To Be African in America

Toyin Akinwande on her birthday, wearing a Nigerian native outfit

Toyin Akinwande on her birthday, wearing a Nigerian native outfit

When I entered the school system at age 5, I learned very quickly that I was not quite like other kids. My name was harder to pronounce, longer to spell out, and easier to make fun of. No teacher ever got it right the first time, and attendance roll-calls made me want to run out of the classroom. 

I needed to fit in. Yeah, I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, but even amongst African Americans I was different. Though our skin color was the same, our upbringing was far apart. I went by a new name—same spelling, different pronunciation—to accommodate my counterparts and reduce the cringing attempts to teach others how to correctly say my name. Then they made fun of our accents, then our food, then our country. They labeled us poor and undeveloped. 

Trying to explain to my peers that I really was no different from them was like debating whether water was wet. This gap between groups is a byproduct of the lost culture and origins caused by the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While some generations were lost, others, like mine, were kept or rebuilt. Our communication struggled for decades simply because we did not understand each other’s histories—an ancestry marked by slavery vs. the life of an immigrant.

I am a child of immigrants. My privilege lies in being a natural-born American citizen, who did not have to worry about not having certain resources like financial aid to afford college. I am afforded a life of many possibilities in America. But that is not the case for all. There are stereotypes that immigrants are lazy, criminals, evil people trying to destroy the country to which they immigrate. While many try to obtain citizenship for years, they struggle finding work, getting government help, and doing simple tasks we citizens often take for granted while fearing being displaced from their loved ones.

Similar struggles occur in the Black community. There are stereotypes that they are also lazy, evil, criminals trying to mooch off the government and taxpayers. They are set up to fail with a system that once kept them enslaved, now telling them to figure it out themselves. 

Together we had to understand that the world has looked at our color first, ethnicity last. There is no check off box to signify whether you are ‘African’ or ‘African-American’. Both groups experience some level of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality, as we began to see more of in recent years. As we got older, we realized that what we thought made us different actually makes us similar. 

We’ve come a long way from the days when being African was not so appealing. The African culture is being accepted more and more, and we are welcoming those wanting to discover their lost roots. Together in the black community, we are sharing our stories of survival through creativity and educating each other about our respective histories to fill the gaps in time. In college there was an African Student Association and a Black Student Association. The two groups would come together often to discuss general topics affecting both communities, from beauty standards to campus issues and police brutality. Other times they hosted larger events, where students got to showcase their talents. We are dismantling the stigmas and stereotypes that we placed on each other to lift us up together as one whole body of people. Look no further than the arts, from movies like Black Panther, showing Africa as a continent rich with technological advancements rather than a poverty-stricken place, to Beyoncé choosing to work with various African artists on her recent album. When Black Panther came out, so many people supported the movie, and Africans from all over wore their different versions of native attire to watch the film, including my mom. It was an extremely proud moment for everyone. I am even surprised whenever I hear a new song where a Hip-Hop artist collaborates with an Afrobeat artist, two very different sounds coming together. There is still some ways to go, but the progress is something to stop and take pride in.

Toyin Akinwande