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Why, as a Nigerian-American, Black History Month Matters to Me

by Mayowa Oyebadejo, 2Y 2019

A friend of mine recently mentioned how surprised she was at my level of interest in African-American history. She found it refreshing that I, as a first generation Nigerian-American, was so still so interested in the history of a demographic of people from whom I had such a distinct and separate cultural upbringing.

It was an interesting thought that I had never really reflected on. But as I mulled it over in the days that followed, it started to become increasingly clear to me why it was that over the young adult years of my life, I had become so enthralled by literature from the likes of Carter G. Woodson, Alex Haley, Michele Alexander and historical expositions of topics like the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Wall Street, etc. It was because, in a way, I felt that it was a part of my history as well. Not in the sense that it was a narrative inherent to the past of my ancestors, but rather a history that I had inherited and come to appreciate through an adoption of seemingly shared circumstances.

What I mean by ‘shared circumstances’ is that here in the United States, whether you’re a first generation Nigerian-American, Ghanaian-American, Caribbean-American or any other race in the Afro-diaspora that is now living in the “land of the free,” to most, you’re simply considered “black.” Rarely is the distinction made between a kid whose parents moved here from Jamaica in the late 80s and a kid whose ancestors were brought here as slaves in the early 1700s.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that we all shouldn’t still relish in the fact that “blacks” in the U.S. are made up of a widely diverse group of ethnicities that are all extremely rich in their own cultures. However, what I am communicating is that we are unified by the common grouping here in the states that has largely defined our experience in terms of the opportunities (or lack thereof) granted us, the progress (or impediments) shared, and the socioeconomic inclusion (or utter void of). So, while we may not all descend from the same family origins, we are by no means unrelated.

So, with this being the case, our vastly encompassing race of “black-Americans” would be completely remiss to not seize the opportunity to learn about the history of our brothers and sisters in this country. This is the importance of Black History Month to me.

Whether it feels like it at times or not, the truth of the matter is that none of the struggles we are facing as black people in our daily lives are new or isolated. These challenges have been going on for years; and what looking back at history allows us to do is gain understanding of the context in which some of these systematic hurdles were constructed. And in that understanding, gain insight into what can be done to circumvent them.

Additionally, what understanding our history enables us to understand is the legacy of overcomers, plagued with all the viscous obstacles facing us today and more, that have come before us. Evidence, if nothing else, that the past and present circumstance of our race isn’t any indication of our future potential. In the same way that a plant placed near the window will find itself growing in the direction of the sunlight, so is the case of those who are keen on studying the legacy of the great trailblazers that have come before us. But the truth is, without understanding the strides they have made and the blueprints they followed, we’re at an utter disadvantage.

Imagine going your whole life not knowing the lineage of overcomers you came from, oblivious to the fact that time and time again, our people have been resilient enough to look insurmountable adversity in the eyes and conquer it. Imagine going through your adolescent years unaware of the number of others from similar economically drained communities and resource starved schools that found their way into opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. Or perhaps going through your young professional years not knowing that as hard as it is to be the only black person in the room in nearly every corporate meeting room you walk into, that there were so many others that navigated those same predicaments and found a way to succeed. Those shared experience are what bond us, what give us the fuel to keep going. That is the importance of Black History Month to me.