“I was born in here, but my parents are Nigerian.”
Those words were my life.
For a long time, they rolled off my tongue with an ease and a confidence that I couldn’t even say my own name with. To know, from a young age, what people are really asking when they ask, “where are you from?” is mad. And ultimately has an effect on you. The interrogation of my-validity-to-be chipped away at me, in ways I only understand now. Now, when I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “it was my normal” to an aghast facial expression in response to my statement, that, “I was the only Black person in my class.” Now, when people double take because they’re shocked to hear an accent like mine from lips so dark. Now, when people praise you and you don’t know if it’s because you really are good, or their expectations were so low because of the prejudice they hold.
What I couldn’t find, or see in my immediate community, I found on the internet. Always aware that there were, and are, other parts of Britain where the Black population is larger and more visible that the one in Scotland. Parts of the country where cultural communities exist, traditions can be preserved and adapted, and your local corner shop sells plantain. This glimpse into lives, through YouTube and Instagram, made Black Britishness feel exciting. Granted, from a geographical point of view, I was on the outside looking in. But to see Black womxn flourishing, their unapologetic, glowing displays of Black British womxnhood, gave me something I had been craving – representation. I felt good and I felt beautiful.
I went to Nigeria in 2018, my first visit as an adult. I returned to Scotland, sad to have left, glad to be back, peaceful and defiant. To say I’m Scottish has always been easy, it has never been disputed. What has is the idea that I could be only Scottish. I feel attached to Scottish culture in a way that can’t be learnt, that comes in part from being raised in a country with such an unwavering sense of national pride and having already lived through one independence referendum. Anyway, to say I am Scottish without saying I was Nigerian, felt like I was lying, because I used to think my Blackness and my nationality could not be separated. But they can. And also, because in tangible and intangible ways, both countries raised me. I am from Scotland, but I’m not only Scottish. To call myself Nigerian, felt in some ways like fraud, I wasn’t born there, I didn’t live there. I didn’t find answers, I just came back defiant that I would no longer allow myself to feel like I did not belong.
It was with this quiet confidence that in October 2019, I went to Rio de Janeiro Brazil with Glasgow Women’s Library and the British Council. I was there for the eighth edition of FLUP, a Literacy Festival for the Peripheries. A five-day international festival to explore, reflect and share the Black experience.
I quickly learnt that the Black experience in Brazil is complicated and not like anything I had ever encountered. In Brazil, slavery began with the Indigenous peoples in the 16th century, and during the Atlantic slave trade, more African people were sold into slavery in Brazil than anywhere else, the country was also the last in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888. To be clear, the African or Black experience is not only one of slavery, but it cannot be ignored that like many other countries, this inexplicable act still affects the systems and societies that are at play today.
Brazil also has the largest population of those who identify as part of the African diaspora and in the 2010 census, the majority became the minority, only 48% of Brazilians identified as white. This, however, does not mean that 52% of the population are dark-skinned Black people. The controversial and disputed categories that were used on the census were ‘Indigenous’ ‘Black’ ‘brown’ ‘white’ and ‘yellow’. Categories that many Brazilians reject. Colourism was very obvious in Rio. Outside of the festival environment dark-skinned womxn were still far and few between. But, in the festival we were more than represented. In a sense it felt like Nigeria, faces that looked like mine, apart from – this time – we were all foreigners. From across the world Black womxn came together to celebrate, to laugh, to share, to disagree and agree about the Black experience, and I kept hearing a word that I had never really paid much attention to, ‘diaspora’ and I stated to try it myself, to say it out loud, it made sense. The Black diaspora. In Scotland, and I think perhaps in Britain, we can be quite insular, forgetting our friends in Europe, and looking further afield to America or our countries of origin. I often forget that there are Black experiences like mine, a lot closer to home. Speaking to people from Berlin, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Angola, America, Brazil the list goes on. I had no idea what I was walking into or how I was going to feel.
By sharing and laughing and talking and loving, my version of Blackness became bigger, my world became bigger. To place myself within the Black diaspora felt comfortable, unexpectedly comfortable and exhilarating. So, Rio will always have a special place in my heart, where I was first able to touch and feel so many different versions and varieties of Black womxnhood from around the world. It showed me that anything is possible.
On the last night seeing Patricia L. Collins get up and out of her seat to join the crowd to dance to Beyoncé’s Formation, under the skies of Rio is a pinch me moment, that will be stamped into my memory forever. I have never felt so proud of my Blackness, and that’s what being part of the Black diaspora means to me. It’s the shared experience of having a Black body in this world but also a celebration of the beauty of that body. I don’t feel confused or lost. I feel strong that my identity is so multi-faceted, fluid and that Black, British, Scottish, Nigerian, Diaspora are all words that I am – and not just for other people, but for me.
tomiwa foloruso is a writer, presenter and creative based in Edinburgh. She specialises in communications and digital production and is also a project manager with the Empower Project. See her and read her here: instagram, twitter or website