Johannesburg. Mother Africa. Africans for Africans. Sola in college but already engaged to be married to a white boy who was born in Africa but not even Afrikaan—but American. The wrong A. Which meant Sola should go. To Africa. To figure this shit out.
In the study abroad magazines Cape Town looked like St. Thomas, where she was from. Just bigger. Big mountains strewn with sand and not snow. Mountains that only just some time ago had been under the very sea. Or Joburg. Where the mountains were mine hills and were as red as the setting sun. And the people lived beneath galvanized roofs, just like in St. Thomas. Either way, South Africa. Country of revolution and resolution, of Mandela and murder, where sweet Solarise might fall in love with the land and not just the man that was born in and named after that big city. And then her and Johann might love there and live there. And no one would say they weren’t right for each other. He would be as native as she, as foreign as she—and in complementary ways. It was always about Johann. Always about love. Love, love. All we need.
But South Africa said no. A sign? Likely.
At the study abroad center on campus South Africa was popular. Who knew? It was beautiful in South Africa. It was political and the politics weren’t even America’s fault (right?). And yet it was still African enough—even had Africa in the name! With struggles and townships. But wait, watch the complementary contradiction: The country was also white and had consistent electricity and good plumbing on the university campuses. And American parents could send their children there with the least worry. Besides, everyone had reconciled there, hadn’t they?
So Sola of the good grades (but not great) could not compete. And she needed to go on scholarship, couldn’t just go. So Sola, Solarise to strangers, ended up in West Africa. Not too far. But also too far for a hop and skip over to the burg of Johann. Sola was still in Africa. And further away from home than she had ever been. And what the hell was she doing here? Her school offered South Africa as a journalism program—Witness the Revolution! West Africa, Ghana to be specific, was the music program—The Origins of Hip-hop! Sola was a visual artist, not a writer or a musician. Yes, there was an art program heading to Italy. But Sola needed her study abroad to be negroid. And the only art program her school offered that fit that requirement was the study in Haiti.And well, you know. Haiti had been Haiti since the beginning and that program was on one year and off for another three—political upheaval here, hurricane there, AIDS, AIDS, AIDS. The Haiti Program—Create Primitive Art!—had been off for all the four years Sola was in college.But Solarise was determined to go somewhere where the melanin was native. Had to. I can get to Europe anytime, easy. That’s what she would have said. But that would have been a lie. She had to go black because of white Johann. Because the summer before, he’d put a ring—silver and with a topaz, but so what—on the finger where she never put a ring. The one to save for marriage, like her virginity. They would get married after she graduated from college—no worry that he would still be in college, at the rate he was going. She’d move to his snowy side, learn to ski.
So now Ghana. University of Legon. And two months in she’d turned twenty years old. And her birthday was the 20th of the month. 20/20. Auspicious. On her birthday she would see clearly. Good. That was what she’d come for. She’d been taking art classes back at her own college but so far had not gotten into the art program. How could she not be good enough? Everyone back home had always said she was good, good. Best. In Ghana her group of American students were all anthropologists and musicians and some were both. “Can I take painting instead?” And the program coordinator had shrugged. “You are our guest,” and he smiled and bowed like he must be joking. Sola tensed, she didn’t want to be a guest and she didn’t want to be a joke. Still, he found Sola the painting class. Sola registered. Easy as American pie.
There was also the required Language Class for Foreign Students of Music Studies—which included and focused on how to say, “bottled water, please” in Twi, Ga and Ewe. And also the names of African instruments. Names for traditional songs. Names for types of African music—though those were strangely in English: Afro-beat. Highlife.
The other classes were full–on academic. Modern African Literature: Achebe, Gordimer, N’Gugi. Big writers. Same as saying Plato, Shakespeare, Hemingway. But angrier. The other American students from her American university were taking not only a musical instrument instruction of their choice (djembe, calabash, fula flute) but also took the Musical Anthropology course around which the whole program was formed, though in the course packet it had a more sedate name: Musical Anthropology of Africa. But Sola had said, “No, thank you.” Instead of that music class, where she doubted they would mention soca or calypso, she took painting and biology.
In African Art and Painting all the other students were white girls from England, except for Sola and one boy—he was called Edi. It was a small intimate class. Edi was not really a student. He was a teaching assistant. An African boy, Ewe tribe, though his skin was blond and freckled. His head shaved bald so no one would ever know how kinky or how fine. Edi the Ewe, that’s how she remembered him. “My mother was white,” he told her that first day when he’d stopped her outside of class. “She abandoned me here with my father’s people.” All this in their first conversation. Sola figured he must see something special in her.
The other course was Human Biology. She needed the credit. It was probably easier in Africa. So Sola was well isolated from her fellow (Americans?) college mates. In Human Biology there was only one American. A black boy whose name she never could remember. TBA, she called him to herself. The Black American. Which is (partly?) why she will remember this boy when she first meets her future husband(s). Which is good. Because that boy, TBA, tried to save Sola. And who knows what deep psychology leads people to love who they love and put their whole lives at the service of the persons whom they do.
The biology class was a big lecture hall. The teacher, ostensibly, was the lecturer. But in every class at least one Ghanaian student would stand and deliver his (always his) own competing or complementary lecture. Sitting in different areas of the lecture hall Sola and The Black American would look at these students giving prepared lectures like they were another kind of creature. In the beginning Sola had raised her hand, said a few things in response to what she’d thought was a regular old question from the professor. But now even she could see how silly, how flippant she was beside these students who wore suits to class. Carried briefcases instead of backpacks.
Then one day, two weeks or so in, The Black American stood. He wasn’t wearing a suit, but a blazing red dashiki. He gave a ten–minute monologue on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Solarise had never even heard of syphilis.
“Shit,” she said to herself when he finally sat down. But he didn’t even look across the room at her. Just nodded, once, to all the eyes he knew were on him, and then went back to taking notes. Sola couldn’t help but look for him after class, but he fled. In his shirt he was there flicking past the others like a flame.
After the first exam, the professor announced to the entire auditorium that an American had gotten the highest grade. So many chests in the room held onto their breaths. The professor went on, “and a woman at that.”
Sola scanned the room for this other woman, until she realized that she was the other, the American. The class, all those faces and eyes, turned inward, to the center of the room where Sola was sitting. She could feel her skin, like it was alive all by itself.
After that class The Black American found her like a dagger. “I want to go to medical school,” he said, out of breath. “Help find a cure for Africa’s diseases.”
“I just want to paint,” Sola said under her breath. She had never felt shameful about this before. But after that she and The Black American always sat together in class. He always sought her out to study. So she wasn’t totally isolated.
The only other person Sola spent any time with was Edi the Ewe. The teaching assistant from the art class. In this class Sola wanted to do well. It was complicated. She wanted to do well because it was an art class and being an artist was what she wanted. But it was also, strangely, a class where she had something to prove that wasn’t at all about technique. She had to be the best in this class. These white girls were a contingent from another university, from another white country.
Sola hated those girls.
She liked Edi. Edi liked her.
When she presented her sketches at the end of class (charcoals of Carnival in black and white) Edi’s critique was that she used irony well. He pronounced Carnival as Car–nee–vhal, and with such authority that Sola began to wonder if it was she and her whole island who said it wrongly. Sola also did not get that black and white charcoals of Carnival were ironic. But the professor had nodded and so Sola had smiled. After class Edi curled his finger to her. When she went to him he whispered: “You’ll be famous. You’ll come back here and I’ll be your assistant.” She’d laughed. He was older, he’d never be her assistant. He was flirting, right? But he didn’t smile. He looked set in his comment. And so Sola said, “We’ll both be teachers,” and then he laughed. “I was joking,” he said. And she laughed too, though she was confused.
But really it was simple. Sola was good at art and at science. But science was not magic. Not to her. Science was simple and straight and could never be as slippery as oils or acrylics. Never be as human and humane. Look at the awful science had done. Justified slavery. Justified colonialism. Had a painting ever done that? If it had, Sola had never seen it. But there she was. Biology with TBA and Art with Edi the Ewe.
She wasn’t choosing between the two men. She had a man. Johann. Not just a man, a full on fiancé. And wasn’t he as African, more African than the African-American even?
On Sola’s birthday she was turning twenty. She was born on the twentieth day of the month. This meant she would see something. 20–20. But Sola, instead of seeing, wanted to be seen. Dancing, she announced. I want to go dancing. There was a spot right off campus. The white anthropologists and musicians came. And TBA. And of course, Edi.
The music wasn’t loud enough to get lost in. And the DJ kept interrupting to show off his hip-hop accent. Still, Sola danced. Edi moved along with her. “You dance like an African,” he said. And it was then, though she liked what he said, that she realized that something was not quite right. Because she wasn’t an African, really. She wasn’t really an American either. But when she said Caribbean, even here in Africa, they wanted to know where in Jamaica she lived. If she knew the Marley family. So she wasn’t really Caribbean here either, was she? She was the only one of her kind. And she danced. “Not like an African,” she said to Edi, the music now rolling a reggae beat. “Like a Virgin Islander.” And she’d meant to make it sound strong and proud and something. But “Virgin,” he said, smiling as though they had a secret together.
“Solarise,” said TBA. “A moment, please.” And she left Edi’s arms and went to the future doctor of African diseases. “It’s my birthday,” she said looking at him, her eyes open, open. “Yes,” he said quietly. “But can you see what’s going on here?” Of course. She had the 20–20. Edi came up beside her, but TBA stood like a sentry. Guarding like she was his. She was not. “It’s my birthday,” she said again. “But you’re like showing something more than you mean, too.” Poor boy, Sola thought. He liked her? He wanted her for himself? “I can see what I’m doing,” she said, but reached for Edi’s hand.
That night there were so many signs put in Sola’s way to stop her. For one, she had another biology exam the next day. She needed to study. She and TBA had agreed to study that night, despite it being her birthday. Bacterial colonies. Viral invaders. The dining halls stayed open until 2 a.m. for group study. Sola had never been so good at anything before. The professor had thrown down a gauntlet. An American scored highest. Now she was the one to beat. She wanted America to lose, this is true, but she wanted to win. She wanted both these things to happen.
But a woman had to eat. And Edi had cooked. “Not for anyone do I cook,” he said. “I’ve invited many friends. It is not so far from campus.”
The music was highlife-ing around them. The other students were easing out. Coming to Sola for kiss and hug and wave, Happy Birthday, and gone. Sola didn’t see it but she felt it. And she wasn’t one for that kind of thing: Dread. A premonition. But here’s what she was thinking: If I go to dinner with Edi tonight I will fail the biology exam. But so what?What did she care about biology? She was an artist. But wouldn’t it be nice to boost her GPA in this way? Maybe the art program back at her college would look at her application more kindly if her GPA were higher.
“I have to study,” she said, the lights dimming at the little club. You don’t have to go home but you have to get the BEEP! out of here. It was a school night. Even the clubs closed early.
“I also have to study,” Edi said gravely.
And Sola didn’t want to be the kind of American who turned down dinner because of a bad feeling. That was probably racist, right? She looked around for TBA just to give him the courtesy of good-bye but he’d slinked off. Sola climbed on the tro tro with Edi. But even then she felt as though she should be heading back to campus, readying her review of herpes simplex.
The tro tro was loud and crowded, even this late at night. But that was fine. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was how far away Edi’s place was. She couldn’t talk to Edi, because it was so loud and everyone was too close. Each time they stopped, she would eye the shouter, try to see if he would give her a sign. “Us?” she would mouth to Edi. And he would shake his head once, like she was a fly in his ear. They were taking the tro tro to the end, weren’t they?Then they’d start over. But then the shouter called, “White lady!” and Sola knew this meant her. Edi took her hand, not a white hand, but what did it matter, it was closer to white than anyone else’s hand here. Guided her off the tro tro like she was a queen. Sola didn’t know where they were.
The walk to his flat was a series of many roads with large metal gates barring here, forcing a turn there. It was as though they were turning, turning, heading deeper into a labyrinth. Getting intentionally lost. At the center there would be a minotaur. Or maybe God. They kept curving around buildings, and then around tents. Shacks. Cars passed though there was no paved road. Despite the dark the dirt was red as fire beneath their feet. Sola knew she would never find her way out of this alone. Whatever this was.
At the flat there were not throngs of invitees, as Sola could have sworn Edi promised. There were three roommates. All men. Of course Sola thought of TBA. Of what he’d asked her to see. But it was dark. And it was late. And it was strange what people do when they feel the decision has already been made for them.
But first there was the food. Dinner, after all. They all five ate the seafood dish from one pot with their hands. The conversation was simple and laborious; everything Sola said had to be translated, as the roommates spoke only rudimentary English. After dinner, Sola checked her watch. Almost 11 p.m. “Time for me to go. It was so nice.” “But there are no more tro tros going to campus. Not until morning.” Edi said this calmly and with a smile, like she should have known. Like he suspected she knew.
That night Solarise drilled herself on biology. Sat in the kitchen and wrote out the diseases and the treatments. Fell asleep at the table. Intentional, even. But still, when she woke she was there in Edi’s room. A large room. Concrete floor. She knew because they were laying on it, a meager mattress beneath them. And she could see the moonlight through the window way way over. She noted all this before she noted the hands. Which were taking off her clothes.
“Please,” she said. She pushed him off.
“No,” Edi said calmly. No. Which was her line. The woman’s line. And left Sola unsure of what to say. And then she was naked. And he was pushing. And she was telling him, “Stop.” A new word now. But she wasn’t shouting. What would shouting do? So she said it gently. “Stop, please.” She was afraid to wake his roommates. And besides. She was a virgin. Just like he’d joked. This wouldn’t happen like this. All bodies and biology. All slick and slime. All push, push, heave. Where was the beauty? Where were the strokes of light and color? “Please,” she said. “More please,” he responded. His words their own trap, making it all seem different than it was. “Don’t make me stop. I will be thankful afterwards,” he said gently. Like begging for food, or water. Let me drink and eat and I will be thankful afterwards. He finished quickly and perhaps that was a kindness, but it also didn’t give Sola a chance, did it?A chance to find her fight. A chance to be the one to stop it. Instead, he collapsed. She felt herself a stone. A blind stone.
(Now, who could call it rape? It was Africa. African men might rape white women. That was expected even, what every midwestern father was afraid of when his daughter set off to study in Ethiopia or where have you. But why would an African man rape a black woman? There was no need, real black women were everywhere. This, almost to a word, is what the Vice Chancellor for Foreign Exchange Affairs would say to Sola when Sola found it in her to say something. Edi’s defense wasn’t better. He and Sola had been in love. It had gone awry. She wanted to hurt him. Make him lose his assistantship. She was using her foreign power over him. And by then everyone knew. Legon was a village. Everyone knew the American girl who said she was Caribbean but had never even been to Jamaica. That girl was a fraud. The African–Americans were no good. What could be expected, they’re still Americans.)
How silly it had been to keep this from Johann. When it could so easily be taken. Sola tried to picture the beauty of being naked on a beach with Johann. Tried to picture the beauty of that. Tried to feel the sand in her palm. The waves at her toes. But instead the smell of her own blood came and repulsed her. Edi curled away, stilling into sleep. As if nothing so strange and sudden had happened.
(The perception of black men as overly sexed was the white master’s excuse to control the black male slave. Sola had read those exact words in a textbook. Even white women falsely accused black men of rape—a way to exercise their own pale power. “But African men are also men.” That is what the therapist at school would say later. Which only made Sola think that somehow this was all Johann’s fault. Loving him had confused her over black men. Had caused her to be overly romantic about black men, to hope more of black men than manhood.)
It was a while before the moon turned into a sun. But Sola waited. Waited for that sun. With the sun came a voice. A woman’s. A white woman’s, but so fucking what? Any woman might be a sister now. Sola lay, still stone, the voice spoke to another in Twi. Sola didn’t know the words but she could hear the wind sounds of the syntax. So here was a white woman who knew the language. The voice spoke and the other voice spoke back. The voices spoke as they made a morning meal—the smell of it coming rich and crisp together. Where had this woman come from? Now Sola smelled the sharpness of a clove cigarette.
Sola was scared. Ashamed. Perhaps she would never be able to leave this bed. Stone as she was. She became more ashamed at her fear. The shame was winning. Keeping her stone. But then the sun chopped through the window. Sola saw. And she felt what suicides must feel before they jump. Is that a sign from God? The sun rising, is that for me?Yes, I will climb down from this bridge.Yes, I will crawl to my clothes beneath this sun blooming window.
Sola didn’t want to leave the room without stealing something. But it was still too dark. And she was lucky to find her own clothes. And until the day she dies, this will be her greatest regret. Not that she went there at all. But that she didn’t steal something back from him.
In the common room Sola recognized the white woman. She was the one who wore cloth shoes and carried her book around campus in a hemp bag. With her now was one of the super rich Nigerian boys who strode around campus like princes. Sola had once seen them together roaring by the science block in a shiny red car.
“Solarise,” the woman said, as if they knew each other. Though Sola didn’t even know this woman’s name. The woman reached for Sola and touched her hair. Something white women would never do in America. The Nigerian boyfriend stood to give Sola his seat. They spoke to her in British English. “I have a room here,” he said cryptically. He offered Sola a sweet cigarette and Sola took it, thought she’d never smoked before. “My roommate is South African. Colored lad. Doesn’t like when I bring my girlfriend around. You know?” But Sola didn’t know. She just knew that she needed to stay close to this woman. She sucked the cigarette into a sharp crackle. Looked at the other woman. “Can you take me home?” Sola said, the first thing she’d said. And she couldn’t have known the desperation this revealed. But the white woman kissed her black man and took Sola by the hand.
“Are you okay,” she asked when they were back out on the winding road.
“Yes,” Sola said. But she never said anything else to that woman. Not even a thank you when the other finally hailed her a tro tro and told the driver, in Twi, to take Sola to campus.
(What myths do black people have for love? African kings with a favorite among the queens. Sultans who threaten to kill unless a story is told and then, too bored not to, marry the teller. How easy for white people, with their Prince Charming who risks his whole kingdom for Cinderella.
Sola will write all this in an essay for a creative writing class back in the States. An easy A. Stories are not just stories, she will write. They are guidance.)
When Sola finally found her room on campus she wanted to take a shower. But the water wasn’t running. So she bought a bottle of orange Fanta from a stand. In the bathroom she used the soda to wipe the blood and slick from her thighs. She scrubbed it up and in herself. It burned so badly.
It was then that she realized she’d left the ring. The topaz and silver engagement ring. Lost, stolen. Either way, it was back where she’d never go again. In Edi’s room. She still had the one that Johann’s parents gave her. The one on her index finger. She took it off to put it on the ring finger, a temp, but it didn’t fit. Never had.
It was more than a month later when Sola went to the clinic. She was still the one to beat in Biology. So she knew. She knew already before she even met the doctor, who was fat and ringed with gold. “I’m Indian,” the doctor said, as if to clarify. “Do they have jobs for doctors on the island where you’re from?” All this as the doctor stuck her gloved bangled hand between and she and the nurse peered between Sola’s legs. Not a baby, but another biology to carry for life. “Herpes,” the doctor confirmed, now holding her hands up so the nurse could peel her gloves off. “Close your legs now.”
And Sola stayed there and cried. The nurse came with a box of tissue. “Were you raped?” she asked. And Sola hadn’t even thought to call it that. Hadn’t called it anything all these weeks since. She took the sheath from the tissue box. “Me, too,” the nurse said. And looked at Sola. “It can happen anywhere. To anyone.” And Sola could never figure out what that nurse meant.
But that week Sola stopped going to painting class. She’d still been going every week. Edi had been shy or maybe not shy—aloof. Or maybe angry or maybe afraid. She had tried not to worry about it. But all she’d wanted to draw was what had happened. And she couldn’t. Because Edi was there and because sex was new and scary. And because it didn’t make any sense. And now neither had this. She stopped going to painting class. She kept up on bio, that was a real class for real credit. TBA still sought her out for study. But she avoided him. So no one had even known she’d gone to the doctor. The painting class never appeared on her transcripts. Like she’d never taken it. Like it just disappeared.
And then Sola went back to America. And never saw any of those people ever again. In school she took marine biology. Wrote a paper on the cleansing properties of salt water. Another on the ruining of coral reefs. Became a biology major. Excelled. Did her senior thesis on whales.
But she did call Johann. Told him a lie: “I don’t want to be engaged to anyone,” which was the exact opposite of what was the truth. But she could never explain where she’d been and what she’d seen.