By Rachel Pieh Jones
“We’ll turn black pretty soon,” Maggie told Henry. They sat together on the front steps of our home in Somaliland. Henry tossed pebbles at the neighbor’s goats grazing on the weeds in our yard and Maggie brushed her dolly’s hair.
I was trying, unsuccessfully, to coax green bean plants from the rocky soil beside the house. I beat back locusts, fought off goats and sheep, drenched the soil with bottled water, anything for a bite of fresh green vegetable, but the plants would not grow. I leaned back on my heels, listening to the twins’ conversation.
“I know,” Henry said. “Probably on our birthday.” We had been in Somaliland for five months and they were six weeks away from turning three.
“You won’t turn black,” I said. “You’re white, like Karisa.”
Karisa was another American girl living in our village. Her dad taught history at Amoud University and worked with my husband Tom, a physics professor.
“Karisa isn’t old enough to turn yet,” Maggie said. “She just turned two.”
“White mommies and white daddies make white kids,” I said. “Black mommies and black daddies make black babies.” I pulled the skin of my forearm. “So you are white.”
Henry shook his head. “No. Jack and Negasti are black.”
Jack was Somali-Chinese and Negasti was Ethiopian and they lived two hours away, in the capital of northern Somalia, Hargeisa. They were adopted by Americans, a white mommy and a white daddy. Jack was seven and Negasti was five.
“They turned black on their birthdays,” Henry said. Maggie agreed and in one movement, as if they had read other’s minds, hopped down the steps and began to pick limes from the thorny trees for limeade. Maggie balanced on the edge of the water cistern and Henry warned her not to fall.
I swatted a goat away from my pitiful garden and almost cried when I saw that she had made off with a mouthful of leaves from a tender cucumber plant. Geedi, the guard hired by our landlord and required by the university, leaned against his small cement home, watching the twins. He held his arms out, as if to catch Maggie should she lose her balance. Geedi shot crows with a slingshot and kept a gun under his bed. I had never seen it, but Henry and Maggie had. They called it “Geedi’s toy gun to protect us,” and said daddy told them it was an AK-47. They promised it wasn’t loaded, that Geedi kept the safety on. But they weren’t three yet, still white, and I didn’t believe them.
Henry played football with Geedi and offered him limeade. Maggie borrowed lacy, fluffy party dresses from Deeqa, who lived on the other side of the neighborhood mosque. Once, she got into a pile of lipstick with her friend Hela and they walked around the house together like clowns. Halima, who taught me how to cook Somali food, slipped Henry and Maggie scraps of fried sambusa dough dipped in Nutella. All of my kids’ friends were African and they wanted to look like the people they played with, laughed with, the people who kept them safe.
The morning of their third birthday, Henry and Maggie looked at each other and then in the wavy mirror that made them look like they were in a funhouse, all bubbled and elongated.
“White,” Maggie said.
“Maybe when we are four,” Henry said.
Five years later, in 2008 we were living in Djibouti and Tom was a warden for the United States embassy. Ambassador James Swan invited our family and other diplomatic staff to his home to celebrate President Obama’s victory.
We drove past the Sheraton Hotel, around a sharp curve, and parked a block away, in a barbed wire-protected lot. We showed our passports and invitations to an armed guard, who let us move beyond the roadblocks and two tanks. Inside the second check-point, we dropped off our cell phones and cameras and passports and were given red Escort Required badges.
“Professor Jones,” the Djiboutian guard said to Tom. “Congratulations on your new president.”
The Ambassador’s Residence was directly on the ocean and shaded by towering neem trees. Scratchy grass, weeds, and bougainvillea bushes lined smoothed-stone walkways between offices, a small swimming pool, and a tennis court. The breeze, the magenta flowers, and the prospect of a morning in air-conditioned comfort, watching American television, contributed a surreal element to my near-constant feeling of being an outsider — an American in Djibouti, but the kind who had to hand over her passport before entering American territory. An American, like the diplomats we would join for breakfast, but the kind who wasn’t prohibited from riding Djiboutian buses or visiting the slums. An American, but barely, with both a pink bikini and a black abaya in her wardrobe.
Inside, I greeted everyone, including the Ethiopian chefs whose children attended my English club. Because of the time change, we watched Obama’s election night speech live while eating breakfast; chocolate croissants and pain au raisin. I held our youngest, three-year old Lucy, on my lap, Maggie and Henry sat on either side. Tom and I had agreed this was important enough for them to be late to school.
“Hello, Chicago. If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer….”
He told the story of 106-year old Ann Nixon Cooper, who had been born just a generation past slavery, and people in Chicago’s Grant Park cheered.
Beside Maggie on the couch, an African American woman with silver hair and rings the size and amber color of large Djiboutian prayer beads wept and wiped her face with napkins. A man with a blond crew-cut and freckled cheeks stood in the corner in the wide-legged, stern-faced look of the US military and clapped. Others watched in silence. Henry’s and Maggie’s eyes darted between the television, the faces around them, and each other but they didn’t speak.
After the speech, we thanked Ambassador Swan and left, stepping from the sterile, cool air of the Ambassador’s Residence into the steamy, dusty air of Djibouti.
On the drive to school from the embassy, Maggie tapped my arm. “Mommy,” she said, “why were people crying about Obama?”
“I heard a woman say she was crying because she was happy that a black man was elected president,” Henry said.
I waited, to hear what my eight-year olds would have to say about this historic moment of a nation to which they held citizenship but barely knew. Lucy was the only member of our family with the possibility of future dual citizenship by virtue of being born in Djibouti to American parents, but all three children considered themselves more Djiboutian than American. Or, as Lucy would later attest to a group of African American women at an international food bazaar, “African American, like us.”
“Because a black man is president?” Maggie said. “That’s silly.”
“I know,” Henry said. “Aren’t all presidents black?”
“And Obama is pretty skinny to be a president,” Maggie said. “I hope he does a good job.”
Tom and I struggled to suppress laughter. All the presidents Henry and Maggie had seen, in posters on buses, plaques in airports, plastered over billboards, and in gold-framed photos in every place of business, were obese African men. I knew they overheard conversations about this election around the dinner table, Henry had repeated some of them to friends while building Lego towers. But far removed from the barrage of pre-election news, the impact of Obama’s appearance hadn’t sunk in until this morning.
Black presidents could do a good job. But skinny presidents? They probably would have voted for President Taft, especially after he got stuck in the bathtub. Apparently, my children were more concerned about Obama’s size than his shade.
Later, I would teach Henry, Maggie, and Lucy, about slavery and the Civil War, and about the reverberating effects of American slavery that still haunt our world. We would talk about the significance of a black American president. But the idea that a man would be judged and found wanting based on the color of his skin continued to confound them.
I was going to say that Henry, Maggie, and Lucy were colorblind, but they weren’t. They saw lots of colors. They just didn’t care.
Maggie came home from school and told me she made a new friend. “Can I go to her house to play? Do you have her phone number?”
“Is she Djiboutian, American, or French?” I asked. If I could narrow down where she was from, I could figure out whether or not I knew the family. Because of Tom’s job, we knew most of the Djiboutians in her class; because of the size of the country, we knew most of the Americans. If the new friend was French, I probably didn’t know the family.
“I don’t know.”
“What does she look like?”
“She has a pink Cinderella backpack, a green water bottle, and wore a red tank top with black polka dots today.”
An American friend visited Djibouti and came with me to pick up Lucy from kindergarten class. When school got out, Lucy emerged in a line of friends, all holding hands. Caucasian American, Korean American, Ugandan, Somali, and Chinese. Girls with all shades of skin and pink backpacks and worn flip flops, giggling.
“It’s like heaven,” my friend said, tears in her eyes.
“When I turn five,” Lucy asked one night, “is that when I turn black?”
“You aren’t going to turn black,” I said, remembering the conversation with Henry and Maggie in Somaliland. I was surprised Lucy would ask the same question, surprised she took her cues from peers and not her older siblings who had obviously remained white well past their fifth birthdays. I tucked Lucy’s blankets tight to make a Lucy Hotdog.
“But Lilan is five and Lilan is black.” Lilan was Lucy’s best friend, a Djiboutian Somali. Lucy held her breath and waited for me to run my fingers up and down her legs, putting on the ketchup. I took a big bite out of her belly and she squealed.
“Lilan is Somali,” I said. “She has always been black. Her mommy and daddy are black and they made her.”
Lucy turned to face the wall, then back to me. She grabbed my face between her two pudgy hands, and her wide, honeyed brown-bear eyes seemed to swallow me whole. I kissed her palms.
“I’m sad about that,” she said. “About waking up on my five birthday and not changing colors.”
Author’s Note: I wrote Turning Black as a celebration of an expatriate childhood. My children’s worldview, understanding of themselves, and perceptions of humanity have been fundamentally changed by more than a decade in the Horn of Africa. The names, places, and colors in this essay, however, have not been changed.
About the Author: Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti where she swims with whale sharks and loses to her children at hula-hoop battles, foot races, and anything craft related. She has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Literary Mama, Running Times, and Relevant. Visit her blog at: Djibouti Jones, follower her on Facebook or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.
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