I grew up in white, suburban (almost rural) America.
Because of my skin color, the upbringing in my environment wasn’t necessarily a plight per se. Most times it was actually the opposite; my time was spent shielded among friends from a range of ethnicities, in an area with fresh air and vast spaces to play, and a slew of extracurricular activities that helped create any edge I might’ve gained academically. But any hint of the occasional exclusion or negativity in school on the basis of my race or gender was shot down, practically on a weekly basis by my parents, to be grateful I wasn’t in Sierra Leone.
Answering the question of “where are you from?” from the few sleepover-goers that had the chance to peek into my household was difficult due to the general invisibility of the small coastal nation. But that is where my parents, as well as the entirety of the family history I can jog from their memories, are from. This heritage makes me “African-American”, true to the name, which is currently a highly contested issue of identity among Black Americans. But unlike many Black-Americans that have difficulty with or ultimately give up the search into their ancestry, mine was paraded in front of me through every dish we ate, every gathering we dressed up for, and most importantly, every word my parents spoke to me.
About sixteen ethnic groups comprise Sierra Leone, each with their own language and customs. The two largest and most influential are my parents’ people–the Temne and the Mende tribes. However, to my later disappointment, somewhere along the course of our upbringing, my parents found it of little relevance to teach my sisters and me the languages of their home. Instead, by observing their exchanges with each other and friends, we managed to absorb the third-largest spoken language in Sierra Leone, Krio.
This distinctive language, a pidgin English, brings together more communities than that of just Sierra Leone–speakers in other countries live in Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal. In Krio, there’s a significant linguistic influence from British English, Jamaican Creole, Igbo and Yoruba, all coming together to create a versatile lexicon. However, my parents immigrated to the United States, working their way through arduous years of schooling and periods of financial instability to provide more enriched lives for their children. Any well-deserved success they achieved unfortunately drowned out the need to pass on their individual languages and was instead replaced with the mantra of the American Dream. To no fault of their own, they wanted their children to be “American” more than African– to never hear even an echo of their own childhood hardships.
And for the young me in suburbia, I was perfectly at peace with not knowing my cultural heritages. We’d taken big family trips every few years to the tiny country, where I’d play with chickens in the yard or at the beach with cousins, but I effectively separated it from my “regular” life. In the States, I already felt too Black– the food I’d bring to lunch was too smelly, and that my coiled hair was far too opposite of what the media and my peers deemed beautiful. As “Anita Williams”, rather than “Nyahalay Wilyami”, I could hide behind a thin veil of true American-ness, integrating myself into a society that otherizes immigrants and their children with ease.
However, this later backfired in the tug-of-war reality I faced at the intersection of Blackness and Africanness. Southern foods that were created from the resourcefulness of slaves, hair products and their popularized effects, or just a famous line from a movie were just some of the things I rarely understood anything about. The moments between my highly regimented grade school schedule was spent among cousins braiding my hair and gossipy aunts, cassava leaves and jollof rice, and the songs and politics of my culture. This was the fork in the road that forced me to look at my identity as strictly my own. And though I own my Blackness in ways that my parents will never be able to relate to, I also own my Africanness.
This revelation didn’t require a Eat, Pray, Love tour of the world for self discovery–all it took was finally replying to my family in the Krio I heard all of my life. A simple “kuche” (how are you?) and “a de na ‘os” (I’m at home!) soon grew into clumsy, flung-together sentences. But no matter how badly I tripped over my words or syntactically tangled myself into confusion (I thought after a decade of listening I’d have a better grasp on this), I shed the layers of embarrassment and felt a pride grow from within as well as radiate from those I interacted with. My hairdressers, the same gossipy aunts, or just a stranger I’d happen upon in Maryland or Toronto, created instant solidarity and a feeling of home-away-from-home with whoever I spoke.
Meeting a person that speaks the same language as you is more empowering than you might think. Even if the person you interact with has no ethnic connection to your language, the interaction itself serves as a moment of pride for both you and your culture. And at a time in world history where people are willing to lay their lives down for their identity and as a result of being “othered”, nationality, ethnicity, and lingual relevance are all more important now than before. It carries the gravity of cementing your existence, as a result of thousands and thousands of other lives coalescing together, as real and significant in this world. For me it definitely took time, but I’ve come to understand that when a tiny coastal nation is known more for its history of war, diamonds, and Ebola, rather than its vibrant, joyous, resilient people and the languages that color their livelihoods, the weight of the entire world seems to rest on that one interaction–and a simple “kuche” melts all of the negative preconceptions away.