Believing that obtaining a master’s degree would cause me to distance myself from my African American community, my mother cautioned me saying, “you carry yourself with you wherever you go.”
Accustomed to her euphemisms, and with no thought of creating such a distance, I chose to ignore this.
Now, after one bachelor's degree, two master's degrees, significant professional experience and more than 20 years of living abroad—I understand what she meant.
Although I have gazed across the Atlantic Ocean from the shores of Dakar and admired the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the essence of who I am was determined in a small, semi-rural, low-income African American community in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In this community, I developed ambition, creativity, a commitment to civic engagement, a strong work ethic, and an even stronger sense of self-worth.
I was the girl who used vaseline on her ashy legs, wore tight-fit shoes, and put new school clothes in layaway at Kmart.
I was the girl who witnessed how the hustle of her family could make “bricks from straw”—skills that rivaled a Ph.D.
I was the girl who would eventually travel to new places, learning the world of difference between potted meat and pâte, that fried baloney sandwiches could never be a health-conscious choice, and that in other worlds, Kool-aid was not the primary drink of choice.
And in that world, I recognized that being bilingual was about more than speaking two languages—it was about moving from one culture or class to another as seamlessly and as often as necessary.
One of my first teaching positions was at an elite private school in Washington, DC. The women there were all white, wore Talbot dresses, and shopped in places that I had never heard of. Only the cleaning and maintenance staff were of African descent or Hispanic. I often ate lunch with the cleaners because it was a point of comfort in this new and strange environment. But one day, as I approached the table to eat with them, they pointed me back over to the Talbot wearing group.
It was time to cross that great divide.
So I carried myself to the table where the white women sat, and it became the first of many such journeys, with the cleaning and maintenance staff silently cheering me on.
It was then I learned that the feeling of aloneness, while tangible, was not forever.
It seems the norm with the people I know that not every child in their family has the support, skills or opportunity to climb the social ladder. Perhaps 2 out of 7 went to college and for the others “life happened.”
When I return home, I see siblings, friends, and communities who face daily financial and social challenges.
This one just had her electricity cut off. That one is being evicted. This one just had their fifth child.
I look in their faces and see what could have been me.
In the city of Dakar, I opened up a business of my own called Chez Alpha Books. It became the perfect opportunity for me to combine my passion for literature and culture in a community that meant so much to me.
It was meant to be that a young woman of color who lived for literature, read at night with a flashlight, and walked to school with a book in hand, would one day own a bookstore of her own.
My shop focused on writers from the African Diaspora and other world literature. The novels we carried had diverse images of people of color and offered honest depictions, to give youth positive portrayals of people like them. And a lending library was added for those who could not afford to buy.
Accessibility was and continues to be at the center of our work.
Years after the shop’s secured establishment, I relocated to Abu Dhabi, where I began work in the field of education, supporting first-generation, marginalized students.
I could see myself in them—the unsure student, struggling to navigate their way through university.
And through a combination of those years of experience, I was inspired to create art, where I reflected on those moments in my life.
Now, in just a few days, when the DAK’ Art Biennale exhibition opens in May, I will have five works of my own on display.
I carried the girl from that semi-rural town with me into a life where dreams, budgeting, making art, and planning for the future were possible.
I return from Abu Dhabi to that same semi-rural, low-income African American community every summer.
I stop by a gas station and buy those scratch-off lottery tickets my sister is waiting for. I enter the kitchen of my parent’s home and mumble under my breath about why they are saving old bacon grease in a can. Then I savor my first cold Sprite since last year.
Dragging out a porch chair, I embrace the calm, the overgrown fields and the cloudy skies. Inhaling and exhaling.
No caution is needed as I prepare to move between modes of communication.
I carried the girl my mother raised from across the ocean to home, and it feels right.