The Culture I Have Never Experienced

Isatu Weaver, IUP 

Born in a small village in West Africa, Sierra Leone, my aunt sent me to an orphanage as a baby in hopes of a better future and for my own safety. I don’t recall ever being around my birth parents. I was told they had died when I was older.

In the early 2000’s, Sierra Leone was going through a civil war known as the Blood Diamond War, where the main lure of chaos and violence surrounded the country’s mineral resources, specifically diamonds. At the time, I was unaware of the war going on outside of the orphanage. Until the age of four, I would continue to live my simple life where I knew nothing more than whatever was inside the orphanage gates.

A team of six missionaries came to visit my village in hopes to start and create an organization. Their goal was to regrow our community, despite the devastation of the war. This would be the first time I would meet my adoptive father, who never let me go again. After many complications and long overdue waiting, my parents underwent the intensive process of adoption. This wasn’t their first time adopting a child outside of the U.S. My sister, Sarah, was adopted as a baby from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, country in the Caribbean. After her adoption, my parents did everything in their power to have another daughter, even when it meant adopting my brother, about whom they had no previous knowledge. No matter the circumstance, they persisted and took us both into their lives and hearts. Since my adopted father works in Christian ministry, he has gone on many mission trips and preached in many different parts of the world. With three of his own biological and now three adopted children, my parents have dealt with the confusion and prejudice of those who didn’t understand our diverse family. 

Most of modern society still struggles with the conflict between white and black culture, and during my childhood, I found myself reflecting more and more on my personal and cultural identity. Living in a household with white siblings meant that my idea of “blackness” was nonexistent. I was always an extremely happy child, but was too young to understand the concept of race. Nevertheless, I always found it strange when I caught other kids at school staring at my skin. I was used to their color, but they were not used to mine.

Since elementary school, my peers have been predominately white. I remember being the only black girl in my 5th grade elementary class. I don’t think people were necessarily discriminatory, but I always felt there was an awkwardness stemming from other students’ curiosity. The combination of three middle schools made the North Allegheny High School student body more diverse, allowing me to encounter more minorities than I hadn’t been accustomed to previously. I was first introduced to black culture through one of my African-American friends, Madison. Up until then, I only had African friends who were also adopted from the same orphanage. Once in college, I experienced the fullness of black culture through Devine Nine, urban dancing, language/slang, soul food, religion, and my new friend group.

Since I still had my two other black siblings as well as friends from the orphanage who were also adopted, I never fully felt closed off to the black race. Since my adoption, my dad has started a non-profit with his friends called “EduNations,” through which he has been able to travel back and forth to my hometown and help create schools, wells, clinics, churches, and many other support systems for Africans. Through my dad’s persistence, we were able to connect with villagers who helped find our birth parents - who were, in fact, alive. We now have the ability to truly learn who we are and where we come from. My brother has gotten the opportunity to go back to Sierra Leone and visit our birth family with our dad, while I will wait a few more years due to financial circumstances. Because I have new ways to communicate with my birth mother and other relatives that still live in Africa, I didn’t feel as lost or disconnected to my roots.

I believe the best way to explain my identity and my story is through my name. If someone were to ask me who I am, I would respond with my name: Isatu, meaning fire, while my nickname is Ice. Isatu has its own meaning and pronunciation complications and I can relate that to my own identity. I am every part of my story, including all of my friends and family who have helped support me in becoming the person I am today.

I love having both sides of black culture and white culture in my life. I still want to grow within my African identity, though, and continue to learn about black culture. I strive to use my background and opportunities to help advance my own career and life goals as well as the lives of others. If my story has taught me anything, it is that the very idea of stereotypes and labels need to be wiped away. There are so many people on this earth with different cultures, life experiences, and personal stories. I hope that I’m able to stand out and be even a small part in ending stereotypes. I don’t see being black or white as a determining factor in who we truly are, I view myself through my actions, not by my skin color.