Source: The New Yorker
When I was growing up, in the early nineteen-eighties, most of my fellow-Ghanaians viewed America as an evil empire that was bent on destroying our country. The Cold War was at its apogee, and the Ghanaian government, a military junta led by the strongman Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, had quickly declared allegiance to the Soviet Union after seizing power on New Year’s Eve, 1982. As political hatred between the Reagan Administration and our dictatorship intensified, flamed by an intelligence leak exposing American plans for a coup to overthrow Rawlings, Ghanaians were all but mandated to hate the United States, the No. 1 enemy of the People’s Revolution.
It was in the midst of this hostility that my father placed me, in October of 1988, on a plane bound for New York City. My final destination was northern Michigan, where he had enrolled me to study creative writing at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. I would have expected my father, the emir of Ghana’s Muslim Zongo people, to harbor anti-U.S. sentiments even stronger than those of his average countryman—if not for American political and economic bullying then at least for the “hedonistic and immoral” behavior depicted in the news and in Hollywood movies. He had sponsored two of my older cousins to study at the Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; I wondered quietly why he didn’t also choose a Muslim site of education for me, his first son. But I was eager to become a Yankee man, and, afraid of jinxing my trip, I kept my thoughts to myself.
For much of the three years I spent at high school in Michigan, I experienced the ambivalence that most people from the so-called Third World feel toward the United States. I was seduced by the glamour, the coolness, and even the excesses of American culture, yet irked by the country’s military might, its enormous wealth, and, especially, by the manner in which it flaunted both around the world. My negative impressions of Americans themselves—as greedy, selfish, and arrogant—were consistently undermined, meanwhile, by the people I met at school. Knowing I was far away from home, students would compete to invite me to their homes during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. Eventually, a woman who worked in the admissions office practically adopted me, offering me room and board and the same love and affection she and her husband gave their two daughters. To this day, I call Janice Crockett “Mom”; my three children call her “Grandma Michigan.”