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  • Writer's pictureSylvia Oduah


By Sylvia Oduah

One day my son Eli and I were talking about black people, about our reality as a race. Although I don’t remember the conversation in full detail, I do remember this statement of his:

“Well I’m white, because my skin is light skinned.”

He said this with such assurance. I just looked at him. Although I was not mad, I told myself, “nope nope nope.”

“ was time to tell him where he came from…”

I knew it was time to tell him where he came from – real quick. From that day I was very intentional about letting him know that not only was he a black kid, his heritage is Nigerian. I explained to him that his grandparents come from the Igbo ethnicity in Nigeria. I also let him know that he has Nigerian in him because I was born in Nigeria. I told him that his middle name, Arinzechuwu, is an Igbo name. It means, “If not for God.”

Eli was quiet for a brief moment, then replied “oh.”

I told him about the kings and queens in Africa. He sat and listened quietly.

But my ability to tell my son about his African heritage came after years of grappling with my own.

“Well I’m white, because my skin is light skinned.”

Growing up in metro-Atlanta in Georgia in a Nigerian household, most of my adolescent years, I struggled with my skin complexion, my looks in general. I was called rude names because I was dark skinned. I only saw light skinned females in the video, and dark skinned girls were always cast as the unwanted girls with the attitudes. I knew I had the “stereotypical” African facial features: big forehead and darker skin. No, I did not see myself as pretty at all. Far from it actually. I “hid myself” by wearing all black so that I wouldn’t stand out. I didn’t talk too much and avoided making a scene as much as I could so I would not attract any attention.

I was teased by black American boys who called me ugly or African from elementary school up until high school. I wouldn’t say it was a lot of boys who talked about me being dark skinned, but because I saw myself as unattractive I thought everyone else did too. Although I was not a popular kid, I had a few friends. But I never talked about being teased to anyone, not even to my family.

I didn’t “come to terms” with my identity until my early twenties. I began to accept my skin. I mean there was nothing I could do to change it anyway. However, I still never felt pretty enough to be on camera so I avoided pictures like the plague.

“I knew I had the “stereotypical” African facial features:

big forehead and darker skin.

No, I did not see myself as pretty at all.”

In the past decade, or so, (maybe around 2010) “woke” became the new thing, so African-Americans were beginning to expand their knowledge and change their condescending and ignorant views of Africa. Many African-Americans were starting to see the beauty in Africa: the people, the culture, and mainly the food. Many men became “more intrigued” because I was from Nigeria. I would hear comments like, “Nigerian women know how to take care of their men”. My former friend longed to be from another country. Another friend said to me “you have culture. That’s what I’m in love with. What culture do African-Americans have? Slavery? Rap?” I went from hearing “you dark as hell” to “you have such beautiful skin.”

Now I have a light-skinned son…. who has dark/sandy brown curly hair.

My son’s father is African-American and Cherokee. Eli’s paternal grandmother has long straight black hair, a strong jawline and is very very light-skinned. Needless to say, Eli picked up a lot of facial features from his paternal side. People knew right away that he was his father’s child because they resemble each other so much – though I’m still convinced that he looks just like me. Not only did Eli resemble his father, he also seemed to have a lot of his personality. Eli is very social, even so from an early age. I am more quiet and reserved. Eli is very inquisitive, not afraid of asking: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Especially… why? I was taught not to question. Eli’s father was very social. He would spark a conversation with anyone, anywhere. He, too, questioned everything, loved to challenge people and was very inquisitive. Eli took after my assertiveness. Eli will challenge you, especially when he does not agree or understand your rules or motives. But I was always told a lady should be seen and not heard. So I “tucked” my opinions and kept my thoughts to myself to avoid coming off as “intimidating” or “abrasive.” As Eli grew older, he began to mimic a lot of my personality, the good and the bad. But it took me a while to understand him, because he was so outspoken and social. I didn’t understand why he needed to go out or be around other people all the time (Nigerians seem to “shun” that type of behavior).

Eli is my only child so our bond is, inevitably, close. I protect him, as a mother, and he “protects” me too. He questions any man who comes up to me, even to ask a simple question. He gets upset when anyone hurts me, intentionally or not. Neither of us are very affectionate. However, we are open with each other by communicating our feelings and thoughts.

When Eli was a child, people used to comment on our contracting skin complexions. One day, as I was walking to Kroger holding Eli’s hand, a man said to me:

“That ain’t your baby. He’s too pretty to be your baby.”

I don’t know if that was his pick-up line but it definitely sucked and offended me deeply. My son, who was younger at the time, just looked up at me. Although he may not have understood what that man meant, he was old enough to hear his words, look at my face and realize that I was not happy with his comment.

Even though the majority of my family is dark-skinned, Eli has never expressed looking or feeling different from anyone in my family, besides the “I’m white” statement.”

“That ain’t your baby.

He’s too pretty to be your baby.”

I see Nigerian pride in Eli. Eli loves to wear his ankara-print shirts and wooden beads. During Culture Day at his school, Eli wore Nigerian attire and proudly proclaimed that he is Nigerian. Eli corrected his teacher who thought his shirt was just a “costume.” My mother began feeding Eli fufu, egusi and fish doused in Nigerian-style flavors when he was a baby. And to this day, he still enjoys them.

I always talk about the way children are raised, in Nigeria, with much discipline. I emphasize the importance of education, respect and family, just like my parents ingrained in my sisters and me. Last year, Eli got a chance to talk to my grandmother, his great grandmother, and my uncle, on the phone. They live in Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria. After speaking with them he came with a long list of questions:

“When are we going to Nigeria?” “Will I see them when we get there?” “Do they have kids?” “Is my great granddad still alive?”

My goal is to talk about Nigeria to Eli as much as I can. I introduce him to the culture by listening to Nigerian music, which he loves by the way and sings along with me; taking him to Nigerian parties and picnics; dressing him in Nigerian attire; and learning Igbo from a dedicated Igbo teacher, which is something I missed out on as my parents did not speak to me and my siblings in Igbo so sadly, we do not understand the language.

I am not going to say it is always easy raising Eli to be a conscious Nigerian-American.

What he sees and hears in school, when he’s playing football or running track, or interacting with friends is different from what I teach him at home. I was raised in America, so I am limited to only what has been taught to me. Even though I believe it is very important for him to know and embrace his Nigerian culture, I do not expect him to ignore the fact that he is African-American. With this in mind, I have to be more understanding and open. Fusing both cultures is not always the easiest. With both I have to eat the “meat and spit out the bones.”

“Light skinned, dark skinned and everything in between, I want my son to know that Africans come in many shades of beauty.”

There are great things about Nigeria just like America, and being African-American. Being American allows Eli to see a world of opportunities. I always teach him that he does not have to diminish his dreams to do what I want him to do.

“I am not going to say it is always easy raising

Eli to be a conscious Nigerian-American.”

Being Nigerian means being great at whatever you do, especially when you have more stacked against you. At the end of the day, I want my son to have pride in who he is, so that he can cultivate a healthy and positive relationship with himself.

Light skinned, dark skinned and everything in between, I want my son to know that Africans come in many shades of beauty.

Sylvia is a life coach and social worker living in Lawrenceville, Georgia in America. She enjoys working out in the gym and teaching young people.

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