I am a Black, Nigerian, Christian man, but these identities were not always an integral component of my identity. These identities were challenged day after day. I never identified as being a Black man, until my junior year in college.
Growing up in a Nigerian household—my parents always created a divide between us and Black Americans. When my parents saw my brother or I do things that were reflective of Black culture, they scolded us. They told us to not act like those “Akatas.” Akata is a term used by Africans toward Black Americans. My neighborhood and the schools I attended, however, were predominately Black—so it was hard to not embrace Black culture, which left me confused and distraught. I personally wanted to embrace the culture, but African Americans would not accept me. It did not make sense to me because we looked the same. Nevertheless, they would make fun of me for being African. Insults such as “African Booty Scratcher” became common occurrences.
The most hurtful ridicule arose from the abuse of my name. I was ridiculed so intensely that I developed self-esteem issues, which I still battle with to this day. My full name is Damilola, but I went by Dami to avoid the pain associated with the butchering of my name. Dami was the closest I could get to an American name. The closest to being “normal” and yet, I was still ridiculed for it. I was called “Dummy” and any lewd variation you could imagine. My brother acquired an American nickname that stuck and I was envious of this. Then at home, my parents would criticize me for anything that resembled Black culture. So I decided to mentally distance myself from the notion of being Black. I accepted my parent’s views and as a defense mechanism: I mentally thought of myself as being better than Black people, because I knew where I came from. When faced with ridicule, I thought things like, “At least my family was not enslaved… at least I know where my real home is.” Looking back—these were horrible things to say, even if I was bullied.
I carried these thoughts with me to Northwestern even though, by this time, I was fully immersed in Black culture. By my sophomore year, I joined the first intercollegiate Black fraternity—Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. During this time, I also engaged in countless discussions with fellow Northwestern students on the topic of Blackness. My girlfriend at the time and I used to engage in heated arguments on my views of Blackness. My views hurt her deeply, and it hurt me to see that.
I aspired to learn more about exactly what Blackness entailed. I felt Black but I did not identify as a Black man. I considered Black to mean you were the descendant of a slave or you were a Black American.
Around this time, “The Misappropriation of Black Culture” was a very hot-button issue. So in the spring of my sophomore year, I led an initiative with my chapter to host a fireside chat on this very issue. During this discussion, I brought up the “N” word and how I felt it is misappropriated. Someone whom I dialogued in the past about Blackness came up to me at the end of the event and said, “Dami, since you do not consider yourself Black aren’t you misappropriating the “N” word if you say it?” I was stumped. This question bothered me for some time—so I did more research.
The fall of my junior year, I took an African American studies class and then I truly realized the error in my thinking. I learned exactly how vast Blackness is. I learned the term Black does not mean you are the descendant of a slave—but you descended from Kings and Queens across the African Diaspora. I learned there are Black people all over the world. I truly grew an appreciation of how beautiful Blackness is. It took me nineteen years to realize that I am Black. But when I did—my passion and love for my new found Black identity grew tremendously.
I became increasingly aware of the systems of oppression that subjugate Black people across the country and the world. I became more knowledgeable of whiteness and how whiteness operates in this world and country. Specifically, we have transitoned from an era of overt white supremacy—consistent with Jim Crow—to an era of covert white privilege that operates in the shadows and thrives on not being named. I made a promise to myself that I would dedicate my life to bring actual equality to this country and break down these systems of oppression and inequality.
To others, the new knowledge I attained may seem trivial. But place yourself in my shoes. There was a war raging in my psyche. My exposure to African American children as a child left me hurting and broken—when all I wanted was love and acceptance. While on the other side, at home, my parents worked diligently to keep that divide between African Americans and us. In their defense, I think they just did not want my brother or I to lose our culture. When faced with such a division—it is easier to align with the less aversive side. The easiest choices, however, are not always the best choices.
With the rest of my identities, I challenged myself to do such thorough introspection—while also challenging those around me to do the same. I aim to ensure that I do not meander through life not fully understanding all the aspects of my identity. While doing so, I also seek to understand the identities of those around me.
I realized, a lack of understanding is the root of many of the social issues that plague this world. We form our own preconceptions about certain people and act on these preconceptions as if they are in fact true.These preconceptions, however, are usually inaccurate.
For me to truly understand my Black identity, I needed to step out of my comfort zone and grapple with uncomfortable conversations with various individuals. I challenge you to do the same. Step out of your own bubble and get a little uncomfortable. Engage in dialogues that challenge what you perceive as the norm. When we form preconceptions—we place shackles on our minds. The only hope for progress and change in these dire times is to break these shackles and free our minds.
Now I am so much in love with my Black identity and Blackness. People now ask me why I talk about race relations with so much fervor. I do this because I realized it is impossible to separate race from anything. If you look closely around—it completely engulfs you. There is no subject, field, or sector you can analyze without including race in your analysis. For example, I was in the library the other day and came across a book called,l History of Beauty which, is edited by Umberto Eco. This book is comprised of pictures, sculptures, and paintings that depict the history of beauty from the beginning of time. This book is entirely white. This book is over four hundred pages and yet, I can count on my hand how many times it references any form Blackness. It is apparent that the author doesn’t truly consider Black to be beautiful. This indicative of how society views Blackness. As a society, our view of beauty is ascribed to Western European standards of Beauty and these standards place anything Black in a lower tier.
Race is a social construct. A construct that constructed our society. The more we are knowledgeable as a society of the impact of race—the more we can work to dismantle systems of oppression and inequality. It is a tough task at hand. The more you become knowledgeable about the issues of race in this country—the more it also wears down on you; the more it seems hopeless. But I am sure during the times of slavery—no one thought that it would ever be abolished. I am sure during the times of Jim Crow—no one thought it would ever be eradicated.
It takes people to step up and fight the good fight, to refuse complaceny, to bring down these systems of oppression. We must never stop fighting.
Since I have embraced my Black identity, I have not stopped fighting. A fire of social justice has ignited inside me. A fire—that can never be blown out. A fire—that will bring light to the darkest of rooms and warm the coldest of hearts. Now I charge you to go incite your own personal flames. If you have already done so, go find ways to make your flame and the flames of those around you burn brighter. Only then—will we forge a brighter world.