My Blackness

Nneka E. Akukwe, Syracuse University

Defining blackness is a near impossible task. Authors and artists like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Touré, W.E.B. DuBois, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, and Tupac, amongst others have each used their lived experiences as reference points for blackness.  While these artists and authors’ life stories and works have shaped how we define ourselves today, I believe that each of us create a space for our own identity.  

My West African family always stressed the importance of self-pride and self-recognition, especially as a minority living in America. My own influencers, that includes my mother, a PhD in comparative and international development and education, an author, and classically trained pianist, always encouraged me to embrace myself unapologetically and never be silenced by those who do not value me or validate my voice. One of my mother’s mantras is “if you do not lift up your blackness, exalt and magnify its positive power in pride every day, those working every second of the day to diminish it will succeed.” The message is clear. Find pride in your accomplishments, find your voice and always stand up for yourself. The question is, how does a young black person do these things?

Perhaps self-awareness comes early for other black kids but for me it started in middle school when I moved to Ghana to live with my grandparents for a few years because my mother was on a foreign posting. That experience became the anchor and reference point for my worldview. During my time in Ghana, I listened to family history and wrote poems about Africa, something I still do today; my conception of black identity took shape as a 10-year-old girl living in Ghana with my grandparents. During that time, blackness took on a new form and I no longer viewed it as an identifier, but rather a lived experience. By learning the oral history of my heritage from my grandmother and grandfather, and as a member of a lineage of paramount chiefs and possible descendant of Chadians and Nigeriens, I was better able to live out my understanding of blackness which meant actively engaging in conversation centered around black identity and its realities.

My time in Ghana reaffirmed that I am always black first and I am constantly reminded of that. It is neither good nor bad, but rather a reality I was not only thrown into, but choose to reside in. I am black first in lecture halls as one of the three or four black students in my classes, most of which are men. I am black first as a member of organizations or a participant of respective events pertinent to my major. I am black first as a member of my local parish.

These experiences and realities play micro roles in a much larger picture. A picture without borders. A picture with diverging lines. A picture with multiple viewpoints. A picture whose objects are linked by one idea- black identity. It has taken me a lifetime, living with my grandparents, and overcoming challenges associated with the color of my skin to fully find myself in the term “blackness.” Yet despite how long it has taken me, I can confidently say that I am a strong, beautiful, and educated young black woman dedicated to blackness and its expressions of joy, pride, and strength. I am committed to exemplifying black excellence as I wear the layers that make up my identity with pride through all adversity. For me, my blackness is the cultural capital of being able to fluidly exist in my American identity and my Ghanaian heritage.

My understanding of blackness as a black woman is fundamentally an expression of me, Nneka Ewurama Akukwe, a Ghanaian/Nigerian – American woman, a proud daughter of the African diaspora, and college student at Syracuse University.