Browse Category: The Political, Personalized

Lessons from my Mother: African Women and Feminism

Yesterday, countries around the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD), a day during which thousands of events — political rallies, business conferences, government activities, networking events, local women’s craft markets, theatric performances, fashion parades and more — are held to inspire women and celebrate achievements in gender equality.

This year’s theme, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” called for intentionally including young girls in the discussion and creatively brainstorming solutions for bridging the divide between generations. Hence, Gender Across Borders hosted a successful live blogging event, in which over 200 blogs explored a plethora of ideas such working with girls in conflict areasprotesting female genital cuttinginvesting in girls leadership,  and — the piece I wrote — women writing their way back into history. In an attempt to highlight African women’s contributions to IWD, I also created a “Africa on IWD” board on Pinterest. You can view the board here.

Looking at the colorful collection of images, videos, and blog posts of African women celebrating all across the continent invoked mixed feelings; on one hand, I was proud to see African women, both individuals and organizations, respond in droves to the call, but on the other hand, being so far away from home on IWD made me a tad homesick, causing me to reflect on how it is I came to be so involved in women’s issues.

I attended an international primary school, where International Women’s Day was a chance for all of us to celebrate women from different cultures via music, art, dance, and charity. Often, students would read inspiring facts about women from their home countries, followed by traditional dance and music performances, international food expos, and a myrid of opportunities for students and their families to learn and give back. Yet, global women’s activism wasn’t just tied to my school’s programming.

Growing up in Nigeria, the idea that improving the lives of women was a cause worth fighting for didn’t just come from organizations, or brochures, or formal programming; I had strong women around me who constantly put this into practice in the every day, including my own mother.

As a child of the Biafran war and the first daughter of her family, my mother faced the heavy burden of supporting her family through the loss of a number of relatives, including her own mother who died from sickness. To this day, she credits the support of women’s organizations for her survival. And thus, she committed herself to charity from a very early age. I remember my mother telling me about the one night she’d prayed the hardest to God; it was during a bomb raid. She’d close her eyes and clasp her hands together as she’d recount the promise she made to God that if she made it through the night, she’d dedicate the rest of her life helping people, much like the older women — human rights advocates, volunteers, missionaries — who had risked their lives during the war in order to deliver relief to the region in which she lived — food, clothing, sanitary pads. She’d trek over 10 miles back and forth every day just to deliver food and drinking water to her family, but she never really emphasized the distance; what remains with her is the memory of dedicated women that were waiting to receive her on the other side.

My mother’s life was spared and she kept her promise. Inspired by the circumstances she’d witnessed her own family go through after the loss of her own mother, she founded and led the first program in the country to advocate for the rights of women who had lost the heads of their households and had young children to care for (The Widows Trust Fund).  Later on, she became president of the International Women’s Society, an organization that works for the advancement of women and children in Nigeria. As a social entrepreneur, she founded Garden of Zinnia, an organization that creates holiday gift baskets — a popular tradition in Nigeria — by partnering with local vendors i.e. market women, local artists and craftspeople. Every year, hundreds of people — from the elderly basket-weavers to the young girls who sell the wrapping ribbons — rely on my mother’s unwavering commitment to supporting women who are working to support their families.

As a young girl, I remember accompanying my mother to meetings, fundraisers, award ceremonies and the like filled to the brim with inspiring African women. I witnessed my mother giving awards as well as receiving them. I didn’t understand the word “feminism” when I first heard it, but I watched my mother’s active mentorship of the young women she invited into our home and took under her wing. I didn’t understand the term “economic empowerment” when I first heard it, but I saw my mother apply this principle in her work as a business owner each year she refused to replace local products in her gift baskets with expensive imports from overseas. My family never sat around discussing women’s liberation at the dinner table; my mother never thought to write about her experience as an African woman navigating gender, war, and poverty; she simply lived the principles she believed in. It is because I watched my mother, that I strongly believe in applied advocacy for women’s issues in all its forms — gender equality, LGBT human rights, and women’s visibility in media — not just as a celebration on a single day, but as a way of life; not just as ideas to be talked about, but work to be done.

I appreciate the 2012 International Women’s Day theme — Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures — for the reminder that women’s contributions to the world don’t always have to come in press releases, or conferences, or non-profit programs to make a difference; that sometimes, the greatest impact is felt within the scope of the every day; that my mother is a woman worth celebrating; and that, I — the first daughter of my family, a proud afrofeminist, women’s and media activist, tirelessly fighting for gender equality — am the future she inspired.

Question to Readers: Did your relationship with your mother — or other parental figure — shape your activism? influence your politics? If so, how?

A Brief Herstory: Food Justice and Rebel Toddlers

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of women writing our way back into history.

In the post, I stressed that one needn’t have done something “big” like discovering the cure for cancer, or be as famous as Lady Gaga to share pieces of history about their lives. It is important that ALL kinds of women write, record, and document their lives as a way of writing our way back into history.

To prove that I’m sincere about sharing even the most mundane details — it wasn’t just rhetoric, I promise! — I’m taking my own advice and sharing an ordinary, random piece of information about myself. Here goes…

In honor of women’s history month, a snippet of my own history — a short anecdote from my father about my days as a toddler fighting for food justice:

“You were at age 9 months when your mum started to wean you from breast milk. You stood up in your crib screaming at everybody, demanding your food. You were very aggressive, your body language, your voice… even my mum remembers the episode and started begging us to give in to you!

For two days it was a test of will because you refused to eat the mixed baby food we were trying to introduce to you. Whenever the bottle was brought near you it was swatted away in disgust.

Just when we were about to give up so you didn’t starve to death, you accepted your first bottle. And when you tasted it you just squeezed your face in disgust to let us know you thought it was lousy. You did that for a while before you finally settled in. Such rebellious behavior at age 9 months!

There’s lots more… When you first started to try to walk you would threaten us that you would fall down by saying: “I (will) fall down!” You knew we would be upset if you fell, which happened once in a while on our unpadded carpeting, in our Ilupeju flat with a thud that would reverberate throughout the house! We would have to beg you by saying, “Noo, don’t fallll!” You would do this for a while and when we begged you enough times, you would then reconsider your threat and then smile sweetly. This was your way of getting attention.”

It seems I was quite the rebel — and strategic protester! So there you have it — long before I knew what the word “activism” meant – I was demonstrating against processed baby foods. How’s that for documenting women’s history?

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote of all time:

Well-behaved women rarely make history.” — Ulrich

Here’s to misbehaving — and writing! (eh, same thing) — all damn month.

This particular post was inspired by a food and environmental justice activist I admire — Kay Ulanday Barrett, founder and managing editor of Recipes for the People.

Inspired by Pariah: My Personal Story about Coming Out as a Nigerian “Boi”

Originally written for and published at

“Oh, what you think you’re a boy now?

My cargo shorts and graphic tees weren’t exactly what my mother had in mind when she envisioned showing off her daughter who’d “just returned from America with an MIT degree!” to her friends at church.

The prodigal daughter, I’d returned home to Nigeria for my high school bestie’s wedding. We hadn’t seen each other in five years; during that time I’d not only come out as queer, but founded an organization for immigrant and/or queer women of color (QWOC+ Boston), cut my hair into a frohawk, and started dressing as a boy. I’d pretty much gone from a lip-gloss-wearing straight girl to the gayest person ever, but nobody had witnessed the transition, not even my friend who was getting married. I hadn’t reached out to her for fear that I wouldn’t be able to lie about who I was, and that soon after she’d tell her mom, who would tell other moms, and eventually the rest of Lagos where my parents lived, forcing my mother to endure becoming the center of gossip and ostracizing her from the very social networks she needed to make ends meet. My mother relied heavily on referrals from her religious community about various contract jobs — event planning, hotel management etc; the last thing she needed was a taboo subject like “lesbianism” turning off potential clients.

Needless to say, I hesitated when my friend invited me to be part of her bridal train, but I couldn’t refuse an invitation to be part of my girl’s wedding, even if it meant wearing a bridesmaid dress. I tried to get out of it but she firmly insisted that the dress wasn’t up for negotiation. “Well, what then if you don’t wear a dress?” she’d asked laughing, “So, you’re going to wear a suit and stand with the boys?” It hurt my feelings, but I laughed along with her and rhetorted, “Obviously not. That would be ridiculous.” That was just the beginning.

I spent the entire two weeks of my first visit home since my queer transformation absorbing my mother’s daily jabs at my clothing (and eventually, anything I said): “So you’re earning all this money and can’t even afford some nice tops?”, “You really should dress your age”, “What, you think you’re a boy now?” Gender binaries. If there was ever a place for them to thrive unchecked, it would be Lagos, Nigeria, a place where being gay is not just viewed as a choice, but a crime, and — pending the new anti-LGBT bill being deliberated — holding hands with your best friend or choosing same-sex roommates could be made punishable for up to 14 years in prison. But while I was plenty aware of the political debate around my identity as a queer African, I couldn’t have cared less about the law; I was still trying to survive within the confines of my own home.

The night before the wedding, my mother was chaperoning me through the bridesmaid dress fitting. As the strapless lilac dress found its awkward place on my body, the delicate layer of my personal confidence dropped mercilessly to the floor. I felt naked and invisible at the same time. As the zipper went up, I felt increasingly suffocated. The silver, high-heeled shoes my mother had purchased for me earlier that afternoon didn’t help either. The entire ensemble felt like a ridiculous costume.

Long before that moment, it had been easy to “dress up like a girl.” I even had a nickname/alter ego for that person “dressed up like a girl” — “The Empress.” But now, being forced to wear drooping earrings and high-heeled stillettos felt less like “performative drag” and more like the real me didn’t matter.

When my father said I looked “pretty,” I immediately went on a dramatic tirade (more dramatic than usual) to assert that this wasn’t who I was. “You only compliment me when I’m wearing clothes I don’t want to wear,” I complained, “I don’t feel pretty. I feel stupid.”

He laughed then, dismissing my gender non-conformity as me being “a rebel.” He’d been a “rebel” too, he told me (although I can’t recall seeing any pictures of him in dresses). My mother, on the other hand, was on to me. She eyed the dress silently; it was a fitting disguise and I could tell she was relieved I was wearing it.

Throughout my stay in Nigeria, the micro-aggressions continued: from things as silly to being called “feminist” (as an explanation as to why I had a puzzled look on my face when some girl said that all women should cook for their husbands to avoid making them angry), to my mother dragging me through stores to purchase large, obnoxious earrings, and to straight up homophobic rants, which I suspect were directed at me — “We don’t have that rubbish here in Nigeria — all those gay people in America, why should we be copying them? This is Africa!” Thanks to America’s media, my friends’ perceptions of gay people were limited to comic relief — white gay men dancing glittery and half-naked down the streets, lipstick on, “dressing like women.”

When I vented to my friends in the US, I was met with well-meaning — albeit privileged and individualist sentiments — “Who cares what they think? You should be able to wear what you want and be yourself. Fuck ’em.”

Except, I did care what Nigerians thought of gay people; I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” could include Africans. I cared that I had no proof to show them that “gay people” included me.

Admittedly, even I had my doubts that I was who I said I was — a gay Nigerian? After all, just after I’d come out and I’d filled my Netflix queue with every recommended film from the Gay and Lesbian section in search of narratives that aligned with my experience. But I could barely find any films that included women of color, let alone African lesbians.

I realize now that I was searching for affirmation of who I was because a part of me was still internalizing homophobia; “I’m Nigerian, we’re not gay. I must be the only gay Nigerian in the world.” And even when I finally met another queer Nigerian, I dismissed her because she “hadn’t been raised at home.” If I was so quick to dismiss queer Nigerians, what chance did I have that my Nigerian family would ever come around?


But then I saw Pariah, and I knew instantly that this was the film I’d been searching for. Pariah could save me from endless arguments over laws, policies, and tradition currently in Nigeria’s media. Pariah could humanize me — turn me from “issue” to “person — and earn me empathy instead of judgement.

For the group film screening I’d helped put together for QWOC+ Boston, I’d dragged a whole crew of people: my partner, a few friends, and my straight Nigerian, Christian brother, who’d always been supportive of me, yet still had moments when he dismissed my masculinity and/or gender presentation without knowing it; like the time my mother had forced me to wear our traditional attire for his graduation (I wanted to wear the men’s kaftan, but she’d put me in the elaborately feminine women’s counterpart — the iro and buba), and he’d told me to get over it, saying flippantly, “It’s not like you never wore this stuff before.”

I remember holding my breath during pivotal scenes in the movie — like when Alike was forced to put her earrings back on before she returned home in an effort to hide her gender identity from her parents. I wondered nervously if my brother saw then the direct parallels to his own sister’s life, if he could finally understand that my protesting the outfit my mother had brought with her from Nigeria wasn’t just about defying norms for the sake of being a rebel; I really did feel more like a boy than a girl.

During the Q&A portion of the screening, Adepero Oduye (the Nigerian actress who plays Alike in the film) told us, “When my mother first saw the film, she said, ‘People here [Nigeria] need to watch that movie. You wouldn’t believe all the things they are always saying. They need to see it. They need to understand.’” 

After I emerged from the theater, deliriously happy after seeing a gay character whose experience I could finally relate to, my brother relayed that the film’s exploration of masculinity within the women’s community was similar enough to his own experience that he too deeply connected with Alike. And therein lies the power of Pariah: whether or not you are part of the LGBT community, expect to “aww” and cringe several times per scene, as both the acting and directing create a winning combination for unlocking the most powerful tool in social change: empathy.

The world is watching Nigeria right now, turning their noses up at our senators who proudly proclaim that “homosexuality is unAfrican”. Nearly every other day I read a new press release from a human rights organization that condemns the latest version of the anti-gay bill. Hilary Clinton’s riveting speech about protecting human rights around the world may have brought temporary solace to many of us who are directly impacted by the move to criminalize homosexuality in various African countries, but I know firsthand that rhetoric alone will not change the world. I know from experience that my happiness will not come from winning legislative battles, but winning hearts, and films like Pariah have the power to do just that; it is films like Pariah that can and will change the world.

For Nigerians to accept its LGBT citizens as Nigerian, they need to experience queer stories as part of our own cultural landscape (as opposed to an American sitcom on Showtime) and framed within every day issues Nigerians like my parents can relate to: lack of electricity, overbearing mothers bickering over whose daughter will get married first, and simultaneous deep-rooted disdain and yearning for modernization. Pariah may not be about LGBT Nigerians or Africans, but Dee Rees’ bold narrative has certainly opened up the possibilities for such films, at least for people like me.

So as my country deliberates the new anti-LGBT bill, I pray for LGBT Africans to find their own Pariah, and I look forward to my mother finally seeing the film so that, just like my brother, she will finally be able to hear me when I say “I am Alike:” a proud queer, Nigerian boi, but more importantly, still her daughter.

My Straight African Brother’s Reflections on a Very Queer Christmas: “Two Couples and a Sibling”

My Dear Readers!

Sibling love forever...

This post — written from my straight, Christian brother — is what I got for Christmas, and I am so thrilled to share it with all of you! My brother spent the holidays with me, my partner, and our two very good friends and, it seems, felt so moved by how much of a great time he had that he announced he would be writing about it. We didn’t believe he would — maybe he’d been caught up in the moment (after several glasses of wine, and so much turkey!) — but then this afternoon, I received his post in my inbox.

I’m in tears as I write this; both my siblings have now contributed to my queer afrofeminist blog. It’s surreal — first my sister in Confessions of a Straight Girl: How to Be an Ally, and now my brother.

I can’t say this any plainer: I never would have imagined this possible. But look at this… look what happens when you stay holding on to hope.

For any of you feeling hopeless about your families coming around, I want you to read this post and see this as your future, see this as where your own family members can arrive after going through their own journeys of self-reflection. They will get there. You will get there. We will all find happiness.


“Two Couples and a Sibling” (guest post by Spectra’s Brother)

For quite some time now my sister has been wanting me to either read at least one of her blog posts (I know, it’s shameful that I haven’t been as engaged), or write something for her that she could put on her blog. I can’t say why I haven’t been paying closer attention to her writing up until this point but at least I’m finally doing it. I think for whatever reason I always felt that she was writing for the masses and not for me; that I wouldn’t learn that much from her writing as I would from the many conversations we have, one on one. I know … crazy, especially from someone who prides himself on how much he learns from reading books! But anyway, let’s move on.

A few days before Christmas, my sister (spectra) woke me up at 7am to ask me a huge favor: she wanted us to spend Christmas with a couple — we’ll call them Sukky and Shana — that she and her partner were very good friends with. She explained that they were both still struggling to find acceptance within their respective families, and would appreciate being among friends. I had met these particular friends briefly at a birthday celebration and they seemed nice enough, so I figured why not. The visit seemed very important to my sister or she (not being the warmest fuzziest person in the world) wouldn’t have given me a puppy dog face as well and a huge hug after realizing that I’d actually be up for an 8-hr roundtrip drive to New York. So on Christmas morning, we set off early, really excited at the idea of spending time with what Spectra described as “intentional family.”

The ride down to the city was great! I’m a speed demon so leaving early on Christmas day meant no cops. Saweet! (If any cops are reading this post I apologize for doing an average of 95mph which is why we got to Brooklyn in just under three hours — hey, wasn’t like I was the only one).

On reaching the couple’s apartment we were immediately greeted with a shriek from one of the girls (Shana) because her partner (Sukky) had kept it a secret we were coming. It’s a very nice feeling to be able to surprise good friends especially on a day like Christmas. And you must understand this too, any friends of my sisters are automatically friends of mine so I was equally as thrilled with the response. The entire day was spent cooking, laughing, cracking jokes, playing cards, taking naps, and for me specifically watching five basketball games back to back … ! Absolute heaven. Plus, I also had a few double Blacks on ice to take the edge off.

I don’t know if I’ve had such a good time quite like I did with these four girls. But in reality it had nothing to do with any of the things we did but everything to do with the people that were in that apartment. And I guess here is the message I wanted to communicate to whoever may be reading this: I’m a straight guy, a straight black guy, a straight black conservative guy, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria, a straight black conservative guy from Nigeria who happens to have a queer black sister, who is in love with a queer Latina from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic! My world got turned upside down when my sister came out to me a number of years ago, but I can’t say I was surprised.

I’m the middle child, and only boy. I never had a brother who I could borrow or steal stuff from. I never had any hand-me-downs either. My dad is 5’5 and I’m a little over 6 feet tall so that definitely wasn’t happening. But for as long as I can remember my younger sister was always stealing stuff from my older sister (Spectra), and Spectra in turn was always stealing stuff from me! I remember out of all the items of clothing she had she was always more excited about the more masculine items: the jerseys, the large T-shirts, the boots, etc. All this never quite made sense until she came out to me.

But, please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. Just because I had a feeling I knew what she was going to tell me doesn’t mean that when she finally told me it didn’t put my life on pause. My personality didn’t allow me to act alarmed. In fact, my reaction was the total opposite. I was extremely calm and told her that I’d known for a while, which was true. What I didn’t know was how I really felt about it.

It has taken me years of getting to know my sister again, years of getting to know her new community of friends, years of challenging my own beliefs (pay attention to this people), not for some “greater good”, or because it’s “politically correct”, but for the sake of having a real relationship with my sister. I went through years of self-reflection, years of pushing myself towards personal growth, and of course years of asking the question, “Why?” And here’s what I have concluded:

When you really love someone, when your sister or brother or whomever tells you they’re queer or gay or whatever (I’m still learning there are many different ways gay people describe themselves), it simply shouldn’t matter.

I’m so glad I had enough wisdom to realize that love isn’t love if it’s conditional. If you’re ashamed to affiliate yourself with someone because of how you think other people are going to perceive YOU … I feel very sorry for you and you need to go into whatever wound you have that is keeping you from experiencing life to the fullest. If there are two things I know for a fact it’s this: the quality of your life will be directly related to the quality of the relationships in it, and you will be miserable until you get over worrying about what other people think about you.

This Christmas was the most amazing Christmas I’ve EVER had. I was a single straight guy with two queer couples, and I had a blast. Why? Not because I spent time learning about an “issue”, but because I was with real people, who were really in love; who had real problems and real challenges, real arguments and real fears about the future, real hopes and dreams, and, quite frankly, that’s way more important to me than the fact that they identified as “queer.”

After this experience, I find myself hoping even more that people are braver; that they find the courage to engage themselves in learning more about how to love, and less about how to control. Because any question of “why” that comes from your own small sphere of beliefs — which by definition is egocentric — is absolutely a question of control. For me, slowing down my beliefs and just simply getting to know Spectra’s friends led to a bittersweet realization: I had way more in common with them than I do with a lot of people I have known for years.

For instance (and don’t laugh), the highlight of my visit was bonding with Sukky (a tomboy like my sister) over the film 300 about the Spartan army that stood up to the Persian empire in ancient Greece! I was pleasantly surprised to find that she shared my passion for the raw, over-the-top masculinity of the men portrayed in the movie. It was such an eye-opening moment for me because I always felt that the movie in itself could only be really appreciated in that way if you happened to be a straight guy! But, once again, my belief-system was challenged and I am all the better for it.

I urge you this coming year if you have been closed-minded about anything in your life, dare to think and dare to love. If the human race did more of those two things there’s no doubt in my mind the world will be a better place for our children, their children, and generations to come.

... and ever :)

I titled this entry, “Two Couples and a Sibling,” simply because that is exactly what was most important about our time together, the memories I created with Spectra, her partner, Sukky, and Shana. This Christmas, for me, wasn’t about “two interracial gay couples and a straight black guy.” None of those things are as important. Two couples and a sibling — two families coming together to celebrate life and the future together; that’s important.

I hope other guys get this message. It’s really not that complicated. 

Happy Holidays!

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


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