Sometime in September of 2002, when I was seven years old, my four-year old sister and I were secretly smuggled from our apartment in Uptown Harlem, New York, to a borough known as Alakuko in Lagos, Nigeria.
The smugglers were my mother and older sister.
That’s the version of the story that usually shocks people. That’s also the version of the story that I truly believed. That is the version of the story that tried to bandage old wounds with humor. But what I did not realize until I made peace with my past is that those wounds are what made me both who I am and what I am. Because of those wounds, because of the sacrifices my family made for my future, I can say that I am an African-American man, in the total and literal sense of the word.
I grew up Black. I was raised in Harlem, New York, during its pre-gentrified days, when it wasn’t always safe to walk 20 blocks by yourself at night, when seeing a white person near the polo grounds or the projects was cause for confusion, if not a subtle bit of anger. Growing up, I was told that my family was Nigerian, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
I could never stay in school because I would get suspended for fighting and ignoring my teachers. Outside of school, I spent my days either with girls or on the concrete court of Rucker Park. I had no comprehension of what it meant to be African, and I was as normal as one could be in my neighborhood, until I picked up my entire life one day and shipped it to the motherland.
When we arrived at my uncle’s house in Alakuko, I was under the impression that I was just being introduced to relatives I had never seen before in a place I had never seen before. But my perception of the visit swiftly changed when my mom exited the complex without me and my little sister.
I turned to my aunty and asked her where my mother was going, and to that, the aunty that I had only known for about two days replied, “you can call me mom now.”
That response initiated the two and half years of reprogramming that I went through in Nigeria. I say reprogramming because just about every habit I had adopted during my time in America went against some part of Nigerian culture or tradition. To sum up, I was unruly, undisciplined, and lazy, amongst a plethora of other character flaws. I eventually had most of those character flaws beaten and punished out of me.
Over time, I began to understand the culture and its customs. I learned the meaning of respect for one’s elders. And as a bonus, under the tutelage of my cousins, I learned how to play the piano.
Skip ahead two years to December of 2004, and I am back with my family in the United States. My family has fallen in love with my new disciplined mannerisms, and the work I get at school is so easy that I’m asking for work from the grade level above me. My abilities, my intelligence, and my character, however, separated me from my classmates, especially the males, and that brought with it a strain of bullying and taunting. Ironically, I was finally the one being bullied, and my Africanness was the prime fuel for everyone’s jokes.
The distinction between African and Black was yanked to the forefront of my mind. From my return to the U.S. in the fourth grade up to my last year of high school, I had to deal with the ignorance of peers who understood little to nothing about Africa. I had to deal with being called a monkey, with people constantly joking about the darkness of my skin, with people making click noises and singing Lion King songs around me.
All of these microaggressions turned me from someone who wore his newfound culture with pride into someone who ran away from anything that even tempted to remind him of his ethnicity. As a result, I fell into a dismal hole of existence in which I found myself casting away my culture in order to be seen as normal. I was chasing an identity that no longer applied to me, and a people that no longer wanted me. Meanwhile, my family began to pity my retreat from Nigerian culture–one of my sisters even began to look down on me for it. Relatives and family friends would call me “white boy” or “American” in our native tongue, Yoruba.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I stopped hiding signs of my Nigerian identity, until I accepted that my last name would occasionally get butchered, until I realized that I was both an American and a Nigerian.
I identify and experience the struggles of Black life. And yet, my pride in my Nigerian heritage grows constantly. I live as a medium between these two identities, understanding the world from the lens of both cultures. My inner struggle simply taught me that accepting all that makes me who I am, sharing my identity with the world around me–THAT is the very essence of diversity–not a homogenous group of like-minded look-alikes, but a blend of vastly different individuals, who by the very existence of their originality, enrich our world exponentially. Being different is normal. Understanding the beauty of that difference is a blessing. When we hide our unique qualities, we rob society of our gifts, and worse, we betray our own selves.
To be Black in America can be both exhilarating and traumatizing, partly because that label has the power to unify so many, but also because it has the power to divide and minimize countless cultures and identities. I wanted that solidarity, but it came at the cost of my own integrity, and it made me run from who I was.
Every soul is a jewel. I have no reason to hide who I am, because I am the only one like me in the entire universe. And I stand tall as an African-American, as a child of two worlds, because I have realized that alone, we are strong, but united, we are unstoppable.
Benjamin Adekunle-Raji will be a junior at Kenyon College with a major in Psychology, a minor in Music, and a concentration in Law and Society. If he’s not busy sleeping, playing video-games, eating, or griping about how much work Kenyon professors assign, then you’ll probably catch him on a piano, on a basketball court, in a Chinese food restaurant, or in one of his journals, writing away his endless flow of thoughts.Share This: