IBé, The African-in-America
Columbus has been sort of a weird city for me to wrap my mind around. Before this July 4th weekend, I had been there perhaps three times. My cousin lives there with his family. And from my first visit there, I have always been surprised at the number of Guineans (and other Africans) living there. For some reason, when I think of Columbus, I think of it as a small town in the middle of Ohio. Yes, a small town. If it’s in Ohio and it’s not Cleveland or Cincinnati, it’s got to be small. At least I thought so. Yes, it is the state’s capital. But Americans have a weird way of making capitals out of sleepy towns in the middle of nowhere. Like Chicago is not the capital of Illinois. Maybe it makes sense, because New York is not the nation’s capital. Where I’m from, the biggest and most populous city is always the capital. Like Conakry is the capital of Guinea, Freetown of Sierra Leone, Abidjan of Cote D’Ivoire (forget what Houphouet tried to do with Yamoussoukro; or Nigerians tried to do with Abuja when they knew damn well, you cannot just move Lagos and call it something else).
So yes, I always think of Columbus as some small city. And the first time I visited (in 2000 I believe), I thought it was a small broke town. I didn’t see anything that impressed me. On the drive from the airport, I remember seeing lots of empty lots with waist-high lawn surrounding broke down houses and abandoned rusty cars. When I saw inhabited houses, they looked like they should be banned. When we got to town, they had wide highways with hardly any cars on them. The mall was mostly empty (though I saw a Lamborghini parked outside, a Black guy next to it with keys in his hands. No, he didn’t look like a valet. I took a little pleasure in that).
So I have always wondered why and how my people came to find this town in the middle of this lesser known state in a region not very popular with Africans. I know how this sounds coming from an African living in Minnesota. But just because Minnesota too doesn’t make sense don’t mean I can’t call out Ohio. Anyway, this time I decided to do some digging.
By the numbers, with an area of about 212 square miles and a population over 780,000 Columbus is actually bigger and more populous than Minneapolis. Get out of here! It is not only the biggest city in Ohio, it is the 15th largest city in the nation. Seriously!? That’s what the numbers says. Then how come they don’t have a profession basketball, football or baseball team? Beats me. Perhaps as a metropolis, it is not that big. At least not compared to the Cleveland or Cincinnati metro areas. But still, I was surprised, mildly impressed.
Of the 780,000 or so residents, nearly 200,000 are either foreign born or children of immigrants. Few write-ups mention the Ethiopian and Somali populations. I can tell you the Guinean population is not small either. It seems when you wonder about a Guinean living in the US, if they are not in New York or the DC area, your next best bet is Columbus. How did this happen? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I know my cousin’s been there since first arriving in the country in 1998. After spending couple of months in Chicago, he moved to live first with a friend until he got on his feet. Since he got on his feet, I don’t think there’s been a period when a new arrival was not living with him waiting to get on their feet. We joke that he is single handed responsible for half of the Guinean population in the city. And it shows in the camaraderie.
On my second visit, he was hospitalized at the University Hospital. At the time, he was not married, and didn’t have any family members (except another cousin) living in the city. But for the few days I was at the hospital with him, his bedside was never deserted. Guineans (and indeed other Africans) surrounded him at every hour of every day. I was really moved by the “family” they had created in that city. It made it a bit easier for me to return to Minnesota before he was released.
So when I went this time, I had a better perspective. My cousin was out of town, and from what the doctors told us, his mother was laying in their apartment dying from cancer. And this is the woman who raised me. Needless to say she is more important to me than my own biological mother. But knowing what I now knew about the community of Guineans in the city, I suspected she was surrounded by “family”. Besides, this time around, my cousin was married, and his wife was home with her mother in-law.
The drive (with a cousin; my sister, her husband and their son) was solemn. We didn’t know what we were driving to: last hours, last days or funeral. We just wanted to get there in time to see and talk to our mother one last time before she journeyed on.
Maybe we took a different road into town, but there was something different about the city this time around. There were clean new houses everywhere I looked, busy traffic and big buildings, clean sidewalks, green trees and flowery shrubs. As we approached the address, the streets were bustling with cars and people alike. And it seemed, at least in that part of town, there were hotels and motels everywhere!
Where my cousin lives reminded me a lot of home. It is a “compound” of mostly townhomes. The buildings stand in a circle with only one entrance into the compound. This is how family houses are build back home. In the enclosed space, kids ran between parked cars, in one home and out the other. Most of the renters were either Guineans or Sierra Leoneans, and they interacted like one big African family. It reminded me of one of those Great Zimbabwe ruins.
My cousin’s two-bedroom townhome was crammed with visitors; and more kept coming, each with a dish in tow. The refrigerator was full and so was the counter. The men stepped outside. The children (the ones that lived there and the ones visiting) continued their play. At the back of one of the complexes, Sierra Leoneans (I was told) were having a BBQ party. From my cousin’s yard I could see the smoke rising to the sky, with P-Squared singing in that new Afro Hop sound in the background.
It all seemed like a festival. But inside my mother was dying. And there was nothing we could do, but wait. Such is the sad state of humanity. With all our “achievement” it gets to a point when all we can do is wait and pray.
The Saturday when we first got there, she was strong enough to not only hold a conversation, but even walked a visitor back to her car. However, by Sunday night, we had to call the ambulance because she was too weak and in too much pain. They kept her at the hospital that night.
The last I saw her, her chest was heaving heavily up and down in a laborious attempt at breathing. Outside in the parking lot, I could no longer hold back the tears: Life is an illusion or God is a cold-blooded killer. Because it hurts when I pinch myself, I’m leaning to the lather.
It is very likely that is the last time I see my mother. Because the news coming out of Columbus a week since we left is not good.
Gerald, the African-American
[What began as a trip home for a younger cousin's wedding turned out to be a much needed and long overdue therapeutic stroll down memory lane. And while this experience in no way makes up for everything I had to endure growing up, it certainly invoked reflection of the depth from which I came, thus solidifying the man I've become (despite the hand I was dealt). Most importantly it taught me first hand the true meaning and purpose of closure. I hope that by sharing this experience you are inspired to seek true closure.]
Columbus, Ohio – the home of The Ohio State University Buckeyes and city where “Michigan” is a four-letter word. I still bleed Scarlet and Gray! The blue-collar mentality of this capital city has always been just what a Boy Scout like me needed – even when the city no longer needed me (referring to the recession in the early 1990’s which subsequently lead to my enlistment in the U.S. Marines). I love the attitude of the people; the almost southern ways of the women and the “F it, I’m down” mind-set of the men. I always tell anyone who asks that the people are what I hate most about Minnesota and love most about Columbus. If it were not for the African community I would not be in Minnesota. I would have moved back to Columbus a decade ago.
The first week of July would be the second time in 6 years that I had an opportunity to visit my hometown. This time was for my cousin Tamekia’s wedding and I would be in town for an entire week. So I had planned a few mini-reunions as well would attend the annual Eastside Reunion – for the first time. Initially I had no intention of seeing the old neighborhood. I had driven through it on previous visits so it wasn’t something I felt compelled to do on this trip. But after picking up my rental car a strong urge to see my old projects took over the steering wheel and headed in that direction. Once I arrived I knew I had to get out and walk the grounds, to take it all in…
The Present, as in the here and now, is life’s pacifier; obliging those of us fortunate to exist in it to forgive then consequently forget the most authentic lessons of our past, as it limits our worries and concerns to today’s sunset. Because tomorrow’s sunrise, people say, is not guaranteed.
Hence, I never once considered that closure could be so necessary to opening one’s future. Previously believed impossible to ensnare, the prospect of closure seemingly grew more elusive as the years dissolved. Time, then, being the only true way we got over negative experiences, making closure a condition forced upon us when the appropriate time had elapsed.
When people thirst for revenge masquerading as justice, it is sought in the name of closure – as if it were a constitutional right, criminal for any to deny. When jilted lovers want one more chance to tell their ex just how much the sudden breakup devastated he or her, they say the confrontation would bring them closure. So, until now, I’ve always felt closure was nothing more than an excuse to impose consequences onto offenders they knew deep down wouldn’t atone, but the mere act of requesting it relieves them of any and all residual accountability for starting the healing or forgiveness process. Or perhaps it was to have one more chance to extend a moment they were forced to let go of; like a cliffhanger does for a novel.
But as I recently visited the rehabilitated site of my birth and various dilapidated locations of my childhood, I found myself staring into the past searching for a little boy and hoping he was able to see the me he had become. I so desperately needed him to know that everything worked out for the better, and that he was right about me; the adult him. Then for one brief moment I did see him; translucent and discolored by time, but I saw him nonetheless. He was a beautiful boy, modestly dressed and overly serious for a child his age. He used shyness as a shield or cloak of invisibility, as if to protect or hide from the rest of the world in plain sight. But I could see him nonetheless.
Before I had time to fully appreciate what was taking place, little me acknowledged my presence with a quiet smile and gentle wave. He saw me! Then just as suddenly as he materialized to wave a final goodbye, his smiling face and waving hand faded into forever. And as I stood there for a moment, in the moment, baptized by my own tears, I realized right then and there, closure had occurred. And it was wonderful, and deserving, and necessary.
Several nights throughout my life I’d dream variations of the same dream: I’d go to the old neighborhood to either visit relatives or that I still lived there in some capacity (either full time or part time). However when it was time to leave I could never find my car. I’d pace the parking lot trapped in the projects, but feeling as if the car was still there somewhere. So having seen with my own eyes that the project housing apartments I called home for most of my childhood had been completely made over, as if to remove every trace of it from both my past and future, was… emancipating. It was as if I were a spectator, watching my present atoned for my past and paid forward to a hopeful future.
I was transformed. Into who or what, I am not exactly sure. But I knew that I had been released from whatever held me captive all these years. This liberation, a confirmation that I had finally made it out of the projects, seemed to possess my entire being – as if to validate the notion that I should have never taken residency there in the first place! And as I gathered myself and parted ways, I thought that maybe, just maybe, knowing the buildings were no more, I will never have nightmares of returning to the projects again.
The good book says that if a man finds a wife he finds a good thing. For me, finding closure was pretty good thing too.