The first time I realized I was black and began to understand what that blackness meant in the world, I was a 5 year- old girl in Reading, England. It was the very first day of school as an “English” schoolgirl and I was so eager, my body shivered with excitement. Like so many African immigrants before them, my parents left Nigeria in search of education and opportunities for their young family.
Dressed in my navy blue and white school uniform, I was smiling from ear to ear. My uniform was donated because we could not afford it, but to me it was a miracle. I never saw the frayed sleeves or the faded colors. My mother had taken the time to starch the shirt so that the collar was crisp and cool to the skin. She had ironed each pleat of my knee-length skirt with the love and tenderness of any good mother. My father, a graduate student at the University of London, whom I saw once every 2 or 3 weeks because of the distance, had boarded an overnight bus. He had travelled through the night and spent that morning polishing my black saddle-oxford shoes, and how they shined!
But by the end of my first week as a 3rd grader at Katesgrove Primary School, I was sitting in the small bath-tub of our Reading County Council flat, scrubbing my skin with a corrosive cleaning liquid that reeked of bleach and chemicals I couldn’t pronounce. In the playground, a little girl told me that my skin was brown because I was dirty. If I scrubbed hard enough I would look like her and then we could be friends. It was dirt that made me look this way, she explained.
And so I sat in the bathroom scrubbing as hard as I could until my skin became blisters and sores. I was the only black girl in my class, one of maybe 5 black children in my entire school. I felt such shame. They had seen through the guise of the pressed school clothes, polite smile and halted English. They had seen the blackness of my skin.
And as many of us African immigrants do, I determined to do everything I could to prove my worth despite my skin. I educated myself, learned to speak the Queen’s English, always graduated at the top of my class. Still, I never could forget the loneliness of being different and alone. The pain of being told “you are inferior simply because you are black” remained a stain I could not scrub away.
As African immigrants we share such common experiences in this land and yet we are content to suffer alone and in silence or remain in our individual communities. We are Doctors working in fast food restaurants. We are Oxford University trained teachers who can’t teach without supervision because of the “thickness of our accents.” We are PhD holders, graduates, with degrees so hard won. We struggle through immigration issues, we see our colleagues get promotions that should be ours. We have sacrificed home and family, we are qualified and ready to excel, yet we find ourselves in positions of disadvantage, we confront prejudice daily.
However, we are survivors and I believe that it is this innate instinct that motivates many of us to leave our loved ones, our countries, the red and yellow earth of our soil, and the comfort of having roots, to seek a better life and to help our communities back home.
We can scream alone in the darkness, hoping to be heard, or we can unite, fight for our political rights as a united community and make create the real American dream for ourselves and all our children to come. We have to be our own advocates and our own political, economic and socially empowered machine. Our shared experiences, our stories and testimonies are the very things that make us so strong and resilient in the midst of suffering. Our struggles, hopes and dreams transcend borders. They transcend the difference in the languages we speak, the religions we practice, or the tribes into which we were born.
Unity is the answer and that powerful truth is the very thing that makes the African Immigrant Caucus so different and so important. There is no strength in exclusivity or separation; we are the same no matter what the lines drawn on a map might say. If we as Africans can see the stories in each other’s eyes and recognize that we are bound together in this American experience, then we can begin to reclaim our selfhood by emptying ourselves of all selfishness. United we can work together to advocate for and improve our lives, our home countries, our people and our future.
I have volunteered for other African groups and I have found that AIC is a different animal. AIC is a light. AIC is the path to an America where my daughter will never have to emerge bloody and bruised from the bathroom because she doesn’t see herself reflected in a positive light in the news, on television, in politics or in books. She will never see herself as dirty. She will see herself as the very salt of the earth, the clay that God used to mold our human frame. And she will never struggle alone or be ashamed because in that moment it does not matter from which African country you hail or which language you speak, it does not matter which tribe you claim. All that matters is the knowledge that we can create a community, no, a family that is forged from pain, strengthened by unity and love, and bound together by our common shared experience.
Lydia Daniel is an activist and attorney, who’s work focuses on matters of domestic violence, deportation, and counseling for the African Immigrant population. She worked with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Waaangari Mathai in Kenya, supporting the efforts of the Greenbelt Movement.