(Delivered at UUSF on January 14, 2018. Listen to the audio here.)
Growing up in California, I didn’t feel the sting of segregation that many experienced in other parts of the country. But, I know that I was born into a segregated America, two years before the Supreme Court would decide Brown vs Board of Education, in a country divided by the social construct of race. . . in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., where we had to navigate the differences that were constructed and imposed by others.
In the homes of African Americans across the country, we ran through the house when a Negro appeared on television, and everyone would excitedly coalesce in the living room to bear witness. I learned that the difference created by this omission resulted in a marginalized community. Through this medium, I also learned that I was different; I was a Negro, and that, many believed, I was not entitled to be respected as an ordinary American.
In the microcosm of my world, as born out in my school years, negative experiences were thrust upon me by those who chose to reinforce the racial divide, by those that were afraid to cross it and by many who failed to question it and for whom it became learned behavior. When it surfaced, it was manifest with the prior generation primarily found among the administrative staff and faculty as an invisible divide that would often pierce my spirit. And a divide so subtle that it can creep in and poison the social compact that we have with one another.
I found that I thrived in environments with racial and cultural difference in substantial numbers in the student population where: We. Were. Fine. We were all different. It was a fact. It was a given. We had friends across the full spectrum of the student body. And, we respected our truths. By studying French and later living in France, I discovered the joy of living with difference among students from around the world.
As an adult, when I think about how we create difference, I think about the choices that we make in our lives. I see my life as a composite--a collage of difference with choices that changed my view of myself and through which I find myself breaking out of the limitations of my parochial, segregated past.
I chose to marry a Biafran, who today would describe himself as a Nigerian-American. This choice created difference in the most intimate spaces of my life. I lived hearing the sounds of accented English and the rhythms of Ibo conversations. I was the only American in the family and straddled Nigerian and American culture in my own home, my own life. Our conversations playfully included references to “your people” and “my people”. Our children are first generation Americans. They bear Ibo names and walk proudly in their difference finding solidarity in all the jokes shared within their generation that lovingly mock the expressions and perspectives of their immigrant parent.
I choose difference. I create difference. And from these choices, I am American, I am French, and I am Nigerian. The beauty and joy that I find in these differences is overwhelming.