Let’s be real – Krit really came to America to study black people…
This is the general consensus amongst my friends. Are they lying? Prolly not. In the spirit of Black History Month, I’ve decided to try and articulate my I’m-still-not-even-sure-what-to-call-it with black people starting with a recap I wrote in 2010 of one of my favourite weekends! Spelhouse [Spelman and Morehouse] Homecoming. It took place when I first moved to the east coast…
My all time favourite show of all time is “The Cosby Show” and so I knew a little bit about Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] since Dr Huxtable went to Hillman College [as did my boo Denise, which is the setting for “A Different World”]. Hillman’s fictional but they often used shots of Spelman to portray its campus. My close friend and classmate Ryan Glover [her uncle is Danny Glover from “Lethal Weapon” – well that’s what I tell everyone anyway] went to Spelman so I jumped at the chance to head down to Atlanta for homecoming.
The Gold Room – I kept calling it the Gold Tooth. It was like Pig Pen to the tenth power and I loved it.
The Hotel – Checking in on Thursday, there was a dodgy stain on one of the comforters so we got on to housekeeping. I’ve never heard of a black light service but apparently it’s on offer these days. On Friday I sat down in the lobby next to Allen Iverson. I had no idea until Ryan asked me “do you know who that is?” I turned my head and whispered back “is that Omarion?” Saturday was supposed to be a relatively quiet night but instead there was a shootout and a crazy lady in the business centre telling me the code for the cure for cancer.
Market Friday – Greeks. Strolling. Stepping. Stalls. Food.
The W – Mental. There had to be at least a couple of thousand people tryna get into this party and there was absolutely no structure in place. The promoters had their money from ticket sales so they weren’t too fussed about anything else. They had us all just standing there on an incline, getting squashed and heated. Some people woulda been there over an hour. You could feel the tension. All it would take is one person to say the wrong thing or nudge someone by accident and people would start losing eyeballs and other delicate body parts.
Looking up, hotel guests had their families on couches pushed up against the windows so they could gawk. Ryan was like “they’re prolly telling their children that this is what you call a social experiment”. I started laughing but Ryan warned me to be ready. Ready for what? Well, not even a minute later, the crowd snapped and everyone was bumrushing the doors. It was like the stampede in “Jumanji”. I felt sorry for this one girl who tripped and fell down. She woulda got trampled on by about 100 pairs of pumps – that could kill you. Another girl was screaming about how she only had one shoe on, there was no way she was getting the other one back that night. As we got closer to the entrance we caught a glimpse of the promoters packing up and running away while the bouncers had panicked looks on their faces. We got in just in time before the cops shut the doors on a few hundred people who prolly paid for their tickets but now had no way of getting in. I was good though. I was running on adrenaline at that point and I was in love with the DJ who was in tune with my iPod.
We ended up in another function too where Jazze Pha popped up in rosary beads. I called him out cuz I know he’s not Catholic.
Wafflehouse – I thought the Denny’s in Porirua on a Friday night was an experience but watching a statetrooper make an arrest while you pour banana syrup on your pecan waffle is something else.
Tailgating – There were thousands of people there and the majority had no interest in the football game. The atmosphere was awesome. You had alumni from 30 years ago jamming with their graduating class and if you took a few steps in any direction you’d find other generations right up to current undergraduates doing the same thing.
We walked around and around in what felt like a fashion show with everyone dressed to the nines [you would think half the girls were at the club]. I was impressed by the guy wearing a fur Eskimo hat when it was 25 degrees Celsius out.
Ryan kept yelling out “there goes Yo Gabba Gabba!” at the lady in the orange jumpsuit while I had fans of my own taking photos and hollering at me for my “Who Gon’ Check Me, Boo?” shirt [quoted from “Real Housewives Of Atlanta”]. I got mauled a couple of times but the worst encounter was the 40 year old lady in pink who apprehended me. She grabbed a hold of my wrist, talking about “I’M CHECKING YOU, BOO” with that glazed over drunk look. That’s when I called for help.
Universities don’t have homecoming where I’m from and students definitely don’t have the same sense of school pride like they do here. You can’t walk anywhere on this campus without seeing someone rocking the Lehigh brand and it was the same at Spelman and Morehouse with their gear. In New Zealand, you’ll be lucky to find three people in a week wearing university apparel. It’s a nice change. Anyway, after a 12 hour sleep, the first thing I did when I got back was watch “School Daze” and a few of the first episodes of “A Different World”. I really thought I was Dwayne Wayne.
As you can see my initial connection to blackness is quite superficial. Growing up, I’ve always been drawn to black recording artists, actors and athletes [the only real platform we’re exposed to blacks in New Zealand is entertainment since we have no sizable population here]. Attitude, presence, music, humour, energy – I was infatuated. The posters in my room were of TLC, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Bobby Brown and there’s nothing about them I didn’t know. If you know me, you know that when I go hard for an artist I don’t play around.
My appreciation didn’t really grow beyond that until I was 16 in my history class. We covered Black Civil Rights and I blitzed everyone on every assignment. I couldn’t get enough. I became hooked to the point where it was even printed in my yearbook profile.
While I loved what I learned, we barely scratched the surface. I didn’t quite know how to relate it to my world at that stage of my life [and there weren’t really any other opportunities to take further classes anyway] so my connection/comprehension reached another plateau. All that changed when I started at Lehigh.
While I didn’t specifically set out to make black friends, it was only natural that I fell in with the ‘students of color’ because that’s just how it goes. I’m comfortable socialising/making friends with Ws but you put me in a room where they’re the majority and I’ll automatically gravitate to the other brown faces. Of course this meant I was in my element – I finally had black friends!
Now I want it to be clear that I don’t think I’m black nor do I fetishise blacks. I’m very proud of my Samoan heritage. I embrace my culture and wear it proudly – it just so happens that I identify with another. Before I mentioned my affinity to blackness primarily through entertainment but through my new relationships, it became so much more.
It started with my classes at the College of Education. We would have brief discussions about institutionalised racism in the US and how it’s still very much prevalent and why. I’d later mull it over with my classmates whose parents/grandparents went to legally segregated schools and they described how schools are still segregated to this day but without the label. It opened my eyes as to just how segregated schools in New Zealand are. From there, all the other parallels started clicking. I was never naive to think racism didn’t exist in New Zealand – I just didn’t recognise the extent. You have to understand that there’s no real consciousness of it here. You’ll have certain events come up in the media from time to time but they get written off as isolated incidents. It’s as if the whole country is oblivious and/or in denial, including Pacific people.
Lehigh offered Africana Studies which was outside of my grad programme’s core courses but I pleaded with my academic advisor to let me take one and she agreed. It turned out to be my favourite class EVER so I audited three more Africana Studies courses despite them not counting towards my degree.
Through my classes and my friends, I’ve been able to view my life as a young Pacific male in New Zealand through the lens/theories of another marginalised group. It made me reflect on my journey as well as my family’s and everything started to add up. The most important person in my life is my Mum and so while I was processing all these new notions, I would always think of her and her story.
To come from Samoa to a predominantly white country as an infant and have it drummed into your head to assimilate and aspire to marry into a white family would give you all kinds of complexes. My Mum’s quite polished, slim, fine featured and considered ‘light-skinned’ [see Claire Huxtable] – she easily could’ve gone down the road of becoming a trophy wife but she didn’t. She moved away from her family in Auckland, met my Dad who was educated but fobby to the DEF [out of her 8 siblings, she was the only one to marry a Samoan] and they raised us in Porirua where we were in the thick of Maoris and islanders. Given the generational social norms of the time, it wasn’t quite her parents’ ideal situation but my Mum was comfortable and confident in her own skin. She passed that on to us – over the years there have been people [including my own relatives] who would try to make me feel like I was less for not being half-caste and for coming from the hood but I never did. I used to wonder where I got my free spirit from and now I know more than ever that it was from my Mum and I admire her for forging the path she did.
Watching my Mum fight her whole life, namely in her workplace of government departments, I didn’t quite understand the systemic abuse she was up against but coming back, learning what I’ve learned, we often have conversations about it and other obstacles and challenges our people face. It’s refreshing for us both. There’s ample amounts of black literature out there explaining all the issues compacted in the lives of people like my Mum all the way down to me but you’ll be hard pressed to find the same resources for Pacific.
I touched on my shared and familiar experience of racism in the US and New Zealand last year in an entry I wrote while I was quite shaken. It didn’t capture how much I celebrated my other shared and familiar experiences with blackness! Being so far from home and being the only Samoan within 100 miles, I quickly felt a strong sense of community and inclusion from my friends ‘of color’ where I could really express who I was without judgment. It enabled me to engage in all kinds of conversations and navigate certain spaces I was never able to before. I found a true connection that was no longer from mere observance and with that I flourished. I got involved in everything from writing for the Brown and Black [the socially conscious alternative to the mainstream school paper] to MCing the Office of Multicultural Affairs OMAR Awards.
I even started my own weekly mentoring programme at Lehigh targeting black and latino students called ‘Talanoa’ [the word used in Samoa and other islands for ‘talk’ or ‘discussion’] and initiated the first Black History Month speech competition at Lourdes University.
I had a blast. Now that I’m back, every now and then I feel like I’m missing out a little but then I remember my friends are still there. We talk all the time and I’ll see them soon enough. Next month, Leilani‘s coming to town! My first visitor. A sister with a Samoan name but named after a Puerto Rican. I’m too excited. Now I won’t be alone in jamming/bodyrolling while I’m driving with the volume turned all the way up, playing 80s/90s bops noone listens to anymore. Foolery aside, I’ve established a link that’s had a significant impact on my life and I’m thankful for it! Shout out to my brothers and sisters.
I miss black people.