“how old is he?”

The he in question was toddling about, intermittently crying for no particular reason and grinning at me from behind his cohort Samuel.

“he is two.”

“and…?” I pointed at Samuel.

“he is 18 months. Breastfed,” my neighbor said pointing at Samuel, “not breast fed,” she declared of the other one.

I’m not sure what made me ask their age or her answer with breastfeeding information. Maybe because in some ways they looked like they were the same age and in others they didn’t. Samuel with his round full face always waving frantically when I am at a distance and then hesitating, cautious, when I approach; his full belly and sturdy legs poking out from the top and bottom of his red shorts.

His cousin was smaller, about the same height but thinner. His face long, his legs lean. My neighbor, a nurse, shrugged and said, “I don’t know why they don’t listen about breast feeding.” She sighed and continued spooning cassava leaf into her mouth, isolating a shrimp from the bowl and sucking out the meat.

It was just one of a myriad of random conversations I have on any given day. This afternoon, the sun blazing and making me loathe to head to the market despite my need for dinner supplies, I sat briefly with my friend Belecca and the other women on the hidden market. We joked as always, them trying to teach me Kpelle. My attempts bringing them an abundance of laughter.

Suddenly someone asked me, “what tribe is your father?” my brain whirred for a moment – finally deciding that no one wanted a monologue on the American slave trade so I said, American. “What tribe is your mother?” someone else posed. Again, I responded, “American.”

“Then how are you not American if your mother and father are both American?”

I was confused and said as much. “When did I say I wasn’t an American? I’m a black American,” I stated plainly.

“But when the children call ‘white woman’ you tell them that you are not,” Belecca shifted her head slightly to the side and waited patiently for my explanation.

But how to begin? The notion of white and American being synonymous in a literal sense and not just an assumption when traveling, left me dumbfounded. I stuttered, and started, and stuttered again.

How do you explain whiteness when the working definitions are different?

I opted for hair.

“You know how some people have straight hair?” I asked tentatively. “Pale people with straight hair?” one of the women nodded enthusiastically and translated my English into …well…English, as was so often the practice. I continued, “In America, those people, with the straight hair and light skin, are white. I am black. Black American.”

Race is an arbitrary concept, a construct at best, I realize but I pressed on. “In America we are the same,” I told Belecca, holding my café au lait arm up to her espresso one. “In America I am black like you.” She smiled but I’m not sure she bought it– not sure any of them bought it. To them, I am white – I am American – they are the same thing.

All my conversations aren’t verbal, the understanding or misunderstanding not always the result of language in the conventional sense. My friend Wine has a houseful of sons. One of them, T, is deaf and unable to speak. For years they struggled to communicate with him until he attended a school in Monrovia that specialized in his needs.

Communication became possible.

Sitting outside Wine’s house she explained to me how he still has a lot to learn, they all do, and how her other sons are the best at communicating with T. They spend the most time together. And then she shared some of the signs – their family signs. A gesturing of breasts and then a hand held high denoted her, the same gesture with a lower hand her daughter.

Now that I’ve met her sons I see them everywhere, coming from school, heading to Cuttington, sweating after a football match. On this particular day I was approaching the house when T greeted me warmly, all smiles and finger snapping handshake as is the Liberian custom.  He gestured the breasts with height and shrugged his shoulders to ask if I was going to see her. I pointed toward Cuttington in response. He moved his hand in a writing gesture and looked up. I nodded. Then I motioned that I would be back later. He smiled warmly and went about the rest of his day.

Not a word spoken, but we both understood.

words or no words, I spend a lot of time talking here…a lot of time trying to understand and trying to be understood.

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