My finger banged on the tiny doorbell. I paced back and forth trying not to fall off the tiny step. Finally, the door slowly creaked open. A girl, around my age, stood in the doorway rubbing her eyes and yawning.
“Hi, I’m Chizoba. I think your mom is supposed to do my hair today,” I said, gesturing towards the large black bag, overfilled with hair extension packets, that I was holding.
Before the girl could respond, a loud voice from inside the house boomed out. “Adaeze, who is that? Get away from that door!” A woman with a thick Igbo accent yelled out.
“Mom, Chizoba is here. She said that you were supposed to do her hair today,” Adaeze said, looking behind her.
“Okay, come in,” The woman replied in a calmer voice. The girl opened the door, allowing me inside.
As I entered the house, I noticed the state of the small living room. The linoleum tiles were faded and grimy. In the corner of the room, a large, rectangular table, entirely covered with piles of papers and magazines, took up almost all of the space. A small, flat screen tv mounted to the wall was playing News New Jersey.
The woman pulled out a small stool, with broken and chipped back legs, from under the table, put in right in front of the TV and motioned for me to sit down. I sat down on the hard surface and it buckled under my weight.
The woman tapped me on my shoulder, pulling me back to reality.
“Did you say good morning to me?” She asked, glaring and frowning at me. Damn it! I forgot to say good morning! Shoot! And I don’t even know what her name is!
Now that I’m thinking about it, when I’d entered the car that morning, Mom had warned me to greet the woman when I saw her. She looked me straight in the eyes and pointed her finger at me,
“Make sure to greet her. Say, good morning Esther. Do not be disrespectful to her. Do not be a disrespectful child.”
I looked up at Esther and said,“Sorry. Good morning.”
Esther nodded her head and there was a glimpse of a smile before she turned away from me. She walked over to the table and grabbed a small comb.
“Did you bring the hair?” She asked me. I nodded and pulled out the packs of hair extensions from the bag. Esther picked up the packs, turning them over and mumbling to herself. Then, she opened up a pack, took out the hair, and began working out the kinks.
Realizing that it was going to take a lot of time before she would start, I pulled out my headphones, and began listening to music. A couple moments later, I heard a woman’s voice saying “A man shot five times and left to die.” I took out my headphones, looked up, and saw “Breaking News” running across the bottom of the TV.
A reporter was reporting a couple of feet away from a row of yellow caution tape. “Just for the viewers tuning in right now, I am currently at the scene of what police suspect to be a robbery gone wrong. It took place at the corner on South 18th Street in broad daylight…”
As the reporter kept speaking, footage of the scene rolled. There was a group of cops talking amongst themselves and members of the forensics team were taking evidence. The reporter continued on,“And the police already have a suspect.” Footage of a man on a cellphone video rolled: in the background, you could hear music playing, as the guy, wearing a bandana to conceal most of his face, showed off a stack of money in one hand and a pistol in the other. The man was laughing in the video and smiling towards the camera. He was black.
The camera footage ended and the face of the reporter was back on the screen. “If you have any information, make sure to call Crime Stoppers New Jersey”. The reporter’s voice was cut off by the News New Jersey anchor. “Thank you Patricia,” she said smiling, “ And in other news-”
The voice of the anchor was cut off by a loud screeching sound. I turned away from the TV and saw Esther dragging a chair from the dining table. She was shaking her head and grunting as she looked at the TV. She placed the chair right behind me and plopped down onto it. In her hands were about three or four strands of hair extensions. She grabbed a portion of my hair and began braiding the extensions into my hair. While she was braiding, my eyes were still glued to the TV.
Suddenly,“Breaking News” flashed across the screen again.
The anchor began, “Police have detained the person they believed to have shot a 21 year old man.” As the anchor was talking, the video from before of the man showing off money to the camera, played.
“According to the police, the suspect— who is seen in this cell phone video— was a young gang member who shot the man while he was leaving his car. While the exact chain of events is not known, at some point the gang member ended up robbing the man of his wallet. Police believe…”
“Hmph!” Ester’s loudly grunted, interrupting the anchor. “Stupid boy!” She paused for a second, as if she was waiting for me nod my head in agreement. But then I just stared ahead, and after sucking her teeth, she continued braiding.
A couple seconds later, Adaeze came into the room. She grabbed the remote, and switched the channel.
“Ah-Ah! What are you doing!?” Esther yelled.
“I wanted to watch my show! What’s wrong with that?” Adaeze asked, crossing her arms.
“Change it back! Now!”
Esther stopped braiding my hair and looked at her. Her head was cocked to the side and her eyes were shooting Adaeze daggers. Adaeze shifted her feet nervously, but she still rolled her eyes. The laughter from the sitcom on the TV interrupted the silence.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Adaeze picked up the remote and changed the channel back to the news station. She turned around, threw the remote onto the dining table, and stomped out of the room muttering to herself.
The anchor was different this time. “At about 2:00 today, a 25 year old man was shot dead by a local gang member. Police have arrested a man by the name of James Smith, known to people in the area as J. The man….”
Esther sucked her teeth and grunted. She began mumbling to herself. “I work my butt off, I pay all the bills, I pay for her clothes, her food, and she treats me this way! What is she learning at that school? Is she learning how to be rude to her mother from her friends?” Esther was getting louder and louder, and now she was screaming over the anchor. “You are not one of those black Americans! You better stop acting this way or else me and your dad will need to have a serious talk with you. Okay! Because this behavior is not acceptable! It is unacceptable!”
In response to the screaming, a door upstairs slammed. Esther stood there fuming and shaking her head. Finally, she picked up some strands of extension hair and began braiding again. By this point, it was basically silent. I could only hear the sound of Esther’s hands twisting.
But after a while, she stopped. “You don’t act like them, right?” She asked me.
Them? Who’s them? I sat there confused by her question, until I realized that she was pointing at the TV.
Esther nodded her head, satisfied and picked up her comb again. I was squirming in my chair, though. I knew who “them” was. They were the black people that didn’t have Nigerian parents or African parents. The ones that didn’t go to an Igbo church or speak Igbo.
Suddenly, before I even knew what I was doing, my mouth opened. “Well, what do you mean by ‘them’?” I asked, even through I already knew the answer to my question.
Esther stood up from her chair and stood in front of me. She began braiding the front section of my hair. As she braided, though, she maintained eye contact with me.
Finally, she spoke. “You know, some of these people around here are just troublemakers. You are only a child. You do not know just how bad they can be. At the hospital, I see them come into the hospital for only two reasons: to deliver their babies or get a bullet taken out of them. They are out of control because they do not have African parents. Their parents cannot control them! It is not like back home— I mean, imagine if I was pregnant at such a young age. I would be dealt with harshly. My mother would beat me senselessly! You see, that is the problem with these kids— they have no discipline and their bad behavior is corrupting Adaeze. Unless I put a stop to it, Adaeze is going to be like one of them. And I will not let that happen. It will be too shameful!”
I sat there shocked by her ranting. But after a little while, the shock wore off. I mean, was it really so shocking? I mean, she sounded just like my family.
“You see the problem with those black Americans….”
“You see, not all of those black Americans can go to college. They don’t have meaningful professions. I mean, it’s just sad…”
“I hope you know that you’re not like one of those black Americans. You know you’re Igbo, right?”
“Just because you were born in America, doesn’t mean you’re one of those black Americans.”
It was always said. At cookouts, parties, meetings, or just on the phone. And every time I’d heard someone say that, I would feel a pang of guilt. “Those black Americans” that my aunties and uncles criticized were my friends. And they weren’t lazy, or pregnant, or violent, or messed up. They were just like me. They weren’t the devils that my relatives believed they were. But to my aunties and uncles, and even my parents, whatever they saw on the News was everyday life.
Every time the reports of car jackings, robberies, and shootings ran across the News, they were always marked with the mugshot of a black person or with the voice of the reporter saying “the suspect is believed to be a young black man.” The grunts and the shaking of their heads only told me one thing: that in our eyes, we were more respectable than “those black Americans.” My family, blinded by what they saw on the news about African Americans, had made it their mission to remind their children that they were always more respectable than “those black Americans.”
Finally, I spoke. “But that’s not how it is. Just because you see something on the news that’s bad about them, doesn’t mean that they’re all bad.”
Esther sighed. “Listen to me very carefully. Now, because you are a child, you just cannot understand this world. You know, not every person you meet is your friend. You need to understand that this world is very unsafe and that it is just better for you to stay away from certain people, if you know they are bad.”
I was pissed. “But they’re not bad! How can you call them bad, if you don’t even know them?”
Esther put down the extensions and moved away from me.
She took the remote and turned off the TV. She began pacing back and forth.
“Listen, I do not want to argue with you, but you do not get it! I have seen how they act, I know how they are.”
“Humph! They are even corrupting you! You did not greet me properly when you first came in and now you are yelling at me and talking back to me! You are being very disrespectful and you better stop now!”
I was ready to fire back. She was the disrespectful one. She assumed that the black people she knew here were nothing more than trouble. In her eyes, herself, her family, and all other Africans were a level higher than the rest of the black people here: that we were more respectable than “those black Americans”. In the eyes of the police, though, we were just the same as “those black Americans”. We weren’t more respectable or the “better blacks”. We may have had different cultures, but we were all black.
But I said none of that. I don’t know why, but all I could say to Esther was “I’m sorry.”
Unsatisfied with my apology, Esther replied, “For what?”
“For disrespecting you.”
With a smug smile on her face, she said, “Mhm. You better be.” I nodded and made sure to look up at her. Satisfied with my apology, Esther grabbed her comb and the extensions and began braiding my hair again.
I don’t know why I couldn’t just say the truth. I couldn’t tell her how stupid she sounded, because I had to abide by tradition. I mean, it just wasn’t worth it.
What was the point of arguing with her when she was just going to stay the same? There was no point in trying to change her mind or the minds of my parents and my uncles and aunties. They were biased against the black people that didn’t fit their mold of the right type of black person and they would always be. I just put my head down and stayed silent. After all, they would never change.
Evelyn Umezinwa lives in Union, NJ. As a child, she was encouraged by her father to read a lot and to think critically about the world that she lived in. In recent years, Evelyn has started to take writing seriously. She hopes that with every story that she writes, she can improve in her writing. Evelyn hopes that by writing about her Nigerian culture and heritage, she can educate others about it.