My sisters and I, along with my cousin Benealda, were marked the moment we moved into the Woodcroft Apartment complex. We were branded with a large red scarlet “A”. Our “A” did not represent the adulterous sins of Nathanial Hawthorne’s character. Our “A” stood for something much more foreign…Africa. In 1992, we migrated from our home state Providence, Rhode Island to Fall River, Massachusetts and now we were settling down in the south, Stone Mountain, Georgia.
I don’t remember exactly how the kids in our new neighborhood discovered that we were African. Maybe we told them. After all, we were first generation Americans who wore our Liberian heritage on our heads like crowns.
“Hi, what’s y’alls names?” they probably asked.
“Lemriel, Kia, Benealda, and Manseen,” we might have said.
“Oh. Where yall from?” they continued. We answered and the rest was history.
* * * * *
Most of our neighbors were black on the surface – just like us – but underneath we were divided into two groups. American, and not. Two picnic tables sat beside the playground at the entrance of the apartment subdivision. If you were a Yankee with parents from some “jungle in Africa,” there was no room for you at either picnic bench. We discovered that integrating into this new community would not be easy. It’s funny, the idea of four African-American girls struggling to integrate into a community of Black-Americans. Our parents taught us that all black people derived from Africa, at some point in time – especially Black-Americans – but these black kids weren’t buying that idea. I’m still amazed and confused when some black people denounce their African roots. I’ve never had a white-American friend argue against their European roots or an Asian-American friend deny their Eastern heritage. Yet, my Jamaican friend with glowing bistre brown skin and a double shot of melanin rejects her African roots while embracing her Asian background. That’s why her eyes are a slender almond shape and her last name is a famous Chinese dynasty.
* * * * *
The Woodcroft Apartment complex introduced us to this unique “identity perspective.” Over a dozen buildings were scattered throughout the complex. When the bus dropped us home from school we marched to our apartment building, burrowed through its doors, scaled the brown carpeted stairs leading to our second floor apartment home, and relaxed. But it wasn’t that easy because we were the new kids on the block, the African Yankees. In between the bus and home the neighborhood kids welcomed us with insults and ignorance.
“Go back to Africa!” they yelled. Sometimes that command was followed with, “African booty scratcher” or “African monkey.” I still don’t know what an “African booty” scratcher is or how it came to be. Odd. We had some good comebacks though. Kia usually responded in a clever eight-years-old fashion.
“That’s why you look like a piece of dog doo doo…and you smell like poo poo too,” she would say. Kia knew how to describe people. She was a samurai who could sling insults like daggers. Benealda gave cold stares, but was all bark and no bite. Lemriel has never been one to exchange words. She’s more of the physical type, quick to body check someone. And I was the roving reporter, my mother’s ears to the street.
* * * * *
I cried to my mother, “those kids keep calling us names.”
“What kids?” my mother asked.
“Everyone. Nobody likes us. They don’t want to be our friends.” I said.
That was the trigger word, friends. My mother didn’t care if we made friends. She taught us the dangers of friendship from birth. “Friends have your grandpa in his grave today,” she recited. She encouraged us to remain friends with each other. “You have three friends. You four…be friends.”
We stuck together and toughed it out. Lemriel branched off on her own, like bigger girls do. She rode her bike and read books, but was always around to provide muscle if needed. No one thought of touching us. We were a group of bad-ass seven- to ten-year-olds.
One day, we entered our apartment building. Something hit the ground with a soft splatter. A thick patch of saliva bubbled on the brown carpet in front of us. When we looked up, our two arch nemeses chuckled and ran towards the back of the building. I didn’t bother telling my mom. She would have just sent us outside to confront them. We already decided that we would spit on them the next chance we got.
Life in Woodcroft continued. My mother was very laid-back. There are a few rules I remember growing up: 1) Always stick up for yourself; 2) Always wear clean underwear; and 3) Never let anyone ride your bike. The first two are self-explanatory. The last rule we learned the hard way.
* * * * *
Tony was the most notorious neighborhood bully. He looked sixteen years old, but was in the eighth grade. No one was immune to his hounding. Africans, Americans, old and young, all could get it. When he approached Lemriel, demanding to ride her pale blue and white bike accented with light pink speckles, she gave the standard, “Sorry, my mom said that I can’t let anyone ride my bike” spiel. They both knew that, if he wanted to, Tony was going to ride the bike. Tony probably had a crush on Lemriel, who could easily pass for twelve. He would throw playful jabs at her on the bus that drove us from our poor-performing minority school district to the more economically advanced school in Tucker. On this day, however, she was the target of his mischief. He placed his hand on the handle bar and asked Lemriel to get off so that he could ride.
“Okay, but just to the top of the hill and back,” she said.
Tony hopped on the bike and pedaled up the hill, then disappeared around the side of the apartment building. He was gone for hours before Lemriel realized that he wasn’t coming back. After a failed attempt by all four of us to retrieve the bike, we did what any brave child would do. We told our mom.
* * * * *
“Didn’t I tell yall not to let anyone ride that bike?” My mom directed the question to all of us. I was always getting in trouble for things that I didn’t do.
“Go and get the bike,” she demanded. We told her about our failed attempt and she got more upset.
“I’m going to get that bike and when I do, I’m putting it up. No one is going to ride it,” she said. I didn’t care if Lemriel ever rode that bike again. I was happy that our mom was on our side. Maybe she thought that our African heritage caused the bike hostage situation. I wasn’t going to suggest otherwise, Tony was going to get it, now.
We led our mom to the park, where Tony was still riding the bike. She demanded that Tony return it and he refused. I was shocked. This kid was crazy disrespectful, but my mom (like most Liberian parents) knew how to deal with kids who acted grown. She told us to stay at the park while she returned to our apartment. I had an aunt who lived in the complex. That Sunday, a couple of my other aunts were visiting her. Auntie Go Go, Jo Jo, Agnes, and Tanneh quickly devised a plan.
* * * * *
I heard drums, a beaded gourd, and chants. The sound gradually grew. I recognized the masks that hung on my aunt’s living room wall. My mom began dancing around the picnic bench and my aunts joined her. They held the masks up to their faces, aligning the cut-out eyes and mouth to their own. The long dark carved faces looked peculiar in their hands. One person waved the dancing devil figure in the air. The miniature devil was a figure used during performances and major community events. It walked on stilts and entertained crowds with balance-defying acts. The identity of the miniature performer was hidden behind a black cloth and a raffia skirt was tied around its waist. Tony’s eyes grew wide with terror.
I couldn’t believe that he was buying this stunt. He got off the bike and it fell to the ground. “That’s African voodoo,” I heard someone say. I choked on my laughter. If only they knew my family. If only they had taken the time to notice how we piled into the car every Sabbath morning with Bibles in hand. Devout Seventh-Day Adventists. My mother didn’t know anything about voodoo, but she knew everything about fear. People hate what they fear, and they fear what they don’t understand.
Feeding into every dark mystical false idea about Africa, my mom and aunts jolted around the picnic bench that would forever be known as the “voodoo bench.”
* * * * *
After the masked merry-go-round event, we didn’t have any problems with bullies, insults, or arguments. Over time, we were welcomed into a loyal group of kids and we maintained a few long-lasting friendships. Few people sat at the “voodoo bench,” during the two years that we lived in Woodcroft. We returned to the north in 1994, but visited my aunt and the “voodoo bench” often. Over the years, the story took on a life of its own. Only our friends knew the truth behind the “curse” of the “voodoo bench” and I learned the importance of looking beneath the surface of the skin.
Manseen Logan is a Liberian-American writer, whose writings are filled with themes that focus on self-identity, family history, and trending topics. She lives by the motto of her alma mater, Clark University, “Challenge Conventions, Change the World.” Currently Manseen is working on her Masters in Writing at the Savannah College of Art & Design.