“Othering” and the Ebola Crisis

Last year, my mother, sister, and I came to a decision: Summer 2014 was the year that we would finally board a flight that would eventually land us in Monrovia, Liberia. It would have been my and my sister’s first trip to any African nation. It would have been the long-awaited return of my mom to her country of birth, the city where she was raised until the age of 19.

My grandfather–a Nigerian who had long since been a naturalized citizen of Liberia, that nation which was once a colony of the United States until 1847–wanted his daughter to come to America to further her education. My mom left for California from Robertsfield airport in 1976. What she wouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known then, was that would be the last time her feet would touch the earth of the sweltering, tropical country. Not many years after her departure, Samuel Doe led an overthrow of the government, assassinating the president and executing members of his cabinet.

The many years of instability in my mother’s patria–in addition to the 1980 coup that led to Doe “winning” the presidential election five years later, there were back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003–made it so that she never got the opportunity to return. My father, on the other hand, did make several returns, most recently three years ago.

We talked about traveling for a number of years, hindered in large part by the high cost of airline tickets. By 2013 it was decided–we would visit in June or July of 2014. By then my younger sister would be a high school graduate and it would be a great vacation before she started her freshman year of college. She and I would get to meet for the first time our maternal grandmother, a woman who refused to travel to the United States even when the opportunity presented itself. Years prior two of her sisters left Liberia to stay with family in New Jersey and both women had passed away from cancer within years of each other. According to my grandmother, this land was simply not the place for her. For my mother, this trip would have been a long-awaited reunion with her own mother. Sadly, the reunion is on hold.

By Spring of this year, an Ebola outbreak in several West African nations raged with no end in sight. As each month passed, the numbers of afflicted and dead grew, and for those with immediate ties to the region, concern ballooned on par. What was lacking, however, was interest by those in the U.S. Patrick Sawyer, a naturalized American from Liberia, contracted the virus in Liberia in July only to die two weeks later in Lagos, Nigeria. Here we had the first American death from Ebola, and it passed without much word from news outlets, certainly not on the level of talk circulating when Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the virus not more than a week after Patrick Sawyer’s death.

Since Dr. Brantly’s arrival along with missionary Nancy Writebol’s to medical facilities in the U.S. (and their subsequent recoveries), all eyes have finally turned to the outbreak. And only a month after their recoveries, we saw two more contractions of the virus, one of which was initially misdiagnosed and then finally correctly diagnosed in Dallas, Texas. The problems, however, with us now looking to what this virus means are manifold. Because Ebola has touched down, so to speak, in the United States hysteria and fear have reached apocalyptic levels. One man has died in U.S. from the virus, and two nurses who were part of the team caring for him are now battling it. Three people have or had Ebola on U.S. soil, and it has now given a number of folks carte blanche to flex their xenophobia muscles.

Though I first and foremost describe myself as a Black woman, I am technically “African American.” More specifically, I am Liberian-Nigerian-Sierra Leonean-American. Yes, three of the four countries that have been dealing with this outbreak (though Nigeria is on course to say that it has officially wiped out Ebola from its nation) are three of the countries where my family comes from. Since Thomas Eric Duncan’s initial diagnosis, the hysteria has reached a fevered pitch. Jokes about zombie apocalypses, discussions about instituting travel bans, talk about “bushmeat” (though we’re perfectly content with calling deer, rabbit, snake, and alligator, animals consumed in various regions of this country, “wild game”) prevail in social media and in person. People who I usually consider reasonable and intelligent resort to using pronouns when talking about Africans. Or they lump Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria into a catch-all nomenclature: Ebola countries. We were all good, everything was copacetic, until someone from one of those “Ebola countries” came here.

The two incidents of recent travelers from Nigeria going to local hospitals–Howard University Hospital and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital–turned out to be malaria cases. Yet before that was disclosed, my Facebook news feed was a mess of statuses about the zombie apocalypse in D.C. and how “Oh my goodness! Ebola might be in D.C.!!!” Twenty-four hours later when the Washington Post published on their site the update that the patients exhibiting Ebola-like symptoms actually had malaria, my news feed was (oddly?) devoid of follow up. Navarro College in Texas rejected two applicants because they are from Nigeria. The students don’t have Ebola, but the country from where they come had cases of Ebola.

How do we justify this kind of behavior? This complete lack of sympathy? Instead people will say with a straight face, “Well, I just don’t want it here.” What is the implication of such a statement? Do you think Guineans want it? Sierra Leoneans? Nigerians? Liberians?

The resulting stigmatization has inspired a number of Liberians to declare “I am a Liberian, not a virus.”

The video states, “We didn’t bring this disease upon ourselves. Stop the stigmatization!”


The New World Way

There’s a thought-provoking piece in the June 30th online edition of The New York Times about African writers, their international bent, and their sudden (or what seems like sudden) literary fêting:
New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent
. To be certain, African writers have been celebrated in the past. Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka received awards and international attention over the works, rooted heavily in the lives of Africans in Africa, they produced. Contemporary writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Dinaw Mengestu draw on their experiences as Africans in so-called western lands (Oyeyemi in England and Mengestu in the United States) and produce works about characters who are similar to them, who are making their way in the new world.

As a writer I’ve done the same in fiction–create West African characters who live in the U.S.–because it makes sense to me. It has also made sense to create strictly black American characters in other stories because I straddle both worlds. In the home that I was raised, my mother never hesitated to tell me “I’m an African mother. This is how it’s going to be.” However, when I was in school I tried to be as American as possible, which for the time period in which I came of age (late 80s/early to mid-90s) meant being entertained by episodes of A Different World, 90210, or Martin, or listening to artists like Salt n Pepa, Tupac, or 112.

Yet even with those outside influences, my home remained one where I heard conversations about the civil war in Liberia or interacted with the Nigerian side of the family (my mother’s cousins and uncles) or attended African weddings and listened to African music. The effect of all this was to produce the woman I am today who writes black American characters or West African characters.

What the NYT piece makes me contemplate is this new trend toward the “African in the West” trope and what would it mean for me as a writer of African characters if my name were readily recognizable as African as opposed to the very Anglo that it is (my middle name is solidly Igbo, however). There’s a story in there about how three-quarters of my family have Anglo last names despite the quite obvious locations of their births: My paternal grandfather; my paternal grandmother with her Anglo maiden name as well as Anglo re-married name; and my maternal grandmother whose maiden name is as Anglo as one can get. The story in few words is that there must be some connection to those who were sent back to Liberia and Sierra Leone at some point during or toward the end of slavery in the new world; that they docked in Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing the names of their previous owners.

If editors at literary journals are more convinced of a story about Africans by a writer with a traditional ethnic African name, I wonder where that places me? The complexities of a child of immigrants in the new world is something I’ve lived. It’s also something that I’ve attempted to pull from when writing a particular short story. However, if it’s submitted by someone with a Jane Smith-like name, does that affect “sellability,” as in could a reader buy the culture represented as it is, of the narrative? Would it read as not authentic? Are assumptions being made that I’m trying on another culture by virtue of having the name that I have? Would the story be more convincing if it were written by a Grace Obinna or Amaka Agu rather than Jane Smith? I struggle with these questions. I don’t have the answers.

You Know How Not to be Offended? Stop Gawking!

Hunger is a natural part of the human existence, whether it’s a figurative hunger for something abstract like power and success or a literal hunger for food. When an infant is hungry and his mother decides to nourish him from her breast, a controversy should not ensue. However, it does, and it’s baffling to say the least. All manners of straw man arguments break out. The mother is derided for breastfeeding in public, and if she has a picture of her taken while feeding her child, she’s chided in a number of offensive ways.

During her college graduation ceremony, a 25 year old mother in Los Angeles breastfed her infant daughter. She had a photo taken of the moment then posted it to the Facebook group, Black Mothers Do Breastfeed, as a way of showing support for mothers like her: black women who have opted out of using formula and have chosen instead to nurse. A number of studies and surveys reveal that black mothers lag behind other mothers when it comes to breastfeeding, hence the creation of the Facebook group. The goal of it is simple: to encourage via sharing that many black women do, in fact, breastfeed. Karlesha Thurman, the graduating mother, is one of many.

Since the picture went viral, she’s received an outpouring of support. Those folks understand. Her child was fussy and hungry, and it was a long graduation ceremony. (I can vouch for the lengthiness of the ceremony. My cousin also graduated from CSU-Long Beach two years ago, and even though we arrived as the ceremony was underway, my family and I still sat for nearly two hours until the program was finally concluded.) There has also been kvetching about the picture.

But why did she have the baby with her? The baby should have been with family. Why couldn’t she sover up? She should have covered up. Would it be OK if I just whipped out my penis? To the first two questions, Karlesha has explained in interviews that her mother initially had the baby, but when the little girl became fussy in her grandmother’s arms, she collected her daughter and began to feed. A graduating friend asked to take the picture, and there you have it.

Though I am not a mother, I do know that, if I am able, I will breastfeed once I have children. I think it’s perfectly natural, and when you see a mother nursing her child, what is visible is really only some décolletage. During summer months, one can spot a number of women with revealing cleavage thanks to low-cut tops. Why is there so much emphasis on visible cleavage when the woman is breastfeeding? Is it that we’ve so classified breasts as objects solely for sexual gratification that there’s a feeling of cognitive dissonance when we see them being used as a source of nourishment for infants and toddlers as well? Perhaps therein lies the Catch-22: Public breastfeeding isn’t seen as “normal” and when a mother does take a picture doing just that (or actually breastfeeds sans photo), as a way of normalizing breastfeeding, some people have near-strokes because seeing a baby suckling from a breast is “weird.”

The first time I witnessed actual grousing about public breastfeeding was a couple months ago. It was in the checkout line at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom, and this woman (black like me) was positively scandalized. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. She was in front of me. I was minding mine. She was all, “Oh my God! I can’t believe she’s doing that!” Me: *Should I get that chocolate bar over there?* Woman: Does she really have to do that right there?” Me: *You have chocolate at home. You don’t need to get that chocolate bar.* Woman [speaking directly to me]: Can you believe what she’s doing? [motioning to a woman on the sidewalk breastfeeding her toddler] Me: Oh. Well… Woman: She shouldn’t be doing that. The child has teeth. That’s too old. Can you believe? Me: I mean, the kid’s hungry… [blank stare] Woman: That’s like child abuse.

Then I tuned her out, and she got the message. I’m not even a mother, and I was offended. No one compelled the woman to keep gawking at a mother feeding her child, yet the woman refused to look away. The more she looked, the more worked up she made herself, acting like it was an offense to her. And I kept thinking: You know how not to be offended? Stop fucking gawking! Damn.

Bring Back Our Girls

Over two weeks ago, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, and grandmothers and grandfathers had some of the teen girls in their lives stolen in the dead of night. In the chaotic northern region of Nigeria, an Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, attacked the all girls’ school. The men having been attacking the region for years now. They claimed responsibility for Christmas day blasts in Jos nearly two and a half years ago. They are the men who hustled these 16, 17, and 18 year old girls into vans on April 15, 2013, in the middle of the night.

The numbers of missing girls vary–the families are saying that 234 girls were kidnapped while the Nigerian government says that there are fewer girls missing. One missing girl is one too many. Reportedly a little over 40 girls have escaped, but the rest have yet to be recovered. And now for the past several days there have been rumblings that the girls may have been “married off” (i.e., raped) to the insurgents and/or taken across the border into Cameroon.

There are two petitions circulating the Internet: one via Change.org (Over 200 girls are missing in Nigeria – Please RESCUE THEM! #BringBackOurGirls) and another through whitehouse.gov (work with the UN and the Nigerian government to bring home the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram). Please find the time to sign both of these petitions. There is also a planned rally outside of the Embassy of Nigeria in DC on Tuesday, May 6.

bring back our girls


Toward the Sun

The first beautiful and warm weekend of the season made its presence known. I met it with arms wide opened. Saturday, on the way to hang out with friends in the park, I made a detour to District Flea where I scored an awesome pair of hammered gold earrings. Should I make it up to NYC, I’ll make certain to visit the woman from whose shop I purchased the earrings.

hammered gold earrings

She had some really great pieces, but I had to be conservative with spending money and thus only purchased the earrings. I slipped them in my bag and went on my way to dance it up in the park.

We congregated in the city to enjoy the sun and dance and have been doing this since last summer. This past Saturday was no exception. While waiting for folks, I sat on the fountain’s edge and worked on my tan. I also continued my read of Julian Barnes’s book of essays, Something to Declare (it feeds a bit of my own Francophilia), as I waited. Once the dancing got underway, I stayed for several hours, laughing and chatting between dances that I sat out. My hair collected the falling seeds or whatever it was from the nearby trees, making it more concrete that I had taken advantage of the gorgeous weather.

The following day I spent two hours at the gym for the classes I like the most–barre and Zumba. Afterward, I tried a run on the National Mall. I’ve done it previous weekends, but I’m not certain how I could have forgotten about the Cherry Blossom Festival. The gravelly stretch of the Mall was quite fine, but then I had the bright idea to run near the Jefferson Memorial. That was a debacle as no running actually occurred. The throng of people descending on the memorial made it so that I slowed down to a walk, a walk so frustrating that I turned back around and headed back to my gym. There was simply no room to pass, and I had the thought that I’d attempt a run next weekend.

The weekend continued with me meeting up with my good girlfriends for dinner. We sat near the open door of the restaurant, which can be fun when you’re a people watcher like I am. Between participating in conversation with the girls, my attention was called to passersby on the sidewalk only three yards away. The weekend of activity came to a close with a cool breeze, a glass of wine, and more laughter.

In a ’90s State of Mind

I’ve been working on a story, the bulk of which takes place in the early ’90s while reveries call back the early and mid-80s. The research for this story has been fun, though I always love conducting research regardless. The things I remember about this particular time period have been helped along by Google searches, but imagine my surprise this afternoon when I discovered Melrose Place, original version, on Netflix. (A Wiki search tells me that it has been available since 2011, in which case, where the hell have I been?!) Because of today’s snow day, I decided, after getting in some writing and hair washing, that I’d look for something to watch. While the documentary that I chose about modeling in L.A. was a bust–it simply did not capture my attention–it did make me feel a certain nostalgia for Melrose Place and its very early ’90s aesthetic.

The show debuted the summer before my eighth grade year, and it was all my friends and I could talk about. We were big fans of 90210 and were into its spin-off from the word “Go!” Today looking at the style from that era–more than 20 years ago!–and thinking about what I see around the city and across the blogosphere, the ’90s are back in a big way. I mean, I own a pair of high-waisted distressed shorts that I distressed myself last summer.

Take a look at these screenshots from the Melrose Place pilot and tell me that these characters wouldn’t fit in if they were transplanted to 2014.

The prints! The high waists! The overalls! It’s the ’90s all over again in this here new millenium (and new decade). I’ll leave you all with the season one opening credits, too. That sound? Is totally and quintessentially early 90s.


Looking for some diversion, watch these two videos.

The first video is a “First Kiss” project where an amateur filmmaker, Tatia Pilieva, asks twenty strangers to kiss each other for the first time…in front of cameras! Strangers kissing is old hat–when someone has liquid courage things can and do happen. For this video, however, I think the askward moment comes because they’re asked to do it specifically for the camera. I have a feeling, though, that more than one pairing went off, grabbed a drink, and got to know each other better.


The next video is by Funny or Die. President Obama sits for a sketch interview with Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns.” The president gets in some zingers as well as some information about the ACA. Two for one!: Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama