On Christmas evening my husband roused himself from his Hennessy stupor and football games on TV and brought me to our friend David’s house for Christmas. I had a very enjoyable time there because I sat next to David’s father at the table and I had a full view of the kitchen and livingroom which were inhabited by many of their family members.
I have learned since getting married that skin-color in itself is not a culture. As an American I’ve had a rather skewed and limited view of race. Meeting so many African people from different nations has exposed me to a deeper way of seeing people. I cannot say “Black people…” in general anymore because I’ve experienced so many different cultures and individuals from all over Africa. Color is such a small part of it since everyone has color.
David and his father have made their wealth in California by making the most of the real estate market. In contrast, David’s father told me that in Uganda there are no mortgages. He told me that with 20,000 USD I, or anyone could go to Uganda, build a house in the countryside and live off the land. This immediately created the germ of a fantasy in my mind.
This image of abundance was fed by the easy grace that this family had with eachother and the guests they welcomed into their home for Christmas. David’s sister welcomed the new children born this year who were experiencing their first Christmas. We clapped for them and paid them special attention to make it memorable. A beautiful woman was asked to pray and led us all in a powerful prayer that dedicated the occasion to Jesus Christ because it is His birthday and asked for His blessing for the meal.
The meal was not an ostentatious affair, like I would have imagined a typical American wealthy family to present. Instead it was a lavish feast of simplicity. Each person had as much as they desired. There was so much food, not even the sixty people attending could have finished it. There was collard greens, yellow squash, chicken stew, cassava (which I tasted for the first time), lentils, beans, peas, plain yogurt, plantain, biscuits, pork, brussel sprouts, longgrain rice with vegetables and a frosted fruitcake.
My husband, watching the football game grunted to me to bring him a plate. But since I was sitting next to David’s father and enjoying the conversations of the people who loved this man so much as their patriarch, I did not want to give up my seat.
I eat certain things with my hands, like chicken on the bone and hamburgers. I admit that when I’m alone I eat just about any kind of food with my hands. In college, while I moonlighted as a dancer named Sheba, I met the youngest senior resident at the University Medical Center, a tall, gifted Ethopian named Ted. He cooked for me and took me out to eat at Zemam’s in Tucson, Arizona on Broadway. Ethiopian food has a special flatbread that you scoop up other foods with. So I am accustomed to the idea of eating with your hands. Nigerian meals often include a doughy, uncooked “bread” that is eaten by hand. But before last night I had never seen another woman eat all her food with her hands before. It was very liberating. For a moment I realized how many hangups I have about the simple human experience of eating. She put handfuls of food to her mouth gracefully and joyfully. She took bits of food from her father’s plate. When other plates were being cleared she pulled them back to the table if they had a food she liked. She was pretty round though.
I could have stayed all night absorbing the faces of beautiful children alternately pulling on their mothers, then their fathers. I stared at the newborn baby, a son, just six days old with his first wavy, downy hair. The young women were so nicely dressed, enviably slim with flawless skin and impeccable braids and weaves. Some people looked like Ted Gedebou, long, lean with dark eyes and defined profiles. Other people had flat Asian eyelids although they were obviously African. The young men grouped together around the beer cooler and the older single men had seemingly serious conversations at the bar while they sipped their hard liquor.
The men and women with young children did not drink and left early. I was disappointed when my husband declared that it was time for us to go too. My husband and David walked out ahead of me trying to talk business without me. They were talking about us buying one of David’s houses. My husband was lying to David, acting like the deal was already in motion. His eyes were rolling and he was laughing his hyena laugh. There was a group of men my age on the porch dressed in velvet suitcoats and designer shirts. They stole those few moments of my husband’s pretense at business to beg me to stay which made me blush. I stammered, “The car is parked in the red,” and trotted off away from their voices saying, “Let him go. Stay.”
My husband yelled at me on the drive home when I asked about the potential purchase of a home. “You let me do the thinking, bitch. I’ll never make decision that be bad for us.” He’s trying to assert his manliness because he felt intimidated by David, maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t care. I had seeds of abundance planted in my imagination. A million dreams of Africa, love and family filled my consciousness. I opened the window and watched the moon like the Cheshire cat’s grin and then I began to laugh at my husband. I laughed loud and long in a forced cackle.
I feel deflated when I think of myself laughing at someone else like that. I am not an hysterical hyena. I am a lioness. Hyenas scavenge. Lionesses reign in abundance and strength. I vowed to myself never to use that foolish tactic to protect myself in the future. I will remain calm in the face of his coarse expletives, his crude insults, his cruel devaluations because it will make this short time with him more bearable for me now and keep me from any guilt when I leave him.
After all, I can control the words I say despite the adrenaline rush of fear when he’s cursing me. He’s really cursing his ex-wives, his ex-girlfriends who have betrayed him and crushed his ego. It has nothing to do with me. But I can’t control the flinch that makes me jump two meters back whenever he tries to touch me.
Currently reading: The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa
By Marcus Samuelsson
December 26, 2006 – Tuesday