The first time I contemplated my blackness, I was filling out the personal information section on a standardized test, one of those yearly exams every elementary school student is forced to take. I came across the race and ethnicity section and perused my limited options. The only viable option was to fill in the bubble next to African-American. At six years old, I wondered if I could really consider myself an American. I had never eaten casserole, nor did I truly know what it was. Although I grew up in Maryland, I didn’t eat crabs or douse every meal in Old Bay seasoning. Instead, I grew up eating goat meat and ox tail at dinner. My family didn’t watch Lifetime movies. We crowded around the TV at night and watched whatever low-quality Nollywood film my mother had picked up from the African grocery store that day. The things that I believed embodied the American experience did not exist in my life. I’m not American, I thought. I’m just Nigerian. However, there was no option that matched my identity, and I was running out of time. I filled in the African-American bubble and forgot about it, as I forgot about most things in my youth.
I became aware of race politics in seventh grade, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed for no reason other than the fact that he was black and wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood. Prior to that day, my only concern was surviving middle school and figuring out how to treat my acne. Racism didn’t mean anything to me yet. The news hurt me, but I did not feel any fear, not the way others did. Somehow, I felt disconnected from it all. It was as if, because I didn’t have solid ties to this country, the sordid history surrounding the black experience in America did not and could not apply to me. That was the logic I entered high school with, and my mindset was quickly altered. Perhaps it was Twitter that changed my mind, or maybe the cloudy, idealistic haze in my head had cleared and I had started seeing the world for what it truly was. Perhaps it was the murder of Freddie Gray in nearby Baltimore, and the riots that followed in the aftermath. I’m not 100 percent sure, but by the end of my sophomore year, I realized that although I lack the same connection African-Americans do to the country my family moved to in the late 80s, I was still black. My Nigerian heritage meant nothing in this country. In America, my blackness came first. If ever anyone was interested in looking past the color of my skin, then my African roots can become visible. This realization came in time for the summer of 2016. The news of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s deaths reached the television screen of my family’s Airbnb in the Cayman Islands. I opened Twitter and saw footage of both shootings. The visuals replayed in my head for weeks. I was afraid. I was afraid to return to the country of my birth and face the race politics at my predominantly white high school. I feared for my father and my brothers when they left the house, praying that they wouldn’t get stopped by the police. I was afraid to be black in America.
The fear hasn’t left. Instead I live with it every day, allowing my daily tasks and the stress of school to mask the underlying tension that continues to grow in my mind. Sometimes I will forget it’s there, until I notice a white woman staring a little too hard at me in Walgreens, or if I’m scrolling through Twitter and see that yet another young, black man has been killed by police in a city that I’ve never been to. It’s a fear that is unique to black people in America. My cousins in Nigeria wouldn’t fully understand why the stares of white people on the street give me anxiety, or why I’m cautious of wearing hoodies or fiddling around in my pockets for too long. In this country, I am living in a constant mode of survival, just trying to get by in a system designed for people like me to fail. I am black in white America.