Unlike many habitants of New York City, I am not an immigrant. I was born in America and have lived here ever since. My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were also born and raised in America. No one in my family is or was an immigrant. We were forced migrants from Africa over five hundred years ago. Due to the conditions that accompanied slavery, my family does not own any physical documentation of our history and/or journey to this country. If I want to learn about my family’s history, I usually either have to turn to Google or wait for The Slavery Chapter in history class. What little my family does know however, has only been shared by word of mouth and what I have learned from my father is: my family was brought to America through the slave trade over five hundred years ago, were held in the sates of Georgia and Tennessee, and
frequently married within the Native American families during the years closer to their freedom. This is all my dad was able to tell me about our family’s history in America. Anyone else who could have disclosed more information on the subject is long gone.
Though my family does not share the same migration history as other families in New York City, my family and I do have a certain way of life we live by like other families. However, one thing that must be clear for the remainder of this piece is that the term “my family” refers to my dad and me. While I have countless relatives, my family consists of only my dad and me.
Growing up in my house there was evidence of multiple cultures. There were candles, books, and clay and stone figurines pertaining to our African American heritage, but there were also oil paintings and photographs pertaining to Cuban and Brazilian cultures, along with music from Latin American cultures, and cuisines and beverages from the Jamaican culture. I would love to say I was brought up very multicultural. My dad made sure I was aware of the many different cultures that exist in our world. One cultural tradition we paid special attention however, was the celebration of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa is the African American holiday founded by Maulana Karenga in which the African heritage, culture and unity is celebrated from December 26 to January 1st. The holiday is a rather flexible one, and individuals are welcome to observe Kwanzaa however they please. In my earlier years, my dad and I really dove into the traditional ways of celebrating Kwanzaa. We dressed in the colorful African attire (a kitenge for my father and a kaftan for me), set up at table in the living room with ears of corn and various fruits and squash, and placed black, red, and green candles (the colors of Kwanzaa) in the wooden and wax-covered kinara (the candle holder). Each night, we would light a candle, either starting from the left or right side of the kinara, and recited the principle of the day.
We would repeat this process for six nights, and on the seventh and final night of Kwanzaa we would hold kamaru, the big feast in which we dine on fried plantain, stewed lamb and/or goat, fig rolls, and rice with beans to close the celebration of Kwanzaa and welcome in the New Year. That was the way we used to celebrate Kwanzaa when my dad and I were both younger and our schedules were not so impossibly hectic the way they are now. Lately, my father and I still celebrate Kwanzaa, but not as in depth as we once did. Now, we still decorate the table in our living room with the ears of corn, fruit, and squash, long with the kinara and candles, and we still light a candle for each night while reciting the day’s principle. We do not however, dress in the African clothing anymore and instead of preparing our own kamaru, we go out to a restaurant and have a nice relaxing meal where other people are in charge of the cooking and cleaning. Even though we have altered out ways of observing Kwanzaa, every year it always just as enjoyable, if not, more, than the last.
There is one cultural object however, that has always been displayed around my house. It is more of a symbol than an object, but we have multiple objects representing the symbol. It is the Ankh. The Ankh is an Egyptian hieroglyphic character meaning “life” and is often called The Key of Life, The Key of the Nile, or crux ansata meaning “cross with a handle” in Latin. The Ankh represents eternal life and the ability to give and sustain life. It is also believed to be a charm to ward off evil and negativity and protect against deception. This symbol has been all over my house since I can remember. On the fireplace mantle, on top of the television, on top of the piano, on top of the living room table, or on my dad’s necklace, the Ankh is everywhere in my house.
My dad has always been extremely interested in African cultures, but he shows particular interest in Egypt. He’s been to the country multiple times and reads countless books about the country as well. He met my Godparents on one of his trips to Egypt and they also are fascinated with the Egyptian culture. We often celebrate Kwanzaa with my Godparents and their daughter, who is the same age as me, and they were also the ones who gave me my first very own Ankh. My God family gave me an Ankh as a housewarming present for my dorm at the Brooklyn College Residence Hall. They sent me a small statue of an Ankh with a note saying: “We give you this Ankh is the hopes that your years at college are filled with prosperous life and protection, and free of all evil and negativity.” I keep my Ankh on top of my dresser in my dorm room, and so far, I must say, I think it is working. My time at college has been incredibly prosperous and free of evil and I do not see that changing any time soon.
New York City is the largest city in the country with more the sixty percent of its habitants being immigrants or children of immigrants. I live in New York City, but I happen to be part of the remaining forty percent who are not immigrants or children of immigrants, and the same way being an immigrant or child of an immigrant helps shape the way people are, not being one helped shape the way I am. Having been born and raised in America meant the struggles and difficulties of coming to a new country and adjusting to new languages, cultures, customs and individuals was completely eliminated from my life. I have always had a sense of stability in my life that other people have not had. I grew up in the same house my whole life whereas others may have moved from city to city, state to state, or country to country. That being said, I still do not view my situation as me having the upper hand on people who are immigrants or decedents of one, considering some immigrants speak better English than I do, understand certain American history more than I do, and know more about this country’s politics and policies than I do. So maybe in a sense not being an immigrant hindered me in that I never had an overwhelming desire to learn much about this country because I have always lived here and the freedoms and opportunities I have now, I have always had, while others have went through hell just to obtain them. Being in college however opened my eyes to just how lucky I have been and how easily I could have been the one moving to a new country facing the same struggles so many of my peers have. It really makes me step back and give thanks for all of my many blessings.