Her hips were too wide for the bus seat, and the weight of embarrassment that hovered above her head pressed downwards, its weight growing unbearable as she shifted in the inadequate space. She mumbled apologies each time her fleshy thigh rubbed against that of the sinewy one of the slim girl next to her, and flinched every time the arm rest dug into her side. Her humiliation expanded to fill the air around her, as she sensed her neighbor’s looks of disgust flashing in her direction. The bus eventually paused somewhere between Maryland and Philadelphia, and she watched as two young women climbed onboard with bright wax print tied around their heads in a style she had never seen before. Their oversized beaded bracelets rattled loudly, competing with the peals of their self-conscious laughter. She noticed their eyes slide past hers immediately after they made eye contact, almost as though they were guilty of an offense they were convinced they had left behind in a flurry of college acceptances and green cards. She was a reminder of their hidden pasts and unwanted futures; the slow-moving, wide-hipped mothers they had abandoned to tend the weak fires of rusty coal pots. She was a symbol of their most profound fears, the kind of unsophisticated African womanhood they were attempting to fight off every time they preached the danger of stereotypes in their classes, the sing-song tones they erased from their clipped, flat English, the kinks they stretched and elongated or twisted out and pressed in an effort to show that glamour also had an African name, and it was Ngozi, not Blessing. For them she represented a counter-ideal, a monument which may have been a foundation for their very existence but one which they only now grudgingly claimed. She was the smell of onions and wood smoke lingering in a faded wrapper, a stench they chased away every day with shower gels and body butters infused with a hint of shea. Her stare was an accusation, a death sentence, a piercing ululation in the middle of the night. Their glossy coating of pride and #carefreeblackgirl concealed a more sinister layer of self-hatred, one that had also fallen victim to the same Western gaze it tried (and failed) to reject.
Not all African women live in villages and carry pots of water on their head from riverside to hut all day long.
Not all African women are mutilated and oppressed, not all of them are somebody’s third wife.
But my mother did, and she was, and still is.
What is this woman staring at? Do we owe her money? Mtchew. She’s one of those bush women that can’t mind her business. Probably with no papers. Don’t mind her. We don’t owe her anything at all.