My Second Day in Africa

When everything happened I was sitting in a canoe.
It was night.
It was a party.
The music was outside.
We were making beats and sounds with our hands and our feet.
Women and Men singing upwards toward the sky.
I had done this before
been at gathering with folks of all various
brown and beige hues of melanin.

folks that were on the spectrum on the sobriety scale
aware enough that we could and did
rhyme along to the beat
creating hooks on the spot
I wasn’t born that way

I used to be shy I used to clap only
tap my foot and hum
but over time I found my voice
you could say that I had become confident in my blossoming skills.
I had taken a break from the cipher outside and went inside away from almost everyone
the only place to sit was

inside a boat
A canoe actually – I haven’t been in a canoe since
I was ten years old.
A fifth grade pretty black little girl living in the Bronx
Enrolled in alternative private school on the Upper West Side
The school was called Walden

Among the famous Alumni of Walden were
Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller Fame
and Andrew Goodman the latter
A Freedom Rider who lost his life in the
1960s riding down South
Helping black folks get free.

We learned who he was every February on Black History Month alongside the weekly viewing of Eyes on The Prize – a film about Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

We were children mostly white singing freedom songs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Everyday we walked past the plaque bearing his name a reminder that we were expected to change the world, to stand up for what we believed in.
just like Andrew Goodman

The last time I was in a canoe
I had gotten lost stuck in the water with my best friend from school.
We became friends like children do we bonded over the uniqueness of who were
our names beginning with letters hardly ever used
Y and Z.

Zoe and I found a way to be together on our sleepaway trip.
Our teachers knew better knew that we didn’t understand anything about how to navigate water – that we were better apart –
But we had manipulated the system –
took advantage of a staff member who was new to the school
who was impressed by our interracial friendship.

we were the living embodiment of Dr. King’s dream.
one hand almond brown the other white
the glee of our victory was short sighted because it
became quickly clear to both of us
we didn’t know how to canoe.

We were in the middle of the lake
lost confused and tired and so far away from home.
And we did what any child would do
we began to cry, to shout.
until help arrived.

This time the canoe I was in was on the floor.
I was in an art house
surrounded by Warsan Shire poetry
Dangling like stars over my head
the one right above my head said:

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from.
Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and have never been before.”

I was somewhere I have never been before –
I was on the continent
my second day in South Africa.
My family had not dug their toes in the red dirt of Africa in 400 years.
and here we were again back through me.

And everything was magical.
I was like a baby all over again
Filled with wonder asking questions
smiling at strangers
loving every last minute of it all.

So sitting in the canoe in the middle of a party with a young man
seemed like the next right step, besides nothing bad can happen in the canoe this time because
we were nowhere near water
and he was so fascinated by me
surprised that I was in Africa by myself
surprised that the only person I knew was a Jewish man
who was heading back home
Aren’t you scared to be alone?
I shook my head no and said why should I be?

He was curious found my accent intriguing
He wanted to take me to Soweto take me into the Ghetto
Show me how the people lived
Would I go?
X wanted to know.
would I follow him.
I was silent.
Because I was staring

at his Coca-Cola Hat
And wondered did he know that Coca-Cola was something Black people in North Carolina Rocky Mount couldn’t drink in 1959. Pepsi was for Black People and Coca-Cola was for White Folks And they meant that shit.

There was so much about being Black in America
That only black people know.
There was no place I could take him that could show him everything he needed to know.
I was still finding out what it meant to be black today.

I leaned back in the canoe
content my belly full
gladly smiling – tonight was a goodbye party for my friend
He was heading back home – while I was arriving.
He encouraged me to meet his friends folks that would and could be a bridge for me.
Usher me, guide me into South Africa Jo’burg Pretoria everything you couldn’t learn in a book.

X was about to ask me a question
when someone at the door shouted his name.
turning toward the commotion at the door slowly
I saw a struggle.
And so he ran out of the canoe with me.
And toward the door.
Upsetting the balance and rocking it like we were in water

I gingerly stepped out of the boat.
I live in the Bronx.
Grew up in New York City
And I learned early you run away from
loud noises distractions and arguments you walk away
and quickly swiftly because investigating is what white people do.
They live in this world
where bad things only happen to Black People
So you can go walk into the dark
and unknown confident that everything will be okay in the end.
That their white privilege would be enough to save the day.

But I was far away from home
And I was in a house with a boat
what were the rules?
And so I stepped out into the South African night alone.
feeling the unsure ground the same way you get accustomed to land after being on water for so long.

It was winter in South Africa.
I had left in the middle of the summer – humid days stuck days of New York
3 days ago I had boarded a plane and moved across thousands of miles.
I had skipped 3 months in 3 days.
I flew past a season
so nothing I knew to be sure could be assumed.
everything was new.

It took a while for my eyes to adjust
but when it did
I looked around and the cipher I had left had broken up splintered
and the circles of melanin of brown and brown bodies were clustered together protective and watching alert.
but there was no music no chants no clapping no torso turned into makeshift drums.

What had replaced it all was 16 cops lined up on the perimeter of the house
And they all had AK-47s
It was then that I realized that I had never seen an AK-47 in real life.
They had existed in movies only before then and once on the chest of a man that I had danced with at a friend’s birthday party in a pre-gentrified Harlem.

I had drunk Wild Turkey – and was beginning to regret it.
His AK-47 was a 2 dimensional silly tattoo.
But this was real
I searched through the crowd for my friend
The only white Jewish man at this party and he was gone.
I looked around for the world-renowned Haitian artist and he was gone also.

I was alone. and I was sure I was going to die.
And it didn’t seem fair to finally make it to Africa
And lose my life here.
And everything that I knew about cops with guns surrounding black people meant certain death.

That’s how it was in America anyway.

But I was in South Africa and far far far away from home.
The cops began to move inside and they walked in on folks shouting and yelling.
Little by little I began to understand what everyone was saying.
sounds began to separate into words
And the AK-47 began to look like people some that were white others that were Black
One even had a dog.

Then the yelling began – the black people began to shout at the cops
loud and louder yelling out stuff like “You a traitor to your people”
“You enjoy riding that white man’s dick sister.”
I looked over and saw a black woman get in one of the white cop’s face
fingers waving back and forth.
And she wasn’t alone more and more black bodies began to do the same.

I stood back in horror convinced
I was going to die – silently saying my Buddhist prayer
taking action to remove myself away from the crowd
thinking that when the bullet came which they surely were coming
I didn’t want to be anywhere near it

Black People back at home had gotten shot and killed for:
knocking on a door
walking down the street
being stopped at a traffic light
playing in the hallway of their apartment building (My cousin Nicholas)
playing in the playground
selling loosies in the street
stopping in a convenience store.
heading home after your bachelor party
sleeping on your grandma’s couch
and so on
and so on
and so on

So I began to move away from the shouting
trying to hide trying to not be seen
But X – turned to me
Yasmine don’t separate yourself stay with us.

So I stayed near beside them on the outside
And I watched and I prayed.
I prayed as they yelled –
bringing up Constitutional law.
What the law said
but they weren’t politely saying but yelling it screaming it

And the cops
instead of raining bullets onto our bodies
instead they spoke back
talked back calmly
like I imagined they were trained to do
quietly assured of their right to be there.
Fearful not in the least
Is this what it meant to be free.

I watched like a baby

learning that in South Africa
Black People could yell at White Cops
And Walk away
assured that
the law would protect them.

That the bullet would stay inside the gun
instead of buried in their back.

what kind of place was this?
could they be more free.
Did they know something that we did not.

in a place like this
would Sandra have made it safely to her new job?

Would my Cousin Nicholas have walked back inside his home
exhausted and sweaty from a successful game of cops and robbers?

Would Eric Garner after a long day of selling his cigarettes give the pocket money he earned to his wife?

I don’t know.
What I knew for certain was that I was far away from home.

————————————————–
Interested in writing for Nia? We’re looking for Guest Writers to join our contributor team! Click HERE to find out how.