Mohammed Adawulai: African in the Berkshires. Former exchange student reflects on race and America.
It was a couple of days after I had taken an SAT preparation test in the winter of 2009 when the school guidance counselor who supervised the exam approached me in a hallway of Sheffield's Mount Everett Regional School to discuss my writing.
She began by apologizing for secretly reading my essay.
"You're such a good writer," she continued, with shock and guilt expressed across her face.
Until then, I had wondered why she had denied me the same opportunity to graduate that she gave my fellow exchange student, a white girl from Poland. I had also wondered why, despite repeated promises, she never called me into her office for advice on college applications and scholarships. But she had already made up her mind about me long before she knew me, much as she had the Polish student who, ironically, relied on me to help her excel in some classes.
When people ask for my views on American racism, I find myself reliving life in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, the scene of my initial encounter with racism and the place where I spent many of my formative years. Going to America was, as my grandfather put it, a "life's ticket." From where I grew up in Kete-Krachi, Ghana, America had the power to make you somebody just from visiting it.
My initial encounter, however, belied many of my expectations. I had the idea that white people only gave to Africans until I discovered that my host was keeping my monthly stipends to himself. I also discovered that not every American home was a palace and food pantries didn't serve third-world migrants only. But nothing was more disorienting than the process of discovering my African identity through the eyes of white Americans.
For most on the African continent, being "African" is just one of many identities — and the least defining. But in America, one is simply "African." And I quickly discovered that an African, to the average American, was someone I didn't really know.
The Black African's first discovery abroad is that he's rarely seen apart from his land. In him, all the despairing metaphors associated with Africa find a human expression. You might be treated as an individual once people get to know you. But until then, you're just an African. And the expectation for someone like me is to return home gratefully furnished with outdated encyclopedias. There was little expectation that I had something to teach my American hosts beyond a presumed experience with poverty, conflict and perhaps big-game wildlife.
Such was a side of America through the Berkshires as I found it. But the other side is one that inspired in me a special faith not only in America but humanity. I was reminded of this when a friend in Great Barrington emailed me photos of young, mostly white people marching on Main Street in support of Black Lives Matter.
It reminded me of a time in 2012, when students at Simon's Rock were protesting the college's inadequate response to racial bigotry on campus. Amid the protest, the student whose bigoted remarks had ignited it asked if I would meet with him. The request felt sincere, so I agreed. But as he was walking me through why he said multiracialism derailed progress and America was better off returning Blacks to Africa, it dawned on me that his true crime was simply not being better than the society in which he lived. His country's greatness, he was taught from infancy, was tied to virtues and abilities that only men of his hue possessed. And so, he said, why then are the Blacks and browns here at all?
I can forgive Americans for an ignorance of Black Africa — but how can they tolerate an ignorance of the Black Africans who have lived among them for centuries? For Black lives to matter to the next generation of Americans, they must be taught a history that reflects the contributions and voices of all. Racial prejudice is the logical thing to have when you have been raised in a society that, at best, talks of the need for others to be tolerated and given rights.
And so how best can white people of the Berkshires help fight against racism? An important step is to acknowledge that circumstances have made it impossible for any American not to be racist against himself or others. This requires unlearning the many prejudices they have been bombarded with from infancy. Raised in such an environment, how could the guidance counselor think I was deserving of the same opportunities as a white girl from Poland?
Minority rights are often cloaked in the language of righteousness and equity instead of necessity. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that he who has no real regard for my life and contributions cannot be counted upon by you, either, when your life is also at stake.
Mohammed Adawulai graduated from Mount Everett Regional High School in 2009 and Bard College at Simon's Rock in 2013, where he was the commencement speaker. He received a graduate degree in politics, economics and philosophy from the University of Hamburg in 2017. He now resides in Hamburg, Germany, but often dreams of the Berkshires as well as his homeland of Ghana.
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