"Tales of an African Booty-scratcher" is a weekly series in which I will share my experiences growing up as an American Nigerian in Chicago. Here is a sample of what you will be reading over the next few weeks.
On weekdays, us children were not allowed to watch television. Right after school, I had to come straight home, have a snack or four, and do my homework. Since it was the 1980s, people like me were called “latchkey kids,” children who were often home alone waiting for their parents to come home. We were a national epidemic because we were unsupervised, without babysitters, and left to fend for ourselves in emergencies.
Nothing terrible ever happened to me. The worst thing was when I was about 9 years old and accidentally placed something really hot in the garbage can. As I smelled smoke, the easiest thing was to throw the garbage down the chute. When I later heard Mr. Tucker and some neighbors discussing how a fire had started in the garbage chute, I feigned ignorance. While I knew I was responsible, I wasn’t going down for it.
Every year, I watched many of the comings and goings of my fellow residents from the screened window of our third-floor apartment one floor above the laundry room. I would sing along to these songs, the same ones I had learned doing summer camp at the Chicago Park District summer camp over the summer. There, I learned to circulate my waist to get the rhythm of the hotdog with the rest of them. Once summer ended, however, I would go straight home after school to do homework. I was often surprised at how many children my age were outside jumping rope while I practiced long division or multiplying decimals. On Fridays, if my mother was available, she would take me outside to play with the other children. But those were rare occasions.
Once, a little Black girl my age came knocking on our door. “Can you come outside and play?”
I ran to my mother, who gave an abrupt, “No!”
There was too much to be done at home. The carpet needed vacuuming, dishes needed washing, a refrigerator to help clean, baby milk or food to heat up, a tub to scrub, laundry to be done, etc, etc. Being the eldest daughter meant taking the role of the housegirl that my mother would have had should she have stayed in Nigeria and maintained or improved her social status.
But shame is a powerful motivator. Brave mothers would occasionally came to our door with their daughters my age. I cannot recall their names now. Other mothers reminding my own that their children were enjoying life while I was working the second shift. This was the only way I would be allowed to figure out when Miss Mary Mack all dressed in black would be returning. Those blessed days were only on Friday or Saturday during the school year.