The History of Racism I Didn’t Want to Share
The New York Times by JANE MADEMBOAPRIL 7, 2017
Brad J. Vest for The New York Times
One day I returned from lunch to find four or five police detectives in the office I share with others at a college library. It turned out that a valuable book was missing, and the police had received my name as someone who might have come in contact with it. In fact, I had never touched the book.
African-Americans in other departments immediately suspected racism. “Look at the people in your department — who do you think they suspect took that book?” they said. I brushed them off, but I started feeling uneasy. I had heard that racists could use law enforcement as extra ammunition to silence their victims; now I worried I was experiencing this firsthand. I found myself consulting African-Americans I trusted and respected because I doubted myself. I wanted them to tell me that I was wrong. But they all nodded knowingly, as if this was something they had all gone through.
Like millions of other immigrants, I had been lured to America by the promise of the American dream. I arrived here from Zimbabwe more than a decade ago on an F1 student visa. The AIDS pandemic was gripping my country, in addition to civil unrest and economic calamity. My sister and numerous relatives were among hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans whose lives were cut short by AIDS. I hungered to make new connections to replace those I had lost or left behind. White Americans were friendly but spoke to me about African-Americans as if they were of a different species. They referred to black neighborhoods as full of drug addicts and criminals. This didn’t bother me because I considered myself African, not African-American.
Those first days in America I became acquainted with Marjorie, a tall African-American woman in her mid-60s. Dreadlocks flowed down her back like a cascading river. In Marjorie’s living room, African masks, wooden sculptures and African fabric competed for space on the wall. We bonded over her love for Africa. Marjorie was outspoken about her opinions of white people. “They are evil,” she said, face twisted with emotion. Marjorie did her grocery shopping in upmarket neighborhoods. “I want to buy the food they are buying,” she explained. “They fill our supermarkets with foods that cause health problems in our communities.” At her house, Marjorie made me watch “Birth of a Nation.” “So you can see how evil white people are,” she said. However, not all African-Americans share the same view as Marjorie, even her children. Her son, from whom she was estranged, was married to a white woman, and they had three children.
When I finally emerged from her house, I felt like I had woken up from a nightmare. The America she painted for me wasn’t the America that I had come to see.
As an African, I felt a connection to African-Americans because of our shared history. But privately, other Africans and I accused African-Americans of clinging to the past, of not letting go. I felt burdened by the stories of racism they shared. I wanted to stay African and on the fringes of American political issues. Until I experienced racism myself I could never understand someone like Marjorie.
For many years racism performed a dance around me, without actually touching me. It was something I read about, as I read about the Holocaust or watched “Schindler’s List.”
Now that I have accumulated my own catalog of racial incidents, racism is more real to me than words on paper. When the police showed up in our office I was scared and alarmed, especially given widely publicized incidents of violent contact between police and minorities. Being black, I felt like a condemned woman. I felt vulnerable and defenseless. I thought about Marjorie, and about those African-Americans whose voices I dared to disbelieve. I understood then that the embers of racism were still smoldering in America. Racism is not just about burning crosses, crude signs on bathroom doors or graffiti on walls. It doesn’t announce its arrival. It often ambushes its victims, like the sudden appearance of plainclothes detectives.
Now that I am an American citizen, American history is part of my history. I have to bear the burden of its past, present and future.