father's day fathers fathers and daughters Immigrants
I Am a Seed: Reflections from a Daughter of a Black Immigrant6/20/2015
by Nneka M. Okona I am the daughter of an immigrant. I am a seed. I was planted here years after...
I am the daughter of an immigrant. I am a seed. I was planted here years after my father left his native land, Nigeria, in search of education, in search of opportunity, in search of a better life.
When I think of immigration, I can’t help but look to my father, a man I now deeply admire and respect for all the struggle he has endured and the hope and gratitude he still has for America providing the life he wanted. It is a personal subject, as I see how being the daughter of immigrant changes and informs you in ways you often don’t understand as a child but grow to appreciate as an adult.
My father immigrated to the States in the 70s in his mid 20s to attend Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Alabama as an international student on scholarship. He had big hopes and dreams of being an entrepreneur who changed the world, which motivated his declaration of a major in Business Administration. He had offers from several ivies, full rides, but he choose an HBCU because the representation of Blackness was alluring. He wanted to be surrounded by those who looked like him and not be submerged in a sea of sameness of White people.
He soon learned being African, although he had the same skin as those he called his Black American brothers, was a struggle of a different flavor, a separate flavor from the fact that he was in immigrant in a new, unknown country. He was teased mercilessly, discriminated against, counted out of jobs and opportunities, distrusted just because he was different. Because he had a weird name and an accent that wasn’t discernible it made him different, it made him an outsider, it made him an immigrant.
And I, being his daughter, internalized these differences. I internalized them to the extent that it lent itself to self-loathing. Rejection of everything which made him and us, collectively, different. The weird sound of Igbo which I didn’t understand. The strong and sometimes pungent smell of my father’s favorite Nigerian dishes he cooked. The cultural cues — the importance of family, respecting your elders, the role of the oldest in the family, the tradition and method for doing everything, which was simplistic and etched in stone for my father but perplexing to me and my sisters.
It was frustrating coming home and having to confront the realities of what it meant to be Nigerian in a country which cowered at my difference, our difference, and made us feel less than and like outsiders. And it was frustrating not wanting the connection to my heritage that my father offered me. It was frustrating wanting to just be Black, just to be a Black American. Why did there have to be levels? Why couldn’t it just be simple?
Being the daughter of a Black immigrant is an existence fraught with culture clashing. Of frequent collisions to be understand and to discern an identity which oft cannot be simplified and reduced to just one things. It means shuttling between being in a country where you’re not quite Black American enough but to know if you were to go “home,” you wouldn’t be enough among those there either. It is occupying a liminal space between the two worlds, often resorting to just resting in the space between rather than succumbing to choosing a side.
But it is an existence, an experience, a unique one, shrouded in pride, great pride. Unrelenting pride. It is recognizing how language and culture are not static things to be held in a vacuum. It is knowing that language and culture are transferable, to be carried, to be appreciated, to be held tightly even when you are far away from home, family and a place, a country which is familiar to you. It is clinging to those things, even in the midst of struggle. It is knowing that language and culture are the bridges, the great connectors, the mere thing which keeps the memory and the knowing, the possession of your heritage nearby, close, intimately known and felt.
And it is a great appreciation, for Black immigrant fathers, like my own. Fathers who carry great pain and disconnection, who long to feel home again, who long to not be seen as an other, who long to finally rest, to shake off struggle, hard work and determination. To loosen the grip on having to fight for nearly every single thing — respect, decency, humanity. And it is seeing fathers like my own, as heroes, because they’ve ravaged emotional, mental and psychological warring and come out as victors, as champions of remembering from whence they came.
I am a seed. Each time I look into my father’s eyes, hear his unchanging accent which has remained in the decades since he arrived here or talk to him about life in Nigeria, about family members who have died or those I have yet to meet, I feel inspired and honored. I feel grateful that navigating what it means to be a first generation Nigerian, the daughter of an immigrant, is my lived experience. And to know I am loved and cherished by such an amazing man as my father means the world, infinitely and beyond.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.