Years after my sister and I had established our adult lives, we dipped french fries in ketchup and ate hamburgers in a restaurant with orange walls and laminate tabletops—a place that felt so American. My sister asked if I’d read a particular essay about our country’s first black president—a man with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. She spoke of our president’s assertion that he chose to enmesh himself in black American culture.
I think we both thought of our black Jamaican parents and the way they arrived in this country so unfamiliar with being black Americans. At once we nodded our heads at each other, two sisters mirroring the other, a mutual act of recognition at an idea resonating with both.
“You made a choice. You chose being black,” my sister said to me, her words not about the color of my skin but about where I’d found a sense of connectivity.
I replied with the word opportunity and reminded my sister that I’d left the remote isolation of Alaska and ventured across the country to college. I mentioned the black girls on my dorm floor and the way they had extended offers of friendship.
My father once told me that I became a black American in college. I think what he meant was while I was at Carnegie Mellon, my friends had led me to a cultural identity beyond just a box to select my race. Like President Obama, I found black to be a place to belong.
My sister heard my explanation. “You made a choice,” she repeated. “I think I missed my chance. I think I missed out.” The mellow smell of white potatoes fried in oil—vegetable, perhaps?—settled through the space.
Long ago, when my sister and I were small girls and our mother pushed us in a shopping cart through the grocery store, strangers would stop her, admire her daughters, and ask if we were twins. “Separated by twenty months,” I say now whenever I recount the story of those two brown-skinned sisters.
I go back two generations and see our black grandmothers, our Indian grandfathers, and even further back, a white great-great from England. Together these shades of skin, different countries and cultures, formed future generations beneath a vast umbrella of being Jamaican. So my sister looks like me and yet not. My sister thinks like me and yet not. In this country our paths diverged. Now I peddle speculation and theories as to the reasons.
Around the same time that strangers used to ask if my sister and I were twins, our parents left us one evening in the care of our babysitter.
Patrice Gopo and her sister as children
At snack time we both climbed on stools pushed near the counter. Our babysitter peeled back the skin of a banana. She sliced the fruit through the center and placed each half on a separate plate. “Too hard,” we said as we pushed our plates away. The babysitter tucked the two halves back in the open peel and crimped the skin shut as well as she could, as if this action might in the future hatch a ripe fruit.
Later that evening when our parents returned home, my mother said, “My good, good plantain,” when she looked at the plantain mistaken for a banana and peeled much too early. I like to think my sister reached out and touched my mother’s arm. Whether this is true or not, I imagine that somewhere inside, my sister knew the difference too.
A plantain is not a banana, but they are close.
They both share common ancestry with the same ancient plant. The seeds of modern varieties are sterile. Instead of sowing seeds to yield new fruit, immature suckers are taken from the parent and planted elsewhere.
Just after I finished graduate school, my mother took me to visit Jamaica. During that trip, I told my uncle in Kingston that I was Jamaican. He shook his head no. I laughed, but I think this gesture directed to my sister would have hurt her. When my friend with a similar complexion to mine told me that she didn’t really think of me as being black, a great sadness gripped me. I think a lesser sadness would have gripped my sister. Perhaps we are both whole and yet both incomplete. If my sister missed out, I missed out too.
Excerpt from All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way (August 2018), an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. Please visit patricegopo.com/book to learn more.