“Where Are You Really From?” I’m An “Exotic” Black Girl

20 Oct

by Janday Wilson

To some, this is the face of an African queen.

To some, this is the face of an African queen.

“Oooh, you’re exotic. I’m going to call y’all Godiva!”

That was what a Southern gentleman exclaimed to me and my friend after we told him that our families originated from Liberia and Nigeria, respectively. We had struck up conversation with him and his friends outside of a club and, in exchanging the usual pleasantries and the bits of information you feel comfortable sharing with strangers, he asked us where we were from. I told him Connecticut, she told him New Jersey.

“No, where are you really from?” he countered.

I am always slightly thrown off by these compliments tempered with inquiries into my cultural background, no matter how frequently I get them. I do not know which features give away the fact that my roots are not in America, but the comments that I receive about my appearance often reveal people’s thoughtful or ignorant perspectives on Africa and Afrocentric standards of beauty.

An unwanted seatmate on a train spent the entire hour-and-a-half trip calling me beautiful and stressing to me that he always found dark-skinned women attractive, as if he should be praised for this decision. (Skin color in the black community is a whole other issue.) He was so proud to share that he nearly got hit by a bus while staring at a “blue-black African-looking woman” who was crossing the street. The conversation took an even more ridiculous turn when I told him I was Liberian.

“Do you speak African?” He then proceeded to spit out a bunch of guttural clucks, and I was this close to smacking him in the face.

A good friend once told me, “You look African” and then she quickly followed that fact with, “That’s not a bad thing, though!” Now, why would that be a bad thing if I AM African and consider myself to be attractive?

I know that she did not intend to harm me with that statement because she, like me, grew up exposed to the foolish belief that Africans are dirty and unattractive. I have heard too many stories about kids running around schools, calling their fellow black classmates, “African booty scratcher.”

People have told me that they knew people who rejected their African heritage because they were teased. And I have a handsome cousin and a good-looking friend, both full-blooded Liberian, who have been told multiple times, “You’re so cute! You don’t even look African!”

Thankfully, no one has used “You don’t look African!” to compliment me. I have encountered guys who have gotten more excited, rather than surprised, when they learned that I am of West African descent.

When I told this guy who was hitting on me that my family is Liberian, he was thrilled. “I was that guy who saved old copies of Ebony to stare at the African models they had in the back pages!”

And a videographer shooting me for a video was so enthralled by my features. He asked where I was from, and when I told him he said, “That explains it. Your features are beautiful, wonderful for the camera!”

Something that I find hilarious, yet endearing is the reverence some men have for Africa and African women. My friend’s Jamaican (possibly Rastafarian) ex-boyfriend told my boyfriend that he had better treat me right because he has an African queen.

When I vacationed with the same friend, who is of Jamaican descent, to the Bahamas, one of our many Bahamian admirers told her, “You are beautiful, but this is the original beauty, right here [gesturing to me]. Africa.”

These encounters make me laugh because I never claim to be royalty, unlike the girl in my high school who convinced people that she was a Nigerian princess. And I do not believe I am superior because my family tree is planted firmly in the Motherland. (Well, not exactly, but I won’t get into a history lesson about Liberia.)

I have been told that my cheekbones give away my heritage, and others say I have a slight accent (despite the fact that I was born here), but no one can definitively tell me how they know I am not of American descent.

I love my West African features –- dark brown skin, kinky hair, wide nose, and full lips –-  but I am still bewildered when my looks pique people’s curiosity. Perhaps, you can blame a culture that praises Eurocentric (or racially ambiguous) features. But at least my features have sparked conversations about my heritage, which I am always proud to represent!

xo jane

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