Earlier this year, Nadia Sasso released her documentary, “Am I: Too African to be American or Too American to be African?” Through her documentary, Sasso examines the experience of young African women living in America and West Africa who identify with two cultures. The women are asked to comment on their experiences with race, complexion, gender, and heritage.
Like Nadia Sasso, who was born in America to Sierra Leonean parents, I am bicultural. And like many of Sasso’s interviewees, I spent many years grappling with this duality, which a dear friend and I affectionately refer to as being “hyphenated.”
I am Ghanaian-American and a first-generation American citizen. For a long time, this meant my birthplace pulled me in one direction and my upbringing pulled me in another. My parents were thrilled to hear me say, “me da wo ase,” the English equivalent of “thank you,” but even prouder to hear me say it in English. I grew up dunking pieces of fufu (pounded cassava, a Ghanaian staple) into light soup, before corndogs into ketchup. I spent hours mastering cat’s cradle games on the playground, but also long evenings imagining Ananse the spider (a popular Ghanaian folktale) and his intricate weavings.
I also understand what it means to be both accepted and rejected because to be hyphenated is to actively represent and constantly apply for membership in both of my communities. It is an ongoing struggle. As Nigerian-American Odunayo Adeoye asks herself in the documentary, I too ask, “what can I do to make me right?” How can I be good enough for my Ghanaian counterparts to say, “okay, she is one of us.” This rejection is quite evident during first encounters with new people.
I have an incredibly African face, so sooner rather than later the question arises of, “Where are you from?” I tailor my response to my perception of what the person asking wishes to know (this is an art, in and of itself).
There are times when I give Ghana as the answer. She then probes further (i.e. she asks my birth country) and then determines, I am not Ghanaian or African, for that matter. “You’re American.” This conclusion is always paired with a self-congratulatory smile and a condescending tone. Sometimes, a questioner might be genuinely concerned and rather than inform me that I am incorrect, she will ask why I insist on identifying with a culture that I could not possibly understand (because evidently culture dies, once it crosses an ocean). In time, as it becomes clearer that I do indeed speak Twi with some facility and that I enjoy kenkey (Tip: Provide a heavy traditional dish. Fufu and ampesi are respectable alternatives. Rice-based dishes are not recommended), then I have passed the questioner’s test and I am rechristened as Ghanaian.
Other times, I acknowledge the lessons learned from the above situation and I respond, “I am Ghanaian BUT I was born in the US.” That “but” sticks in my throat every time I respond this way. It sticks because it is a negation of who I am. It is a justification for all of the ways in which I will not be as Ghanaian as the questioner expects me to be. “But” is an excuse or an apology. On the days when I am most courageous, I might remember to substitute that “but” for an “and.” In doing this, rather than fight against unspoken rejection, I proudly affirm my multicultural, Americanah identity. This “and” symbolizes that I am living a plurality of cultures. This “and” is self-exploration, self-affirmation, and self-determination.
Thank you to Nadia Sasso for baring this narrative. Sasso poses the question, “Am I: too African to be American or too American to be African?” For me, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no and I’m more than okay with that.