Writing

An African In Need: How I Learned to Stop the Self-Hate and Love My Africanness

In this personal essay, Joan Erakit opens up on her continued struggle with her identity as an African living in the diaspora.

DIASPORA—My mother stood in line at the store counter waiting to be helped by the white woman with short, yellowish hair behind the sign that read ‘Customer Service.’


This was not the first time we had been to the Kohl’s store with an issue, but this was the first time my heart beat profusely because I knew my mother was nervous. I never liked when she got nervous because to me, this communicated a problem for which a parent could not fix was at hand.

My dear mother had interrupted my "Sister, Sister" marathon to drag me with her to the Kohl’s store for a fate every immigrant child must face: she wanted me to speak on her behalf with the customer service agent because she didn’t want to be embarrassed by her own accent.

Let me explain.

The author’s mother in Nairobi, 5 months before migrating to America. Photo courtesy of Joan Erakit.

At the time, my family and I were about 7 months into living in the United States having migrated from Nairobi. During those first three or so cold Minnesota months, my parents had quickly realized that the first thing any American said to them after they had spoken was: “I’m sorry, what did you say? I can’t understand you.”

My mom and dad had become frustrated, as adults who needed to do daily things to care for their young family, from being so often misunderstood because of their “accent.”

I had been brought up in an English, Swahili household and gone to a British school for most of my young life. At the age of 7, my parents enrolled me at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, a Christian American school they thought would help me better assimilate into an American community once we moved a few years later.

My accent for the most part was British/American with the occasional plea in Swahili when I begged my parents not to beat me for running my mouth. Alas, that particular cold day in Minnesota—feeling tired of being looked at a certain way—my mother dragged me to the store to speak on her behalf because she believed that the Americans would understand her daughter’s English.

This was the first of many ordeals for which I would be subjected to, and for which would brew a hatred of my own “African-ness” as years went by.

“Jo, tell the woman what I told you,” my mother whispered to me as we approached the counter.

I took a deep breath and started the, “Hi, my mom would like to return this shirt for my little sister because…” a wave of embarrassment creeping up the back of my spine as I felt my own mother’s shame near me.

I hated being an African.

I hated that my parents had an “accent.” I hated that everyone in Minnesota knew that we had come from Africa and that in class, they would chant “Coming to America!” every time I walked by referencing the Eddie Murphy film.

Elders often say that the things people say to you when you are young last a lifetime and in most cases, form your opinion of yourself. It wouldn’t be until years later that I would understand this notion in its entirety.

High school graduation in Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Joan Erakit.

Like any other person, I was a difficult teenager. I went out of my way to defy and deny my African parents. I refused to sign my last name on any document, often just listing initials because I didn’t want people to ask me about my origin. I betrayed my parents by speaking ill about them in the presence of other, more dignified Americans as people who need to better assimilate into the culture and stop complaining about being stereotyped, never once realizing that one day I would face far worse injustices because of my skin color.

I made sure never to invite friends over to my house lest they smell the “African-ness” of our daily meals—curry, cassava leaves, onions and meat that had been boiled for hours the day before. God forbid any of my cool, new American classmates saw my father walking out of the house and into the snow in his rubber slippers to collect the mail on Saturday afternoons, or my mother wrap her kanga twice before taking out the trash, sounds of Lucky Dube blasting from the speakers behind her in the doorway.

And then one day, I met *Mary, a Nigerian girl who had just moved to the U.S. and was seated next to me in my 7th grade class. She reeked of ‘African-ness’ and I was horrified to be associated with her, let alone sit next to her in a classroom full of American boys for whom I could only dream of talking to in the hallways.

But Mary liked me, though I did not deserve it. The truth is, I had very few friendships at that time, despite my many drastic attempts to acquire them.

Mary liked me enough to look for me from across the lunchroom, her tray full of odd objects her mother had packed for her in tin foil. I avoided this braid wearing child like the plague, afraid that two Africans together in public—fresh off the boat in one setting—would surely set off a riot among our hosts.

Contrary to my teenage avoidance, Mary and I actually became great friends.

My relationship with Mary was very odd because it reminded me of my mother. Like my mother, she too had an accent and said “ting” instead of “thing” like every other American I knew. She also smelled familiar—just like my home during dinnertime. She was also wicked smart and forced me to revise almost everything I wrote thanks to her handy grammar notebook.

Naturally, I became comfortable hanging out with Mary because lets face it, no one understands you more like your own. But there were bad things about our friendship too. I found myself ‘Americanizing’ her by giving her advice on what to wear, and which boys to sit next to in homeroom and of course, when to let me speak on her behalf so that no one would hear her accent.

However, it was Mary’s relationship with her own mother that gave me much anxiety. They were as close as thieves, giggling like sisters whenever they’d offer me a ride home in the family car, a taxi her uncle drove on the weekends and which filled me with horror upon its approach of the wide, middle school driveway.

Speaking in their language, they would discuss the day’s antics, laugh without abandon and plan for the night ahead. I would sit in the backseat, looking out the window, secretly envious of their close relationship and wondering how Mary could stand to be seen with her very African mother. Her mother, like mine, had grown up in a small village under a strict Christian household.

The author’s parents in Uganda, a few months after they first met. Photo courtesy of Joan Erakit.

Like my own mother, Mary’s mom lived life according to “God’s word” and made it her duty in life to publicly humiliate every child with scripture and threats of canings should they ever feel the need cop an attitude in a Target store. She was vibrant yet shy, thoughtful yet carefree and always full of private jokes—very much like my own mother.

Years later, I had a very strange thing happen.

During a conversation with a creative collaborator, the subject of going into a West African country to shoot photos for an upcoming exhibit derailed when this partner said: “Joan, I’m not sure we can just send you in as you don’t understand the culture. You’re an American and you’re going to have to first understand the context before you can head in with a camera to take photos of people’s daily lives.”

It was like taking a bullet.

I couldn’t believe that this white, American woman thought that I, a woman born and raised on the continent of Africa had absolutely no idea of the cultural context of said country. I shall refrain from repeating the four letter words that followed in a haze of anger, but I will say that the irony of the conversation provided a learning opportunity.

I had spent so much time since my teenage years in Minnesota aggressively erasing any evidence that I was an African and the prize for my diligent work was for someone—a white American—to validate my assimilation by telling me that I was now in-fact, not African anymore.

At such a point, I had won the battle, but certainly not the war.

They say that the things we were most ashamed of as children, the things that people used to taunt and bully us for, oftentimes turn out to be the things for which we seek as adults.

I realize now that in most cases, we only hate that which we long for. In my situation, I hated my ‘African-ness’ because I wanted to belong to something. I longed to be part of a tribe, a pact or an understanding of the world that was unique and inherent in my blood—one that society could not touch. In hating my mother’s bold African-ness—even when she was ashamed of it—I fostered a self-hatred for myself as a person.

I am a work in progress and, like many Africans living in the diaspora, I struggle with my identity. Writing allows me to explore themes, revisit past misgivings and reflect on the growth that has amassed thus far. A shop vendor in Harlem, near where I live, jokingly refers to me as “an African in Need.”

What he means to say is that I’m in need of a redemption that will only come once I truly reconcile my formative years as an immigrant teenager in America. Somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to explore who I was without shame. Somewhere along the way, I decided that being an American was better than being an African.

Seemingly enough, I find hope in the future and in the renewed relationship that I have with my mother.

Her grace, her patience and her honesty has allowed to me flourish as a writer and a human. Of course, she laces everything with “Gods word” and the occasional plea to not “disgrace the family.”

I can take that, especially when she speaks with her beautiful “accent.”

Joan Erakit is a Kenyan-Ugandan born writer based in New York City. Her work has been published by Cool Hunting, The Huffington Post, The World Post, and Marie Claire among others. She is currently shopping her first book, Meet Me In The Village, a collection of non-fiction short stories about reproductive health and family planning. You can find her on TwitterInstagram or her website: joanerakit.com.

*Name has been changed.
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Photo via TONL

On Choosing Your Own Path and Chasing Checks

Balancing personal happiness with financial stability is not easy, especially under the gaze of immigrant parents

It's Monday. My direct deposit was supposed to be made a week ago.

I spent most of the morning making casual-but-frantic inquiries with my bank's customer service. Each time, I was told that there was no way for them to check if money was coming; they could only confirm if it was there or was being held for some reason.

This was a perfectly reasonable and efficient response to my anxiety driven question, but that didn't stop me from thanking her for her time, hanging up, and then calling again to speak to another representative. Later in my car, I reach for the phone at every stop light and lie to the pop up notification designed to prevent texting and driving.

With a quick glance, I check to make sure the light is still red and that traffic crossing the road is still moving steadily. I've rehearsed the next sequence: Swipe, open app, fingerprint, check balance and groan at the number I see. A black Toyota Camry pulls up behind me and immediately begins honking, shaking me out of my angst.

***

Over the years, I've had periods without work due to depression and other mental health concerns. There was no money coming in and needing to depend on others for help made me spiral further into the depressive state I was already drowning in. Lack of money didn't help my depression. Depression didn't help me work. In those moments, I questioned every decision that led me to this space.

I grew up watching how hard my parents worked. All children of immigrants know the story of how their parents left home for education and to provide a better life for their families. We also know that it is our responsibility to make those sacrifices worth it. I remember watching my parents work multiple jobs while going to school and raising a family. It was an example of what was to be expected of me: Do whatever it takes for your family. It was a lesson in how to persevere and survive, but it was also an early lesson of how I did not want to live my life.

At an early age, I knew that I was plagued with a heaviness that I had not yet discovered the language to explain. I was grateful for the sacrifices my parents made and I wanted so badly to be worthy of those sacrifices, but I was also terrified of what that would mean for my life.

When I was younger, I told every adult who would listen that I wanted to be a lawyer. As an African, the other immigrant option—doctor—wasn't my ministry. Math and I didn't get along well enough for me to devote my life to it. Perhaps if the internet was around back then, I could have researched to discover other career options, but back then, I was the oldest and didn't have any other examples. Lawyers are basically performers and since I couldn't fix my Nigerian born mouth to tell my hard working parents that I wanted to be on TV, I figured dramatic opening and closing statements were a good compromise.

I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome.

I used to believe that my parents wanted me to choose between happiness and financial security, but I've since learned they were worried about my future. They knew that struggling would be alleviated by steady work. My father told me once that he thought perhaps my depression came from idleness. Keeping my mind busy would help me ignore the weight of depression. We know that's not how it works, but I do understand why he would think that. He's always worked through any obstacle that came his way, but it didn't work like that for me. It couldn't.

I didn't know what the options were back then but I knew there had to be another way. I know that I made the best decisions for myself, but can't help but feel guilty that I didn't choose the path that would show my parents how much I appreciated their sacrifices. Sitting in my car—fiddling with banking apps, hoping the checks I earned found their ways into my account—I think about how I should have chosen a life with more concrete expectations and clearly drawn measures of success.

Despite my career, my parents still worry about my future and despite my successes, I always worry that I've disappointed them. I know that I could have gotten that law degree, but I can't tell you if I would have lived long enough to practice. The career I have chosen hasn't been without its pitfalls. I'm always concerned that anything I build can be toppled by one sleepless night or a morning I can't seem to welcome. Trying to find the balance between what works for me psychologically and what works for me professionally is a delicate balance. The instability and lack of guarantees has triggered self-doubt and treading a bit too carefully when leaping would have served me better but ultimately, the need to reconstruct and redefine what I call success has been the most helpful.

At the end of the day, chasing checks isn't so much about the hustle, it's about knowing that I haven't given up. It's about knowing that I've completed something and that thing has put me just a bit closer to the stability that I need. That said, if I'm going to run after invoices, I'd like the option to sit in the back with a driver watching traffic while I check my apps and ignore all the honking.

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian born, American raised writer and mental health advocate. She is the founder of the mental health organization The Siwe Project and creator of #NoShameDay. She is currently working on her first memoir in essays for HarperPerennial. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram: @basseyworld

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