I Grew Up African — But America Makes It Hard to Be Black
Where I’m from, color means little. That made my transition to the United States a chilling one.
This time last year, I was free to travel anywhere I wanted in my native Cameroon, and no one blinked an eye. All I needed was my identity card and the privilege of my first name. Kamga is the most popular name in the Bamileke tribe, historically situated in the French-speaking part of the country; with my name, there was no doubt I could speak French. I could walk into a room, board a cab, order at any restaurant — choose who I wanted to be, whenever I needed to be, without question. Bilingual on paper, French en réalité.
In my corner of the world, I was accepted anywhere and everywhere.
Yet as I grew, my life experience began to diverge from that of my parents’ generation. Spending months at a time in a boarding school will do that. Watching anime and How I Met Your Mother, having the internet to back you up when debating issues, and finding similarities between your friends and the cast of Friends will do that.
In a country where high-speed internet remains a luxury, I still had podcasts like This American Life. I lived a life of ideas and dreams. I came in contact with startup founders and techies in the university town of Buea. From poetry to technology and culture documentation, I saw a future I could write for myself. I saw life for young people on both sides of the coin, especially those who’d given up all hopes of “making it” in Cameroon, eyes cast on moving abroad. I saw others, backs against the wall, poring through strategies to thrive despite ubiquitous bribery and corruption. Cameroon was bubbling with potential, and students began to take their lives into their own hands — without any aid from the government, many without jobs, ready to stay and fight.
Yet as I grew, my life experience began to diverge from that of my parents’ generation. Spending months at a time in a boarding school will do that.
But that was last year. On June 23, the day I arrived at the port of entry in New York City, I lost my powers.
As I navigated my new home, I felt like I sank deeper each time I opened my mouth, my Cameroonian accent betraying the fact that I didn’t belong there. Each day that passed, I felt buried by an identity I never signed up for; I became more aware that I was considered different, without anyone telling me why. It seems I could only spot my people in the sea of joyful faces in the church I attended.
My first encounter with racist stereotypes was the subtle one my wife and I got during our recent immigration interview process. The idea that a Black couple could not have credit card loans, a car note, or a mortgage — even though she was a student and I was unemployed — was odd to the officer. How can a Black couple be financially literate? How can a Black woman be able to manage her finances properly? Every proper immigrant should have debt, no?
I never signed up for this color. Where I come from, it means little. Now, in America, it fills me with questions and a host of new terms, sending me down YouTube rabbit holes: gentrification, racial prejudice, broken windows theory, Black Lives Matter.
In New York, folks feel like they know who I am when I walk in a room. They think they know what I’ll be like based on warped profiling. For the first time in my life, I see people tense up when I appear in a corridor, or when I walk into GameStop with my wife and brother-in-law. And it’s not just the looks or the subtle nods, it’s the willful action as well, like when my wife and I had our receipt randomly checked at a Micro Center a few months ago.
It forces me to take my hands out of my pockets, so I don’t make anyone else more uncomfortable.
Yet each time I see other Black people on the bus, I’m hit by how different our worlds are. I came here just last year; they were born here. I don’t even know what a credit score is, and I barely understand how student loans work. I have to Google states and corresponding abbreviations. Every Black person I speak with instinctually asks: Where are you from? All I need to do is to open my mouth, and my secret is out: I’m not one of them.
On the other hand, I wonder how my kind in New York City could handle my world in Cameroon. Could they deal with being judged by their names instead of their skin color? Could they handle the dry season? Could they trod through the mud of the rainy season? How about our 270 languages? Could they understand what it’s like not to have such strong ancestral evidence of slavery of one people, but rather a mixed, murderous, twisted tale that shifts each passing year in order to keep the people in power at the helm?
I have no idea what their reality is like growing up in America — it’s as familiar to me as speaking Mandarin. I have no clue what hardships they’ve had to experience from birth, what social constructs have been hurdles all their lives.
On the flip side, they have no idea what it took for me to get here, what I’ve sacrificed at the altar of immigration offices or the risks I have taken for love. They don’t know anything about me, nothing about my tribe, the Bamileke, nothing about my expectations as a Cameroonian firstborn son, nothing about what happens in Cameroon whenever anyone hears my name, nothing about the current civil war in Cameroon. How the Bamileke War from 1955 to 1960 ended with over 80,000 civilian deaths, 80% of which were from my tribe — a war led by France and Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo.
Could they understand how difficult it was to leave a budding career as a copywriter, a tribe of readers, and a respected name — to move to the United States and start all over at 28?
Although we look the same and share a race, we are worlds apart. Will I stay here in New York, trying to make sense of my new corner of the world with all its unspoken judgment? Only time will tell.
But for now, here we all are in America: Black and guilty, together.