to cultivate and preserve self-love, excellence and the motivation to thrive in a Western society that disparages Africa and demonizes blackness. Instead, I force myself to worry about being as true and authentic to myself and my values as a Ghanaian, as an American, as the child of hard-working immigrant parents, as a woman, as a person, as myself.

Edem Dzodzomenyo is a junior in the College Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ejd93@cornell.edu. Ed’s Declassified appears every other Friday this semester.