By: Anjola Coker
African Booty Scratcher, Nappy Hair, AIDS, Dirty; those were a few of the words chanted at me as I progressed through middle school as a new Immigrant to the Unites States. At the age of nine years old my father, mother, two siblings and I emigrated from Nigeria to Canada and then the United States. At that tender age, life went from simplicity to chaos in a matter of months.
As a child, a major family move comes with mixed emotions and uncertainty. As an immigrant child coming from Nigeria to the United States, it became clear that cultural differences are strong enough to cause a divide, even, in a community of people who are black like me. At 9 years old, misinformation of Africans caused tension with African Americans I came in contact with. I now recognize this tension as a greater issue as I have grown older.
Growing up in Nigeria, being black was not a differentiating factor that determined my place in society. I became much more aware of my blackness upon setting foot in the United States because for once in my life, black was not the majority. Lessons I learned about being black in America solidified as I grew older, but my initial years in America were filled with confusion and discomfort.
Upon arriving in the US, I was told that because of my age I would be placed in a lower grade than I was in prior to the move. My parents protested and explained that I have been educated on an accelerated British system back in Nigeria. It was only after a series of tests was I allowed to enter the 5th grade at the age of nine years old.
I soon became accustomed to always being the youngest in all of my classes; this progressed throughout middle and high school. As the youngest in my classes, I was forced to not let age cripple me and forged my way to blend into the multi cultural middle school I attended. This was the beginning of a long journey to pain and forgiveness that took years to unfold.
In 6th grade I was bullied for my African accent, clothes, and ethnicity. It was almost as if being African was synonymous to being naked, living in a hut and having AIDS. Kids are sponges that leak out any bit of ignorance they were exposed to, so it came as no surprise that I heard these taunts. The shocking aspect of the bullying though was that the main group of people that bullied me and Africans like myself were African Americans. In my 10-year-old mind, grasping the fact that a classmate, the same skin completion as me, made me the butt of jokes for pleasure, felt like a betrayal.
My detest for African Americans grew. White classmates did not understand me, but at least they did not tear me down like my chocolate brothers and sisters, so I formed surface friendships with them. Secretly, I was intrigued by black American culture, music, books, lingo, and foods. This fascination was also fueled by my introduction to American history, specifically the part of it that focused on the horrific acts of slavery.In the 8th grade, I learned about the 250 years of slavery that occurred in the US and the after effects of it. I admit, I was a nerd, so of course I followed up by reading many more books out of class on the subject.
Even though my 8th grade middle school was a predominantly African American school, I did not let myself trust nor develop substantial friendships with them until years later. I wrestled with forgiveness and the sting of being let down. America was supposed to be a place of acceptance, but it was a disappointment.
I remained in the same school district throughout my later years in high school and ironically, some of the same people who bullied me in middle school became friends with me towards the end of my high school career. The sting of the past isn’t something that can easily be erased, and bad school memories are some of the hardest to heal, but it has become increasingly easier when I learned to forgive. Paired with this forgiveness came my desire to understand why this deep divide exists between African American culture and African culture.
It seem logical from face value to assume melanin brothers and sisters will naturally come together for a common cause, but vastly different cultural upbringings do not make this easy. To this day, some Africans retain a mindset believing all African Americans are violent and lazy, while some African Americans retain the mindset believing Africans are crooks and overly prideful.
No easy formula exists to close this gaping wound, but open discussion from both parties involved can be a stepping-stone to healing the divide. By no means do I expect Africans to assimilate fully in America just to be welcomed, nor do I expect African Americans to discover their native country/tribe and speak the tongue fluently to be accepted. I do believe there is a healthy level of understanding of differences that is missing. At 9 years old, I experienced these issues, but now at 21, I am able to verbalize that this divide is bigger than just a school classroom.
The words of Novelist Chinua Achebe ring true, especially when dealing with different cultures. “Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation.”
Only when this happens, can any real progress be made.