I have read your story more than 10 times trying to find the right words to respond with. I finally chose three principles that helped me get through being a foreign child here in America. I hope these principles will give you strength throughout the remainder of your teenage years.
Loving my Skin
First off, I want you to know that you are a beautiful young lady, inside and out, so don’t let anyone tell you differently. I remember when I first came to America I thought girls only liked light-skinned guys. I knew I couldn’t change my skin so I chose to hang out with my two friends, D and Nick, who were light-skinned to give me a better chance of meeting girls. I was a teenager so being accepted was everything to me. Unlike you, Zoe, I grew up with people who looked like me on the outside but who had vastly different experiences from me. I was on the other side of Pittsburgh – in the city filled with nothing but black African-American kids. I was just the African kid who could play basketball. Yes, I can’t lie – I got into a lot of fights growing up in Wilkinsburg because kids made fun of my accent or of the fact that I was wearing Payless shoes and not Jordans. I lost way more fights than I won, so I do not endorse fighting with your hands but rather fighting with your intelligence at all times.
Instead of hating my skin color, I had to accept that there was a reason God gave me this beautiful dark skin and I needed to embrace it more. I started consciously affirming the worth of my skin and spoke that love of self into existence. Once I did that, everyone else started to love me for who I was. Not that my two light-skinned friends didn’t help me build my confidence to talk to girls, but it was up to me to be confident in my own skin. When you learn to love yourself, watch how fast everyone will flock to love you as well.
Loving my Accent
Man, this accent is all I’ve got. You wrote how you used to hide your accent, Zoe. The day that I lose this accent is the day I am just an average kid, just Jumbe from the block. I remember when I was in high school and tried hiding my accent, girls started saying, “He is not African; he is American and just has an African name.” I knew at that point I wasn’t living my truth; my accent for me is what separated me from everyone else. I played basketball, I ran track, I was good at schoolwork, but one of my unique attributes was the accent. I didn’t sound like everyone else. I was special. Every time people heard me speak, they would ask where I was from, which opened so many windows of opportunity for me. The more I opened up, the more people were interested in what I had to say. In that vein, you have to understand that you have traveled across the world, so you have a different perspective and culture to share. A lot of people haven’t had the chance to travel across the world like you have, so hearing your experiences may be their only chance to be taught. So Zoe, think of this every time you hide your beautiful Nigerian accent. How lucky we are to be able to pronounce names like ”Olamide!”
Being a Leader
One thing I took away from reading your letter is that you are a natural leader, and that quality will always attract large crowds to hear you speak. One of the most important classes I ever took was an African-American history course at the Community College of Allegheny County. I suggest that you take that class before college. It really opened my mind about the culture that everyone in the world emulates but never truly understands. Don’t be afraid to step out of the box and create your own club to help students like you. Be the change you want to see in others. One thing I have always practiced throughout my journey here in America is not being a complainer but being a doer. When my mom couldn’t afford to buy me brand-name clothing, guess what I did? Eight months after moving to Pittsburgh from Lusaka, Zambia, I went out and shoveled snow to make money and ended up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for being creative. When no one would give me a job after I graduated, I started my own cleaning business. When all the kids from my graduating class got high-paying jobs at accounting firms, I didn’t cry and complain. I turned that challenge into leading a national account of the year in 2016 with Crothall Healthcare, one of the largest employers in the world. So, young lady, stop hiding because you aren’t doing yourself or anyone else any favors. The world needs more young people like you.
Jumbe Phiri is the director of patient transport at Crothall Healthcare in Hartford, Connecticut.