Right out of college I was hired by an exciting startup with a spectacular salary. They flew me out from my internship in Brazil to start. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that initial high was struck down by the overwhelmingisolation every Black person feels when there are no other Black people.
I developed a drinking game to play at professional events. Every time my supervisor Arthur made me feel subhuman, instead of alcohol, I swallowed my pride. It wasn’t as fun as ‘Never Have I Ever’, but it was better than getting fired.
With more than five hours to go before clocking out on an otherwise delightful Thursday, my dash to the bathroom for my stash of pads was thwarted by my perkier than normal supervisor.
“Your afro is always so wild and big and fierce. I love it!”
I gave him a “this-compliment-is-not-genuine-so-I-am-not-thanking-you-get-to-the-point” look.
“Africa, I appreciate the loveliness of you ‘fro, but can you not wear it this evening? This is a really important event. Board members will be there. You know I am all down for the cause, but board members for Christ’s sake. Board members.”
I was sincerely confused. Was I the cause? Did he understand the time that went into? To paraphrase Drake, where ya a—was at when I was moisturizing bantus??
I knew he wouldn’t clear my path until I said something.
“Arthur I need to change my pad.” I pushed past him.
I stood in the bathroom looking at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t believe I’d used the last few drops of my Nubian Heritage oil serum the night before and might not even get to show off my perfect coils. My four carefully parted braids exploded into a symmetrical series of swirls that framed my head like a halo. Going natural was hard in the pre-Sasha fierce era. My friends said I looked like a lesbian. My family was hurt that I cut off my good hair. My boyfriend decided we shouldn’t be exclusive anymore. On top of everything else, I had no idea what to do with my little naps. Before Natural Heritage, I tried a dozen products that didn’t help. When I finally started loving my natural hair and meeting other women who made the transition, it made a difference in how I felt about myself. All Arthur saw was a threat to his career.
I went into the stall to talk myself into shaving my head bald and sprinkling my hair across my coworkers like dollars bills at Magic City. I flushed and returned to the mirror to wash my hands. When I grabbed the paper towel, I made peace with my impending assimilation. I reluctantly took out each braid and played my internal drinking game. I used a few loose bobby pins from my purse to twist my hair into a more colonizer-friendly look. A few minutes later, defeated, I walked out and headed back to my office.
Around 1pm I grabbed my panini and headed to the toaster oven. I noticed that every woman in the office had her hair in a ponytail or bun. I smoothed my hand over my now tamed curls and sighed. Arthur smiled when he saw my mini-makeover from across the room and skipped over to give me a dramatic high five. I didn’t reciprocate. Resting bitch face clearly failed me because he interpreted it as a sign to engage in conversation.
“Do you want to carpool after work to change?”
“No.” I said, without stopping. He followed anyway.
“You’re not taking the train home, are you? Rush hour will be cray-cray, you won’t make it back in time for the event.”
“I know, Arthur. That’s why I am not going home before the event. I’m staying here.”
“You’re changing at work? That’s kind of gross.”
“I am not changing, Arthur. I am wearing this to the event.”
We both stood there looking at each other for a moment before I rolled my eyes and sat down to eat.
“Ok, well let me know if you need a ride.” He walked off and I stared down at my outfit. I had on a silk button up blouse with a pencil skirt. Yes, my glasses are less than conservative and my jewelry is Afrocentric, but I was pretty tame compared to Arthur, who wore fishnets to the costume fundraiser. Board members attended that event, too. I thought to myself, just breathe and drink.
The event finally started a few hours later. Aside from a slight name tag scandal, I was 10 minutes into a deep conversation with James (the only other Black person in the room), and a tech-savvy white woman named Estelle when Arthur interrupted us.
“Oh I see you have met our resident activist!” He thought it was hilarious. The three of us stood there awkwardly awaiting the punchline. “Africa is quite colorful. Can you believe that this is what she considers conservative?”
Estelle chimed in, “I love her skirt.”
“Thank you, Estelle. I made it.”
Estelle and James both turned towards me, ignoring Arthur. He took it as a sign to reassert his power via my embarrassment.
“Africa is one of our best employees. And she is entertaining. From day to day we never know if she will walk in as Beyonce or Rihanna. I guess today she’s Harriet Tubman!”
I was mortified and caught off guard. The look on my face must have shown everything I felt because Estelle touched my shoulder and James aggressively redirected Arthur to another part of the room. The appetizers hadn’t even been served and here I was demoted to a damn slave! My instinct was to charge across the floor and snatch his wig off his head, but instead I headed to the lobby to calm down.
I realized that my first mistake of the day was pinning back my hair. I sat in the lobby for a second, then took out the pins so my curls could bounce back to their natural state. Part of me wanted to walk back into that party and pronounce my Blackness to the crowd, but instead I just caught the train home. It’s anti-climatic, but I knew he didn’t deserve any more of my energy. I emailed a letter of resignation to the board, blocked all my coworkers on Facebook and turned on Netflix.
A few hours later, I got an email from one of our mysterious Board members who happened to be the man I was speaking with when Arthur accosted me.
It was unfortunate that we missed the mark in the hiring process when we brought on Arthur as the director. His actions are proof that someone can look great on paper and be terrible in person. The board and I sincerely apologize for his behavior. An official memorandum will go out company wide explaining why we let him go tonight. Although I understand your decision to leave the company, I encourage you to reconsider. We would love to work with you. Your work is tremendous and although we have not voiced it previously, we have been impressed by your record. We are happy to discuss details at your convenience. In the meantime, we decline your resignation and instead to offer a one week paid reflection period. You will not need to come to the office or complete assignments during this time. This reflection period will not count as PTO. We only ask that you reconsider and get back to us Thursday evening before the board meeting.
Thank you for all you do.
Believe it or not, I still quit at the end of my reflection period. My mother thought I was ridiculous for giving up “all those good benefits”, but being a full time freelancer is what I should have been doing from the start. The good news is that each of the board members has hired me on a number of independent projects and my network continues to grow. As much as I felt their sincerity, I knew that the more important thing was becoming my own boss. Whether I want to wear a button up shirt and slacks or a gold leather catsuit to work, I am the only person who gets to determine my worth.