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How I Became A Southern-Fried Nigerian

I once felt torn between Nigeria and Florida, between jollof rice and fried alligator, but there is no real me without both.

I am Moses and Victoria’s first child — their only boy — born in the winter of 1989 at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The question “Where are you from?” feels straightforward enough, an excuse to talk about your city or country of origin with some mixture of pride and dismissiveness. But the real answer is that you come from your mother; she just happened to be wherever it is that you were born. The place to which you so often ascribe your personality, your mannerisms, your slang, and your outlook is, frankly, a matter of happenstance.

If my mother had had me a few years earlier, it might have been in London, where she lived while my father tried to make something of himself in America, a country he didn’t know, where he had no immediate family. Even earlier and she might have had me in Nigeria, where her mother had her, and where my father’s mother had him. But as it stands, I was welcomed to the world via Washington, D.C. Six months later, my parents began the transition to a warmer (and “less active”) life in Tallahassee, Florida.

My parents came to America from Nigeria for the same reason most foreigners do: the belief in the Brand of America. “The American dream,” the kind of dream you see in commercials for Publishers Clearing House, promises that opportunity and success are just a knock on the door away. Neither my father nor my mother have changed the world or achieved any great measure of wealth, but they worked toward a feat that was almost impossible “back home”: stability in a quiet suburb. In exchange for this, they found themselves with the unexpected task of raising four American children.

I was born to Yoruba parents, but the first time I went to Lagos as a young child, I was a visitor. It could never truly be my home — and I was reminded of this when I was at home, too. As a teenager, I attended a Nigerian Independence Day party at the local Elk’s Lodge in town. When I referred to myself as Nigerian in a conversation, the woman with whom I’d been speaking promptly responded, “Were you born there?” I replied that I wasn’t. She gave me a dismissive side-eye and a condescending smile before gently telling me, “You’re not really Nigerian, then.”

My only response was a quiet embarrassment. For all the pride and tradition instilled in me by my relatives, I could never feel like a member of this exclusive club — just an honorary guest. Being a first-generation child is like calling myself an '80s baby because I was born in 1989: I have no firm grasp of associations I’m expected to understand, but I’m tied to the label anyway. My parents and my cousins' parents and the parents of other first-generation Nigerian kids I knew did their best to immerse us in their culture. Afrobeat music played in houses and in cars, men and boys wore agbadas to weddings and parties, while women and girls wore a gele around their heads. Everyone’s house smelled like pepper soup, leather, and a musk so specific that it defies the pallid medium of language — you’d have to go to a Nigerian household to understand.

Beyond those sensory signals, though, there’s not much tying us to the country. We could speak the native tongue and eat the food and wear the traditional clothes every day, but ultimately we are being asked to embrace a place and a culture that we ourselves had no direct connection to, that could never truly live within us.

When I see Florida on TV or in movies, it is as unfamiliar to me as Nigeria. Tallahassee doesn't feel like Florida, or at least the beaches-and-Disney World idea of it that people have in their minds. North Florida is its own strange planet, like the child Florida and Georgia had before they divorced. Tallahassee is the first city you hit when you enter from Georgia. The city hides inside a jungle; the further you stray from downtown, the darker, quieter and more rugged its landscape gets.

Camouflage is a fashion statement here, and people drive big trucks. Whether rich or poor, we're all “country.” It feels, in many ways, like the stereotypical Deep South: full of y’alls, tobacco chewing, deer hunting, and grilling in empty parking lots on Saturday afternoons. To get to my house you pass by shopping complexes, car museums, schools, dirt roads, tiny sweatbox churches, plantations, lots of trees, strange sounds, and very few lights. At night, it can be a terrifying journey, but the stars have never looked brighter anywhere else. Tallahassee may not have the name-brand appeal of Atlanta or Houston, and its backwoods can’t compare to places in Mississippi or Louisiana. But life here — Southern life — was the only one I’d ever felt I knew, intrinsically, like the back of my hand.

I knew, growing up, that I wanted to be associated with “Americanness,” that vanishing horizon I could never fully grasp, instead of being seen as African. In high school, I began reading the words of Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. I devoured literature that taught me what it meant to be Black and American, yet felt disloyal for not putting that same effort into Nigerian history. I knew all the popular Southern artists; I listened obsessively to Trick Daddy, Trina, No Limit Records, and Cash Money Millionaires. My attitude toward Afrobeat and the music of my parents, on the other hand, was ambivalent at best and dismissive at worst. Separating yourself from your parents as much as possible is a standard part of adolescence, but it felt wrong as I did it — like a rejection of my culture, of a part of myself.

There was never a point where I didn't think of myself as black.

Savage caricature and starving kid jokes at the expense of my being African were abundant in elementary and middle school, ranging from the easy to ignore to unnecessarily cruel. I knew I was different because of my background, but I always thought of myself as just as much American as Nigerian — and there was never a point where I didn’t think of myself as black. Hell, Kanye once rapped: “I told her I was Niggerian / that’s straight-up nigga.”

What could be blacker than being from a black country? I grew up in the black church; I ate the same food my classmates ate at their dinner tables. I talked like them, and I walked around with an unequivocally American arrogance, entitlement, and constant dissatisfaction with everything. I wanted the same life as my peers, but felt this foreign aspect of me cause a separation between us that I could not rectify.

I couldn’t figure out how to calibrate the balance of my identities until I started college. Though I stayed in my hometown for school, college felt like a new world to me. Here there were entire spectrums of Blackness: Nigerians from London, Afro-Latinos from South Carolina, Haitians from Miami, military kids who’d lived in various states and continents. They all reflected kinds of blackness that were foreign to me, that I’d never considered could exist — and they taught me to wear my Nigerian heritage with an honor I hadn’t thought to before.

I made friends with African students from various parts of the world through campus organizations and events. When I spoke to other Nigerian kids and heard their stories, I felt visible, even if we didn’t have the same experiences. They carried themselves beautifully; they walked with a self-assuredness I’d never known. One had the most unmistakable English accent and another talked like a valley girl, yet we shared this common ancestry. Their different cultures and environments that they came from melded together to make unique people. Seeing this made me less afraid to be myself, to instead let my every action reflect all of me. They showed me I had something that made me stand out at a time when I was finally understanding the importance of feeling rare.

We would try to outdo each other with our Naija references (usually relating to food, music, or the infamously corrupt government). If I knew that they spoke Yoruba, I went out of my way to casually drop phrases in conversation — making sure to properly pronounce and enunciate the words. I found myself making trips back to my parents’ house, looking for clothing I was once embarrassed to wear out and asking them to help me with my Yoruba vocabulary. My parents thought I was maturing and growing into my identity, but I knew it was less about finding an identity than finally being identified.

My black American classmates and friends were just as vital to making me feel that being Southern was a privilege, too; that it was an honor to say “y’all” and rap “slip-n-slide get loose, more punch than a bowl of juice” with teary-eyed pride, as if it were the national anthem. But I felt the full weight of their influence when I finally moved to D.C. after school. I’d come full circle and returned to my birthplace, only to realize that despite my protestations, from my slang to my perceptions to my demeanor, I was truly a Tallahassee native.

I never expected to miss my real church home of Publix, or the comforting twang of a Southern accent.

It never dawned on me that I would miss the tropical, sped-up irreverence of Florida dance music — that I’d go to a club and be wistful about not hearing four Boosie songs in a row. I never expected to miss my real church home of Publix, or the comforting twang of a Southern accent. When I got to D.C., I clung tighter to my Nigerian identity, since my Southern one felt harder to access. I became part of more Nigerian communities and affirmed my heritage in a way I never could’ve anticipated when I was in high school. I love this culture and the fact that I now live in an area with so many Africans from all over the continent, yet I still yearn for my Southern side to be fed.

Despite my best efforts as a young punk obsessed with who I should decide to be, I truly am just a Nigerian kid raised in the South — a product of both birthright and birthplace. I once worked hard to pick a side, but there is no real me without both. I am jollof rice as well as fried gator; I am the rhythm from a dundun and the vibration from the bass out of the trunk of a tricked-out car. Where do I come from? I come from my Nigerian mother and father, who raised me in Tallahassee, Florida, where they happened to be at the time.

This essay is part of a series of stories about the meaning of home.