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My Single Story (Part 1): Snowstorms and an Awareness of the Colour Black

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‘I’m done with this town! I’m done with this school! I’m done with this toxic environment. I cannot stand the negativity or the racism.’ This was my closing argument when I decided to transfer universities after two years in the middle of nowhere, USA.

I was tired of people commenting on what “good English” I spoke, especially because “good English” is not proper English. Every time they said it the editor within me cringed a little more. I was tired of being reduced to a colour – black. I was also tired of them asking me whether I spoke ‘African.’ -__-

 

Snowstorms and Early College Life

I started at this college in January and my first day of class coincided with what I would realise was a fairly common snowstorm. I could not see more than 2-feet in front of me, but I stumbled to the main classroom building unsure of what to expect. The sea of white inside my Business 101 class was colder and even less friendly than the one that raged outside. I came face to face with my own race and the impenetrable barriers that can exist when people fixate on visible differences and refuse to get beyond them to find common ground. This was the first ‘new thing’ I learned in college/university.

Growing up with classmates that came from over 18 other countries and embodying 3 nationalities myself, I was downright confused by this new experience. Tazz had warned me that “these people were f*ing racist,” but when we were laughing and smiling in the diverse and sunny Atlanta weeks earlier it didn’t quite register. Now the cold was setting in. And so the snowstorm(s) raged on for the better part of two years. There was warmth and laughter, love and growth, development and successes to celebrate in between, but this experience for me sat on a racist foundation built up by assumptions and ignorance. It was 24 short months of mixed feelings and sideways glances, of silent defensiveness and a side of constant irritation.

I had never been aware that I was “black” until I moved to the tiny snowy city of Sioux Center, Iowa and they told me so. Prior to that I had just been Zeni. No one in Nigeria told me I was black, no one in Manchester or London uttered the “b” word, and the only one I heard in the Caribbean was “beautiful.” But now I was black, that is all I was. And I was reminded in subtle and overt ways – all the time.

 

Brothers and Sisters and The Others, in Christ

Eventually I stopped going to church because growing up in a missionary school I knew when “operation save a black soul” was being implemented. Black to us had meant the absence of the light of God, but out here in the flat lands it now took on a more shallow connotation. Moving to Iowa “black” became very literal and piercing, not more than skin deep. It soon occurred to me that I was the black soul to those who had not had a chance to travel out of this small town with a population of 7,000 people. I was the black soul and because I was black I apparently needed saving. I realised it did not occur to them that I walked in here on my own two feet – this was not an outreach.

I realised it did not occur to them that I was pursuing a degree in International Business and doing so with honours – pursuing a college degree requires the ability to read and write already, you do not have to enunciate your words so dramatically or talk so loudly ma’am. I realised it did not occur to them that I had traveled half way across the world or that Christ was already the solid Rock on which I stood – hence my desire to worship with likeminded brethren. But I was not a sister or daughter to them – all they saw was brown skin and opportunity. I was doomed and patronised and interviewed and boxed in by their limited belief system. Therefore I concluded that leaving was the only way to stay respectful and maintain holy thoughts.

 

Blizzards in Business 101 and Other Classes

Things were much better in the classroom but this was purely a function of perspective. I had arrived excited to learn, determined to excel, and focused on getting those A’s so the cold environment was less of a hindrance. Besides, these were my peers so I almost did not expect too much from a bunch of 18 year olds whose life experience had occurred within a 100-mile radius. My expectations were pretty much met. Some were subtle, some were outright racist, while very few bridged the gap themselves or responded to my efforts. Generally I was ignored however no one else is fully responsible for this. It’s not really a situation where I, or those with similar stories were victims, we were just bigger beings dropped into a smaller world that did not yet know better. Looking back I sometimes wonder could and should I have made more of an effort? Could I have been bolder and more friendly? Could I have said more than “hello” and melted frosty gazes and side comments with warmth and invitations of my own?

Yes, I was young, yes I was out of my comfort zone, but could I have put aside my discomfort and done more? After all, we were all Christians – it was a Christian campus. The love of God had to start flowing from somewhere right? Should it not break cliques and barriers and preconceived notions and predetermined bias and… Perhaps. But at the time I felt isolated, judged, labelled and ostracised for something so thin as the colour of my skin. This was new to me and I did not know how to manage it while still attempting to bridge the gap. So I internalised it and befriended those who wanted that friendship – majority of whom were treated similarly for similar reasons.

 

Life on the Set of a Coming of Age American College Movie

Generally there was a strange dynamic in the classrooms. My professors loved me. My fellow students typically ignored me when I was paying attention and stared when they thought I wasn’t looking. It turns out I was one of the first black people a number of them had ever seen – I kid you not. Other than my disruptive presence, it had all the usual ingredients of a coming of age American college movie. Most students disinterested and bored, averting their eyes and paying more attention to each other, their phones or their laptops than the professor. I on the other hand had that good African upbringing – I sat in the front row, took furious notes and answered questions. I also laughed and joked with my best friend with whom I shared many classes (please note: this is not encouraged in ‘Africa’). She, by definition of our ride or die contract, had been gracious enough to join me in Middle of Nowhere, Iowa. Her presence cemented taught me that love and support from the right people is absolutely priceless and a major ingredient to success. My people helped me forget about the (snow)storms and stay focused and warm – we actually still look back at a million good memories of those frozen times.

After a few weeks of pledging my allegiance to academics through answering questions, doing all the readings and turning in my homework completed and on time, my professors knew they could count on the brown girl with the easy to pronounce two-syllable name (Zeh-knee) to get them out of any bind. They began to call on me even when my hand wasn’t up. They knew I would always attempt an answer. They liked my ‘exotic’ accent (which I had mistakenly believed was American prior to my arrival), my (over) thought out answers, the way in which I shared a perspective that was beyond the 100-mile radius. Most of this I did not realise till I asked for reference letters as I worked on my transfer applications, then they articulated their positive thoughts and observations.

 

Sidenotes in the Margins of My Textbooks

Sometimes by virtue of being you you might end up being different than everyone else around you. Adapting is futile I learned, not for lack of trying, but because our skin is our largest organ and it makes up 16% of our body weight. Therefore I had no choice but to be me and embody who I was rather than find ways to make friends who forged relationships based on a colour code. I have realised this was a vital lesson and as I go through life I continue to be me, whether or not that fits perfectly into the assumptions of others. After all if the skin is so permanent and so expansive, what more our inner matter. Having faced such direct and awkward opposition the pressure to ‘repackage’ oneself now has less of an effect.

Outside of class I studied like a maniac, spent hours on the phone with family and friends, and spent time with my little international family. This family was like a mini UN made up of Asians, Africans and Islanders. Friendships were forged easily, if you stood out from the Dutch landscape you nodded, smiled at one another, said “hello.” This rule applied everywhere – whether you met in the college hallways, at a random party, or in the McDonald’s parking lot. There was a lone-ness that led to a connectedness.

I learned that sometimes what causes you to be rejected is what you can use to build ties with others also on the outside – or rather the other side; since no one side is particularly better than the other. I learned never to classify myself as less than others or believe those who espoused such beliefs. I learned that while I did not owe anyone anything, working harder and doing better was win-win style revenge. By my second semester most of those who looked through me and whispered around me met me in the Help Center when they needed tutoring.

 

Road Trips, Final Destinations and Surprising Results

My comfort zones became my bedroom, road trips with my roommates, working at the Help Center, the international table at the dining room, sharing cultural dishes in the kitchen, or eating out at the one Chinese and one Mexican restaurant the town boasted of. Eventually between the extreme weather conditions (snowstorms and heat waves), the flat land filled with wheat and wild animals (cows, sheep, deer, etc.), and all my racist classmates and lovely professors, I realised it was time to move on. My best friend and I started the transfer application process and eventually took a leap of faith.

I could not wait to arrive at our greener pastures. As I stuffed the last few suitcases and bin bags into the trunk of my best friend’s car I was excited for our drive ahead. It was going to be 17 hours of eating, coffee drinking, sing alongs and most importantly catharsis. I was excited to leave the latest snowstorm behind. We hopped in, cranked up the music and set off on our latest adventure. By the time we arrived in our new college town the old would have passed away and awaiting us exactly two years later on 11 January would be a brand new start and a better quality of life…or so we thought. We were in for some big surprises!

Zeni St. John

  • Ijeoma Igbaji

    “that love and support from the right people is absolutely priceless and a major ingredient to success”

    Priceless piece!
    So open and raw and beautiful and real

    March 31, 2017 at 4:04 pm Reply
  • Msuur Ityonzughul

    Oh Zeni! Where did you guys go? Please write. I’m reading.

    March 31, 2017 at 5:03 pm Reply
  • Nkiru

    Love it! More…

    March 31, 2017 at 7:24 pm Reply
  • Fiyinfoluwa

    Wow! Great. I’m glad you shared this experience. I can only imagine how much courage it took for you to be yourself.
    Love and support are key.
    More grace.

    March 31, 2017 at 8:10 pm Reply

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