“Can you just stop acting white. You’re AFRICAN,”, said most of my fourth grade classmates, in some kind of variation.
I was born in December of 1999, in Sierra Leone. Before I learned any english at all I was taught how to say things like “ah wan go to me mama”( I want to go to my mom) in Krio. At home, different languages swirled like the oily twists my mom used to whip my hair into. My dad, could speak his native tribal language Madinka, and my mom could speak her native tribal language, Foola, The uniting source for us, and the language spoken by 94% of Sierra Leoneans, was Krio, broken English with added spice and cultural flavors any native speakers could recognize.
I could be found bouncing off the walls at home and embracing Krio like my own sister in the tiny house we first lived in in Freetown. Communicating with my parents filled me with so much joy and love for the language because I could tell them that I loved them and share every simple thought as though it was some new, wild discovery. I could understand the lessons they taught me and shared the happiest moments. Even at a young age, I knew Krio was not just a string of words I would express to speak to my family members, but instead a hereditary stamp that showcased the blood running through my veins were that of my parents and no one else's.
In 2002, my parents and I first visited Philadelphia, to visit my mother’s family members who has recently migrated to the Promised Land. The words that freely ran out of my mouth were cemented at the back off my throat, as my vision became blurred with countless unrecognizable faces and places. They not only spoke words that were foreign melodies to me but their words left their mouths in strange ways. I searched for the loving melodies that were always hidden under my mother’s tongue, but instead was met with Ts that sounded too much like Ds and idiosyncratic underlying tunes to the words pronounced by the Americans I encountered. Although, the difference in speech between I and non-Sierra Leoneans seemed frustrating at most, it actually became a safety hazard.
I can vividly remember the day I was lost in the mall, away from my mother, who I could connect with the most. It was a warm summer morning and my aunt decided to take out the family for some shopping at the Franklin Mills Mall. It took about a half an hour to drive to the mall, and when we got to the mall I was dumbfounded. It was my the very first American mall we visited and it was larger than any building I saw back in Sierra Leone. Within twenty minutes time, I was disconnected from my mom, and my empty palm missed the warmth of her grip. As I peered around the huge mall frightened, I began to cry. The salty tears made paths down my puffy cheeks and I could see no way out of my situation. I began to look for West African kente prints, but then remembered that my mom was dressed like everyone else that day, clothed in a t-shirt and pair of jeans, immersed so quickly in American culture. Thankfully, It was not too long before a kind, old white woman took a hold of my hand and started rubbing my back.
“Oh dear, are you lost? ,” she most likely asked.In the present moment, however, her voice was tin foil rubbing against my ears and I could not begin to understand what she was saying to me. She also scared me at first. She was not even a black American, but a white American, as far removed as I was, I remember thinking. Nevertheless, I tried to communicate with her, but my thickly coated accent and tongue peppered with Krio jargon strengthened the obvious language barrier between us. Before I knew it, she was leading me to a counter, where a woman in a uniform spoke into a microphone that echoed loudly throughout the mall. I began to cry more. All I could think of were the moments before I was disjointed from the woman I trusted the most. Fortunately, I was reunited with my mom shortly after, who explained to me, in familiar Krio, that the women helped her find me.
After spending a couple of months vacationing in Philadelphia, my brain’s youthful plasticity allowed me to adopt some english vocabulary. Despite the fact that I only picked up on a handful of phrases and words, it made the world of a difference when I returned to Freetown, after the visit culminated. My favorite aunt Nata acted as if I was a new person, often teasing me about how she could not even understand my words anymore. However, I knew she really could not. For instance, when I would ask for soda, she would tell me that I could not possibly drink soap detergent. I forgot that in Sierra Leone, we called soda “sove drink”. She would then dismiss me and it became a daily pattern of misunderstanding between the two of us. I was startled when I realized my own family could not understand me one hundred percent, like they used to.
In 2005, I finally moved to Seattle Washington, where I felt thrown in a majority white elementary school, Panther Lake Elementary. I had retained my accent again in Sierra Leone and forgot most of the english I had learned during my visit to Philadelphia. English as a Second Language program became a safe haven to me, where my kind teachers, who truly cared about my success in the kindergarten class, taught me English. They would show me bright pictures and enunciate the words that corresponded with them. I always felt a rush of excitement when I headed home and told my parents the new things I learned. The teachers and my friends at school taught me English, and in turn, I taught my parents. After a couple of years, I spoke flawlessly and like any of my native born friend in Seattle. Just when I believed that I sort of belonged, I was again uprooted and placed in a society that I would have to again addapt to.
The move from Seattle to Philadelphia, a city with far more African-Americans, seemed like a promising change. I concluded that it would be impossible to be racially targeted since the school I would be transferring to was full of black students. Boy, was I wrong! I was called a white-girl, an Oreo, and was impersonated by my fellow black classmates who strung a line of “like’s at the end of every sentence to imitate my speech. “Why do you sound like a white person?” almost everyone in my 4th grade classroom asked me. I was made fun of for “not being black enough”, as if my skin color did not ensure my ethnicity alone, but the way I spoke and the music I listened to were the deciding factors. It was frustrating as I began to resent the very same people of my own race, for not accepting me with arms wide open. I still had melanin lacing my genetic framework, yet I still needed to listen to rap music, have a Philly slang, and qualify for all the other “I am balck” credentials in place. Because I acted differently from my friends, who haved lived in Philadelphia since they were born, I was strung down to the bottom of the social ladder, ignored and ostracized because of something I could not help. Those who held power and influence in 4th grade, are the ones who had ideal “‘black” accents, and were also the ones who were light-skin. Every time I tried to explain to my peers that I lived and went to school somewhere very different, but it never changed their opinions of me.
Most kids grow up with children just like them. For me, it was a completely different case. When I moved from West Africa to Seattle, Washington, I felt as if I got uprooted from everything I loved: The freedom of being completely unaware of differences (everyone I knew looked the same in Freetown) and the loyal friends I had shared many adventures with. I was then thrown into an environment where I felt like a single black drop of paint in a bucket full with rich, white paint, filled to the brim, and nearly overflowing. Before I knew it, I was attending a school that was majority white, and finding a way to adapt. Naturally, as my native krio tongue made room for English, I began sounding like my peers. In fact, my aunts and uncles calling from back home, Sierra Leone, would tease about not being able to even understand my krio at all now. That was loving teasing, not malignant teasing. The verbal abuse came when I moved to Philadelphia in 2009. I was a sort of riddle to my classmates; I looked “African” (darker than my other peers) but talked in a “white way”(high pitched, california-girl, type of accent). I tried to understand why something as superficial as accent made any difference in the way I connected to my peers, however it was beyond my 4th grade self. I then became very frustrated. I was discriminated against in Seattle for being black, which was
biologically borne, and my move to Philadelphia, inspired me to be discriminated for being African,. but sounding white, in a school full of black students!
"I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right." Liesel states in the novel The Book thief. Enduring the pains of growing up during Hitler's dictatorship, Liesel becomes hopeless of the written word, seeing Hitler's propaganda and words as the root of her suffering. She turns to books to comfort her as she lived through the painful times, and realizes languages can be both a source both of misery and solace. I relate to Liesel in this sense because I realize that although I have struggled with adapting to different types of languages in different settings, I knew I could always turn to the beautiful language in books to comfort me during hard times. Language is the most powerful tool the human species contains, however, most tools can be manipulated to inflict harm on others. I used to be very self conscious of how I sounded, and what was escaping through my teeth, but now I realize that I can use my experiences with language for positivity, instead of using my bottled-up anger from being ostracized for negativity. Language has too much power to be fueled with hatred and malice.