“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”~ Martin Luther King Jr.
I look at my phone Another Black Man Gunned down I can no longer stay silent When oh when will these killings stop?
It’s June 2020, I am in Lagos, Nigeria. Yet I feel the pain in some ways of Black people in America. Yes, my story might be different in some ways, but our paths cross somewhere in our shared experience of being black.
I find it hard to sleep, thinking of the lives lost, the pain of those left behind. I can imagine the fear of not knowing if you or your loved one might be next. And as I reflect, memories come flooding back of my experiences being black in America.
I sat alone in the cafeteria Without a friendly wave or hello When people deemed fit to talk to me It was to ask, do you play sports? Or How did you get here? Day in and day out I found myself alone. This certainly was not my California dream Oh how I missed home Hearing the warm voices Of people greeting me good morning. Instead of the silence that responded, to my greetings in Sunny Los Angeles.
I was 18 years old when the concept that I was black became my reality. I had just moved to California to attend university and study journalism. Before then, my perception of who I was, was that I was a Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, born in Zambia. I had lived in communities where when it came to race, I was in the majority. In Nigeria, my identity was linked to my tribe, Igbo. In Zambia, I was connected to my passport-Nigerian.
I remember my dad giving me a lot of talks as I prepared to leave, but thinking back now, I don’t think I was ready for the move. But racism never really came up in the discussion, maybe he hoped that things had changed since the 70’s when he went to school in California. Or that things would be better since I was going to a Christian school.
Whatever the case may be, I remember thinking that My dad was really just wasting my time with all this advice. I thought I was going to be okay since I had visited the US twice before. But I found out that visiting is a very different experience from living in a place.
I moved to America at a miserable time, a month before 9-11. Yup, I remember feeling so scared and unseen after the attacks. I saw people start to treat me and others like me as foreign. I understood being patriotic, but did that mean looking down on others who were not American? I remember being at the chapel and feeling un welcomed by the music and the kinds of prayers that were said. I wanted to scream, we are not all Americans, and God bless Africa too.
Instead, I kept quiet in my sufferings. I spent a lot of my first year by myself in my room. As I found myself not being understood, I had to do the hard work of being part of conversations. Sometimes I had no idea what they were talking about since my childhood and background were so different anyway. When I did have a chance to speak, I would mention that I missed home. Apparently, it soon became a sore point for some. I remember being told that I had to suck it up, that people were tired of hearing me say that.
You say I should stop talking about missing home. Yet I see you every weekend drive off to visit your Mom and Dad. What if you were in my shoes? What would you do? Wouldn’t you also miss home? Empty hallways and empty rooms Where the sound of my weekends Books and the internet became my family and rock.
I had learned my lesson, I was not one of them. So I withdrew into my cocoon. Only coming out to go to the cafeteria to eat and go to class, which was my primary purpose anyway. I also went around borrowing books from others in the dorm, I needed something to keep my mind busy during the weekends. The weekends were the worst. Thinking back now, I don’t know how I survived. You know what is funny, I love being by myself in my room nowadays. It just hit me that it is probably because of my first year at university. A residue of the pain of being an African International Student.
Oh, and the one welcome relief and enjoyment was when my White American Uncle and his wife picked me up every Saturday to go to church. I came alive in those moments. They always wanted to hear what I had to say. It was like the faucets were finally opened, and my words would come gushing out in excitement. I was seen, and they really wanted to hear what I had to say.
I remember months later, as I rounded up my first year in college, blurting out to my Uncle S, am I a racist? I had been thinking about the intense anger and feelings that I was experiencing. But I should have asked whether I was surrounded by racism? Somehow I was beginning to connect the dots and realize the subtle ways I was shown every day that I was not worthy of being talked to, to eat with, to commune with. To be clear, it’s never easy to adjust to life in another culture, but this was beyond just culture shock.
It soon became apparent that white Americans, for the most part, are uncomfortable talking about race. There was always this wall of defense that would go up. I remember getting so frustrated that we couldn’t speak openly about it. Yet I could see that racism was still alive and well in it’s well hidden subtle ways. When we held racial reconciliation conferences or had town hall meetings, white students barely showed up. I quickly got the message.
For the first time ever, I doubted my faith even though I was in a Christian school. Yet I was made to feel so unloved and unwanted. Thank God that phase quickly passed. But I knew then that I needed to find my own tribe if I was going to survive and thrive at university. I wasn’t going to find acceptance in the general population of mostly caucasian students. They had no interest in someone like me. I was so angry that I had not joined the International Student’s Association during my first year.
That Summer, I began to rebuild my life by finding my tribe. They were people who had more of a global mindset, they were people from different nations. Either they had traveled and lived in different countries, or they were from other countries and, like me, were struggling to adjust to living in America. It was here I found myself and was able to open up and grow. I had made my home, somehow with people who saw me and appreciated all I had to offer.
I embraced my Identities, as African, International Student, and Missionary Kid, while also enjoying the new cultures I was exposed to. The girl who graduated three years later was undoubtedly not the same girl who spent that one year, trying to figure out where she was and who she was in this new place.
Tomorrow I will continue my narrative. I can no longer remain silent.