Embracing Who You Are: Growing Up African and African American

My parents met in the early 70’s at the height of the “I’m black and I’m proud” movement. Everyone was embracing their blackness, wearing afros, dashikis and everyone was naming their daughter’s Tameka or Keisha and son’s Raheem and Abdul (which were not even African names). I guess it was their way of connecting to their “blackness” finding out about who they were in a country they often felt like sub-citizens.

My father came to America from Ghana, West Africa to finish college. He was working on his master’s and to help pay his tuition by tutoring students at a community college. My mother just graduated from high school and was going to the local community college because it was the only thing left for her to do. It was something different for her and her friends to start dating these “strange” African men. One thing led to another and they got married and had me.

In my father’s culture the men name the children. In his tribe, names are given in order of birth and sex of the child. My name, Naa Okailey Aryee is the name given to the first-born daughter in the house of Aryee. Wow, what a mouth full for an American child to learn.

Growing up, my name was a challenge in itself. Everyone had such a hard time trying to pronounce my name or refused to learn how to pronounce it. Till this day when I am asked my name, I follow with the spelling automatically because that is always going to be the next question. Then I’m asked what kind of weird name is that? When I got older, some people would say, “you don’t look African nor do you sound African”. Then I get from white people, “how long have you been here?” I simply reply, “All my life, I have never been to Africa before.”

I always wondered why my cousins with both Ghanaian parents did not have Ghanaian first names, but rather European first names and Ghanaian middle names. Now my cousins or friends who were bicultural like me had Ghanaian first names. Our mothers were so proud to be a part of an African culture they wanted their children to belong. Our mothers, growing up in America were stripped of their history that they have no idea from where they came.

My mother, who was only 23 when she married my father, was raised by my grandmother, a single mother in a housing project of Newark, New Jersey. It was difficult to understand the culture of an African man. The American culture was difficult for my father. He was raised by his mother on an enormous family compound with his father’s many wives and children. I think this caused a great stress to their marriage.

Living in America with a parent from another culture was difficult for me also. I can remember a time I was chastised for handing my father something with my left hand and only when I got older did I understand that was very offensive to him because in his culture the left hand is used to wipe oneself after using the bathroom. This was difficult for my mother because that night ended in a big fight and me and my mother at my grandmother’s.

There was a time when I was in high school and my father took me shopping for a dress. I really liked this dress that came in red but my father refused to buy it. Being an American teenager I had no idea why I couldn’t have it. Once again I had to learn this on my own that colors in the fabrics of African people possess important meaning.

Meanings vary within the different cultures in Ghana and from fabric to fabric. For example, the Ga people of West Africa use dark colors such as red, black, and brown for funerals. While the Akan, white is used for joyous occasions such as naming ceremonies. The Kente cloth made by the Ashanti people of Ghana, is embellished in gold that represents status and serenity. Yellow represents fertility (like the ripeness of an egg yolk or a fruit) and vitality. Green signifies the renewal and growth seen in plants and represents the cycle of birth and decay. Blue represents the presence of God and the omnipotence of the blue sky. Blue also refers to a pure spirit, one which rests in harmony. Red has connotations of passion, the passion of political determination, struggle, and defense. The Ashanti also believe that red holds protective powers. Finally, black denotes seriousness and a union with ancestors. It implies spiritual awareness. My father never explained these things to us, he just expected us to know, and I attribute this attitude being a part of how he grew up in his culture.

When I was eighteen my father finally decided to bring my mother and me to Ghana. We went on this trip to get my brother and sister who had been living there for three years. The mother land was the most amazing place I had ever been. As soon as we landed, I looked up and there was a view I had never seen before. The golden light looked as if it was being swallowed by the land as the last traces of light dipped over the hill, it seemed as if the day was at rest. This was not how I expected it. Americans have many negative views of how Africa looks and how the people live. What a misconception! The land and the culture are so rich. I see why other cultures and nations were drawn to the land.

I was raised by my grandmother who was originally from Mississippi who later migrated to Newark, New Jersey in 1925. It was important for her to instill in me a sense of pride in my American heritage as well. She always taught me that we were Americans because our forefathers worked and made America the great country it is today. She knew so well because her grandmother who raised her until she was 8 was born a slave herself.

My freshman year in college, I took an anthropology class where the professor asked everyone to raise their hand if they had a grandparent who was born in America. Then he asked who had great parents who were born in America. The hands that were mostly left were African Americans. He asked who had great-great grand parents born in America and the only hands were left were African Americans. This is when I realized how many white Americans were descendants of recent immigrants.

I am so proud to be 100% African American with the benefit of being a part of two cultures that are so similar and so different at the same time. My experiences with my maternal and paternal traditions are so great and have made me who I am today. It was tough growing up with my unique experiences when compared to the majority of those in my environment.

“Because you can't hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree. You can't hate Africa and not hate yourself. You show me one of those people over here who has been thoroughly brainwashed, who has a negative attitude toward Africa and I'll show you one who has a negative attitude toward himself. You can't have a positive attitude toward yourself and a negative attitude toward Africa at the same time, To the same degree your understanding of and your attitude toward Africa becomes positive, you'll find that your understanding of and your attitude toward yourself will also become positive." – MALCOLM X

Okailey Jackson blogs at http://www.forequalitygroup.com. Tweet her @OkaileyJ

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