No Irish Dance Classes for this African Girl

Ruth Ngwana
Faculty Instructor: Sophie Bell

“You’re more of a chocolate and I’m a mocha,” Lunar proclaimed innocently in the car on the way back from school.

“No fool, you’re both black! Don’t you dare fall victim to these boer ways. Their system is working, this is EXACTLY how they want it, for us to separate ourselves from one another instead of uniting. You’re black fool and don’t you ever forget it,” was my mother’s response to Lunar who was now on the verge of tears. How could you blame the child? She was only a six year old.  She grew up in a country that suffered from the apartheid movement, unfortunately some of the “white man’s ideas” were going to rub off on her. Well, my mother (a Kenyan) and father (a proud Cameroonian) would do whatever was in their power to let me know that I was a beautiful, intelligent, God-fearing African girl. It took me awhile to realize why they ingrained this message into my soul, but I finally figured it out–they wanted me to realize that nothing was impossible and I could obtain everything and anything. Because nothing is more frightening to society than a black woman who is comfortable and knows who she is.

Coming from a family with a range of different skin tones, I’ve always known that black is black. I have an aunt the color of a hamburger bun with freckles and an uncle as dark as a car tire, but even as a young child I knew that they were both black. The only time I was truly confused was when I met an Albino for the first time, but my mother let me know that she was black. It amazes me that there are so many shades of black. Black is beautiful. It makes me sad that not everyone in my family is aware of this though…

I remember one summer my sister and I were visiting my cousins in South Carolina. We were looking at family pictures and the oldest daughter mumbled while looking at a picture of her sister, “I wish I was whiter.” The room was silent after she said this. I felt  rage and frustration rising in my body. I was ten years old and experiencing my first heartbreak!

How could she not want to be anything but black? Does she not see her own beauty? I have to tell aunty this as soon as she gets back from work!!!! I was outraged and I needed her to be punished and disciplined! If I were to say something like that to my parents they would have whooped my backside! Sure enough, my cousin did get a long long talk from my aunt, and all her white barbie dolls were now replaced with black ones. (My parents always bought my sister and I black dolls, so I was a bit thrown off by this.)Unfortunately, the incident with my cousin was not my last encounter with self-hate within my own family.

A few summers ago, I spent the summer at another one of my aunts home (every summer my parents send us to one of their houses to spend time with our cousins since we can’t do this during the school year). It was a sweltering hot summers day. One of those days when it’s uncomfortable to feel the sweat of your own skin dripping down your clothes. One of my younger cousins begged and whined to the adults that she wanted to go to the swimming pool. Of course, none of us objected to this. In fact, we were all wondering why we didn’t come to this conclusion hours ago. I was really excited about this because it was one of the only times that my uncle and aunt ever let us go to the pool by ourselves without adult supervision! Well, all this excitement came to a fast crash when I overheard my aunt sternly tell my cousin to “make sure that your sisters stay out of the sun, I don’t need them coming back burnt or darker!” Again, I was in complete shock and rage. I knew that I couldn’t do anything like I did the previous summer in terms of “telling” and reporting my aunt to anyone. She was the authority; she was an adult. And I think that’s what made hearing this even more painful and confusing to understand.

What would be the big deal if she came back darker?! Compared to my cousins and sister I was the darkest person in the room. If I wasn’t so stubborn, I probably would have taken offense at what my aunt said, but I had a better idea. Instead of wasting time trying to understand my aunt’s complex about her children returning back from the pool darker, I would lay out in the sun and fry until I came back a crispy charcoal color! Looking back, I can say that this approach was not ideal due to the number of health problems that I may have welcomed into my life, such as skin cancer or heat stroke. But I was livid and I did not care what the outcome of this demonstration would be.

While my other cousins were splashing about in the soothing and cool waters of the pool, I laid out in my fuschia bathing suit accepting the suns harsh ruthless beatings on my skin. My youngest cousin came up to me reeking of chlorine and asked me, “why did you even bother coming to the pool if you were going to do what you could have done at home!?” As soon as she said this I knew it was time for us to walk back home. I was extremely giddy to present myself to my aunt.  I knew she would be in shock and completely confused, especially because of how visible it was that I had turned ten shades darker in the course of three hours!

As soon as I stepped into the house, my aunt came up to me feeling my head to see if I was all right.

“Oh Ruth, what happened to you? You look like a burnt fried plantain!” said my aunt in complete confusion.

“Well Aunty, I happen to like being black and it doesn’t matter what shade I am. I love it! I also like burnt fried plantains, people think they’re awful, but I read somewhere that they’re good for you,” I responded in a polite and calm manner. I knew I had to be very careful with my words. She was my aunt and I was living in her house for another two weeks; I did not want to say anything that would offend her.

She stared at me for a good 30 seconds before responding in pidgen, broken english spoken amongst west Africans, “my frend if you no go commot this area, I will crack that your coconut head!” This sounds more violent than it actually is. Directly translated she is saying, “Ruth, go upstairs quickly before I scold you for doing something so foolish.” However, this is not what she meant by this. My aunt may not have directly said that she agreed with the way I approached this situation nor the way that I addressed her about it, but she understood what I did and why I did it. It wasn’t her response that led me to believe this, it was the way her face dropped when she saw me and realized how foolish she was to question the beauty or “goodness” of her child based on her skin tone.

My transition to moving from a country where the majority of the people are black to a country that has people of all shades of the rainbow was a smooth one. Although it was smooth, I wasn’t prepared for some of the lessons I was going to learn. I realized upon coming to this country that there is a great focus on Eurocentric culture, studies, and history. This was new. Even as an eight year old, I knew that there was more to the world than Europe, they are six other continents, how come everything seemed to centralize around this one? I saw this in the type of food that was served at lunch, the games we played in recess, and even through the after school activities that we’re offered to the students at my school.

In the third grade almost every girl in my class took Irish dancing classes. They would all bond over this, discuss it at lunch time, rehearse at recess, and then go for their lessons after school. I wanted to be a part of this; it sounded fun and like something I could do. I remember bringing the form home to my mother and asking her if I could join. The words that came out of her mouth ring in my ear until this very day.

“Ruth, honestly before we can even go further with this discussion, which African black girl with cornrows do you know who Irish dances?!?” That was all I needed to hear. Clearly it was a no. I laughed hysterically after she said this.

Was I too fast to accept my mother’s negative response on whether I could take Irish Dance lessons or not? Perhaps so. I never questioned it, but a number of people who’ve heard my story find it unsettling that I just accepted my mother’s no. They suggest I should have challenged it. But here is the thing I have realized over the years: I was never that passionate about Irish dancing. If I were I would have made a huge deal about it as I did about my relatives’ moments of self-hate. I choose which battles are worth fighting.

Being black is who I am. There is nothing I would do to change this. I know there are many people who wish the world was color blind. I’m definitely not one of them. The world doesn’t need to be color blind, it needs to be less ignorant. Once people learn to appreciate and love who they are and every aspect of themselves, including the color of their skin, they will no longer feel threatened, disgusted, or confused by another person.