“I am a mother,” she began, “And I know when my children bring me gifts, I always show them love because, if not, they will be scared to bring me gifts.”
The Bagamoyo vendor’s story was triggered by my incessant inability to choose a Tanzanian souvenir for my mom back home in Bayonne, New Jersey. “I just want to make sure I get something she’ll like…” I explain faintly.
As we speak, the vendor’s fingers trace the silhouette of the pregnant African woman holding an infant on her back, a sack on her head, and a bag in her left arm. Two children stick by her side, attached—literally and figuratively.
The color of the vendor’s skin seems to bleed out into the ebony wood figure she holds toward me. Her hands, a deep rich brown with bright scarred highlights of dark chocolate evidence years of hard work. She so closely resembles this statue, I realize; it’s as if this figure was made in her image, in the image of so many of the Tanzanian women I see here.
“This hard working mother…” the merchant elaborates, pointing toward the figure. She depicts the scene of what the woman could have been doing that day, perhaps at the market, explaining the sack of goods on her head and bag scraped into her fingers. She’d have no one to leave her kids with, the merchant states, so she’ll have to bring them with her, most likely extending the time and difficulty of the journey. Her fingers outline each of the women’s attributes while she describes them; I wonder if she’s directly—or just indirectly—speaking of herself. As she continues to set the scene, she speaks the words that reveal one of the major reasons for my attraction to this piece:
“You see the mother. You see the children,” she points out. “But where is the father?”
Suddenly, in this market in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, I am brought back home. The space and its dozens of tables, filled with hundreds of figurines, each monitored by a merchant desperat for a sale dissipates, and I am transported to one of the sources of my deepest heart breaks, one of my mother’s deepest heart breaks. The merchant doesn’t know it, but her question is one I have asked myself hundreds of times throughout my life: Where is daddy?
My older sisters sometimes tell me I am the lucky one. Since I was the youngest at the most tumultuous time in my parents’ marriage, I have the least memory of just how rocky it truly was—the fights, the lies, the secrets, the pain. But there is something they also forget. I can hardly remember the good. In fact, to say I could vividly remember more than one or two good memories of our time as a family would be an utter lie. However, I can still hear my dad’s commanding and fear-striking knocks at the door as he questioned my mother as to why she wouldn’t let him in from the outside. I distinctly remember the four arms of my sisters’ wrapped around me, as our bodies shook in fear and our tears mixed together until the fighting stopped. Or until we fell asleep. It was usually the latter.
One morning, after a night of fighting, we woke up to gifts in front of our bedroom doors, my dad’s way of saying “Let’s forget the past and start anew.” Starting new things was one of my dad’s fortes, actually. He started a new relationship with several women throughout his marriage to my mother. But this was something I wouldn't understand then, so I enjoyed my Barbie cashier set, a souvenir commemorating his time with our family.
And although my relationship with my dad would go on to improve over the years, I can still feel the pulse of that little girl, the one who wondered, “Where is daddy?”
As I stare at this wooden woman, no partner by her side, small children at her knees, the merchant continues to speak about the plight of mothers in Tanzania. The mothers I see throughout the country. While we travel in the comfort of our bus, they travel by the will of their feet. I see the sacks on their heads, the pots on their heads, the four foot logs on their heads, all perfectly balanced as if held up by an invisible string. They walk casually, alone, and show no pain, a stoicism that is revered throughout the country.
And in these mothers, all I would see is my own. One of the strongest women I know. Sure, she didn’t carry pots or sacks on her head, but she most certainly balanced the world on her shoulders. And while she didn’t build houses like the Massai women do, she built our home in other ways, all on her own with three girls to raise.
I wanted to buy her a piece that would personify the hardwo
rking beauty I so loved and admired in her. A piece that exemplified the strength of the women of the Massai and the love of the women of the Datoga tribe, a tribe of mostly women we met who exhibited a deep love for their sister-wives—all ten of them— some of whom the women had selected themselves. I wanted my mom to feel like we had when we’d gotten there. Loved. They’d embraced us, those women—not like guests but like long lost wives, long lost friends, sisters, daughters even.
This piece--right here at this table in Bagamoyo— represented all of the above. For me. But would it for her?
I struggle to picture this statue in my particular mother’s house. We never have guests over, yet I envision her holding the figure, as gently as this merchant does, and proudly telling the story of her adventurous youngest daughter, the one who traveled to Africa, the one who brought this piece home just for her. Her friends would ooo and aaah. (Imaginary friends, of course, since my mother no longer lets anyone in.) Being more realistic, I change the fantasy: “She’ll share it on Facebook, I guess,” I think to myself. That would have to be equivalent. She’ll like it, right? She has to like it! But I’m not sure…
I look at the other options on the table: candle holders with elephants enhancing the middle, a decorative spoon and fork set, faded wooden jewelry... None of these other options feel as “right” as the mother statue, I know, the one with the button nose stretched widely across her wooden face. The one with the fuller lips than those depicted on portraits of women at home. The one with the wide set hips reminiscent of past births and perhaps even more in the future. The one with the corn roll braids lining the scalp tightly, ensuring their longevity.
I want something that will truly resemble Africa—the women of Africa—like this statue surely does. After all, as Dominicans both my mother and I are of African descent….
“Would she see herself in it like I do?” I wonder. “Would she see her roots in it?” Would she be mad if she did? “What if she hates it? What if she only sees the nose and the corn roll braids and the tribal dress rather than the story? What if she’s insulted when I say it reminded me of her?
What’s if it’s… too African?
Because, although my mother is a great woman, like all of us, she is flawed. And while I search my mind for the various configurations of letters that would make this statement easier to write, perhaps more eloquent and less pejorative, the simple fact is: my mom can be racist.
Even, and perhaps especially, because of our history:
Dominican Republic, the place of her birth and upbringing, was once home to hundreds of thousands of slaves, both native Tainos and imported Africans from West Africa. However, after killing the majority of the Tainos, the importation of African slaves expanded. By 1790, Saint Domingue, the former name of Dominican Republic while under French rule, had half a million enslaved Africans, which constituted 80% of the total population. It’s well-known fact that slaves played a vital role in the construction of Santo Domingo, and, also a fact, most, if not all, of the country’s historic buildings developed off the backs of African enslavement. Traces of African, particularly West African, culture are still evident throughout the country today. One (of many) examples is mangu, the staple breakfast of Dominicans, which traces back to the West African dish, fufu. While nearly 90% of the country’s population is clearly black or mixed race, less than 5% self-identify as such in a national census. Needless to say, my mother is one such Dominican. She would never identify as African, even though she knows this history, and even though she knows that I do, in fact, identify as Afro-Latina.
One of her recent topics of concern was that her granddaughter (my niece) wouldn’t come out light enough. “The only thing is,” I heard her say, recounting the genealogical predisposition for my soon-to-be niece. “Annalin might be un poco prietica,” –‘a little darker,’ she had warned us all, seemingly worried. When I hear things like this, I can’t help but think of my own future kids. Would they be safe from this? Her scrutiny of their skin color? Was I too dark for her? Had she thought this of my when I was born?
“Perhaps this worry of hers comes from a place of good,” I would later hope. “Maybe she thought of the discrimination people of color, particularly black people, face and she just wanted to save her granddaughter from that sort of harm.” I began to empathize, but something still didn’t feel right.
“If Ariana does marry a black guy,” she said another day after I’ve insisted that my future husband will most certainly be black. “I hope he is like him.” She goes on to describe the qualities of a beloved coworker, one native to Ghana but who seems to have settled a small home in my mother’s heart. This man is kind, warm, loving, charismatic, educated, and the list goes on, my mom explains as if she’s shocked. It was endearing to think that my mother would think of the qualities she wished my husband to have, but after endlessly searching through the files in my brain, I could not find a single time she had made specific requests like these when I’d sworn I’d marry a white guy, at a time I believed that “white” was synonymous with all things perfect and endemic.
“Where are all the black people?!” I would yell another day, as I saw yet another trailer for a romantic comedy that continuously sent the message that black love is invalid, unimportant, not real, even. “Oh, Ariana,” she would say in Spanish, “You’re getting worse than Black people.”
On other occasions, she would insist that she wasn’t the racist one. “Black people are more racist than white people,” she explained one afternoon after I’d called her out. “Because black people are preemptively racist against white people.” Wasn’t her racism preemptive, too? Wasn’t it all the same?
This very conversation would come up again many times never getting very far.
One night though, she had had enough, but so had I. “They don’t have to put black people in their movies if they don’t want to, Ariana!” she exclaimed. “But they do!” I retort. “Filmmakers have a responsibility to make their films reflective of the audiences paying to watch them and the societies in which they take place!” I forget the rest, but it went something like this: She screams. I scream. Nothing is heard. Over and over. This was a problem. “The problem,” she ended the argument, “is that you think everything you say is right.”
And this statement? It was true; there were lots of times I’d pushed other stuff that most certainly wasn’t right. But at this moment, this time, I was never more certain that I was right and she wrong. She was wrong…right?!
With firm belief that she was wrong on this, I came back at her one more time. In an attempt to synthesize everything I ever learned as an Africana Studies minor in order to make her understand—in order to make her want to understand—I tried one last thing:
“We cannot” I said as calmly as possible, “act like hundreds of years of slavery and oppression haven’t taken a deteriorating social and economic toll on this group of people.”
“Ay! Ariana! Leave your education at school,” was all she said back.
Could this be right? Really?! She wanted me to leave my education—that which she and I broke our backs to pay for—at school?
Realizing this conversation was going nowhere, I urged her to let me know when she wanted to have a real conversation about race…
I’m still waiting.
And so is this vendor. Here. In this artisan market, once a slave market, where hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children were sold like the objects I see here before me.
Dominican Republic’s role in the slave trade starts to pull on me, as I look around. It is heavy, dark, and rancid. Today, I stand in this market as a tourist; 150 years ago, I could have been standing in this market as a slave. In this very market in the town of Bagomoyo, I can still hear the clashing of chains as the enslaved natives marched towards the shore. For millions of Tanzanians, seeing Bagamoyo was the end of a turbulent six month journey by foot—one during which they walked chained together and to large logs they carried, their own anchors— but only to arrive at the beginning of an even worse journey.
The slaves that marched through Bagamoyo and onto to Zanzibar were bought and shipped to several places. About a quarter went to Arabic countries, India, and Persia, where they were sterilized before entrance. Nearly a fifth went to south African countries and over half stayed on the east African coast. As a result, many of the town’s residents are the direct descendants of slaves, slave traders, slave owners, and porters.
And here I stand. In front of this woman, who, for all intents and purposes could have been a distant relative. And I have to make a choice.
A classmate from New York, Karina, comes over to investigate my possible purchase. We don’t have much time left. I explain to her my predicament in Spanish as to not offend my new dada, Swahili for sister, a term of endearment commonly used in Tanzania. “I love it,” I keep repeating, hoping my friend understands that I am not the racist one. That I want nothing more than to buy this gift for my mom. But it doesn’t take much convincing; Karina’s mom is Dominican too, I know, and so she understands.
“You know your mom best,” she tells me, when I ask whether I should buy it. I know she’s right, but this does not offer me the answer I need. The answer I want. The answer that tells me all those frustrating conversations about race were in my imagination. The answer that assures me that my mom—the one who put herself through school as a single mother of three to make things better for us; the one who strove every day to show us that God is good; the one who took three months off of work when she couldn’t afford to in order to sit by side during chemotherapy—isn't that flawed. The answer that tells me she will, of course, love any gift I get her. That she will see herself in it. That she would show it off, even, in real life or even just on Facebook.
My professor approaches and lets me know to start wrapping up our purchases.
In one last attempt to convince myself to buy the piece, I look back toward the vendor. “Ngapi?” I ask, inquiring about the price of the figure.
“Eighty thousand shillings,” she answers, and I quickly attempt to convert this into dollars. It wasn’t hard—$40, but it was expensive. I feel my wallet quiver deeper into my bag. I go to put the figure down, but it has attached itself to my hand. Submitting to its request, rather than putting it down, I simply pick up another with my other hand.
“How much is this one?” I ask the vendor, lifting up the elephant engraved candle stick. “Thirty thousand,” she responds.
Time is ticking.
I am about to just choose the candle stick, make it easy, but “What’s its story?” I wonder. Does it even have a story? Could I make up a story? Does my mom even like elephants?!
Time is still ticking.
That’s it. I’m getting the figure of the mother. “How much is it again?” I ask the vendor. “Eighty thousand?”
“Forty dollars, though?” For something she might hate? I think to myself. The friction of fabric to fabric as my wallet searches for a safe space begins creating a small hole in my purse.
“Bargain!” I think to myself. “Get the price down.” But I know I wouldn’t be any good at it and this woman deserves all the money in the world after the back and forth I’ve given her.
Time is ticking, faster still, it seems.
My leg begins shaking with anxiety and impatience for my own decision. I analyze the feature once more. Maybe she will give me that reassuring smile my mother always gives me. A smile that tells me not to worry, that everything will be okay, that I am on the “right track.”
But, she doesn't, and time… it's ticking!
I grasp the candle holder tighter in my hand while the other figure fills with envy. Sensing my inability to decide, she points to another, one of a family with a father carved in and says, “Or you can get this mother, with the father,” she suggests. I giggle and say, “No. My mother is definitely this one,” as I point towards the hard working mother, the one who stands alone with her children. The one who works hard for them.
She nods and offers a warm smile of understanding.
“I just want to get her something she will like,” I repeat to myself. I just want to make her proud.
My grip on the figure of the mother slowly loosens. I hold onto the hope that one day my mother will see things from my perspective, but perhaps forcing this gift on to her, trying to make her see herself in it—see her the way I see her— is not the best approach.
I leave the vendor with a hug and an “Ahsante sana sana sana!” Thank you very, very, very much. “Karibu sana,” she responds. She hands me the bag of my other wrapped souvenirs—small tokens for my sisters—and I walk away, slowly, no longer holding the mother figure.
I can feel the empty space in my hand where she was though.
She is not with me anymore, but she is.