I know this about myself: I am a writer and I am an obruni.
Obruni is a term that comes from the Ghanaian language of Twi and it translates to foreigner or, more archaically “white man.” I was born in Houston, TX. My mother was born in Durham, NC and my father in Lome, Togo. I was raised, primarily, in Accra, Ghana. In my life I have lived in four countries and three states and through it all, I have had trouble identifying myself as an American.
The United States has been a constant symbol of idolatry for me. As an elementary school student, I ordered my father to bring back suitcases full of Oreos and Cheetos from his business trips, simply for the sheer commercial joy of the American name-brand. So when I moved, by myself, from Accra, Ghana to the outskirts of Northwest Michigan at age 15 to attend boarding school, I was, for the first time since the age of 3, ecstatically emerged in America, in my obsession.
Now I am going to say something that doesn’t get said enough; I love the Midwest. Perhaps because it was the first place that I lived in the United States where I was old enough to form an opinion, but I suspect there are others out there like me.
Coming from West Africa with absolutely no background in American history, the Midwest was the America I had always envisioned. This was the America I had gleaned from hours of Lifetime Television for Women made-for-tv movies; a place where my first poetry teacher, a farm girl, actually had her first kiss on a hayride, where soda was referred to as ‘pop’, the forgotten frontier of endless strip malls and moms in department store khakis pulling up to Rotary Club meetings in their Toyota minivans to talk about foreign lands they might never see, the backwards mud people saved by $5 a month set-aside through clever coupon usage down at the Piggly Wiggly.
This America had no milkman, but still had glass jars of milk so thick it bordered on cream available in the back of every market. It was the birthplace of the juggalo, a place where that 15-year-old girl with the hem of her boyfriend’s letterman’s jacket landing just past her stubbly kneecaps would always be real.
This was an America of folksy down-home wisdom, where people could find inner peace in the lyrics of country songs and where, in Iowa, boys with five gallon hats and spurs for hearts fell asleep with the bitter tang of cheap beer on their lips every night.
This was an America where most ignorance was mistaken honesty, a painfully honest America.
I ask you, is there anything more heartbreaking than the transparency of a 13-year-old mall goth in nowhere-town Illinois?
This was an America where the winters made you honest, where you found yourself on long walks by a creek, where birdsong was a second language that everyone spoke fluently. This was, to me, the American dream.
So to me, a summer interning in Washington, D.C. meant nothing, at least geographically. I did not even think about its history or importance, the fact that it was the center of the United States.
In my heart I had already planted the capital somewhere firmly between Wisconsin and Nebraska with no plans for movement. What could it mean to me when I had already found my America?
So I hardened my heart to this place, absolutely refused to be swayed by the constant coincidence of walking past the bureaus of government I had been researching for work mere hours before, acted supremely nonchalant and urbane when I happened upon the White House accidentally on my lunch break, or the Watergate building while searching for a neighborhood grocery store.
What did I care if my apartment was a five-minute walk away from world-class programming at the Kennedy Center?
Why should I be excited that if I ever got bored I could stop into any number of museums and lose my heart in countless numbers of art masterpieces for free?
This city was not going to buy my love with its historical architecture, countless independent bookstore/coffee shops, or its feeling that no matter what part of the city you found yourself in—or how sweaty you were from the relentless heat—you could bump into someone with the capability to change your life. I was resolved, but I have been broken.
I have started a love affair with this city, walking aimlessly around different parts of town with my headphones in, the 50-year-old male executives on the Metro in suits and Oakley sunglasses, the same homeless man in McPherson square who calls “good morning baby” to me daily on my way to work.
I am learning the beauty of a city with context, how much more important an LGBT Pride festival can seem when the Capitol Building looms in the background the entire time.
And working here at Americans for the Arts, an organization whose mission I believe in so much feels important, like I’m making a real difference in a city obsessed with making a difference.
It may not be my America but it’s the first America to ever make me feel less like an obruni and more like an American and for that, I give thanks.