Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Learning to Be Alone


Now that I've been stably in a relationship for nearly two years, I've gone back and read some of those pieces aimed specifically at single people that I couldn't palate the while I was single. Most of the time, I am usually dismayed that I was not able to arrive at the level of sheer self-contentment that the articles recommend. Happily partnered and not desirous of single status, though intellectually feeling that this time around, I could handle it, I wondered how much of my partnership was just for the sake of not being alone. I began to wonder if I would keep looking if I had arrived at a place where I was as content with solitude as these pieces recommend single people to be.

One of the pieces of advice that these articles often cite is that one needs to learn how to be alone, in general. Not just be single, but learn how to be content with one's own company.

And I thought about how bad I was at doing that even while still single. It wasn't that I was constantly yearning for a significant other to fill a space. But my space was constantly filled--with phone calls to my family and friends and visits from friends. The time that I actually spent alone was very meticulously filled with necessary studying while I was in school and writing projects or casual reading when I had free time. I usually exercised alone as well. But I didn't think I enjoyed this time alone--it was just a matter of course.

I enjoy hot showers after sweaty workouts, for example, but showering is something that one necessarily does alone the grand majority of times--I assume this is true even for married women.

But then, it happened. After a week of staycation and getting my life in my apartment organized for the first time since the first few months that I had moved in, I was organized enough to seek out samba class. I found one that I wanted to check out, finished my rotation duties and headed over to the class. I had a good dance and workout, walked home, cooled down and then jumped into the shower to wash the paint off of my feet (I danced barefoot on a raggedy, painted dance floor in a small cultural center in the International District) and in general enjoy the hot spray on my body.

Then, lotioned and deodorized, I sat on my futon and adjusted the temperature in my place by placing the window fan in the window, turning on the only lamp that survived the move from Boston in the corner, and settling down to write a little.

And I probably let one of those this-is-the-life sighs escape my lips before I realized...

Here I am, alone, in my own space, completely content with being alone right now, with the trajectory of the day, with how I plan to conclude my evening, with the fact that I can sit down and write.

It took me two years of a stable relationship to learn to be alone.

When my apartment was filled with papers that needed organizing, laundry to be sorted and washed and put away, dishes caked in grease that didn't come off with one round of dishwashing (but always with a clean bathroom!), I did not enjoy my time here. I spent most of the time in my bed, the only relatively clear spot in my place, with the blinds drawn because...if I have a night shift, I sometimes sleep during the day, so the goal of the bedroom is darkness. I spent most of my days at my SO's place, because he has a house, actually, and is a minimalist so has very little clutter. My house became a cluttered sleeping den with a refrigerator I was afraid to open.

Now, with all of my educational papers organized into binders and files, all of the junk mail that I had let accumulate over two years shreaded and recycled, the kitchen clean and ready for the next meal, my dining room apetizing, my reading corner restored with my papasan chair open and inviting...I have no need to be anywhere else. My space is less than 600 square feet, but I now can do almost everything I want in here. I can practice my samba moves in the living room with my small stereo system with sub woofer. I can experiment with different recipes and eat them at my dining room table or my now pristine bar area at the sink. I can curl up with a good book or medical journal and read in my reading corner. I can take a nap on my futon.

Or, like now, I can sit with my legs crossed and my laptop on my lap and write whatever comes to mind.

And my room, small and functional, can be reserved for what I always meant it to be for: sleep! Fresh sheets, organized closet and dresser drawers, dusted nightstand with my Qur'an, alarm clock and personal effects there at the side. It's back to being my bedroom again, and not a glorified dorm room of yore.

In med school more than in college, my dorm room bed was a place to eat, study, watch television, read and sleep. And repeat. And sometimes cry.

And there are so many other things that I occasionally do when I'm here, like long hair-care days. I recently spent 9 hours twisting my hair, and could spend a similar amount of time doing my next henna rinse and deep conditioning routine. And of course, there's the singing and the documentary-watching.

And this is just inside of my apartment! There's a whole world of things outside of the apartment that I enjoy doing solo - my samba classes, my workouts, shopping, eating what I want without being policed.

Not that I don't love doing things with my SO. Not at all. But there are definitely things that I did when my time was all my own that I miss now because I'm trying to balance a busy work schedule with future family time, so to speak.

That's when I wondered whether these self-help blurbs for singles are written by people who are happily partnered. Because it sounds a lot like my happily married mother's advice when I was a young, yearning girl. "One day, you'll look back at this time and be repentant," is the only thing missing from the learn to be alone injunction. 

Because that's what I wish I could tell my single self now and what I'll know in the future. This time that you're spending doing whatever the hell you want is priceless. Don't sell it short for the sake of a relationship. Enjoy it. Soak in it. You may not have it again.

Especially since I have baby fever at all times, I don't feel like I'm going to get to enjoy too much of my future married life non-pregnant or mothering, insha'Allah.

So if I don't take advantage of the last of my alone time now, gone could be the days of my concurrent samba dancing, jazz club singing (!!), personal training, exercising, hair henna glossing, two strand twisting, journal writing, MPB singing all the while doctoring self.

Ahhh...I get it.

But I did not arrive at this place when I was perpetually single. I didn't know what it was like to divide my time. I had time to do all of those things but I also had time to be lonely, devastated and disillusioned. That space is now filled and is overflowing into my alone time.

So now, I know how to be alone. Yes. Great.

No, but actually, great! It just gives me hope that my success in a relationship was not dependent on my being completely happy single. In fact, part of the impetus that keeps any two of us together as disparate human beings is anything from a preference against to a fear of being alone. So that's okay.

But I didn't need to have the single thing perfect before leaving that stage of my life.

...and the fact still remains, if nothing much is going on, I'm going to end up calling my mother, preferentially, anyway.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Parents' Radical Marriage


On September 15, 1983, surrounded by my maternal grandparents and my Uncle Junior, my parents were married at city hall in Flint. My mother wore a modest, lavender dress, my grandmother's favorite color, and my father wore what I wager was one of the few suits he had at the time. My mother would later tell me that the reason why they married at city hall and that she wore a regular dress was because she knew her father was poor and she did not want to burden him with an expensive wedding, or any wedding at all, apparently.

However, it was also convenient, in the marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian man, that their ceremony was not at all religious. There was no broom jumping, there was no palm wine. My grandfather did not give his youngest daughter away and my Uncles Donald and Temple were not there to see their youngest brother take a wife. And that's the way my parents wanted it. They often cite my brother's autism for the reason they keep to themselves but I have a feeling they've always been low-key.

And characteristic of the rest of their marriage, my mother's family ignored her requests for little fanfare and threw them a surprise reception after they married. My parents, who sounded very much like hipsters of their time, were gracious and excepted the reception as my father accepted his new family.

My father would travel back to Nigeria the next month and return in April of 1984, just in time to conceive me. He would not travel back to Nigeria in my lifetime.

Pictures from this day are in the front of my favorite photo album in my parents' house. It was my favorite as a child because it was the one where I saw the realization of my birth. It began with pictures of my parents marriage, the reception, my parents in their first apartment and soon transitioned to my mother, several weeks pregnant, her baby shower, and then my newborn pictures. As a child, I loved looking at baby pictures of myself. I was a really cute baby. But I always looked at the album in chronological order, including the three or four pictures in city hall of my parents, exchanging vows, my father accidentally placing the ring on the incorrect finger and my mother laughing, and the kiss with my grandparents clasping their hands and smiling in the background.

Already, their marriage was not typical. It was not in a religious sanctuary, a term my mother would use to describe one of the reasons she and my father chose each other. They didn't need a religious sanctuary to practice their respective faiths, she maintained. She remains un-mosqued as she has been my entire life, praying five times a day alone in the house's prayer room. My father is several years returned to church after never having set foot during all the time I lived at home and through my college years.

It was not surrounded by family and closest friends. It was surrounded by just enough of my mother's family to serve as witnesses--and my Uncle Junior, who, as my senior uncle on my mother's side, has attended nearly every major event in my life, from my birth to my graduation from college.

It was not traditional. My father, who was not raised in Nigerian traditions and couldn't explain them to me if I asked, did not dress in traditional Nigerian clothes on his big day and would not dress that way in the United States for another 30 years. My mother did not wear white. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen. My mother had no engagement ring when she donned her wedding band. And that was it. Married.

But it was also radical. The Muslim daughter of Muslim parents married a Christian man, with the open approval of her parents, though she never asked for it. A Christian man who grew up sitting at his father's feet during sermons married a Muslim woman in spite of all of the things he believed about the Muslims of the north that were responsible for killing his people before the war. He also didn't seek the approval of his family.

When my mother tells it, she never balked at what my grandparents would think of her marrying a Christian man. She did not ask their permission to travel to Nigeria to visit my father in 1981. She told them, then she went. A woman previously sheltered by the strictest parents I've ever heard of in the name of the Nation of Islam traveled outside of the country for the first time to Nigeria, by herself. She has never asked them what they thought of the whole thing and it hasn't mattered.

My father doesn't tell stories about these things, but I imagine he didn't ask or tell very much. Not only did my mother not meet his family when she traveled to Nigeria (tell me more about that month long trip, Ma), but his family just found out that she is Muslim...two years ago? Over the phone? This tells me that my father did not consult his elder brothers, as my grandparents on that side had already passed.

That the children of two families who were essentially religious entities in their community could pull of an accepted interfaith marriage was pretty remarkable. That neither of these adults were hindered by what their family thought was fantastic. Their marriage exemplifies everything a love marriage can be for a Muslim woman, for an immigrant man.

And unlike various in each set of their co-religionists, they do not wonder if their marriage is valid. And they do not doubt that it is recognized by God.

Besides this very radical aspect of my parents' marriage, the interfaith without asking permission part, it is also otherwise unconventional. It was my mother who proposed to my father. And I believe it went a little something like this:

"Hey! Why don't we get married?"

And three years later, after spending most of that time with the Atlantic between them, they did just that. Prior to their marriage, their courtship face-to-face was 10 months total - 9 months in the United States, 1 month in Nigeria. They succeeded in having the longest long distance courtship I've personally known of.

They were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend they hadn't talked to in years. My mother was instantly taken at how my father was so friendly and outgoing that he talked to the DJ at the party as if he'd known him for years, yet he just met him. I don't know what my father was thinking, but I know that he's always adored my mother, and probably felt some semblance of that then.

They were set up but they had met before. My mother was a secretary at University of Michigan, Flint in the offices of Afro-American and Chicano Studies, where my father's cousin, head of the department, worked. My father would visit his cousin and bow his head toward my mother as he entered the office.

And somehow, this was totally unrelated to them being set up.

I don't know if my father dated previously, but I assume he did. I know my mother did. Her first foray into dating non-black men was another Nigerian who happened to be Chinua Achebe's cousin. The date ended, and Mr. Achebe seemed enthusiastic but I guess that was the last date.

(And to think, I may have been an Achebe...more than happy to be who I am!)

And of course, as goes without saying, their union was intercultural.

For all the ways my parents' marriage was radical, unconventional, special, it was also largely ordinary. It's an ordinary story of two people who loved each other and decided to spend the rest of their lives together. It's all about love, as Maurice White sings.

"Bound to fall in love one day. Surely, and you need it!"

They liked each other, then they loved each other, they married, they formed a family.

I don't know what it was about my dad, but he saw my mother transform from being a professional-minded woman who never aspired to have children to a mother who adored and nurtured us without interruption from the days we were born while still developing professionally. And I don't know what it is about my mother, but she anchored my father to a land in which he never intended to stay.

And the rest is history.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Black vs. African: "Race Consciousness"


Black vs. African. There is no versus in me because I am both. I am black American and I am Nigerian American. I am all American, all black, and half Nigerian.

So when I am reminded of the tension between black people and first generation African immigrants, or the imagined tension between the two groups, it feels especially arbitrary to me. But I must respect that it is very real for those so impassioned and involved in our difference from our recent immigrant cousins, so to speak.

I say that the tension is imagined because I do not see the tension play out in real time. As a teenaged Nigerian-black-American girl, a few of my (black) friends felt it appropriate to get the scoop on why Africans thought they were better than black people. I can't remember exactly how I answered, but I should have said, "Well, I don't know. You should ask an African."

And how many times, in west African families (the only group I can poorly speak to), are all the hushed assumptions about black American people spoken out loud, those that lead mothers and sisters to decry their sons and brothers ending up with black American women, for example? And how many times have these women actually met the very people they have decried and confronted them about these perceived inadequacies?

Real tensions are lived out in heated discussions and shouting matches, African immigrant on one side accusing black American of being, whatever, lazy, violent, thuggish, and black American saying, ah-hah! I knew you felt this way about me! Now let me tell you why you're ignorant to the legacy of institutionalized racism...

I am not yet aware of this happening, but I'm hopeful a civil version of this gets played out in campuses across the country.

Because that's the only way imaged tensions turned real tensions can devolve.

And as I felt my friend back in high school unfairly placed me in the center of this unfortunate contention, I also refuse to place myself in the middle of it. I by far do not have the authority to lie bare the root of the tensions between African immigrants and black Americans. I don't think any one does, not another mixed person, maybe a scholar on the subject, and definitely not me.

In my family, the only black vs. African tension that existed was any sexual tension that existed in my parents prior to the realization of their relationship, but that is long gone 30 years into marriage.

And as the Nigerian daughter of a black American woman, maybe I wasn't privy to what our Nigerian family friends said behind closed doors about black people because they knew my mother was black. And maybe no one in my circles really meditated about the state of black Americans and that's why I didn't hear it.

So I cannot really confirm or deny the tension. But as a very black Nigerian American woman, I can say the following things with certainty:

--Africans are not better than black Americans by any measure, any more than any group of people is better than another.
--As black Americans, we must understand that the context in which race exists in our country does not exist in the same way outside of this country and in many places does not exist at all. Neither does our consciousness about it.
--As African immigrants and second generationers, we must make an effort to understand the history of institutionalized slavery and racism and the resultant Civil Rights Movement that is responsible for allowing us or our parents to immigrate into this country in the first place.
--All of us need to make an effort to know each other before dismissing each other on the basis of long-held reputation or rumor.

When I was little, my mother used to remark that Africans, particularly our Nigerian friends, could move into all-white neighborhoods and not blink. And often, their children would fare just fine as the only black children in the schools. Not so for this second generationer who's looking at the prospect of moving into the mainly-white suburb that my SO lives in. What changed with one generation? Race consciousness.

Being aware of my blackness, or what I think it means to be black in America, makes me fear that I'll encounter people who feel I don't belong in their suburb. It'll make me feel out of place. The majority of immigrants do not carry race and racial oppression on their bodies like many Americans do. My father would have felt comfortable in my SO's suburb and probably would have liked the weather better than the first place he lived when he came to this country, the upper peninsula of Michigan.

I didn't hear my father speaking the language of race consciousness until a friend of his, also Nigerian, experienced racism in the workplace. It was as if it became real for my father at that moment. Because the whole, "You're not like other black people," or, "I don't consider you really black" thing that a lot of us first- and second-generationers get isn't full-proof and it's far from universal.

We black people are not imaging things. Racism is real. It's a real force that is external and very much internal. It incorporates itself often in the nay-saying voice that all people have that we are variably able to silence. We have to fight off that negative self-talk that convinces us that our shortcomings are racially based and that we are inferior, somehow, because it's been said and implied so long.

Yes, internal. We internalize it because we consume it. It is spoon fed to us as children as soon as we learn we used to be slaves, that we used to be absolutely unequal, that we used to have separate everything, like we were dirty, like the brown of our skin was tainted and would rub off on others.
Nigerian children, for example, do not learn this about themselves.

Even when we are taught that it was wrong, of course, (though that was not necessarily implicit in the teachings I got about slavery, even in the North), it makes us fearful. Do racists still exist?

We internalize it when we, black kids in a poor school district, have test grades that are compared to the richer, whiter school districts. We internalize it when our test scores are lower than our white friends at the same class level. Was some of that true?

As a Nigerian American black girl, I was not immune to this internalization. My father had no context for it and always harkened back to his, "Do the other students have two heads?" to motivate me. I pushed through intense feelings of inadequacy.

My father's experience as one of the only black people in his science classes at the University of Michigan was, therefore, very different than my experience as one of the only black people in my science classes at the University of Michigan.

Internalized racism is the most damning form of racism there is. It makes us hyper aware of our racial difference and makes us move differently in space, to only our own detriment. It made my teenaged friend believe that Africans think they're better than us. And how did that make him feel? Alienated from a group of people who looked like him but where just another group in the list that thought they were better than him, and maybe actually were.

Whereas...I've never encountered an African immigrant who asked me if black people consider them stuck-up, ignorant and other.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if that neighbor in the all-white suburb glancing at us is racist and if they're wondering how a black woman could afford to live in this neighborhood, whereas someone else may not even notice the glance.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if the boss has been waiting for you to screw up because he was convinced that you didn't belong in the company as a black person and expected you to fail, whereas someone else may not have that tension.

Internalized racism puts us constantly in the defensive because so many people could potentially be against us at any time because of our culture and heritage and we have to be prepared, whereas that is not a reality for so many other people.

Internalized racism is confused to be race consciousness in so many of us.

Let me not run to the subway, because people get scared when they see a black man running toward them.

In summary, ruminations on what African immigrants think of us, black people, comes from a place of internalized racism, because as my father says, "Is that what you're going to eat?" No, it's not. If they do think they're better than us, screw them! Seriously.

Easier said than done, right? It hurts for someone who looks like you, who may share ancestry with you, to also be down on you like everyone else is. So first- and second-generationers, recognize that and respect it.

And African immigrants and second-gens, institutionalized racism was no joke! We will at some point feel the effects of it while in this country. It will be very hard for you to protect your children from it. So recognize and befriend your black neighbor who has come up with ways to teach his child to respond to it, recognize it in themselves and repel it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

We Are Fantastic!

As salaam alaikum,

I was single until I was 27. Scratch that, I was woefully single until I was 27. I am 29 and still unmarried. In the age of more equality for women than in recent past, higher percentages women in colleges and universities than men and entering the era of embracing or rejecting leaning in, people have given me reasons why we're still single since before I should have been worried about it.

Those of us who are in this class, those of us who are or have been woefully single, know these "rationale" well. We know it so well and it's so tired that I'm not going to recant it here! Suffice it to say, it is largely untrue.

Whether it's a small pool of black men who will accept a woman who has more degrees or more earning potential, whether it's a small pool of Muslim men who will accept such a woman, whether it's a small pool of men, regardless of religion, who won't push sex...there are diverse factors at play as to why so many of us have been so woefully single.

But we should never think that it's because we are impossible. That it's impossible for us to be desired by a man, impossible for us to be loved, impossible or just too damn hard, because that is also not true.

We, my sisters, are fantastic!

Every long-single woman I know, whether she is woeful or not, is a fantastic, multifaceted woman who is not in any way impossible.

Granted, being in an actual relationship after being long-single is a steep learning curve. We are fantastic but we're far from perfect and after living comfortably in your own clutter, so to speak, someone else being present and moving through that clutter puts your shortcomings on blast!

After being long-single, being in a relationship with another person will present a steep learning curve, but it's not impossible. And it may be hard to break through the walls we've built for so many years to protect ourselves from loving too easily and getting too hurt. And things that may be self-evident for someone who has had more relationships than we have we have to experience for the first time. In some unanticipated ways, we are grown women like young girls in ways our partners do not expect.

And the rest is starting from zero and recognizing that letting someone, anyone into your life like this, this close, this intimate, is hard simply because that person is outside of your body and not you.

Not impossible.

And it's not our faces, the amount we cover or do not cover, our size, our shape. When it comes to the physical strictly, there is literally someone for everyone. When I was woefully single, I used to want someone who loved me but never did I imagine someone looking lovingly upon me when I couldn't look that lovingly on myself. Who would have though that I would still be gorgeous even when gaining weight and my face starts to take on that rounded oval shape?

We are fantastic! And there are tons of things that we don't have to have all figured out before entering these relationships. We don't have to love ourselves fully, we don't have to have lived out our every ambition, traveled to all of the places we wanted to go, be fully realized women. It would be nice, but we're not perfect, and we're still going to frown at our thighs in the mirror sometimes, and engage in negative self talk every now and again about the stupid mistake we made at work, stupid me. We won't have learned that third language, we won't have filled up our passport, because it's okay to still be a work in progress.

Because we won't change but the context of ourselves and aspirations change when we make space in our life for another. And it's okay to grow from that point, too.

We are not impossible, we are fantastic.

I know because at 27 I met someone with whom I could just be exactly the Muslim woman I am, exactly the physician that I am, exactly the black woman I am and everything in between that I haven't had the chance to be with anyone else. And I thought there was something wrong with me, intermittently, in the years before when I wasn't considered past my face, by body, my cover or lack of cover, and my potential in short-term sexual encounters. And loving me is easy to him. And loving him is easy.

And before I met him, I knew I was fantastic.

I just also thought I was impossible.

But none of us, sisters, are impossible.