My name is Chinyere Erondu. I am a Nigerian-American from Abia State, Nigeria and born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To me, Black History Month means an invitation to rest, reflect, grieve, feel, and become.
“Repeat your name for me one more time?” “Chinyere. As in Chin-ye-reh. But you can call me Chichi since it’s easier.” I sank lower into my seat hearing the snickering of my classmates. I quickly learned the power of a name. It can either ostracize or welcome.
From elementary into high school I carried a mask trying to conceal as much of my Nigerian heritage as possible. This mission was embodied in my constantly getting my hair braided back-to-back as to avoid having conversations on why my natural hair would never stay down. Soon, I dreaded lunch because I’d have to explain to friends that my jollof rice and chicken was in essence tomato sauce and rice. Truthfully, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to be embraced, not looked at or ostracized for being different. I was either two white for the black kids, too black for the white kids, and soon I realized I was too African for both of them. This pain of never fitting in stung even more whenever I traveled to my home country of Nigeria, that’s when I learned I was too American even for them.
African During Black History Month
This made Black History Month conflicting for me. Most of the time I remained silent listening to fragmented narratives of the African American experience. Every February my teachers delivered these one-chapter lectures jumbling the disjointed tales of slavery and racism in America. I’d watch as other black students resonated with the month, the history, and often connected to their pain and perspective just to cope with my own experience in the small town of Dayton, Ohio. But I still didn’t feel as though Black History was my history. Even in February I felt as though it was simply another conversation that shouldn’t include me.
It wasn’t until college, at Andrews University, that I was able to fully appreciate Black History Month. The programming and clubs celebrating the vast cultures of global blackness invited me to belong. Suddenly, this celebration was not something exclusively for those born and raised in American. Now, it was something that included my story as a first generation Nigerian American.
It was in college that this tension of my Nigerian identity and American identity truly began to increase. This particularly happened when I changed my major from Biology Pre-Med to…Theology. Such a shift broke all the rules for a “child of Nigerian parents.” My career options only included either becoming a Doctor, a Lawyer, or an Engineer. But I honestly didn’t want to pursue any of those careers. My heart wasn’t there.
Black History Month as Revelation
It was this switch that became the catalyst I needed to embrace all my intersecting identities and journey into self-discovery. The beauty of experiencing an all inclusive Black History Month enabled me the mental breathing space to affirm my complex identities operating simultaneously in spaces that were sometimes in conflict with each other; spaces where my identity was even in conflict with itself.
This existence I have always found difficult to put into words, but the great Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois articulates it most proficiently in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk. He says, “One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Being American and Nigerian I always feel this “two-ness” this “double-consciousness” as Du Bois calls it. But the lives of other Nigerian Americans have given me clarity and direction on how I can become in spite of the internal and external conflict of being a black, female, and Nigerian-American in this country.
For this reason, I pay homage to pioneers such as Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an Author & Activist, and Chinua Achebe whose work highlighted the results of unwarranted colonial influences. Tometi’s involvement in her U.S. community affirms that as a Nigerian-American she too is not only affected by racial tensions in this country, but has a moral obligation to work to oppose them.
Adichie exemplifies the strength Black women have to serve as catalysts for racial, social, and gender equity within the field of writing, higher education and social thought. Author Alice Walker, and many in her field, gave room for healing as a leading Womanist on the intersections of gender, race, feminism, and religion. And because of her work, God can finally be God in my life. And my Nigerian American appreciation culminates with the work of Achebe, a writer and thinker who spoke truth to power about the importance of the intersections of race, religion, conflict, and peace building from past to present-day.
But even with the contributions and examples of these individuals, I cannot forget the work of my parents. These Nigerians immigrated transplanting themselves and their family into a new home environment to provide my siblings and I with the best opportunities at success. Through their existence and the beauty of their authenticity, this Black History Month is particularly special as I can look forward to the future and know that I am abundantly equipped to be the change I need to see.