She was sitting two feet away, right in front of my desk, in the seat that only students who are both good and self-assured ever choose. That’s the seat where you won’t miss a word, and the seat whose occupant gets called on whenever everyone else in the class is baffled by a question.
Note that I am casting no aspersions on back-row sitters. I have learned that they include justifiably disdainful intellectuals as well as the expected lazy, good-for-nothing, aspiring bums. Even those will surprise you occasionally, though, with end-of-quarter projects that bowl you over with their compensatory inventiveness.
She was a black girl who looked foreign, I thought. When I called roll, she sounded as if she had a slight French accent. Her name was definitely from somewhere in West Africa. To my inquiries, she replied that she was from Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
I am a former Frenchman myself. All French people have a soft spot for Senegal, because it’s one of their rare successful colonial ventures. It’s a nearly impeccably democratic country in a continent of broad tyranny. In spite of its comparative poverty, Senegal has an artistically lively and even creative popular culture. What’s more, a great many Senegalese have profited from a mercifully unreformed, old-style French school system. They are well-read and they speak beautiful French. I mean by this that I would rather listen to a Senegalese primary school teacher than to a French television anchor, any day.
The young woman turned out to be exactly the kind of good student she had announced herself to be by selecting the hot seat the first minute of the first hour. She was never late; she seemed always well-prepared; she asked questions when others were staring vacantly into space, or avoiding my gaze. Her big brown eyes sparkled with intelligence. Occasionally, she would even attempt to argue with me, right there in class. (I surmise that this has become rare among undergraduates because almost none of them does the required reading: so, disagree with the professor; get caught. You might say I am a well-informed pessimist.)
I was teaching an introductory class in international business, a sort of amalgam course combining elementary notions of international trade with commercial technical terms and as
If you suspect by now that I am bragging again, you are right. I am bragging about my culturally on-the-dot, effective intervention.
small a dosage of “cultural differences” as I could get away with. Her objections were always in line with conventional left-liberal ideas of the horrors that “globalization” allegedly fostered on Third World populations. “Your French communist teachers did a job on you at the Dakar Lycée, Ms. X,” I would assert. “Congratulations!” She would smile a big white smile and mutter something quick and attractively impertinent in French. She was the kind of student that makes teaching worthwhile, even after 20 years. Her presence was enough to erase the existence of two dozen obstinately brain-dead seat warmers. (I don’t want to sound like an unredeemable curmudgeon; there are good students in every class.) She was also beautiful in the way that only women with dark skin can be: their good health is reflected in the shine of their skin and hair, in a manner that white women can only strive for. I was charmed.
Mine was a small campus where you bumped frequently into former students. Thus I became mildly curious when I did not see her anywhere for the whole of the next quarter. That was winter quarter, beginning just after Christmas break. I kept Aminata in the back of my mind and in the back of my heart. As if with a dual-tasking computer, one part of that same back of my mind was working out the puzzle of her disappearance from campus. I realize it’s bragging, but I know quite a bit about Africa and especially about Senegal, where I had spent some time on two occasions and was seduced. Also, I had had several close friends from there over the years. Moreover, I have read mountains about the former French colonies. That’s not because I am a nostalgic French colonialist but because some of these colonies nourished my tropical, warm-breeze-and-palm trees reveries when I was a child in cold, rainy Paris.
One day, at the end of March, for reasons I could not have explained, not even to myself, I picked up the phone and got Aminata’s Dakar address from the registrar. I sent her a brief postcard in a closed envelope saying approximately, in French: “I wonder what happened to you. Why don’t you send me an email if this card reaches you?” A week later, she replied.
Her mother, a prosperous businesswoman, had sent her a ticket to come and be with the family on the occasion of the winter break. Since the family was Muslim, there was no question of a Christmas celebration. Aminata thought of it as a family reunion after two long years of absence in America. Immediately after she reached home, her mother said, “Welcome home, my dear daughter; I am so proud of you. And here is the young man you will marry next week.”
Aminata refused, stamped her foot, and made herself disagreeable until the prospective groom dropped out in disgust or fear. She managed to borrow money from a female relative (who may have been there, done that, herself; I don’t know). She fled her own country and came back to the United States, where she found herself without resources for tuition, or for living expenses, because her mother had disowned the disobedient daughter.
Soon, however, she found the perfect live-in job with another immigrant, a wealthy Haitian woman who wanted a French-speaking nanny for her children. The agreement with the new employer seemed sweet, at first: room and board, time off for school and studying; the lady-boss even promised to pay for tuition or give Aminata a loan for that purpose. But after a while, the employer complained that Aminata was not spending enough time with the children. Soon, she imposed longer hours; soon, there was not enough time to do her school assignments. Then, Aminata was allowed time out of the house only for some of her classes, not all. In the end, the Haitian lady declined to give or lend tuition money.
The relationship with the Haitian slaver took several months to turn from a sweet dream into a nightmare. The disaster was so slow-moving as to be difficult to perceive clearly. Moreover, Aminata knew little about slavery. Few Africans actually do, I think. Those who believe they know something tend to be strikingly misinformed on the issue. In spite of her broad general culture, Aminata probably did not understand to what extent Haitian society was a pure product of slavery. It’s a slave society that freed itself, expelling the slave owners by force of arms but never expelled slavery from its collective mind. Aminata did not see it coming. Besides, she did not perceive that she had any other option. She ended up overworked, not enrolled in school, desperate, and depressed.
One low, low day, Aminata called me in tears and begun telling me the story. She sounded at the end of her rope. She needed immediate shoring up. Unfortunately, word choice
I am sure that, not so long ago, Aminata’s forefathers used to shoot an arrow point blank at a cow to drink blood directly from the vein.
matters with intelligent people. You can’t just tell them that everything will be all right. What makes the intelligent intelligent is that they distinguish between mere noises and meaningful utterances. So I tried to appeal to her pride.
I remembered the name of her tribal affiliation and, roughly, the place her tribe used to hold in the social ecology of her part of Africa. I ended up telling Aminata, “Don’t forget where you come from. Your ancestors not so far removed used to beat lions with a small stick to keep them away from their precious cattle. You are one of the queens of Africa.” I could almost see her smile through her tears, although we were on the phone.
Shortly afterward, Aminata dumped the Haitian slaver. She struggled, she persuaded, she cajoled, and this is America, after all. So she managed to return to the university. My wife and I helped a little. Others did too, because she is the kind of person who draws out helpfulness in people as others attract dislike. She graduated in good time and she is doing really well. She is single in America and happy about it. Thank you for asking.
You will want to know about the mother, of course. Well, a couple of months before Aminata was set to graduate, I took my best colonialist pen and did a job on her. I recalled the elaborate politeness formulas long defunct in the rudimentary French that today’s French people speak. I laid them on thickly on a sheet of high-quality stationery. Since I was a perfect stranger, I began by apologizing humbly for intervening in a family’s affair. Then, at length, I flattered Mom about her daughter’s exceptional achievements and how they reflected on the superior upbringing that she, Mom, had given her daughter. That took a whole page. Then I mixed discreet threats of final abandonment with the slime of sycophancy to urge her to attend her daughter’s commencement. Quickly, I received a short letter from Aminata’s mother. She urged me tersely to mind my own business since I did not understand her people’s customs.
But an email forwarded by her other daughter quickly followed. It announced the mother’s arrival on such and such a date at such and such a time. Best seduction act at a distance ever! I was at the airport when Aminata picked up her mother. I kept away and caught the first glance the mother cast at her daughter. There was surprise and admiration at her glowing, forceful appearance. I thought the mother was even a little intimidated.
If you suspect by now that I am bragging again, you are right. I am bragging about my friendship with Aminata. I am bragging also about my culturally on-the-dot, effective intervention in her life. Yet it has created a problem between us, a small but persistent problem. She has the nerve to affirm that I am confused about African ethnography
As I said, Aminata comes from a herding people. That much is not in dispute. She and her family are thoroughly citified, of course. But I know from experience and observation that it matters psychologically what your great-grandparents did for a living and where. That’s true even if you never knew them; that’s true even if you have little idea of what it was they did; that’s true even if you have never been where they did it. Something like cultural DNA must exist. Anyway, I am sure that, not so long ago, Aminata’s forefathers used to shoot an arrow point blank at a selected cow to drink blood directly from the vein. Aminata insists that I am confusing her West African people with the East African Masai herders I have seen on television. Well, excuse me; it’s true that I have always liked the television documentaries about the Masai. It proves nothing, though: Just because my neighbor to the left eats rabbits, it doesn’t mean that my neighbor across the street does not.
I realize there is not much of a point to this story. It’s just a sun-drenched slice of life. I thought you could use the sunshine.