On being inconspicuous

In Africa, being American was a hidden identity. That doesn’t mean Vermont doesn’t feel like home.

BRATTLEBORO — The residual thoughts from my year-end trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar focused on being Black and inconspicuous in Africa in contrast to being Black and highly visible in Vermont.

Some of you may know that I spent 18 years as an expatriate - all of which, except for a year in France, was spent all over Africa. This was my first trip back since I left Mali in 2001.

Not much has changed in nearly two decades except the proliferation of cell phones, solar panels, and my newfound status as a grey-haired elder.

It was great being back to the sights (vivid colors, livestock, walking as the primary form of transportation, entrepreneurial pursuits), sounds (call to prayer, animals, bartering, music), tastes (hibiscus and mango juices, grilled octopus, fresh everything), textures (smooth Maasai walking stick, antique masks, the walls of a boma home), and smells (cooking aromas, fish markets, soot from the blacksmith forge, the salted ocean air).

The sensual muscle memory of a place I called home for such a long time had not been lost or dulled in the United States. I found myself on the receiving end of the subtle forms of respect that I accorded elders in my more youthful years on the continent. The reawakening and acknowledgement refreshed my soul.

* * *

Being inconspicuous for the closing weeks of last year provided a stark contrast to the high visibility of being Black in Vermont.

On this journey, being American was my hidden identity. Tanzanians thought I was from other parts of Africa and by no stretch of the imagination the United States. European and White American tourists thought I was Tanzanian, as evidenced by asking me for directions or the price of souvenirs in shops. Hand gestures, vocal intonations, physical proximity, body posture, social protocols, and situational awareness that projected being African - all of these habits re-emerged from memory.

Power, privilege, and peer pressure also come with inconspicuousness.

Decades earlier, an incident in a sweltering bank lobby in Niamey forced an uncomfortable choice for me. I noticed upon entering the lobby a very, very pregnant Italian woman in the throng of Black bodies waiting for a bank teller to beckon them to the window to transact business. I waited 45 minutes in the over-100 degree heat before a teller signaled me forward.

In an attempt to plead a case for the teller to take the pregnant Italian woman next, he retorted, “She's not your business! Do you want me to handle your transaction or not?” I finished my bank business feeling guilty and wondered how much longer the Italian woman had to wait.

The bank experience gave me insights on how difficult it is for Whites to address racial injustice in a system in which they are the dominant culture. It is simpler and easier to just accept the norm, put your head down, and not make a fuss.

* * *

Reactions from well-meaning White folk to my comments about my inconspicuousness in East Africa ranged from “how unfortunate you live in Vermont where you are so highly visible” to “it must have felt good to be amongst 'your' people” to “how lonely and uncomfortable you must feel being in Vermont.”

The subtexts of these micro-aggressive reactions scream, “Leave - you do not belong here!” and “If you leave, then we can absolve ourselves from fighting for racial justice.”

Vermont has been my home of choice for more than 40 years, and I intend to die here. Although I am free to live anywhere on the planet, I have chosen this state.

Feeling good and at home in Africa in no way diminishes my love for Vermont. My experience here has not been one of suffering from loneliness or obsessing over the small number of knuckleheads I encounter.

I choose to live on the human scale Vermont offers and to engage in the meaningful work of strengthening inclusive and equitable practices. I belong here as a matter of personal choice.

My time away reminded me that we live in a global village.

Parents everywhere want the best for their children; people want to practice their faith unfettered by government; they want to live and thrive in safe communities.

And more than ever, people want to be connected to others and nurture the sacred land upon which we all depend for life.

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