Sifting & Searching for Myself

“Who is you?” Chiron, of the critically acclaimed film Moonlight, was asked this by his peers, family, and most importantly himself throughout the entirety of the movie. Regardless of the many aspects that impacted his life, watching it, I realized my own struggle of figuring out who I am. I think we all try to decipher ourselves throughout our lives, learning, un-learning, and transforming our minds and hearts based on our experiences, culture, race, and many other variables. Like Chiron, the common denominator that most of us yearn for is love and belonging, to someone, to something, and most importantly, a feeling of importance. Respective to Chiron’s experience, my ethnicity, culture, location, and religion have transformed myself to where I am now and who I think I wish to become.

Both of my parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia before I was born, hoping and wishing to create a life of stability and opportunity. Like so many immigrants, particularly from Africa, the United States represented a beacon of hope, equality, and freedom; despite being contrary to many immigrants’ belief, especially for immigrants of color, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Regardless, this sacrifice my parents and so many others have taken would consistently get reiterated in my head, leaving me with an obligation to make them proud, deservedly so.

Living in Southern California, I grew accustomed to a rich diversity of people, perspectives, and cultures, which at times hindered my ability to hone in on my own connection to my community. In contrast to Washington, DC, Seattle, and other cities of a predominantly Habesha (a term referring to both Eritreans and Ethiopians) community, my connection was established primarily through spiritual gatherings such as church or ceremonial events like weddings and celebrations. There was little to no outside affiliation unless they were family, our parents were close friends, or we grew up in the same neighborhood. Geography impacted my connections to my culture in ways I didn’t think were significant, but it makes complete sense. There’s no way I can consistently spend time with other Habeshas that live in various parts of Southern California: from the OC, to Los Angeles, to the Valley, Inland Empire, and much more, space and location prohibited consistent gatherings.

I had a conversation with my close friend Eden Mekonen who I met through church, typically how I and many other Habeshas create relationships within our community. She mentioned to me that church and cultural gatherings in Los Angeles aren’t for the sole purpose of spirituality or the event at hand, but are attended in order to attain some sort of connection to our culture. I found this entirely true for myself. With it being hard to access one another living in SoCal, attending church has become one of the only spaces where I can be in a place of comfort, affirm my identity and culture, and, to put it simply, be able to hang out with people that share relatively the same experience of being a first-generation kid of African immigrants. I don’t have the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia very often, so this place provides a much-needed grounding of my foundation, culture, and community. Eden noted a term “ethno-spiritual spaces,” so I decided to look it up. James M. Smith states in his article, “Ethnic identities [become] reinforced and maintained through institutional participation, with religious institutions as crucial sites of identity formation and preservation.” He examined three Asian American Case Studies in the Baltimore-Washington region and found this to be true. Similarly, with my experience, the lack of proximity to other Habeshas in Southern California manifested the church as an ethno-spiritual space, providing familiarity and a necessary reminder of where my parents come from and what I hope to obtain and pass along through generations.

Attending a predominantly White Institution where there were few Habeshas didn’t necessarily hinder my connection to my culture but instead re-navigated how I would understand my ethnicity. The dynamics of my educational experience created a space where I felt it necessary to find myself through my race, rather than my culture. I found it important to realize and understand the significance of my blackness, of being a woman and trying to understand where that places me within the context of being Ethiopian. I find it troubling the amount of times I have come across Habeshas, young and old, that refrain from identifying as black, rather pointing out their differences and “special” qualities that make them immune to being an “ordinary” black. What is an “ordinary” black? What categories do we check off that give us the idea that we can abstain our blackness? Why do so many try to separate themselves of blackness and why do people, in my community, continue to deny it? It boils down to the common perception of blacks through white supremacy and in its most cynical ways it has created divisiveness amongst us. Therefore, my experience in undergrad provided growth and appreciation of my race, understanding that yes, I am Ethiopian, but I am also black in America.

I found that Chiron didn’t quite realize who he was in Moonlight towards the end of the film but I think he began to figure out who he was becoming. I find myself at a similar crossroads. I sometimes grapple with feeling unaccustomed to my culture, in the ways I am of my blackness, and I feel a strange sense of guilt about it. I do know that I’ll continue to reach for ways of loving and learning my ethnicity and culture, pushing myself to actualize what I am, not just say what I am; I’m not trying to be a version of myself but rather come to find how the many parts of myself make up who I am, and celebrating that. I acknowledge that my parents have played a huge role in holding me accountable of making their sacrifices significant. I think black people, wherever we may be from, can relate on some level of trying to make the sacrifices of our parents and ancestors meaningful. One in the same, yet different at the same time; we are communal, but I, we, can only speak for our own black experiences and I hope it resonates somewhere, to someone, or it may not. That might be the point of it all.

“Who is you?”

I haven’t quite been able to answer that, nor do I think I ever will. But I know that, like Chiron, my experiences have significantly contributed to the extent to which I will be able to answer the question. To which extent can I answer it now? Far better than five years ago and I’m bound to see a change in the next five.