This article first appeared in September 2020.
When I was a child, the foods I preferred were beef fried rice, chicken fingers, cheese pizza with a Philly cheese steak (extra mayo and jalapenos), spaghetti and cool ranch Doritos. All with Sprite. I did not want the foods my parents would cook: jollof rice, coconut rice, fufu with spinach (or okra, or potato), salt fish with cassava and goat meat pepper soup. According to my mother I would run into the bathroom whenever these kinds of foods were served. All I can say on my behalf is that I now actually prefer the latter foods I named, the ones tied to my Nigerian roots.
Now there are plenty of children who are born to African immigrants every day who manage to integrate the worlds of their parents with the world of their own making. They love jollof—can cook it very well in fact—and speak multiple languages. Though they have their days of struggle weathering the strains of being the child of African immigrants in the West, they can manage the expectations thrust at them quite artfully and become a fine symbol representing the best of both worlds. This is not my particular experience, although I am friends with many people who do have this experience, and it’s interesting when we talk about how the specific tension of growing up in between worlds and understandings impacted us.
I was born and raised in the US, in a small rural town, so in many ways I consider myself Afro rural. I was the child trying to get to the urban city where it was more diverse and where there were Black people. And I guess this was the first thing that may have set me apart from how my parents understood the world. They were Nigerian, immigrants, Ibibio, from the South South, educated and so on. They had multiple identifiers.
And from the time I could remember, growing up in a town with deer running about and the white people looking at us strangely, I was clear that I was Black. I remember this actually being my first identifier. I was born and raised in the US, I had no other guideposts for what my parents’ life back home had meant, and I only cared about the here and now. In rural Massachusetts, I was Black first, all other things second. I listened to Motown and loved the Temptations. I would have rather eaten fried chicken from KFC than rice and stew. Sister Sister was everything (especially when they were in college), and those other pieces of who I was… Nollywood movies (which I occasionally watched when I went to an African hairdresser, because who doesn’t know about the booming Nigerian film industry?), the Nigerian gospel songs I had to sing during prayer time and my parents speaking Ibibio while somehow I kept on speaking English… Well, that was what it was.
Children can be incredibly astute and cutting in their assessment of the world around them. I thought it would be better for my parents to accept that they were Black and nothing else. I had watched how my mother faced racism as a scientist, and knew of how she had worked herself to the bone to get to where she was. I knew that her status as an immigrant, a Black woman and all the things America devalues made it that much more difficult for her to have ease. This is a Black experience, I thought. We’re Black. But now, if I could talk to the young girl I was, in the hopes of supporting her in becoming more empathetic, I’d ask, “But how can someone just forget themselves? Do you know how to do that?” I understood my parents theoretically, but I didn’t quite get them emotionally or experientially. So a lot of what they said to me, well, it didn’t quite make sense until I repatriated to Nigeria.
During a phone call with my mother, we spoke at length about the expectations a Nigerian woman faces in her country. She must rear the children. She must (in our case) be educated but she cannot be more educated than the Nigerian man she will marry. She will marry this said Nigerian man at a reasonable childbearing age because the priority is to have a family. She will go to church and have a strong spiritual life (in our case rooted in Christianity). She will…
I had worked a job briefly as a journalist reporting specifically on what it means to be single in Nigeria. There was a harrowing story of nearly one hundred single women who were arrested by police one night because they were out in public without a man around, single and dressed ‘inappropriately’. Now, in the US as a woman—especially a Black woman—the stereotypes about our supposed sexual promiscuity abound. But showing some midriff and some thigh while I’m with a group of girlfriends dancing at a club trying to live my life? Who has the right to barge in on that? But in this context, it was perfectly conceivable. It was also conceivable for the women to have to bribe their way out of police custody, for not much to be done in their defense until there was national outcry and for a woman to say, “I always share my travel itinerary,” or “I feel safer when I am out with male company.” These types of stories happen in many places, but there was something about the lived experience of this, of knowing women who were utterly exhausted with their daily reality… Well, I got it.
In many immigrant cultures, there is a culture of silence. It’s a culture where many do not want to remember the more painful memories and circumstances of one’s existence. Or, maybe it’s because when you’re in a new place you’re fully immersed in that specific situation, and in the US, there’s a lot to navigate. So there’s a lot of filling in the gaps that I’ve learned to do around those tender spots that aren’t talked about openly. It’s almost like learning how to make complete sentences with accurate information. So when my mother would tell me, “Study hard and get a good education…” I now hear that differently. What I hear them saying is, “Go to school and get a good education because back home there’s not much infrastructure to protect you if you’re not coming from wealth. And out here in the US, well, you know what a ride this place is, and don’t forget you’re a woman whether you’re here or out there, so it’s not going to be easy. You’re Black here and you’ll be Nigerian (well, maybe Nigerianish) over there, and either way, there’ll be that expectation that you’ll comply, and I’m telling you that I’ve left a land where I was expected to comply as a woman, and though I love that country, but whoa, that country was a bit rough…”
This information is important to know, but it can be difficult to express, especially when you’re in a new place trying to keep it together.
It’s not to say that to gain empathy you have to live what that other person has lived, or suffer in the particular way they have suffered. It’s just to say that I had a different understanding of what my parents had been through and they didn’t quite understand my reality as someone who had only ever known a US context. In a way, we were figuring out something different together, and I think it’s this process of ‘figuring it out’ that makes the third culture and first and second generation experience distinct.
I now have learned to embrace as much as I can about my experience as the child of African immigrants, the sweet and the sour, the hard and the soft, the okra soup with catfish and the chicken fingers, although I will always opt for okra soup with catfish because these days, I’m not big on meat. There’s something sweet about integrating parts that you realize are connected and in need of reconciliation. Somehow, this repatriation process has been a repair and honoring of my upbringing in rural Massachusetts. As I move forward somehow I work my way back, which is truly an African experience.