Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On being First Generation Nigerian American Pt.1

My parents did not anticipate the result of raising a Nigerian in America
This unidentified identity that is sometimes swept under the rug
The “I never fully had the American experience growing up in a Nigerian home”
Yet “I never fully had a Nigerian experience because I grew up in America”
The “how to I identify as a black person when my direct roots are from Nigeria”
Yet “I never fully had the Black experience because my parents are immigrants.”
There is something unique about the Black first generation American that other immigrant families do not share. Particularly because of the unique experience of Blacks in America. There is a great disconnect.

Part of the disconnect comes from my generation’s inability to find a space that helps unmask and articulate the conflating experiences.

While my parents grew up in Nigeria , they are no more free from white supremacy than Blacks in America. It is the ramifications of colonization that forced them to immigrant to this country. While I cannot imagine how it was to immigrate to a foreign land, this experience has a direct impact on my experience as a first generation Nigerian American.

While my parents taught me culture. That is, respect your elders, don’t use your left hand, education is highly valued. They did not teach me history or my language. Or so they tried.

My parents’ need to assimilate and survive in America left them voiceless and story-less as to the reason why they had to come to America. What caused one to leave a country? This is a past my parents wont discuss. Instead they focus on their struggle to come here and the struggle to survive here. But what one must understand is that the immigration was a choice and a privilege that too often is used to erase the white imperialism that created a situation that gave rise to the migration.

Anti-blackness does not only exist outside of blackness. White supremacy thought is deeply engrained in the upbringing of Africans. Abuser pathology does not only exist in Black Americans. It exists in Nigerian Immigrants. The need to belong and be accepted by people who until this day dehumanize you and ridicule your culture.

Nigerians thought they were the exception. If they just practiced respectability politics, they would be favored by White Americans. Yet the need for assimilation is the direct cause of a lost generation of young people yearning to search for self.

Both my parents have English names. All my siblings have English names. Most of my aunts and uncles go by their English name. Assimilation was a tool used to survive. But we know too often that using the master’s tools to liberate ourselves will only end in failure.

By ridiculing Black Americans while trying to get the acceptance of White Americans, you failed. But I don’t blame you. Again anti-blackness exists within all of us. It is through colonization and imperialism that we were indoctrinated with the idea that our culture is primitive and unworthy. We pride ourselves in culture yet ignore the rampant influences of White supremacy and its deadly effect on our ideology and outlook of the world.

It is because of our insecurities, that we defer to our ethnicity or tribe without constructively criticizing how our culture has been manipulated and packaged in a way that appeases Whites. This naivety has left their children with a lost identity, scrambling to put our Igbo words into sentences. Struggling to keep our food well seasoned.  

I wish my parents did not shield me from being Black in America. I wish it did not take me into college to understand what blackness meant and how it affected millions of people’s livelihood. It would have helped me to better articulate my identity and create a space for those who identify with my experiences. But I don’t blame them because I don’t think they knew better. And if they did not better it was their defense mechanism to having your whole existence being determined by your skin color. But if my parents and so many others were able to come to terms with that and not deflate the reality, we would have a better sense of self.

But I don’t blame them. Theories and ideologies are for the privileged.  Language is for the privileged. So many shared experiences but no spaces or words to convey what has been felt. My parents did not have that privilege.

I know more black history than Nigerian history. I want to know both because they both influence who I am and how I am perceived. History is a powerful tool so it is of no surprise that many of the early books on Nigerian History were written by white people.

It is as if African history started when the colonizers came and began to “ observe” .  In order to reserve my sanity, I need to connect the dots. I need to create a space in which I am Nigerian, American, and Black American but also a Nigerian woman and a black woman. Intersectionality is important and it is not binary.

I struggle with creating a space in which I can express my differences without being called divisive or a space in which I can express my difference without my peers creating a hierarchy. At the end of the day this is about claiming and preserving our humanity and identity. One does not need to dismiss another’s humanity to preserve our own. We must recognize that when our brothers and sister’s are oppressed we too are oppressed.

So in this same space, it is important to recognize my privilege as a first generation Nigerian American. Why? Because my parents had a choice to migrate to this country. They came here for school. Although they went through loops and hurdles such as literacy test similar to Black Americans , they automatically entered a space of academia that was not afforded to many Black Americans.

As a result, I grew up comfortable. While I was not afforded all the privileges of my White counterparts, I was afforded far more opportunities than my Black American peers.

Because of Black Americans, my parents had the opportunity to come to school in America. But the privilege that my parents have that I do not have is a strong sense of self. By the time my parents came to America they already were immersed in their own culture. My whole life has been me figuring out how to navigate in America with Nigerian roots while identifying as Black American. Yet I am not afforded the space to discuss this. There is an assumption that because my parents came from Nigeria, I have a direct relationship with Nigeria and all things Nigerian. This is false and erasure. It does not give me the opportunity to explore my identity or talk about the experiences . It limits my ability to grow and become more self-aware.

It also makes me embarrassed that I must find journals and books to learn about myself. Because it is assumed that I indeed know about myself.  I am still figuring out myself. While I know how to cook Nigerian food and know how to shake my behind, I am still searching.

I find that because Nigerian Americans lack a sense of history, we, like our parents, cling to our culture, which shields us from learning. We accuse Black Americans for not knowing their history yet we fall short of our own. But what we must understand that it is a result of the same force, that is, white supremacy.

Audre Lorde captured it the best: “ It is learning how to take our difference and make them strengths” “ Without community there is no liberation, but community must not mean a shedding of our difference, nor the pretense that these differences do not exist”

We act as though different experiences are a bad thing. We need to understand our differences in order to genuinely come together and understand one another. With this new wave of first generation Africans, it is impossible for us to move forward without both sides reconciling. This is also true for my Afro-Caribbean brothers and sisters whose migration wave to America was much earlier than ours.

When we don’t understand ourselves, when we don’t face our past, when we don’t question why it is where we are, we fail ourselves. When we fail ourselves, we resent others and abuse others. We use the same tactics that our oppressors have used to divide and conquer. Audre Lorde urges us to rid of divide and conquer and replace this notion with define and empower.

There must be space to define our experiences and identities. But we must not invade the space of others. It requires us to check our privilege, which is often hard to do when we don’t have a great handle on who we really are. Our fear of losing the little that we have comes off as arrogance and we have to change that.

How to share differences without creating a hierarchy . How to create spaces without one interpreting it as divisive.

We have to start documenting our experiences. We also must educate ourselves on Black history. We must then reconcile our experiences so that our children will be able to navigate through America better than we have.

the afrolegalise 


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting. <3 I struggle with this idea. Historically, Africans have always worn some type of hair covering/weave/wig. Different hair types requires different types of care. For me, protective styles and low manipulation is important. However, I do think there is a pushback for the straight, long hair and people embracing their natural hair/wearing natural hairstyles and extensions. I do think certain hair styles/textures are associated with more Eurocentric beauty standards and as a result we have internalized that. What is deemed as " professional" and " acceptable" is always through a Eurocentric lenses. But I am a fan of wearing your hair whichever you like as long as it is healthy. I think it is more about understanding the historical politics of hair and deciding for yourself what is best.

  2. Thank you for this, sharing instantly!

    1. Thank you so much for reading!! Please do share! I am still working on Pt. 2.

  3. Makes hella sense...seeing as I plan on settling here in the states, I fear my children will face the problem of not knowing who they really are.

    1. I think identity is fluid and relative. Here I am discussing Nigerian American identity in relation to the Black American experience. I think language is one of the most important things you can teach your child. Something I wish I had a better handle of. I dont know that we "lose" our culture as much as we are blending cultures.