“My Dad Is From Nigeria, My Mom Is From Texas”: Why Tracing My Roots Is So Important

March 7, 2014  |  

I never realized how important it is to know where you come until I moved to New York City.

I can remember the day I moved into my first apartment by myself, less than a week after moving into the city. A neighbor that lived below me introduced himself and had a thick but charming accent. As ignorant as it probably sounds now, after exchanging pleasantries, I asked him, “So what part of Africa are you from?”

As the sheltered daughter of a Nigerian, I honestly assumed most black people I encountered with accents probably were from West Africa. But that was not the case for this jolly older man, skin a rich chocolate, accent something I had never heard before.

“No, no, no, I’m not from Africa,” he shook his head and said. “I’m from Guyana…in South America?”

“Awwwww okay, I’m sorry,” I said.

While I might have apologized, my first thought was, “Where is that?”

As I settled in here, navigated the different neighborhoods by myself and with friends, and went to parades and festivals, I encountered an array of cultures that I could appreciate. With these cultures were very proud people who put the flags of their countries and islands in their apartment windows, in their cars, on their shirts, and even wore handkerchiefs with the country or island on them on their heads at the gym. It was nice to get to know about other people’s cultures, but I had my own that I needed to respect and embrace.

I’m actually very lucky in that sense. My father, as I somewhat previously stated, is from Benin City in Nigeria, which is in Edo State (Sorry to disappoint the people who always ask if I’m Yoruba or Igbo, I’m neither). I knew this information since I was young, but that was about all I knew. We weren’t taught the language. We didn’t really eat food a lot of my Nigerian friends and their family ate, aside from my dad’s take on fufu. We didn’t practice a lot of the cultural traditions, including curtsying for our elders, and we even called our aunts and uncles, Aunt ___ or Uncle ___, even though I would later learn that these things could be incredibly offensive (my auntie literally yelled at me one day when she thought I called her solely by her name–so after being briefed on things, I just call her auntie). However, our extended family members were well aware of the fact that my brothers and sisters and I were the odd relatives, so Americanized that during my first visit to my father’s city, one of them called my dad a Yankee. Something he was furious about and that at the age of 13, didn’t realize how insulting such a statement was.

Once I started living here and started traveling to Benin City more, I tried to engross myself in everything that I could. I picked up some Bini that I spoke with my sister and my uncle (and still speak with that aunt who yelled at me when I visit her in the Bronx); I ate all the food that caused my sinuses to drain as I could; I bought as many coral beads as my bag could carry before I returned home; I wrote down all the names of my many cousins (more than 40) and started learning how to cook an array of dishes I saw made in Benin City and just at the homes of my aunts and uncles. Jollof rice, fried rice, Efo, and so on and so forth. I still have so much to learn (which my Nigerian friends and boyfriend love to remind me of), but I feel more connected to that part of my culture now than I ever have in the past.

But on the other side of things, I know very little about where my mother comes from. When people ask me about my last name (Uwumarogie) and say, ‘What is that?’ I say “My dad is from Nigeria!” And when they ask me about my mother, the reply is a shrug and “My mom is from Austin, Texas.” All I know of my mother’s side of the family is that they are all over Texas, and as far as my family tree goes for them, Texas is the beginning and the end. But I’m not okay with living with just that information.

I know I’m incredibly blessed because I can say that my father and his family are from Nigeria. They were born there, and those who moved abroad are moving back to die there (my uncle just retired there to start businesses and live happily in the place of his childhood). But there’s another part of me that’s missing. I want to know where I come from not only for myself, but for my mother. My mother, a woman from Austin, Texas who tries her best to welcome and be a part of my father’s culture, even though some relatives say she’s not doing enough to understand the language or practice the customs, or try to speak Bini in front her of face to talk about her, figuratively, behind her back. A woman who told at the Nigerian embassy that she was trying to be Nigerian by marrying a Nigerian man in the process of our family collecting our visas.  All the geles and Ankara fabric doesn’t seem to make a difference.

I’ve already made big strides through my family tree on Ancestry.com, but seeing the results my colleagues have obtained just from a tiny saliva sample has me excited for the possibilities. Before my mother’s family members were working day and night to keep a roof over their heads in Texas, including doing so with limited education in the 1800s, they were in Africa, living and thriving. In honor of them, I would like to uncover their roots. My roots.

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