Learning About My Family Heritage Taught Me What It Means to Be Black

Elizabeth Ayoola
Elizabeth Ayoola

I first became aware that I was Black during elementary school. I was on the playground and went over to play with a group of white girls when one said, "You can't play with us because you're Black." I was as confused as any 7-year-old kid experiencing racism would be. As I got older, I became more self-conscious of not only being Black, but also the shade of Black I was.

Thankfully, I have arrived at a sweet spot in my self-acceptance and self-love journey. I've been able to move beyond being uncomfortable in my skin and now seek a deeper understanding of what it means to be Black. So, I've put on my explorer hat and am diving into my family history and heritage.

Mine is often complicated as I'm a Black woman born in London, but raised in America, with Nigerian parents — something like a melting pot of Black culture. I've come to accept that for me, embracing who I am means truly understanding where I come from and how that influences me. So, I've been asking my parents questions, which according to a survey about family heritage, seems to be the most common way for people to explore their family history. Additionally, YouTube and research papers have been a godsend.

Here are some ways my new exploration led me to appreciate my Blackness more.

  • I've learned about the Yoruba religion and see how it influences my parents' religious beliefs.
    I grew up in what you call a "white garment church". The official name is Celestial Church of Christ, and it was founded by a Nigerian man from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa. I was always embarrassed to tell my friends I attended this church because it was so ritual based, and I grew up believing "rituals" and "witchcraft" were evil. I would watch my dad lighting candles, burning incense, and putting fruit at altars and wonder why it was necessary. In our religion, it was a way to intercede for people and access God. These rituals were used to heal sicknesses, protect you from evil, or make room for blessings.

    After doing reading and research, I now understand many of these practices are linked to the Yoruba religion. Singing, dancing, drumming, spirit possession, and ritual healing are a few examples of things Yoruba people do to honor their ancestors, carry on traditions, and make requests to their gods. I no longer see these practices as weird "pagan" or taboo — they're fundamental to who we are as a people. It might also explain why I'm always sing-talking, bursting out in dance, and am moved by music.

  • I appreciate my gap tooth more as in my tribe, it's a sign of beauty.
    Growing up, I hated my gap tooth and wished I could get braces. I'd have some Black adults, including my mom who also has a gap, tell me it was a sign of beauty in some parts of the world. At the time I didn't care because it didn't meet the standard of beauty displayed on Top Model or in music videos.

    As I discover more about my heritage, I've learned a gap tooth is a sign of beauty in Namibia, Ghana, and Nigeria (my parents' home country). This has challenged my idea of beauty and be more open-minded. I am still not comfortable smiling with my teeth showing, but I accept my gap helps tell the story of who I am.

  • I've learned more about remedies for sickness and maintaining health.
    My parents would have the strangest solutions to simple things like a common cold. They'd tell me to place my head over a bowl of Robb (an aromatic or vaporizing chest rub), hot water, and eucalyptus oil to clear my sinuses. Likewise, if I had an itch, they'd direct me to the kitchen to get palm oil and rub it on the irritated area. This now makes sense seeing as African people are known for using natural remedies to cure sickness and as a form of preventative care. It's no surprise seeing as we're rich in every natural resource you could imagine. Now, when I'm down with the flu or in need of an immune boost, I look to the natural remedies of my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to truly knowing who I am as a Black woman. However, the more I learn, the more proud I am of the skin that I wear and the culture it embodies. I love my colorful heritage and if I was given the chance to choose another, I'd choose my Blackness every time.