Generally speaking, being born Black and African is one of the unluckiest fates one can ever encounter. Our continent is barely nursing it’s deep wounds of colonialism and slavery. Neocolonialism is generously adding salt to injury. Imperialism. Political instability. Poverty; poverty in the world’s richest continent in natural and mineral resources. Our gold, our diamonds, our oil, stolen in billions each year in exchange for crippling “aid” from the west, that comes with terms and conditions. And the world is silent. The world is deep asleep amidst our wails and cries. Yet, here we are. I grew up with a keen interest in global history and politics, and worldwide entertainment. I used to consume lots of international news – from CNN, to Al Jazeera, BBC, SkyNews, Reuters, you name them – back then when journalism was still alive. Narrative after narrative, statistics after statistics, all predicted with a rather odd certainty that my future, as a young African kid, was doomed – if I survived childhood. Hollywood depicted a reality that was glamorous and dignified, but only for white people in the west. BIPOC people from these parts of the world were present only in token form, if at all. And of course, they were never heroes. Africans were missing from the global map. We simply did not exist. This was the norm, thus I never questioned these depictions. Fine. Okay. Look, I was young. As I came of age, I had an epiphany that having a dream, envisioning a future as a young Black African poor queer disabled nonreligious female, was an act of radicalism.
I chose to dream, to levitate, to conquer; I am my mother’s daughter after all. But as it is said, nothing is free. To each, their price. For every life, a death. My dream came with a hefty cost; I had no choice but to leave home, thus America. The international media painted the west as the land of milk and honey, all color with no shade of gray – unlike my motherland, the dark continent. Nothing could be further from the truth, I realized. They too had the poor who struggled to put food on the table, the homeless who slept on their “golden” streets, the corrupt politicians who fed on the voiceless. Their roads too had potholes. Their homes too lacked clean water. Their churches too, godless. It was the same familiar human condition, just on a different degree and scale. I must admit though, I never expected such shocking inequities in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. It was a strange time, my first time here.
What’s even more peculiar is that America gave birth to my black identity. See, before I moved continents, I never saw myself as a black person. Not that I did not know what my racial identity was, but it was as irrelevant as ethnic tribes are in the west. But then, here I was in a society where racism is probably the greatest enduring injustice. Here I was, struggling to adopt what felt like a forced identity and a cumbersome one, nonetheless. As a foreigner, I wished to be identified only with my home. I remember feeling uncomfortable about having to identify my racial and ethnic identity when filling in forms. I used to skip “Black or African American”, and instead would choose “Other”, and specify “African” or “Kenyan”. Internalized racism was eating me alive, swallowing me whole.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I took a class called “Encounters with Cultures” with an emphasis on African American and Native American history and culture. This class was the genesis of my transformation into accepting and taking pride in my racial/ ethnic identity. I gained a deeper understanding of the nuances and complexities of race and ethnicity in America and beyond. I particularly remember learning about the schema of the strong Black woman, an archetype of how an ideal Black woman should act. This stereotype perceives Black women as naturally strong, resilient, self-contained, and self-sacrificing; consequently taking a toll on their emotional well-being, in addition to perpetuating inequality. I had never felt so seen and understood to this measure in any other class. Finally, I experienced what I imagine white students feel as most curriculum is taught from a white perspective. I continued to educate myself on my identity, culture, heritage. I became very familiar with our unhailed black heroes, our unfaltering resilience and our deathless courage, throughout history.
My former self, deadened with respectability politics, Black patriarchy and other shallow solutions to the predicament of racism was awakened. I began to understand the difference between good intentions and good outcomes, the difference between being a good girl and being a woman with needs beyond what parental guidance could provide. My understanding of myself transformed radically, marking my evolution from superficially engaging with my race to a deeper, more personalized appreciation of my place in this racist society, as a Black African woman. More eminently, I came to the much needed realization that as someone born at multiple intersections of marginalization, I was foreordained to a gloomy life if I didn’t work every angle possible. Worse, the media, Hollywood and society rendered Black people futureless, to our collective horror. But no, I refused to give in to that grim version of events.
The year 2020 was uncanny, for most of us, if not all. The pandemic, economic crisis, cabin fever, inevitable lifestyle changes. And then George Floyd; the death that arose the nation from their complacency towards the atrocities of modern racial injustice. For the first time in a long while, they couldn’t look away. They couldn’t ignore the fact that Black America couldn’t breathe, that we were suffocating right on their doorstep. Protests and riots swept across the country, and even globally. The world was watching. It was my time to be bold about the lived experience of Black people. I added my voice to others demanding change, even though doing so as a nonimmigrant was fraught with danger. Sometimes we have no choice but to scream. Some people listened, some saw our pain, some turned their gaze towards themselves. It gave me hope to see this, but I knew well enough not to be blinded by intentions, as sacred as they might seem. I was more interested in results, and boy was I disappointed. Change was promised, but not quite delivered.
Even more disconcerting was seeing some of my once close friends and peers repudiate the need for change. They reacted as if the call to action was a threat. It was disheartening to see just how burdensome it was to make assumedly intelligent, well-meaning people understand how much harm they were causing. Their need to belong to the status quo, their yearning for conformity, trumped the goodness of their hearts. Afterall, how could they acknowledge our devastation without also acknowledging the anguish their ancestors, their families and friends, their colleagues and neighbors, have inflicted upon us across the ages. This is a repeated theme throughout the struggle for change. For every attempt made to express pain and seek change for historical and ongoing harm, there is always repulsion from those who insist that we suffer only in the presumed ways, express that suffering with an acceptable tone, and end both our suffering and complaints on demand. They question why we demand a better future, how that demand should be framed, and whether we deserve it. These types of people aren’t rare within the Holland community, at Hope, among our administrators and powers that be – and anyone who wants to understand and guide positive change must also be prepared to work around such. We weren’t and still aren’t asking for much; just a dignified recognition of our existence, of our needs and wants. Just more than white perspectives of Black people, more than token representation.
“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.” – Octavia E. Butler
I am inspired not by the truism I was raised with, but by the prospects of change. I wish our ancestors could see how high we have risen, how we continue to strain upward as a people. I am lucky to be living in the age of information, in an era where we are more connected than ever. In a time where we are able to enact change through crowd-based outsourcing and callout culture – for good, for bad. However, some of us are less hopeful, more tired, struggling to keep the future in mind. The demand for a future for Black people continues to be an ugly, brutal struggle, but I’m more than ready to go the distance in that fight. We are irrepressible and incredibly ingenious; unquestionably, we’re going to keep thriving as a people. I have hope that those of us who want a better world will doubtless prevail – even if the cost is everything we have. The future is worth it. My people are worth it!