On Duality and Peplum Shirts…

I clutch my brother’s hand as we walk into school with the breath caught in our lungs. Today is culture day, and we aren’t dressed in our regular navy blue and white uniforms. We wear matching yellow lace outfits, to profess our Nigerianness. My parents look so proud as they stand at the door, watching…

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I clutch my brother’s hand as we walk into school with the breath caught in our lungs. Today is culture day, and we aren’t dressed in our regular navy blue and white uniforms. We wear matching yellow lace outfits, to profess our Nigerianness. My parents look so proud as they stand at the door, watching us trudge to the bus stop.

Hushed snickers erupt as we walk down the hallway before departing to our classes on opposite ends of the school. One freckled, blonde haired boy coughs and says something under his breath.

“Why is he wearing a dress?”

He is referring to my brother’s long tunic that ends at his knees and the matching pants. My outfit is more forgiving—a bell sleeved blouse and a long girded skirt that goes to my ankles. I am wearing a head scarf tied around my bob of box braids.

We depart at the second intersection—our sweaty hands would have a chance to dry as we walked to our respective classes. I am still holding my breath, hoping I will not stand out too much, among the other kids in ethnic clothes—or school uniform. When I slip into my first class for the day, my friend’s outfit immediately catches my eye. Her red short-sleeve dress, with a mock turtleneck collar, ends at her ankles. It is decorated with white flowers. Two sticks hold the chignon in her black hair. It frames her heart-shaped face well. My body relaxes. I’m not the only exotic looking one.

All of the kids with ethnic backgrounds are tasked with presenting something about their culture to go with their unique outfits. My friend writes her name on the board in Vietnamese.

Xu Mai—Michelle. With a broad smile and a graceful release of the chalk, she takes her seat.

My heart is thumping in my ears. I don’t know what I will share. I wonder if I can spell my long, African middle name correctly. I wonder if I will be able to face the awkwardness of wrinkled brows as my English teacher tries to pronounce it phonetically. I figure that since I have no other ideas, I will just follow suit with Xu Mai. I mean, Michelle.

I grip the chalk and start to place one letter after another, and then set the white stub down on the board edge.

I cough to buy some time.

“Ejehiokhin.– It means destiny (or the more proverbial version, “what will be will be”, though I didn’t know it at the time)… in Esan… a language in Nigeria.”

I wipe the chalk on my skirt as I wait for the class’s response. There are a few seconds of stillness before my teacher breaks the silence. She doesn’t try to pronounce it. I know she can’t, not with her nasal voice. My name is a throaty name requiring emphasis in certain areas.

“Oh. That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing that with us. It’s a beautiful name, Faith.

Ms. Bodnovich grins from ear to ear, twirling tendrils of her hair before calling up the next student.

“You may have a seat.”

As I sit back down, the fear is replaced with pride. I am happy that I can wear something other than a navy blue sweater tucked into high water uniform pants. I am glad to be united with other first generation Americans. We are one in our otherness. I flash Michelle a small smile.

Nine years later, I learned how to do it right. I wore a green peplum Ankara shirt flecked with bits of gold and ivory flourishes. It has puffed sleeves. I stack a few Ankara cloth bangles on my wrist. My box braids are mid back length, pulled into a half-up half down style, and dotted with silver beads. My skinny black jeans tone down the pizzazz of the shirt.

This time, the event is African Takeover Day, hosted by the African Student Association. While some students did have the courage to wear full-blown Agbadas to AP English Literature, their small frames swamped in the folds of fabric, I chose to keep it simple. Most wore their Ankara shirts with jeans, loafers, and a nice beaded necklace, with the African continent as a pendant—mixing traditional with the modern. We celebrated a diversity of tribe and language, and our unity as Africans—as Black Americans with a two-ness.

 

Photo Credit : PINTEREST

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