A Love Letter to Myself

by Eliwa Onanga, age 17
A Love Letter to Myself Eliwa comes from Gabon and has been living in the states for fourteen years now. She enjoys dancing, acting, and writing.

“As my being develops and evolves in the world, so does my sense of self. The different layers that shape my identity each tell a different story, and looking back at my past experiences, I am not ashamed of who I have become despite the ever so present obstacles that face me and the countless other people that look like me.”

As my being develops and evolves in the world, so does my sense of self. The different layers that shape my identity each tell a different story, and looking back at my past experiences, I am not ashamed of who I have become despite the ever so present obstacles that face me and the countless other people that look like me.

My parents gave me the name Eliwa, having a strong significance in their native Gabonese language: Pongwe. This name signifying two elements, firstly the kingdom of God and secondly, lake. It is not a name that I cherished or valued at first. I thought best to keep my name Mirya-Anne, best to say I was Austrian if people asked me where I was from. I did not want to be reminded that I was black, that my roots were neither from Europe nor from the U.S but the motherland itself. Soon enough, I was correcting people as nicely as I could on how to say it or spell it. My anger towards this was masked by politeness.

At a young age, European ideals invaded my mind, and therefore unconsciously, my anti-blackness began to show. At night, I would dream for lighter skin and straighter hair. It seemed I was too dark for everything, that the hue of my skin was still not deemed acceptable in the 21st century. My ten-year-old self could not comprehend this, and I asked myself continuously if there was truly something wrong with me. Looking back at my younger self, a feeling of sadness floods my whole being, simply knowing the unhappiness that I felt towards being black. This is not something that I particularly mentioned to my parents or even my older siblings. It stayed hidden. This obsession with eurocentric beauty standards never surfaced or became apparent either. There was nothing I could really do or say to change it. This name, this history, this culture was ingrained in me permanently.

 

I remember being a small child in my predominantly white school, having been asked why my skin looked the way it was. Children shouted at my skin in the playground, deeming it ugly. I could not answer. My skin was seen as an anomaly for along time. Because somehow I was just so different from everyone else. I remember being the only black girl in my nursery room calling for my mom, hoping she wasn’t too far away. I think it was the feeling of being such an outsider that my younger self could not cope with. I didn’t speak. I didn’t play. My siblings who attended the same school tried to comfort me, but I was hopeless. Nothing could soothe me.

 

The first time I saw a black person die on my TV screen, I was 11 going on 12. His name was Trayvon Martin, and he was the same age I was right now, seventeen years old, ready to enter an unknown future, not knowing the tragic ending that would follow. Trayvon had a bright future. He was passionate about aviation and was loved deeply by his family and friends. My mother and I turned on CNN everyday waiting for the verdict that would determine everything. The day the verdict was released, I turned on the TV and saw in big bold letters, Not guilty. My head spun, and I thought to myself, This isn’t normal. He should be in jail. He killed an unarmed young man. I started to fear for my older brother and father. I thought to myself what if something happened to them eventually. Morbid thoughts entered my head once again, and it was a difficult task to try to block them out once more. The future seemed bleak for Black America. Trayvon wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of names followed: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland etc. My naivety led me to believe that black women weren’t facing the same problems as black men, police men and women wouldn’t hunt us down, except they did. Sandra Bland wasn’t the first nor will she be the last.

 

Somewhere in my early teens, I had an awakening which I can largely accredit to social media and the manner in which they uplifted people like me as well as my older brother, the intellectual 22-year-old at the time who pushed me to read more about my history. Not only that, but after having visited the continent of Africa more frequently, I found a new appreciation for the country and its culture and most importantly the people. My parents made it known that we should always be proud of our black skin and our native country. The hole in me that I could not fill seemed to be filling by itself. My real roots were in Gabon (Ga-bon): the small country of one million people located on the western coast of Central Africa. Having attended the SDLC conference or the student diversity leadership conference, in December of 2015 I had been overcome with emotion. I had discovered my inner voice as well as a deeper connection to my community. I felt strongly about racism, and I felt strongly about white privilege as well as acknowledging my own privileges, such as my parents being able to afford my private school tuition. This was something I was thankful and grateful for.

 

Due to my passion for social change and social activism, I decided to pursue a career in law. This self-rejuvenation that had occurred had changed me for the better. Although I believe the process of the decolonization of these beliefs does not happen immediately, I felt this pride and peace in my own skin that I had never felt before. These recent events as well as my past experiences have sparked something in me, that I have never felt before, a want and a desire to involve myself, as a public servant. I have been described as someone with a heart of gold and an insurmountable amount of patience. I only hope I can put these qualities to good use.

 

Recently, I was sitting in the train on my way to school, when a young man approached me wanting to sit next to me. At first, I was apprehensive and felt uneasy. He asked if he could sit next to me and as soon as he sat down, he started talking to me about everything and anything, mostly about Africa and black people. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Gabon. He told me that he thought Africa was wonderful and I was lucky to be from there.

He then proceeded to compliment my skin color. He even delivered an interesting fact on the resistance of darker skin hues in today’s environment. I listened patiently to his words. This man that I had first judged as probably homeless. I soon started to regret my words.

He told me his name was Unique. I smiled. He said he was from Harlem, and as he left, I shook his hand, and he told me I was very beautiful. Hearing someone who had the same features call me beautiful, was unequivocally reassuring. Vanity was not something I necessarily prescribed myself with, but compliments about the physical appearance have a way of uplifting certain people, especially the downtrodden ones. As I sat back down to continue my journey, I thought how odd that this happened to me on this particular day. A man by the name of Unique had enormously contributed to my new state of mind. He represented for me this sort of guardian angel that you meet only once in a lifetime, having no relevant information on them except their name and destination. As he left to descend on Harlem, a smile crept upon my face once more reminding myself that I was enough.

 

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