When I was a little girl, I loved to wear African attire. For special events at school, whether it was my birthday or a school dance or a school dinner, I would transform from a nerdy black girl with what the white girls called a bubble butt into a Nigerian Cinderella. Everyone would “Oooh” and “Ahhhhh” and tell me how pretty I looked when I wore the outfits. This was a contrast from the other days of the week when I was teased about my jherri curl and how it left curl activator all over the bus seat. I would be decked out in vibrant wraps and blouses with colors such as golds and greens or aqua with fake rhinestones all over. I would get several comments from the teachers “You look very lovely today, Chinyere.” The cliquey girls in my school would be just a little bit nicer to me, asking me where my dress came from.
“The material comes from Holland,” I would say, feeling like an “ethnic” fashion model. “But my mom’s friend designed it and made it for me.”
They were amazed at the cost of the dresses and that the girl who could not afford to wear Benetton sweat shirts could afford such expensive clothing.
My African dresses would give me something to be proud of. Although I didn’t speak the language and I hardly ever touched fufu, I never felt more Nigerian than when I was wearing rapa, a blouse, and a headdress. Or even a long dress with colored stones (or stones of color?) and patterns.
When my entire family would go out to parties, we were a sight to see. My siblings and I would usually wear matching outfits – me and my sister and then my brothers in corresponding colors. We looked like an African-inspired choir, there were so many of us. Once, my Mom made us outfits out of a warm gold material. It was patterned with raised shells all over: the boys wore long seemingly oversized shirts that fell at the knee. They would also wear drawstring pants out of the same material. My sister and I had matching blouses and wrap skirts. Our mother would help us put on a headscarf and suddenly our headdresses were our crowns and our dresses our ball gowns.
My mother and father would frequently mix and match materials from each other’s outfits. For example, My dad’s pants would be made out of the same material as my mother’s headdress and skirt and they would wear the same color tops. But they were always the most impressive when they wore the same material from head to toe. My favorite outfit was when they both wore white lace outfits with rhinestones all over. My Daddy’s top would reach all the way to his ankles and when he stretched his arms out at his sides, he looked like he was swooping in to our home with white lacey mega-wings. He then wore a regal cap on his head – always black with red hand painted swirls and colored stones.
My Mommy always played the queen next to my Dad’s king. A short chubby lady, my mother rarely cared about her appearances. Around the house she would frequently wear pants with holes or shirts that were clearly the result of an accident in the laundry room. Mommy, did not care. However, when there was a party, all of a sudden, the swan emerged. I remember watching her tie the rapa round and round her waist. She would often ask me to hold the corners of it as she pulled the ends of the rapa. Finally, she would tie the two corners into a knot and fold into her skirt. Sometimes when she had gained weight, I felt like a servant in the days when women wore corsets-yanking and pulling the material until she could tie it. Afterwards, there would be a search for Mommy’s shoes. It would often take her a half an hour just to find a pair of shoes she felt she could wear with her outfit.
After the entire ordeal, we would emerge from our publicly subsidized housing, a royal family in Chicago. I remember an older African American woman riding in the elevator with us, one with glasses to large for her long thin face that matched her wiry body. Others would stare, watching our every move. “They look so pretty!” young teenage girls would say to each other, eyeing our caravan that younger kids would point. (Depending on his mood, our building security guard, Mr. Tucker, would smile and nod, or)
When I had my brief stint at Harvard, I remember a professor commented “In the 1970’s Africans would frequently wear their traditional outfits to distance themselves from African Americans. They don’t do that so much anymore.” I remember wanting to throw daggers at him with my eyes, but seeing as how he was a prestigious professor, I bit my tongue. I remember feeling outraged at such a comment. How dare he, I thought, him with his white wife. But I said nothing. For a second, I felt as though he had caca’ed all over my pride in my Nigerian heritage, but I immediately forgave him because I realized, a lot of people probably share that ignorance. He couldn’t understand that us Africans were assimilating with time in the U.S. and in our own way.
For example, most of the time, my parents wore Western style clothing. My younger uncles loved their jumpsuits and Adidas and the women took to getting their hair done every couple of weeks at the salon just like many American Blacks.
However, every once in a while, Africa would appear, even in the Western outfits. I remember when my uncles would first arrive in the country with their crazy patterned pants and non-matching t-shirts saying “Do the Right Thing” or “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” When I was a little girl, I frequently reminded my dad that he could not wear a black and white suit with a blue and white striped shirt. He would relentlessly argue that they both had white in them, but I would not back down before he left for church or work. Sometimes, he would wear the outfits anyways and looking at him in those crazy get ups almost gave me a headache.