I saw the sense of connection that Birthright nurtured in my Jewish friends and planned my own life-changing journey.
At a naming ceremony in the home of my host family in Lagos, Nigeria, I wore brightly colored traditional clothing — a long, rectangular skirt tied tightly around my waist and an off-the-shoulder top with short, flared cuffs, all in a pink ankara pattern with a matching head wrap.
“Please stand,” said my host, who had graciously offered to tailor the ceremony — which is normally performed for babies — for me, her adult visitor from the United States. “I hereby give you the name Esosa; it means ‘God’s gift.’ You are now Esosa Oloke. Welcome to the family. You will always have a family here in Nigeria.”
I felt a surge of gratitude and belonging. For the first time in my life, I felt deeply connected to the African continent and to the people who live there.
The ceremony concluded a 10-day trip to Nigeria and Ghana this year, Ghana’s Year of the Return that I organized for friends and classmates. To commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English North America in 1619, President Nana Akufo-Addo has encouraged descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the Americas to return to the country.
But my idea for a heritage-focused trip had been in the making for over a decade. The seeds were planted during my freshman year of college. At the first meeting of the Association of Black Harvard Women, several of the people who introduced themselves had names with African origins. I still remember my classmate Adora Izukanane Obianuju explaining that her middle name was chosen as a reminder of her place in the family and the bond her mother hoped she would have with her siblings.
Then it was my turn. “Hi, Im Meredes Bent. My name … well, it’s kind of like the car.”
It’s not that I don’t like my name — I do. I just wished I had a more intimate connection with my heritage.
Later in college, a Jeish friend told me her experiences during all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. I was impressed when I learned about Taglit-Birthright Israel and its mission to ensure that Jewish young adults have the opportunity to visit and learn about Israel. Last year, as a graduate student, I traveled there with several Jewish classmates. I was moved by — and somewhat envious of — their strong sense of shared identity and how the trip nurtured it.
I couldn’t forget that feeling. The PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” in which Henry Louis Gates Jr. investigated the family history of well-known Americans, was another reminder to me of how powerful it can be to learn about the genetic and cultural ties that connect us all to stories and communities much bigger than us.
This year, I finally organized a trip for a group of my black friends and classmates and me to explore our own heritage. On that trip I learned to cook jollof, a rice dish that is a staple of West African diets. I learned about investment opportunities in Nigeria, including cashew farms and start-ups. I had my hair braided. I visited castles where enslaved people were kept in dungeons before they exited through the door of no return. We discussed Nigerian history over dinner and learned about the political turmoil and wealth of the country. One day in Accra, Ghana, we attended Afrochella, a Coachella-inspired festival featuring top African musical artists.
Through it all I reflected on what life would be like if I lived in a nation where I was part of the dominant racial group. In Nigeria or Ghana, I would be one drop in the sea of black people at every event I attended and in every social situation. I wouldn’t be subjected to as many off-color remarks and subtly bigoted insults. I wouldn’t have to question whether I should respond to those or stay quiet to avoid being judged through the lens of racist stereotypes. I wouldn’t wonder whether people would think I’d been hired as a token rather than for my potential.
I realized that even if I never had the experience of living in Africa permanently, while I was there, my mind was at ease. I was healing mentally from the daily anxieties of being a member of a racial minority group and the sense of disconnection from my history that have sometimes plagued me here in the United States.
While descendants of enslaved people in the Americas like me may not know a great deal about our family’s lineage beyond a few generations, experiencing the food, rhythms, attitudes and expressions of the people in Ghana and Nigeria made me feel I was home. In fact, DNA testing revealed to my brother and me that our African ancestry traced back to what is now Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Congo.
Research suggests that development of a racial and ethnic identity can improve minority children’s self-esteem, academic performance, and ability to cope with prejudice and discrimination, and sense of well-being. Studies have shown similar effects specifically for Asian-American and Latino adolescents.
Heather Stringer, a licensed mental health counselor, argued in an article for the American Psychological Association that in Native American communities, programs that allow people to participate in indigenous traditions show promise for preventing suicide and addiction.
There are many ways to nurture a healthy cultural identity, but a journey “home” — to a place that makes you feel that you truly belong — is an especially effective one.
Of course, not everyone can afford such a trip. I would love to see a philanthropist or foundation fund educational trips to Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries for black young adults from other parts of the diaspora, making this experience accessible to more people who could benefit from it as much as I did.
Until then I’ll continue spreading the word about the benefits I experienced, the power of exploring my ethnic-racial identity in the place where my ancestors lived and the most important lesson I learned on my journey: It really is possible to heal through heritage.
By Mercedes Bent