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  • Writer's pictureErica Ayisi

BEING GHANAIAN MEANS I KNOW WHO I AM


By Erica Ayisi



7:30 each morning, I pulled on pink tights that didn’t match my brown skin for ballet class. I went to Burncoat High School, a performing arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Five days a week, I undressed in a tiny bathroom with other blooming ballerinas. About 98% of them were white. I was Black. My breasts were bigger, hips curvier and bum rounder. While dance connected us, my African culture wasn’t present at the ballet barre. Yet, I never felt like I didn’t belong in the H-15 dance room. Never. I knew I was Black but I also knew I belonged.


Me at 15 years old as a backstage assistant at a dance recital


Dance was my outlet for physical expression of my emotions. I recall watching the movie Dirty Dancing in 1987 at home with my mom and saw dancers moving freely and openly. When we moved to Worcester from Marlborough the following year, I befriended two white sisters on my street who ended our play time to attend dance classes at Chickee’s Dance World a few times a week. They took tap and ballet lessons, showed me a few movements and taught me how to hear the beat of music on a count of eight. We choreographed dances to Paula Abdul, Madonna and Michael Jackson in our backyards. Bending, twisting and stretching my body as far as it could go was liberating. Moving my body to the beat of any type of music really made me feel more alive.


“While dance connected us, my African culture wasn’t present at the ballet barre.”

When I asked my Ghanaian dad to sign me up for dance classes he just didn't get it. He questioned why I couldn’t continue dancing for free outside. I told him that my friends were learning new moves and I didn’t want to be left out. Reluctantly, he signed me up for tap and ballet classes at Chickee’s Dance World and I began wearing tights that didn’t match my skin for the next 10 years.



My parents arrived in the U.S. in the early 1970s, not knowing each other from Ghana. My dad, Joshua Kwaku Ayisi, is Akuapim from Adukrom, Ghana. Mom, Martha Ama Ayisi is Ashanti from Kumasi, Ghana. Ama is her day name for being a girl born on a Saturday. Kwaku is for boys born on Wednesday. Day names, a tradition practiced by the Akan people of Ghana, correspond to the day a baby is born within the week.


In the ‘70s, Ghana was in its second decade of independence from British colonial rule and faced economic uncertainty. My dad left Ghana on a student visa to study science in the States and mom fled Kumasi in hopes of earning a higher income in America. I often wondered why they chose the American state of Massachusetts to settle in. After all, they’re from a country of extreme heat and emigrated to a state of extreme cold. Kumasi Ama made Boston’s finest fufu as Akuapim Kwaku scooped it up with his hands and swallowed it with joy. Despite the cold and snow, they made Marlborough, Massachusetts their home.


Daddy's girl at 4 years old


In 1988, we moved to a charming home in Worcester, a city where immigrants created their own America. There were two African shops in Worcester: one on Main Street and another on Belmont Street. There, we would buy kenkey, shito, canned sardines, suya powder, chewing sticks, waakye leaves and Mama Choice Fufu. While my home didn’t smell like dried fish, the shops did! Kenkey was concealed inside large containers with KENKEY written in big letters on the lid. The shelves were well stocked with endless packages of Maggie cubes. It was familiar. It was home.


“...Worcester, a city where immigrants created their own America.”


In the early ‘90s our house was a highlife hotspot for parties and cookouts. Dad’s Daddy Lumba CD collection expanded along with the Ghanaian population in Worcester.



Dad and Uncle Boat hanging out at a backyard cookout at our house


We had community. Auntie Grace, Uncle Larry, Nana Baby, Uncle Kankam and all of their children would stop by. Auntie Mary taught my cousins and I how to dance adowa on Saturdays. When I slept over Auntie Mary’s house on Saturday’s she would randomly play adowa music and show my cousins and I how to do the traditional dance. Adowa is a style of dance that is usually performed at important ceremonies like weddings, funerals and baptisms. With a slight bend in the knees, an adowa dancer may hold a tiny white cloth in one hand while moving both of their hands, feet and fingers in subtle, swaying movements to the beat of Atumpan drums. If you do a good job, you can earn money! As a sign of the dance done well, onlookers often place cash on the heads of adowa dancers which falls on the floor.


The 508 Ghana Girls! I'm 19 years old


Dancing with my mom at college graduation party. I'm 21.


Wearing our latest ‘90s Tommy Hilfiger or DKNY, Akua, Manu, Doris and I always had fun learning adowa from Auntie Mary. We ate Auntie Grace’s omotuo on Sundays. This was our Africa in America.


Akosua is here oooh! My Ghanaian Outdooring


My day name is Akosua which corresponds to being a girl born on Sunday. Being Ghanaian means I know who I am. As a Black women born and raised in America, knowing who I am and where I come from is a rare advantage due to America’s history with the slave trade and erasure of identity. Within that, being Ghanaian means continuity of my culture through food, clothing, traditions and wearing waist beads. It also means curiosity about Ghanaian history as a child of Ghanaian immigrants.


“This was our Africa in America.”


While parts of me are very Ghanaian, other parts are very American. Growing up, my favorite foods were fufu with all types of soup and all variations of pizza. It’s the carbs for me! My mother replicated this duality of culture in her meals for us. Every year she honored Saint Patrick’s Day – a holiday kept alive by the descendants of thousands of Irish who settled in Massachusetts from the 19th century – cooking their traditional dish of slow roasted corned beef, cabbage, and carrots – with a heaping scoop of our traditional jollof rice on the side.


I grew to love eating warm, cooked apples. Warm apple pie, warm apple spiced donuts, warm apple cider with hints of cinnamon. Warm apple crisp with a dollop of ice cream. It’s a Massachusetts thing. Apple pie is America’s national dessert. Classic Americana.

“While parts of me are very Ghanaian, other parts are very American.”

America's early colonists made apple pie when they arrived in Massachusetts from Great Britain in 1620. The state is the foundation of American history. It’s where British pilgrims seeking religious freedom docked their Mayflower ship, spread their deadly diseases amongst the locals and slaughtered hundreds of Native people already living there, after they fed the famished pilgrims corn and turkey. America commemorates this moment on the third Thursday in November with the national holiday called Thanksgiving. Classic Americana.


It’s the state where Crispus Attucks, a Black and Native soldier, was the first to be killed during the 1770 Boston Massacre, sparking a war that would lead to America’s independence. Like me, Attucks was born in a tiny town called Framingham. Massachusetts is where America would officially become the stepchild to Great Britain, defeating them during the American Revolution.

It’s also home to Paul Cuffe, the son of an enslaved Ghanaian named Kofi, who became America’s first Black and Native millionaire during the 18th century. It was here where he built America’s first racially integrated school. He also built his own ships, using one of them to repatriate freed slaves back to Africa. When I learned that Paul Cuffee’s father was an enslaved Ghanaian named Kofi who arrived in America at fourteen-years old, it gave me a deeper sense of Ghanaian pride for our contributions to America.


“Massachusetts is where America would officially become the stepchild to Great Britain, defeating them during the American Revolution.”



These snippets of stories are mildly known about Massachusetts. The state is more known for cold people, cold weather and covert racism. The smile in your face and stab you in the back type of racism. Classic Americana.


Five days a week, at the H-15 dance room in Burncoat High School, I joined the other ballerinas to do allegros, jumps and splits. I was known for my high leaps and clean, long leg lines. The end of ballet barre was my favorite part of class. It’s a short moment of intense stretching with one leg on the ballet barre and the other leg standing straight on the floor.


“As a Black women born and raised in America, knowing who I am and where I come from is a rare advantage due to America’s history with the slave trade and erasure of identity.”


Each class began at the ballet barre and ended with allegos or progressions across the dance floor. Sometimes these mini routines were given to us as homework written in French the day before.



I'm watching the news on TV, waiting for Dad to take me to a dance thing. I'm 14.


I was a pubescent, precocious preteen whose boxed braids didn’t quite form into a proper ballet hair bun. Single braids slid out of my head and laid all over our dance room floor. The white girls got used to my braids, kicking them to the side. Janet Jackson and Brandy rocked their box braids beautifully and in my head, I was preparing to be their backup dancer.



Our teacher made us read Revelations, the autobiography of the iconic dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey when I was about 12. Ailey described his ideal ballerina as Black, curvy and disciplined. I felt like he was describing me! Those white girls couldn’t tell me anything after I read and watched Revelations. I was supposed to be in that room. I was often teased for “acting white” from my Black American peers. After all, I was studying a European art form of expression. However, as an American raised in an African home, I wasn’t sure which version of Black I was supposed to be. I found those “acting white” comments to be demeaning to my joy. My exposure to ballet, jazz, hip hop and lyrical dance enriched my education. I kicked those comments into the air and left them there.


“...Paul Cuffe, the son of an enslaved Ghanaian named Kofi, who became America’s first Black and Native millionaire during the 18th century.”

In ballet class, we were made to appreciate the history and contributions of African-American dancers. We performed The Wiz, studied Katherine Dunham, Debbie Allen, Gregory Hines, Judith Jameson and listened to Charlie Bird Parker. I even took lessons after school on 54 Varnum Street. We frequently won competitions in Boston and New York. My friend Jasmin was the only fellow Black ballerina. After school, I often went to her house, blasted Mary J. Blige’s ‘What’s the 411?’ – as if we had man problems at 12 years old – and we let our braids loose!


Jazzy and I, at 14, hanging out in our hotel room where we stayed during a dance competition.


Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts cultivated me into a global citizen. Most of my friends were Ghanaian, Liberian, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Dominican and white. School celebrations were a feast of foods like empanadas, rice and peas, fried plantain, griot, spring rolls.


High school hanging out with my Ghana girls, Sandra and Efua. I'm 16.


I had a white best friend, until Barack Obama became president. We met inside the tiny bathroom in the hallways of H-15 when we were 12 and maintained a close, 15-year friendship until Inauguration Day in 2009. We worked together and after a complicated work scenario, she left me a four-page typed letter inside my car. She wrote that I was “an angry Black woman,” with four pages of examples that chronicled our 15 years of friendship. She accused me of playing the race card even at Cape Cod church camp! I read that letter once and I never spoke to her again. I think she’s an angry white woman. Our friendship ended on Inauguration Day. The election of a Black president was the beginning of a new era for America; it was also the ending of a friendship between me and my white best friend. Obama presented a biracial blackness that made whites comfortable enough to vote for him. My blackness became uncomfortable for my white friend when I called out institutional racism in a place where we both worked.


That’s the thing with Massachusetts. Racism is covert, until a situation occurs.


In 8th grade, I auditioned to be a dancing princess for a traveling tour group with our middle school dance troupe. We rehearsed in class daily and informally with my friends after school. When the list of accepted dancers was posted on the mirror of room H-15, my name was not on it. I was mortified. I recall being told I couldn't tour with the group during the school day because of my low performing grades.


“...as an American raised in an African home, I wasn’t sure which version of Black I was supposed to be.”


But, I wasn’t selected to be a part of the prestigious dance team in ninth grade either. The team performed in the evenings at every basketball game and in-school pep rallies. The makeup and hair were uniform and flawless. They are well known and respected in the city for their technical abilities, discipline and professionalism. My Black friend Jasmin was selected, but not me and it was well noted by other students since we were the only two Black girls in the program at the time. To be a Black girl on the dance team was a big deal but was there no room for two?


I didn’t give up. I tried out again in 10th and 11th grades and still didn’t make the team.


Going into my senior year of high school, I prepped intensely. I attended practice after school and practiced at home for dance team auditions. Kicklines, pirouettes, and cartwheels came easy to me. Back walkovers, not so much. Mom teased that my burgeoning bum was in the way. Auditions came.


The list was posted and my name wasn’t on it, again. I was sad and disappointed. I was again told my grades weren’t suitable enough to join the team. Admittedly, I was a lazy academic student but I thought my performance skills would carry me through. They did not. The token Black girl made the dance team every year and it wasn’t me.


My parents signed the forms for me to drop the dance program and I quit the entire dance program the next day. I think that decision changed the trajectory of my life because I didn’t choose a college path of dance courses. I chose a career path of communications and media studies which led to my fulfilling career of international journalism and entrepreneurship.


Twenty-five years later, the Burncoat Dancers are 7-time state champions in Massachusetts – with Black girls on the team. A few African girls have gone through the program and now have careers as professional dancers. My niece will audition for the dance team for the first time this year. Looking back, maybe I was a pioneer.


I will never really know if I wasn’t selected for the dance team because of my grades or if I was one Black girl too many. It was the ‘90s. That’s the thing with Massachusetts, which is known as one of the most racist states in America.

"I am a whole woman who can withstand any adversity with Ghanaian grace and African fire."

Racism is covert here, so you never really know. However, knowing who I am and where I come from gives me the strength and courage to know that my race is not the sole part of my identity. I am not the sum of racial injustice in America. I am a whole woman who can withstand any adversity with Ghanaian grace and African fire.




Erica is a writer and owner of Akosua’s Closet, an African sourced online boutique. She lives between Boston and Accra. She enjoys yoga and the T.V. programs Jeopardy and 90 Day Fiance.


Twitter @akosua0906

Instagram @akosua0906



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Convidado:
06 de out. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

A beautiful trip down memory lane, I felt I was in there with you. Well-done strong woman, happy for who you've become now

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Erica Ayisi
Erica Ayisi
12 de out. de 2023
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Thank you. 😊

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Convidado:
06 de out. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

AAA

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Convidado:
05 de out. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

Great article! Proud Of you Erica for moving forward, not letting the experience distract you . Whatever is not in your destination is a distraction!

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Erica Ayisi
Erica Ayisi
06 de out. de 2023
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Thank you so much! Forward we move!

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Convidado:
30 de set. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

Erica, you are headed for the stars if you are not already there❤️! You got me in tears! What a great piece! Thank you for choosing to walk your journey in a world where everyone simply wants to be like everybody else!


Lynn~

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Erica Ayisi
Erica Ayisi
06 de out. de 2023
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Authenticity is me. Authenticity is you. Thanks so much Lynn.

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Convidado:
29 de set. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

A beautifully nuanced and moving piece - and wide-ranging - there are multiple stories to come from it.

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Erica Ayisi
Erica Ayisi
06 de out. de 2023
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Thank you 😊 😏

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