Native Speaker

by Nicole Asong Nfonoyim 
(published in Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out edited by Adebe DeRango-Adem and Andrea Thompson (INANNA Publications, 2010) 

N as in Nancy, F as in Frank, O, N, O, Y, I, M as in Mary. (Insert heavy sigh)Yes, N as in Nancy, F as in Frank.” I remember the countless times throughout my life that I heard my father, head nestling the phone, or bent over a costumer service counter, reciting this refrain in his Cameroonian cadence with its rhythmic smoothness sung low. This sentence was so embedded in my mind, a part of my earliest memories, that I myself have used it for as long as I’ve had to spell out my last name.

    The names “Nancy, Frank and Mary” just as dated as the vinyl records my parents jammed to and not nearly as classic. Yet the names, over thirty years later, are still so perfectly (almost eerily so) “American” conjuring up idyllic (READ: white) cookie-cutter images of  U.S. life. It’s a simple translation for a last name that has no coherence in this hemisphere, has no history in this land before my father arrived suitcase full of dreams and phantoms in 1979.
    The translation my father and I continuously offer is always followed by a perfunctory explanation: “The ‘N’ is silent.” Before the confused pause or a prompt to spell it out even comes, I parrot out the same apologetic line, stringing it in seamlessly as if it too, were an inextricable part of the name itself--an apology for the difficulty of a name so brazenly foreign, spoken in my clear, practiced, unaccented English. The silent ‘N’ in my name carrying with it the silences and secrets, the erasures of my history and marking perhaps, the completeness of my assimilation growing up mixed/black/African/Latina and American in this self-proclaimed multicultural mecca.
     The first intelligible words I ever spoke were in Spanish, my small ball of a body nestled in the soft lap of the brown sugared Dominican women who took care of me in my first year of life. They, the warm hands and strong arms that jet in and out of my hazy rememory and whose faces and names I strain to but can no longer recall.  My early imagination full of Spanish names for things, places and people. I entered elementary school in 1990s Jamaica, Queens then the land of names from Diaz to Rampersaud and I, barely bilingual, already knowing somewhat vaguely that I was a bit differente. I would pronounce my name clumsily, struggling under it’s three weighty syllables. 

    I see her, my five year old self, navy-blue uniform jumper on, rocking an 80s-style side ponytail carefully tamed by her Abuela and a slip of cardstock hung around her neck with the name “Nicole Nfonoyim.” I hear her introduce herself as “Nickul Fooonojeem”, elongating the “O” and extending the “I.”
    I used to say that the day I stopped speaking Spanish-- the day I could no longer remember how to say the simplest words, the day my dreams switched to the English channel was the day I became half ghost. Somehow, all the food my mother made connecting me to homes I had never known, washed down with Malta Goya and canned coconut water, could not fill the void where my tongue used to be, where my voice could have been.
    Is culture and identity really just the sum of the languages we speak and the foods we eat? Must we as mixed people or immigrant children always frame our stories around lack and loss instead of the intensity of our creative, productive and perhaps even transgressive possibilities?
    In many ways, my “mixedness,”  my “blackness”, my “latinidad”  and the strongest contender of all-- my “Americaness” were always in a constant battle to the death. The world and even my own heart told me there was no way all that could exist harmoniously and unchallenged within me.  Standing firmly and unapologetically amidst all the contradictions I embody was a long process of finding my voice, creating a language and ultimately (re)naming who I am. Finding a voice was perhaps the hardest part because it was so inextricably tied to the loss of my first language and the yearning to transform my newly acquired yet  still tongue-tied bi-culturalism into a wholly new form of speech and fluency, legitimate in it’s own right.
    Growing up I didn’t know how to tell my story. My story juggling too many different worlds and my body the bridge I at once struggled to build and then burn to the ground. I was in a world content to name me and never caring to ask what I wanted to call myself. The grand narrative of race and immigration in America played to the tune of School House Rock’s“The Great American Melting Pot, which managed in three minutes of animation set to a catchy jingle  to effectively erase the histories of people of color in the formation of the United States. No one had to tell me that my story was “Other,” I already felt it branded across my brown skin.

     I see her sitting in a classroom, silent tears inexplicably rolling down her face as her classmates present family trees and say where their names came from, what they mean and who named them. All the “Katie Russos” “Danielle Espositos”, “Chris Murphys” and “Michael O’Connor’s” take turns, while she struggles to bridge two worlds and connect the branches of her family tree. She mutters the meaning of her middle and last names as if ashamed-- as if saying her name were more about baring her soul than a simple class exercise on Ellis Island.

     Why had I been so ashamed of being the only one with my picture tacked on the west coast of Africa on the giant paper map of the world in the front of the class? I didn’t have the words to proclaim confidently, “My name is Nicole Asong Nfonoyim. I was born between pride and two continents. I was lulled to sleep with the dreams of my ambitious father and raised in the heat of my mother’s kitchen. My name is a mouthful of edges, bitter earth and foreign spice. It tastes of tropic sea water  and falls with the weight of Ejagham women wielding giant wooden  pestles to pound cassava into fu-fu.  It carries a touch of sweetness depending on who’s saying it, a nanosecond of a melody as the tongue moves around the “Ono” only to be met once again with the pointed, exaggeration of a “Y”.  My name carries with it the songs of fierce ancestors--the legacy of family and of a people who’s masked faces whisper of who I once was and who I could someday be. And yet this name is only a part of my story.” 

    There she is, a few years later in the school yard,  hip to the fact that speaking Spanish and “looking black” somehow makes no sense in the United  States. I hear her bold-face lying, saying “Well it’s ‘cause I have two last names: “Lopez” and “Nfonoyim” already myth-making to make sense of her interraciality and bi-culturalism, an aching to make visible all she is.  
   Like a wonky pendulum I’d swing unevenly between being ashamed of my difference and  suddenly wanting to tell everyone just how “unique” I was. I’d accept the names and labels placed on me all the while writhing rebellious under their weight. I was named by school teachers, by classmates and friends. But was first named by my mother who understood all too well the way race works in America. She’d say bluntly, “You are black and you are a woman, my Colé you’ll always have to work twice as hard.”    

    My mother, bi-racial herself never speaks of her mixed identity. She’s black. Period. Growing up Afro-Costa Rican and living through the 70s as an immigrant and a woman of color in New York City didn’t grant her the luxury to call herself anything else. I, the privileged American daughter, came of age in the “multiculti” 1990s when the world had deceived itself into thinking it looked like a glossy print United Colors of Benneton ad. Yet in my little corner of the world,  being black and being mixed still seemed like two disparate halves of me that refused to seamlessly come together and no one was telling me it was okay to pull a Tiger Woods and break free entirely. Ultimately, I became who I was told to be. 

 Number 2 pencil at the ready, she stares blankly at the discreet bubbles of the standardized test form and raises her hand. The young white teacher complete in an ankle length flowered skirt and twin set move toward her. The teacher listens to the question, smiles with a look of feigned understanding and says simply "You’re 'African American'”  The pencil shades in the bubble and moves on.

    It’s funny the way impersonal, sterile forms for tests or applications can have the power to cause a momentary existential crisis for the mixed and bi-cultural. These forms becoming symbols of a history of being defined and named according to the color of one’s skin and one’s perceived place of origin, of being reduced to statistics and multi-colored pie charts, of allowing oneself to become subsumed into a discreet box or run the risk of being a perpetual outlier-- eternally “Other.” 
    After my teacher told me I was African American as if it were the definitive correct answer to a math problem,  I became vaguely aware that I was becoming a black American. At fourteen, I didn’t know anything about “passing” or about “colorism” and “racialization”--all that would come years later in the hallowed halls of higher learning.  But being seen and named as “black” in America, inevitably made me African American by default.  My biculturalism, marked first by being an immigrant child learning the language of white America, began to demand I speak fluent black American as a matter of survival and resistance in the wake of the volatile racial inheritance of the United States that rendered bodies like  mine marginal and unassimilable.

    Despite being made marginal, I can speak proudly and fluently with the tongues which I have had to master, those which I have had to create and those which I have been given.

    First week into college. Ignorant to that fact that she's sitting in a room where student activists and revolutions were born. Surrounded by multi-lingual people with names, and complex histories rivaling her own. That night she's given other names-- new names, a new tongue and a new voice to speak her truth.   

    I began to find my voice in college. It was there that I learned what it meant for our identities to always be in both the process of being and becoming. My higher learning was about finding empowerment in self-naming and demanding to exist in spaces on my own terms. I came to understand that my identities did not exist separately within me and that I could be “Camstarican,” “Black-American,” “Multi,” “Afro-Latina” and any other name I chose to give myself at any time. That seemingly simple space to name myself meant that I could, for the first time see myself clearly. It meant that I could also think critically about racial and social justice and just how significant speaking for ourselves from the multiple places we stand, truly is. For too long marginalized communities have been named and spoken for. Perhaps as we embark on this the second decade of the millennium, we mixed edge-walkers can finally proclaim the all too difficult names of who we are.
    I look at myself reflected in my bathroom mirror. My eyes tracing the contours of my face. I think of all I’ve grown with, of the insidious and pervasive nature of marginalization and the layers of self-silencing and doubt that once threatened to break me and all it has meant to be mixed, to be a woman of color, an immigrant daughter and a black American. 

I  have no single, complete “mother-tongue” and my identity has ever-proverbial “roots.” But while my branches stretch far they have grown sporadically—breaking off, changing course and bearing altogether new and multifarious fruit.  Against all odds, I have learned to love the entirety of that woman I see reflected before me. I have learned to call her by all the beautiful names she has dared to carry.