Despite being born in New York and raised in Tennessee, I can say that for most of my life I haven’t felt like an American. My citizenship couldn’t overcome my race. I’m black, a member of the group that has been the quintessential “other” in this country.

Just the names we embraced illustrated our position outside the mainstream. The first Africans came to this country as slaves, who could in some extraordinary cases buy their freedom. Within two generations, though, black skin and bondage had become so intertwined that the word “slave” became a synonym for “black person” by the end of the 17th century. After Emancipation, former slaves and their progeny wore and discarded a host of names: colored, Negro, black. The word American didn’t become part of that designation until the late 1980s, when black leaders lobbied for the term “African American.” Their justification made sense: We could claim both halves of our identity, grabbing hold of the present without rejecting the heritage of the past.

But being something is different from talking about it. I was and am more comfortable with the word black than I am with African American. I like the way the one-syllable word explodes from my lips. At 49, I’m old enough to remember when calling someone black meant a whipping — not a spanking — for a child and a sure enough fight for an adult. I enjoyed the transformation from insult to compliment.

Besides, I just didn’t feel like an American before. However, that’s beginning to change. Although I’m still black (and will be until I die unless something miraculous happens to change my skin color), I am now constantly struck by how American I really am. It’s not because American society has become more accepting of black folks. Something more mundane is motivating my revelation.

I’m shopping, more and more, at ethnic grocery stores.

Nowadays I live in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the old, Midwestern cities that is fighting economic decay. This was a manufacturing town, and that past has left it completely unprepared for a world where factories in Asia make everything so cheaply no American company can compete.

When folks think of Cleveland, they don’t think about diversity. In its heyday — from the early 1900s until the bottom fell out of the manufacturing era in the 1970s — people came from all over the country and the world to work in this region’s factories. Cleveland became a city of Eastern and Western Europeans, Southern blacks and whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Lebanese. Everyone came and set up churches, clubs – and stores. One can eat his or her way around the world without leaving the seven counties that make up the greater Cleveland metropolitan area.

Within a fifteen-minute drive from my house, I can buy palm oil at the Ghanaian market, or cardamom coffee at the Lebanese store. I can stop at the Korean place for a bottle of that extra-hot Vietnamese pepper sauce that my African friends adore. The Indian store sells the brand of loose tea that has replaced those Lipton teabags I bought at chain stores like Tops and Giant Eagle. And the Russian deli sells the chocolate candy I give to kids in the neighborhood.

I shop at these places because they are nearby and they have the things I want. But running into the Indian store isn’t the same as a quick trip to the twenty-four-hour supermarket. In fact, I can’t really run into the Indian market; I walk in slowly. I browse and ponder. The minute I enter one of these little markets I realize I’m an American. While the stores are in America, they are not American places. They are enclaves, a little bit of home for the people who shop there, and a reminder, to me, of where I come from.

These are places to buy hair oil that smells like sandalwood, not like citrus. The chocolate drink on the shelf is Ovaltine, not Nestlé’s Quik.

These are places that carry the frozen goat meat and instant fufu flour that makes home cooking taste authentic, not desperately patched together from substitutions. These are the places where, on the most basic level, the regulars speak the same language: the language of food and life and experiences. When I walk in the door, it’s obvious I don’t belong, but the reason I don’t belong isn’t because I’m black. It’s because I’m American.

Even though I go to the Ghanaian market for a container of palm oil for my peanut butter stew, I unconsciously expect to see bottles of Mazola and cans of Crisco. I know that the Indian store carries jars of ghee, not sticks of butter. Still I habitually walk to the refrigerated food section, not the shelf. These little assumptions and habits betray my identity in a way I can’t control. Yes, I’m black, but I’m a black American. I look at the world the way an American does, craving wide, open spaces and places to expand.

Perhaps that’s why the stores look so tiny to me. We shop at “big-box stores” and “mega-markets” where goods come in cartons and you can buy enough toilet paper to last a year. We want shelves that rise from the floor to the ceiling. We want to choose between ten kinds of whatever we buy because more is better and we want access to as much as we can.

At the ethnic markets, the shelves are sometimes fully stocked and sometimes they aren’t. Sons and daughters tend the cash register; friends stop in to chat with the owner. The stores resemble the corner stores of my youth: intimate places that disappeared when Americans sprawled farther into the suburbs.

But while these stores are quaint to me, they’re more of an excursion than a place to run errands. How can a family-owned shop fight against a superstore that can crush its competitors by staying open twenty-four hours per day, selling food at low prices and marketing to diversity by including an aisle of “ethnic” groceries?

Perhaps the small ethnic shops could market what has been for me an unintended consequence of multiculturalism: They’ve shown me how much I belong, however uneasily, to the mainstream.

And all for the price of a box of tea.

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