The most difficult question for me answer is “Where are you from?” It may sound like a straightforward question, but if you moved around a lot as a child or you are of a mixed race or cultural heritage, this question can become complicated to answer. Mix in the possibility that the race or culture that you identify with rejects or mocks you, you may be left to feel like an orphan.
My story is a bit unique. I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father is Ghanaian and my mother is West Indian. When I was five years old, my family and I relocated to a predominately White neighborhood in the suburbs of Atlanta. There, I matriculated through elementary, middle and high school.
Although I did not grow up in a community of people who represented my heritage, I was influenced heavily by it at home. From the time I was a toddler to the time I graduated from elementary school, my paternal grandmother helped raised me. She spoke little English, so she spoke to me in my native language, Twi. I never mastered the art of speaking the language fluently, but I always understood what she was saying.
My father never let me forget my roots. He educated me about the meaning of my middle and last name; and he taught me how to pronounce it. He taught me some of Ghanaian traditions and how it was like for him growing up in Ghana. In fact, one of my older brothers died when I was six, and my family and friends arranged a traditional Ghanaian ceremony to celebrate his life. My eldest brother got married when I was a teenager and my family participated in a Ghanaian engagement ceremony.
My mother, on the the other hand, taught me to respect my elders. Never be rude and always address adults with Auntie, Uncle, Mr., or Ms. She emphasized the importance of making do with what you have. Making do is what my mother referred to as improvising. She grew up with very little money, so she had to learn how to manage with the little resources that she and her family shared. She taught me how to wash my clothes by hand, how to “make-do” without a dishwasher, clean the bathroom tub with a toothbrush and how to cook West Indian dishes. At family events, we danced to Caribbean music.
Given this exposure, my predominately White school did not have any other student that represented my heritage; there was no one there that I could relate to on a cultural level. I wrestled with which box to check on demographic surveys, as there were only five options: White, Hispanic, Asian, African-American, and “Other, please specify_____”. In the “other” selection, there was very writing space to identify as Ghanaian/West Indian, and even so, my teachers at my predominately White high school did not know how to make sense of such data, so that “Ghanaian/West Indian” identity simply became African American. Identifying as an African American made sense to me because I was an individual who was born in Africa, but raised in America. So, African American is how I began to identify myself.
Between kindergarten and sixth grade, my group of friends consisted of mostly Whites, some Asians and every now and again, a Black girl may join our group. However, as I grew older, my group shifted from consisting of multiple races and ethnicities to a group consisting of all Blacks – mostly African Americans. In high school, I closely identified with African Americans in school. Often, my friends were just as smart as me and understood what it was like to be the token Black girl in our honors courses. Our White classmates would spark conversations with us by imitating a Black rapper, “What up, What up,” is how they would greet us. Some would even drop a rhyme from a well-known hip-hop artist to prove to us that they were “down” with African Americans. We also understood what it was like to be teased and sometimes rejected from our other Black peers. They teased us for speaking like a White person or not behaving “Black” enough. They’d say that we were an Oreo: Black on the outside, but White on the inside.
I grew tired of always having to defend my Blackness and desired an environment in which I would be appreciated for who I was. When it was time to graduate from high school, I desired to be in a different environment. I wanted to be around other African American women who thought and behaved like me. I wanted to be around African American woman who were just as smart as me and who spoke like me. I no longer wanted to be the subject of scrutiny. I graduated from high school and enrolled at Spelman College. Here, is where I started to embrace my Ghanaian and West Indian roots again. I sought opportunities to study in Ghana. I sought opportunities to travel to St. Thomas. I even chose to pursue an advanced degree in public health in order to improve the health of people in West Africa and the Caribbean. It became a unique mission of mine.
To my surprise, however, those days of being scrutinized was long from being over. When my Ghanaian classmates and I communicated, they’d often ask me why I didn’t speak Twi. They’d inquire about my authenticity and judge me because they believed that I did not fully embrace my culture, since I didn’t speak the native language. They criticized the fact that I had never visited Ghana and that I didn’t know how to prepare traditional Ghanaian dishes. It was no surprise, however, that I faced the same scrutiny from my peers who identified as West Indian.
And forget it, the New Yorkers on my campus did not consider me a New Yorker either. How could I possibly be a New Yorker when I did not know what it was like to catch the uptown train to Manhattan or attend a local private school in the Brooklyn borough? For all I knew, Crown Heights (the neighborhood I lived in as a child) was just another community somewhere in New York City. Although I had visited NYC several times throughout my youth, I could not communicate intelligently to another New Yorker about the details of my life there.
Soon, I became ashamed. I couldn’t identify as a Ghanaian. I couldn’t identify as a West Indian. I couldn’t identify fully as an African American. I couldn’t identify as a New Yorker. I couldn’t identify fully as a Georgian either. Who was I and where I was from was becoming the most confusing and overwhelming question for me to answer. I dreaded the times when I would meet my boyfriend’s (who is Nigerian) friends and they’d ask, “Where are you from?” I wanted to be able to identify with them and tell them that I was West African too, but knew that would invoke a barrage of questions – questions I was not ready to answer.
Recently, I had a in-depth conversation about this with a close friend. He identified with my struggles, but emphasized the fact that it was my responsibility to decide how I wanted to identify. It was my responsibility to define who I was and who I wanted to be. It was my responsibility to allow those cultures to influence me as much as I wanted. No one else could take my identity away from me, no matter how much I spoke the language or how often I visited the country.
It was no coincidence that I was tested with this question on Saturday. I was on a three-way conversation with my boyfriend and his close friend from Nigeria. He asked me how much I understood Yoruba. I told him that I was learning and hopefully with a few lessons from the b/f, I should become proficient. Then, he asked the question that used to invoke so much anxiety, “Do you speak your native language at home?” I paused and told him, “no.” He laughed, “Why is that?” I confidently explained to him that it was my father’s native language and since he did not communicate in Twi with my West Indian mother, how could I have possibly learned to speak his language?” He paused, mentioned that he understood and that was the end of that conversation. No hassles. No criticizing and definitely no guilt. I felt empowered.
So, ask me today, “Yaa Yaa, where are you from?” I’ll tell you that I was born in New York City, raised in the Atlanta-metro area, and I identify as a Ghanaian/West Indian American.
Any more questions?