I go by Vanessa—embracing my Nigerian-American identity

I go by Vanessa

They say to begin, begin. I remind myself of this as I stare at my laptop in anxiety.  I’m midway through a flight from LA to DC, and I have two hours and 2,000 words to write about my identity as a Nigerian immigrant.

Six months from now, I will mark my thirtieth birthday and two decades since I left Nigeria. While I have a very clear view of who I once was and who I’m working to be, coming to terms with who I am today requires a specific vulnerability that is more turbulent than the skies I’m in.

I am a woman; that much is clear to me. It’s also clear to anyone who swipes through my meticulously curated social media pages –I am an internet girlie, through and through. 

Building character through community

To my parents, I am their darling daughter, Nonnie. I’m their one and only Ada, who has always been strong-willed, impeccably poised, and painfully independent. To my grandmother, I am Nono, the grandchild who is slightly too well-read, too picky, and too old to find an eligible bachelor (her words, not mine). My brother, cousins, and friends, see me as the strong sister, not always there when they call, but somehow always on time to lend a helping hand, provide fashion advice, and #LifeGoals. With my colleagues, I am V, part-time marketing maverick, full-time comedic relief. To my exes –depending on which of them you ask–I am the one who got away because I chose to be single rather than endure the shenanigans that come with being the partner of a tall, dark and handsome man. What can I say? I cannot come and kill myself, biko.

I am something to everyone and somehow still a mystery to myself.

Fresh off the boat and into the fire

Vanessa Nonnie
Vanessa Nonnie – Aged 6 – Nigeria

Primarily, I’m known by my middle name, Vanessa—a deliberate decision I embraced in 2004, coinciding with my journey from Nigeria to the U.S. Looking back, this transition and personal rebranding emerged as one of the pivotal moments shaping the essence of who I am today. At the tender age of 10, I moved from the vibrant streets of Festac, Lagos, to the serene town of Columbia, near Baltimore. Eager to embrace my new American identity, I devoted that entire summer to soaking up every episode of “Lizzie McGuire,” immersing myself in the culture and dreams it portrayed.

I assure you, nothing can prepare a child more for the trials and tribulations of American grade school than a trite, scripted program from the Disney Channel.

But, beyond the laughter and teenage drama, Lizzie introduced me to the concept of microaggressions. Her run-ins with the show’s antagonist, Kate Saunders, underscored a harsh reality: no matter how much you keep to yourself, there’s always someone lurking, ready to bring you down. While the idea of hiding away, perhaps even having lunch in the solitude of a bathroom stall, might seem like a temporary fix, it dawned on me that no sanctuary is big enough to shield you from the bullies of the real world. The true victory lies not in evasion but in fortifying your self-assurance so much that these adversaries are merely blips in the broader narrative of your life.

I met my first blip in the sixth grade. During our geography class, we explored the chapter on Africa, and the Howard County Public School System curriculum emphasised the AIDS epidemic as a central theme. Our teacher, a young white man, outlined Africa as a continent besieged by famine, poverty, and disease. During this lecture, Miss Popular, characterised by  her wavy blonde hair and crystal blue eyes, shifted her attention from our teacher, looked straight at me, and remarked, “They better not bring it here.”

I was dumbfounded. While still a bit too naïve to understand the depths of racism in America and too innocent to grasp the concept of a microaggression, those six words burned deep into my soul. This was the first time I felt otherised. 

It didn’t matter that this girl was a first-generation Eastern European immigrant herself. It didn’t matter that her last name had more letters than mine. Neither did it mather that, just like me, she opted to be called by her middle name instead of her first. All that mattered was that, at that moment, I was unequivocally Nigerian. And despite my best efforts, I came to the disappointing resolve that there was nothing American about being Nigerian.

Numerous other episodes unfolded throughout my grade school years, though none lingered in my memory quite like this one. For years, it haunted me—I chastised myself for not confronting her with a slap or, at the very least, a sharp retort of my own. I berated myself for my silence during the lecture, not standing up against the misrepresentation, and feeling diminished in that classroom, even though I stood taller than any of my classmates.

It was while I was writing my college essay that I truly opened up about my emotions for the first time. I shared with every admissions counsellor who would read my essay how that encounter ignited a passion within me to contribute positively to the world. With the education I hoped to receive, I envisioned creating a future where children wouldn’t have to bear the burden of systemic racism and institutional biases. My ambition was to use my education to craft narratives that would instil pride in people from every corner of the globe about their origins. I made them a promise: if granted the opportunity to join their academic community, I would dedicate every moment of my life to rectifying the moments of fear and inaction from my younger years. Was I sincere, or was I fishing for empathy? I can’t be too sure, but I’ll tell you this–I write this column today as the head of marketing for America’s largest anti-racism organisation.

Words have power, and I know now that nothing about that awful experience was my fault. I was a child, and the true shame was that the feeling of being otherised is one shared by too many children in this world.

The American dream is the great British nightmare

Vanessa Nonnie in London
Vanessa Nonnie – Aged 21- London

My academic journey led me across the Atlantic to the venerable halls of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Reflecting on that chapter of my life, it’s clear it marked my first real struggle with depression. A decade immersed in the American educational system had scarcely equipped me for the rigours of European graduate studies—akin to expecting the film Osuofia in London to fully prepare someone for the realities of relocating. Gone were the days of being the standout student or the promising intern. Instead, I found myself amidst a sea of exceptional scholars where, to my chagrin, I seemed decidedly average.

Adding to my imposter syndrome, the culture shock of living in central London as a Black woman nearly broke me down. Binge-watching beauty bloggers on YouTube led me to expect a warm embrace of my Blackness in London, but grey skies, bland food, and endless Primark trips greeted me instead. The little sophistication and glamour I encountered quickly eroded amid isolation from friends and family and my struggle to find community.

I still find it strange that although I met people from all over the world, it was the first time in my life that I genuinely felt like a minority. Where were all the Black people? Surely, we are everywhere, right? Wrong. At least not if your tube journey keeps you in Zone 1. Unbeknownst to me, I lived in one of the most segregated parts of London and attended one of the most expensive universities, too—a price I am still paying off to date. I didn’t know that choosing a novel experience would also make me the novel experience. 

The moment I first encountered my classmates remains etched in my memory. I had braced myself for the usual inquiries about food, music, and maybe even politics. Yet, the question, “How do you deal with all the guns and mass shootings in America. Aren’t you scared?” was completely unforeseen. It didn’t just come up once; it became a recurring topic of conversation, posed by everyone from Singaporeans to Germans. I remember being taken aback, but this time, instead of taking offence, I laughed. I felt seen.

Up until that moment, I had overlooked how frequently Americans absorb the distress of enduring ceaseless violence. The narrative spun by American media doesn’t entertain such reflections. Without vigilance, the comforts offered by the U.S., which stand out in their absence in the U.K., such as centralised air conditioning and oversized portions of food, can distract from recognising it as one of the world’s most violent nations.

By the end of my one-year stint in London, I was practically bleeding red, white and blue. Everything from my accent to my clothes to the way I smiled foolishly at strangers on the train made it ridiculously obvious to everyone that I was a Yankee. 

I left London filled with so much pride, feeling like I had passed some unwritten test. To the untrained eye, I was as American as apple pie.

Agaracha must come back

Living in the U.K. truly opened my eyes to the nuances between race and ethnicity. After wrapping up my grad studies, I realised I had spent all my adult years away from Nigeria, weaving my life into a tapestry of friendships with fellow Africans who had made similar journeys. I was also completely smitten with a guy from Sierra Leone. During this phase, the prospect of acquiring a third passport occupied my thoughts more than the passport that started this journey.

In 2019, I was promoted to a Director position at the NAACP. I was elated when I found out I’d staff a delegation of more than 300 African Americans to Ghana for the year of return. Nigeria was the only African country I’d been to, so returning to the motherland in such a meaningful way felt akin to winning the lottery.

Ghana felt like the smell of firewood on a Harmattan night. It felt like the big piece of meat you save for the end of the meal because eating it sooner would be sacrilegious. To me, Ghana was the final piece of the puzzle.

Race is a social construct. History is not.

Vanessa Nonnie, Ghana

We had just finished touring the slave dungeons at Cape Coast, and emotions were running high. When we stepped through the door of no return, the last portal enslaved Africans passed through before the perilous trans-Atlantic crossing, we were met with an eager group of children hawking items. They pleaded with us to patronise them. “Aunty, please. Take my painting.”

On the bus ride back to the hotel, the tension was palpable. Overcome with anger, one particular traveler exclaimed that the site should banish the locals for its significance. She exclaimed that Africans were complicit in the slave trade, and it was insensitive of the local government not to keep those grounds sacred for people like her. After all, we sold her ancestors without regard for their lives or the lives of their unborn children.

She spoke as if “Us” and “Them” were two separate, warring entities. On instinct, words escaped my mouth before I processed them in my mind.

“They were my ancestors, too. The local boy at the dungeon, his ancestors were stolen too. We are all part of the same history.”

There is no monopoly on a trauma that runs that deep.

Reflecting on that moment, I can’t say if my words reached her or were the right ones, but one thing is clear: acknowledging the truth was a liberating experience. Thinking I could escape my roots through studying, practising, or pretending was naive, even a bit reckless. Embracing that I am wholly Nigerian and fully American has been a profound realisation. I’ve learned that this dual identity doesn’t need anyone’s approval, especially not my own. It’s a part of who I am; I carry it with pride.

You don’t know my name

Vanessa Nonnie

At birth, I was given an Igbo name. It is a name I hold dear because, like many Igbo names, it is a prayer. In my case, it doubles as an affirmation. I find myself holding on to the literal translation of that prayer, “God, be with me,” on days like today when I fly. And now that I’ve landed safely, it becomes an affirmation, “God is with me.”

For this reason, I am particular about who gets to call me by that name. You will not mess up my precious name because of your inability to speak Igbo. You will not distort my prayer. It is okay to use my middle name. Really.

I can’t help but grin as I grab my bags off the carousel, feeling a deep sense of harmony with who I am. My phone lets me know my ride’s arrived. The driver, Oludare, is waiting.

“Uber for She-no-yeah?” he asks, a bit puzzled, as I hop into the car.

“Thanks, that’s me. I go by Vanessa.”


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