you ask
what I am where I come from
and this is all I can say
I stayed up all night
formulating this thesis

so please listen well
so you won’t ask again
(so here you go)

I am Hyphen-American
I’ve memorized the slash between
African and American
I know you’ve tried hard
changed my name from nigger to Negro
to African-American
to black

hope the work didn’t give you
a heart attack
see you’re right
we’re moving up the ladder
got away from the back of the bus
even stay in the white house every now and then

send Jesse Jackson
to speak for us
on behalf of red /white and bluebut you see
I told you already
I’ve memorized my name
and it doesn’t matter if you’ve erased the n word from your vocabulary
told your kids its not nice to say that

I’ve memorized my name
see right now
that slash be the border
the bridge
the checkpoint
let me know
that even though I live here
in this country
I love here
my parents cleaned toilets in college in this country
I may have lost friends in 911 too
but that slash be the line I know not to cross
that slash be my mothers accent
strong and thick like Arabic coffee

that slash be my brothers paralyzed body

deported back to Nigeria
cause he was a felon
who wasn’t a citizen

it’s really okay
I understand where I belong
you can change the names
rearrange the terms of debate

but I know I’m not a nigger
but an other
an evil doer
the Arab you stop at the airport
the Palestinian boy bloodied by cowardly fists on his way to school
the day after Sept 11
I am nothing safe
nothing comfortable
like your new lazy boy sofa

I am the one who makes you lock your door at night
keep your kids out of sight
and I’ve memorized my name
know the game
the slash
the distance between you and me
let me know that
your American
and I’m African American
or African in America
or just plain wrong

that slash
the look on my face
the day the US government declared Nigeria
a possible terrorist country

and what do I do now
what flag do I claim
what if it’s about more than governments or terrorists
what if its about my cousins begging for bread
and the broken promise of a full belly back home
what if it’s about faces of family
you’ve etched in your mind
hold close to your chest

what if it’s about black women
looking for more than minimum wage and welfare to work
that doesn’t ever seem to work

what if it’s about my very own mother and father
from the land you call other foreign terrorist

and while I’m on the subject
I thought I’d set the record straight
I am everything American
I am the hope of my whole Nigerian village
my mother’s dream to find me
more than one meal a day
I am the Border Patrol agent
whose last name is Gutierrez or Luna or Gonzalez
pointing a gun at the same woman who too his mother across the border years ago

I am hands picking cotton
so most Americans can enjoy cotton sheets
I am the belly dancing class you call exotic
the hummus and pita bread you call Californian cuisine
I am your safari trip to Africa
where you spend the night in the fanciest hotel
take photos of black women riding elephants
and come back to to say
you’ve traveled all over Africa

so I don’t know why you call me foreign or other
cause you’ve eaten my food
called it your genius creation
you’ve dug into my land and between my thighs
called anything you’ve laid your hand on yours

by now
the statue of liberty
should be a pregnant third world
woman with a baby slung on her
balancing a bucket of water on her head

that’s what you should see when
you reach these shores
because I am everything American
nothing foreign
the border you’ve already crossed
come to ask you
where are your papers
-Uchechi Kalu
Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved.