I Married an African
As a white college student in the 1960s, I married my anthropology professor who was a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, West Africa. He arrived in America in 1950, before droves of African students came on college scholarships during the 1960s. I enjoyed recording his accounts of befriending newcomers while enjoying their friendship and camaraderie. The following is in his words:
Buying a Used Car in America
One fall, I and some other African students at Michigan State decided to go to Chicago to celebrate the independence of Kenya. Although I volunteered to drive, a Nigerian named Timothy insisted on taking us in his “new” used car.
We had only gone a few miles when smoke rolled up from the floorboard. I choked and said, “This car smells foul.” Then smoke began pouring out of the back. The car backfired so often, it sounded as if someone was shooting at us as we drove along.
Since we hadn’t gone far, I said, “Let’s go back and take my car. This car really smells bad. Don’t the rest of you smell it?”
Everyone said, “Yeah.”
Timothy said, “You guys don’t know anything! All old cars smell funny.”
I said, “I’ve smelled new cars and I’ve smelled old ones. But I’ve never smelled one this bad.”
Timothy said, “It’ll take us there!”
Trouble with the “New” Car
About thirty miles out of Lansing, the car stopped. As Timothy lifted the hood, steam poured out.
I said, “I told you guys this car smelled funny. We should’ve taken my car.”
It began to sleet. The guys asked me to walk to a nearby farmhouse for help. My nose was running as I “slipped” up the lane. As I got close, I heard a pack of dogs barking ferociously. I slipped my way back to the car.
Everyone said, “Come on, Ben! You have to go back! You know how to talk to Americans.”
I said, “Yes, but those American dogs don’t understand me. You go.”
After we sat in the car for a few minutes, one of the guys said, “Hey! Look up ahead! I think that looks like a gas station. I see a pump.” We struggled to push the car in the sleet and finally made it to the gas station. An old white man and a white teenager came out. The old man said, “Can I help you?”
I said, “Yes, can you fix this car for us?”
He opened the hood and took one look, and said, “This car is dead. I wouldn’t even try to resurrect it. It would have to be completely rebuilt.”
I said, “In that case, could you give us a little money for the car?”
He said, “Nope.”
I said, “Well, then, do you think you could keep the car for us and we’ll come back later and get it?”
He said, “Nope, no space.”
How to Get Rid of the Car?
Getting desperate, I said, “How about if we just give you the car.”
He said, “Nope, too much trouble. I’d have to pay for a wrecker to tow it to the place they keep dead cars. I don’t have money for that.”
I said, “Then what can we do?”
He said, “I’ll tell you what. You can pay me fifty dollars to take it.”
I was so angry and frustrated, I said to Timothy, “You see? I told you this!”
For the first time in this entire episode, Timothy had nothing to say. He just stood there looking at me. One of the guys said, “Hey! That looks like a bus station across the street.” So we pooled our money and paid the old man.
The Reaction of the Other African Students
We stood at the bus stop watching the sleet come down. One of the guys said to Timothy, “You’re so stupid!” Then he said to us, “Look at this African savage, this heathen! These are the ones who are always bragging and making a big show. They’re the ones who keep Africa down. They never want to listen to other people or cooperate. You can take a leopard out of the bush, but you can’t make him change his spots.”
One of the guys said, “Say, Timothy, did you ask Edgar before you bought that car?”
The first guy sucked his teeth and said, “You don’t even have to ask that! He didn’t talk to Edgar! Do you think Edgar would have let him throw his money away on a car like that? You see, Ben? He was too stupid to take your advice. You told us to ask Edgar. This bushman!”
I Wrote our Love Story
When my husband died in 2009, I coped with my grief by writing our love story, Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief. It tells a lot more of the story!