I have always described myself as an American national with an African ethos. I was raised in a Liberian home, in the city of Philadelphia, which has a large Liberian community. Because of this, I realized early on that there was something that made me different from other kids that I encountered. I never cared to label it; I just knew that it characterized me. It was not just the fact that my parents were immigrants, or that they were working their way towards “the American dream;” it was something else.
I tried to ignore the growing disconnect between who I was at home and who my American classmates appeared to be. I was taught at a young age not to talk back, not to cause trouble, and that my education was my parents’ investment to ensure that I could take care of them in the future. I was forbidden from calling teachers by their first name even if they allowed such “disrespectful nonsense.” I ate sandwiches at school for lunch and came home to fufu, cassava leaf and rice, or whatever African food my parents had time to cook. Although I enjoyed the double exposure, I recognized more areas of difference between my Liberian and American identities.
By age five, I mastered the art of interpreting my parents’ accent for my teachers and friends. I was proud of my skill, but could not ignore the fact that while I understood their Liberian English, I could not speak the native dialects that my extended family spoke. There are more than fifty people that have been introduced to me as “Aunty, Uncle, Grandma, and Grandpa [insert name here].” They all had mixed reactions to my “Americanness.” While some accepted it as a survival mechanism for the future, others scolded my parents for not immersing me further into Liberian traditions. To compensate, my parents used the word “no” often, even when they could afford to say “yes.” At times it was difficult to understand why rules at home were different for me than for my classmates. But, as I grew older I recognized their value.
Philadelphia has been my home for most of my life, but my heart frequently takes me elsewhere. My parents and family always tell me stories of their travels around the world. It amazes me that African bloodlines have created a narrative on various lands. Because of this, I knew from a young age that I wanted to travel. I wanted a life filled with opportunities to share and learn more about my place in the world as an African woman. As I have gotten older, I have been blessed with more opportunities to enter the outside world in order to reinforce and discover my African identity. The most meaningful opportunity was the nine months I studied abroad in Italy. During that time I also traveled to France and Tunisia. Though they are distinct, a single conclusion held true for all three: I would not only have to represent the US, but Africa as well.
In a country as racially complex as Italy, I understood that I would initially be judged more by the color of my skin than by my American English accent. It was my first time in the country, but I knew that life was difficult for Africans. Because of its proximity to Africa, Italy is African migrants’ gateway to Europe. This undoubtedly has caused tension in a country that faces economic hardship. So, the first time I received a glare from an Italian who assumed I was an African in the country illegally I was taken aback, but I was also prepared to get comfortable with it. I frequently ignored rude cat-calls from Italian men who assumed I was an African prostitute (an apparently common profession for exploited immigrant African women). I avoided certain neighborhoods known for their neo-Nazi and fascist residents. I did not go to important soccer matches for certain teams as a precaution to avoid racist comments and violence. In other words, I started preparing myself, as an African woman in the world, to be constantly misconstrued, doubted, and suspected.
During those months, I frequently tried to compare the experiences of the Africans I met in Italy, with those I knew in the States. I tried to figure out how Africans survive in societies where they are expected to fail. I wondered how some succeeded at creating a space for themselves and their cultures. In Italy, I met Africans who were at both ends of the economic spectrum. Even though some had created a “space” for themselves within the Italian society, they still had to deal with suspicion and prejudice similar to those least accepted. Despite all that they were up against, they did not give up, they continued living and striving. Through constant comparison, I was finally able to label what made my family and other Africans we knew different: our “Africanness.”
Being in a foreign country made me more aware of my role in this world. I realized that I needed to create the image that I wanted the Italians and even other Africans I met to have of me, instead of simply trying to fit into their preconceived notion of me as a Liberian woman. Without a doubt my Liberian culture is distinct from other African cultures I have encountered. But, despite cultural differences, I believe that all Africans are driven by our Africanness. By that, I mean that we are able to keep surviving because of our ability to instill our souls into everything we do, wherever we are, despite all odds.
Leaving America allowed me to experience the connection I feel with other Africans elsewhere first-hand. Those nine months opened my eyes to the fact that I could’ve been born in or lived in any other country besides America, but one thing will always remain the same no matter where I am: I am an African woman with an African soul.