As an African American who grew up in majority white spaces, and had also never set foot on the African continent, I had no knowledge of how I would be received or perceived once I started my service in Burkina Faso. So I search volunteer blogs and I read returned volunteers books, desperately trying to find out what to expect as a Black American in Africa. My Black family told me, “We [Black folks] don’t do this type of thing, they’ll be few of you, if you’re not the only one.” And my whites friend “coyly” said things like, “I bet you’ll be able to connect with them well, you know…just because.” Neither of which did much to help calm my anxiety toward how this major aspect of my person-hood would affect my service, though I can tell you that my parents were right and my friends were wrong.
However, from start to finish there is no doubt in my mind that being an African American volunteer has afforded me a uniquely challenging and rewarding Peace Corps experience. Now that I’m less than 2 months from completing my service I’m ready to share some of those experiences by summing them up in the following florilegia.
1. “This is stupid but I feel like it’s good you’re going there because you belong there more than someone like me, so I haven’t applied.”
Clearly my Blackness has been playing a role since the beginning, and would always play a role. Even before I stepped foot in Burkina Faso I was dealing with people thinking that my “place” was on the African continent, and that I had more of a right to be here than any non-Black person. Clearly this comment stuck with me even though I heard it over 2 years ago, and it has often made me stop and reflect on how others perceive me and my service.
2. “I can’t wait to see what you’ll do, I just know they’ll listen to you more than us.”
White volunteers are in just as much danger of making racially fraught comments as white non-volunteers. It’s ridiculous to think that any Burkinabé would be more likely to listen to me just because of the color of my skin. At the end of the day my ideals, customs, and opinions are just as American/Western as any white volunteers. Meaning that the chances that someone is going to follow my lead, or that I am going to get better results, just because we are all Black is sooo far from guaranteed seeing as I don’t share any of their customs or culture.
3. “What is this white person saying?”
I may have taken a few French classes in college in preparation for my service but I would have hardly been considered as good a speaker as some of my fellow volunteers who had been studying French for years. However, seeing as I was frequently the only Black person in a field of white I was pegged as the group translator, and was often addressed first or referred to if a Burkinabé decided they didn’t understand what a white volunteer was saying.
4. “Why don’t you speak (insert local language here).”
If I wasn’t being used as the French “group translator” I was frequently addressed in one of the many local languages spoken in Burkina Faso. No matter what the local language I was expected to speak it (if I was in Mooré country surely I spoke Mooré, if I was in San country surely I spoke San, if I was in Djan country….). This was, of course, because I blended in to all the ethnic groups well enough that I people always thought I was one of them. Sometimes I’ve had to deal with people thinking I’m “refusing” to speak a local language because I think I’m “too good” for it, and only want to speak French- this usually requires some work to smooth over. However, blending in can also have its benefits as I was often given the “vrai prix” for items I was trying to pay for, unlike white volunteers.
5. “Okay, then where are you from in Africa? Senegal? Kenya? Ghana?” etc.
One of the many things that tipped people off that I wasn’t Burkinabe was my French accent. If my lilt didn’t match, then neither did I. Which inevitably lead to people asking me which African country I was from. To this date I have been if I’m from 6 different African countries, or if I’m from France.
6. “You can’t be American, you’re Black.”
Comments like this came from so many people. Be it the boutique owner in town, a fellow teacher, or a random stranger on public transport. Despite the popularity of public figures like President Barack Obama and 50 Cent, and despite the fact that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is covered in history classes, people don’t seem to put it together that it’s possible to be both Black and American at the same time. I have found myself in may discussions (and sometimes arguments) during my service where I’ve had to repeat numerous times that, “Yes, really, I’m an American,” and “No, seriously I’m not from Africa.” It can be frustrating to try to explain your nationality to everyone you meet, and occasionally having people say things like, “You may act like an American, but your skin says otherwise.”
7. “So are you mixed?”
Once I finally managed to maybe get across that I am indeed an American, people would automatically think that one of my parents had to be white (because obviously you can’t have two Black parents and be American at the same time- duh). Thankfully, I always carried around wallet sized family pictures- handy for whipping out and showing off my lovely Black mother, father, and brothers.
8. “Why don’t you know your ancestry?”
Once again, despite the fact that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is taught in schools (see # 7) I often had to very thoroughly explain to people why I don’t know what country in Africa my ancestors came from, and how it’s very difficult to trace back through the
generations of my family when our names were forcibly changed, our culture and language were stripped from us, and we were violently separated from our ethic groups once brought into the slave trade.
9. “You’re a Black woman and you behave like this?”
I was born with the big two. I’m Black and I’m a woman. More succinctly, I’m a Black woman, and this can cause some problems when there is a set cultural way that Black women are supposed to behave in Burkina Faso. While Peace Corps often talks about the “third gender” theory (the idea that white female volunteers are often treated as if they were Burkinabe men because they are white, despite being female in a strongly patriarchal society) this does not often apply to Black women who are serving. Unless you have already been identified as a foreigner you cannot expect to receive as much respect from men, or be greeted by men, or even acknowledged by men, and you certainly cannot behave like a typical “tubabu” (foreigner/ white person). Sometimes even if you have been identified as a foreigner you still won’t be respected by men, and are expected to behave appropriately, and treat men with the same amount of culturally appropriate reverence as Burkinabe women do.
10. “So is there still racism in America?”
My immediate response to this questions is simple, “Uh, yes.” However, I then have to take a couple minutes to explain systemic racism, recent incidents of violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sometimes I get the occasional, “Oh yea, I saw in the news once that a police officer killed a Black man,” and all I can think is, “I wonder which person that was.”
11. “I don’t know how you put up with all that stuff people say.”
If I’ve learned anything in my two years as a Black volunteer it’s that your race isn’t going to go unnoticed just because you’re going to blend into your community. Though Black volunteers don’t have to deal with the same racial issues as non-black volunteers (being harassed in the street, being stared at, having children burst into tears when they look at you, etc.) that doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole host of our own things to deal with. Sometimes we essentially have to be walking talking advertisements for diversity in America, or have to settle with the idea that some people will never be convinced of our simultaneous Blackness and American-ness. It can be tiring, and all around frustrating, but serving while Black can also be uniquely rewarding as it affords us an opportunity to talk and share about things that are uniquely American, uniquely African American, and also a little bit of both.
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