Confidence in My Blackness

Theophyl Okyerefo Kwapong, Williams College

My dark complexion is a source of admiration and ridicule. Its smoothness, and intensity cause observers to either marvel or snicker. Up until the fifth grade, my skin color served as a source of African pride. Its salient hue made me feel special because I believed it represented my "African-ness". Africa's natural beauty and abundant resources dazzled me. Its diversity amazed me. I was a proud African until the fifth grade when the striking nature of my skin color became apparent to my classmates. They called me names like "Blackie", "Black Charcoal", and other demeaning aliases that hurt me emotionally. With every taunt, my pain worsened.

One afternoon, in the absence of my teacher, my friends began another episode of taunting. On previous occasions, I ignored the teasing until it died, but this instance was different. The jeering struck a nerve that had never been struck before. Enraged, I stood up and shouted, "I don't care if you laugh at my complexion, that's what I was born with!" I declared that I didn't care, but internally I was spiraling into depths of inferiority at record speed. My dark skin became a symbol of shame and embarrassment.

As my perception about my skin color changed, my love for Africa dwindled. I ditched everything inherently African and embraced everything exclusively Western. I swapped my African prints for polo shirts. I developed a gross distaste for my local food and obsessed over dishes whose names I could barely mention. My Ghanaian accent became a sloppy British accent and I spoke my native language, Twi, only when I absolutely had to. Everything African became inferior and everything Western became cool.

Learning the gory details about the slave trade and its effect on Africa deepened my insecurity. I encountered negative stereotypes about black people and allowed them to influence me. In so doing, I lost confidence in my race and refused to see the blessings Africa had been endowed with.

In 2012, my mother was awarded a Fulbright scholarship which enabled my family to live in the United States for a year. We resided in a predominantly white town. For the first time in my life, I was a minority. My uniqueness in this homogenous setting prompted me to ponder deeply about my individuality – my "African-ness". I reflected on the spiciness of waakye (a Ghanaian dish made of rice and beans), and the bright red, gold, and green colors that gave the kente cloth its beauty. I reminded myself of the beauty of my language, and the vibrancy of my culture. My skin color was something to be proud of because it symbolized my heritage.

Coming to this realization made me more vocal about my culture. I wore my African prints and did not feel ashamed. In fact, the days I wore my African prints were the days I received the most compliments. My teachers invited me, on multiple occasions, to talk about Ghana in class. I used those opportunities to educate my classmates on Ghana's ethnic diversity, economic development, and political stability. My confidence blossomed because I understood who I was and realized who I wanted to be – a citizen of the world. I felt more at ease around my Caucasian friends because I understood that my "African-ness" made life more interesting.

The story of Africa, though scarred, is a beautiful one. I am proud to share in the heritage of such legends as Yaa Asantewaa, Kofi Annan, and Chimamanda Adichie. Elements of their hard work, hope, and resilience run through my veins. I stand on their great shoulders and view the future of the African child - one full of self-appreciation and self-confidence. I know that my newfound appreciation for my complexion, and more importantly, my culture, will greatly influence my contributions to campus dialogue.