When Angels Become Humans

I was always startled when I met African Americans who were desperate to move to Africa. “Oppression, injustice, racism,” were reasons they always cited, reasons that I never felt were good enough. All I could think of were the thousands of Ghanaians scheming and sleeping outside the U.S. embassy just for a chance to be in their shoes. When I asked why Africa, I often got a romanticized view that saw “Africa as the birthplace of humanity, the link to a forgotten wisdom, and the land where the black man is king.” The more I heard this response, the more I wanted to crush the fantasy. Yet, here I am, years later, humbled, sympathetic, and with a different story, so please just bear with me.

When I was younger, I had an itching to travel to America*. From the silver screen, America was the land of the “Fresh Prince,” hip hop, and burgers that looked bigger than cars. I was fat with envy as I eyed the chosen few cram their bags with shito and gari, wheel their bulky luggage through the airport lobby, and eventually, vanish into that shimmering mirage called America. Their return was just as painful for they arrived as different creatures; their cheeks were plumper, their voice was crisper, and their skin glowed with life. Once they opened their bags, the scent of McDonald’s crept out and the NY Knicks jersey shivered under the Ghana heat, terrified to be in a strange land. How I desperately wanted to see America and my wish came true in 1999, when my dad was offered a scholarship to study and allowed to bring his family along.

America was everything I imagined it to be. Granted, I was in Wilmore, Kentucky, a small town that barely saw any action, but I was in America nonetheless and I was going to enjoy every minute. I wolfed down burgers, pizza, steak, brownies, corndogs, casseroles, tostitos, nachos, slushies, smoothies, milkshakes, and anything my stubby hands could find. I drowned myself in sitcoms, movies, computer games, hip hop, and video games. When I awoke one winter morning to find a snow smothered porch, I rushed outside to make snowballs, snow angels, snowmen, and I lick the snowflake just like I’d always seen on tv. It was an unforgettable year and it’s no wonder I reduced America to 3 things: food, fun, and entertainment.

Fast forward, six years later, I was back to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony in New York. Reflecting on what to do with my life, I decided I wasn’t ready to return to Ghana, so I stayed and eventually found a job working security. One of the first places I was sent to was a Methadone Clinic somewhere in Harlem. It was a crusty red building with a gray lobby and metal shutters that felt like prison bars. Before this experience, I’d never seen a junkie before, much less a swarm of them which is why the Clinic caught me off guard. They were shapeless beings with twisted faces, busted lips, blackened gums, pushing, and shoving to get their fix for the day. “Back up, you rent-a-cop,” they barked at me, exerting the little power they had, but all while trying to hide their humiliation. There’s one incident, though, that stands out in my mind.

The clinic closed everyday at 1:30pm, sharp. No exceptions. That’s what I told the scrawny white man wearing a dirty wife-beater and tattered blue jeans. “Plea..as..eee, can’t they jussttt, llet me in,” he stammered, pleading that I open the door. There was nothing I could do but that didn’t stop the begging. Then, for some strange reason, he just stood still. I was expecting him to speak but all he did was stare blankly into the distance. Till this day I wonder what thoughts raced through his mind: would he be able to function at work, control the shakes, or would he have to find another solution? I’ll never know. All I know is a minute passed, a glassy tear rolled down his cheek, he wiped his nose, and hobbled away in despair. Hardly the America of my childhood.

Yet, I won’t blame my naivete, the myth of the “American dream,” or the glossy images of the U.S for my disillusionment. I’ll simply say when home becomes drab, monotonous, and frustrating, it’s comforting to dream up a land somewhere over the rainbow where every hope, dream, and desire is fulfilled. The locals will always snicker at the sentimentality because they know the truth and can’t afford to live outside of it. For those, however, who are outside looking in, the land is a promise that life can be better. So when the chance to live in the land presents itself, there is a simple joy just by touching the soil. The sights, sounds, smells, are fresh and overwhelming and it’s easy to live as an angel, unscathed and unmoved by the troubles. But, time, eventually has the final say. A point will come where the eyes will adjust to the glow, the body aligns to the rhythm, and we step off the clouds, learning anew how to sweat, laugh, love, fight and live in the land as humans.

So if I ever meet another African American who wants to come to “Africa,” I’ll invite them to Ghana because it’s a beautiful land with breathtaking beaches, an amazing story of colonization and liberation, and a people that will dip you in the blood of Jesus for so much as a cough. Yet, it’s also a land of incredible hardship, where young people struggle to find their way and the system lets it people down too often. The same can be said about America, or pretty much any land. Ultimately, the only thing that differentiates a land, beyond the economics, standard of living, geography and so on, is whether we live as angels or humans.

* When I say America, I mean U.S.A. Even though America really refers more to the continent, no one I know, past and present, ever really makes the distinction.

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