“Where are you from?” has always been a difficult question for me to answer. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to African immigrants from Ghana who subsequently raised and educated me in Arizona, where I became an American citizen. Having been raised in North America by African immigrant parents, I know intimately what it means to be grossly misunderstood: “Yes, we do have cars”, “No, Africa is not a country”, “Yes, I did learn English back home” and “No, not everyone lives in a mud hut”.
Growing up, I tried to “simplify” the complexity of my existence by downplaying my African cultural identity, thinking I was doing it for the comfort of others, to be likeable, and to encourage acceptance by my peers. But with a last name like “Ofori-Kyei”, my culture and race were the two things I could not escape. As a child in Canada, I remember the devastating first days of kindergarten, when older kids would corner me on the playground and scream racial profanities in my face. This would continue as I transferred over to American schools, leaving me to feel rejected, hurt and stigmatized by a culture and race the other kids could not understand.
There’s an old African proverb that says “Rain beats a leopard’s skin, but it does not wash out the spots.” This wisdom speaks to me about the challenges we all face (at least, to some degree) in learning to love and express who we truly are. The “rain” for me were the racial slurs of other children, while the African culture that, in large part, shaped me (physically, mentally, spiritually) were the permanent “spots” that neither they, nor I, could wash out.
In my childhood home I was always told to be proud of who I am and the land of my ancestors. My early exposure to African customs, people, and thought gave me the ability to see the world from many angles. Despite this cruel introduction to the outside world, my parents never closed themselves off to their Western surroundings nor did they strive to live in cultural isolation. Rather, they fostered deep and abiding friendships in America – always expressing profound appreciation for the culture of others, while proudly sharing that of their own. With open doors, we celebrated African foods, music, dress, and holidays and enriched the lives of others, just as America had deeply enriched ours.
My parents may have left Africa, but Africa has never left them. By their example, I learned to embrace my authentic self, which I believe means expressing myself confidently without fear, regret, or apologies. I believe my authentic self allows me to stop concentrating on the priorities of others and start revealing myself in the image I was created. I believe that to “simplify” my existence is to dishonor not only me, but more importantly the generations before me and the generations that follow.
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