My name is unique, but my parents went out of their way to regularly remind me about how special my name really is. Originating in Nigeria, Okwunne means “her mother’s words”. For me, it means being strong enough to withstand any obstacles and my parents made sure I knew this about myself.
My mother was born in Windhoek, Namibia and my father was born in Enugu, Nigeria. They both moved to New York, where they met, and began their lives in America. I grew up in Connecticut before moving to Georgia – I was 13 years old when we moved and have been here ever since.
As soon as I moved to Georgia, I was in extreme cultural shock. Moving from the North to the South, I quickly learned that these places weren’t just two ends of a geographical map, but two sides of a cultural world. I remember in the 5th grade I asked “can I use the restroom”, but my teacher came back and said, “it’s ‘MAY I use the restroom?’”. The fine-print grammar would have never been corrected like that in Connecticut. Other times I would respond to questions or requests with “yes”, but my teacher would correct me with, “you mean ‘yes ma’am’”. Previously, my northern culture was direct and no-nonsense, but the south was rooted in old-school manners and tradition. This was the first time I realized, “things are different here”.
Growing up, everyone looked the same in my eyes, regardless of the situation. Even still, fitting in and finding my own was a difficult step for me. I was an outsider and these local kids had been together since they were in diapers. Not only was I coming late to the party, but I LOOKED very different from them as well. I wanted to be accepted by them though, like any 13-year-old. Not just for what I looked like, but also as their friend – for the PERSON that I was on the inside. Thankfully, I was able to connect with a group of friends who I am still friends with today. This tight-knit group has always treated me as one of their own. They see me for everything that makes me “me” – both inside and out. And despite our differences, they have loved me like I was there with them in “Diapers Days”.
In the years following, I was fortunate to graduate from college and enter the workforce. Because of the hardships and triumphs of generations before me, I had access to opportunities for success that would not be available to me without their blood and determination. I was able to pursue education and employment without the discrimination that others endured. Thanks to our strides as a nation towards accepting and understanding the beauty of diversity, I didn’t have to overcome anything “extra” because of my skin color. Here, I have had the opportunity to experience the wholeness of that diversity – those from different generations, backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, etc.
However, instances of injustice and social/racial prejudice were still happening all around us. Woven between acts of terrorism, housing and stock market crises, and pandemic outbreaks, these, often violent, acts of racism and prejudice were not spotlighted or circulated like the incidents we’ve seen more recently.
In 2020, George Floyd’s death sparked riots, protests, and anger across the U.S. The violence and mistreatment that had been swept under the rug or overshadowed before was now front and center and demanded to be addressed. I mean, the video of this horrific murder was TRENDING on social media. There was no hiding from or ignoring this problem any longer. This spark became a movement that spread like wildfire across our country.
Honestly, it was terrifying to feel like things were getting worse while, at the same time, our nation was pushing forward towards peace, equality, and reconciliation. As a person of color, I lived with the real fear that I could be next. What might happen to me during a mundane, everyday errand? As an American, I ached to think what could be happening in other parts of our country. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can’t imagine anyone not being shaken and fearful as a person living through this experience. In some way, everyone could relate to the terror that was happening right in front of us.
This horrendous event created a voice that could not be drowned out and enabled those who have been wronged and oppressed to speak out. The conversation and action towards preventing tragedy like this from happening again was ignited.
I am thankful for my positive experiences with the meshing of cultures- especially because I know that not everyone has been fortunate enough to experience the same. I have learned that everyone grew up differently and have had different experiences mold and shape them. But I’ve lived in the South long enough now to know that we still have a lot of growing to do.
On this day, Juneteenth, it’s important that we take the opportunity to educate ourselves on what our ancestors endured to obtain this freedom we celebrate. The holiday is not only special to me, but for others to recognize this day. My future children will be able to learn what this country-wide holiday means and how to pass that on beyond our lifetime. We can celebrate how far we’ve come as a nation, but still recognize that we still have far to go.
About the Author:
Okwunne Ogbogu is an Account Associate at CR Solutions and is based out of company headquarters in Alpharetta, GA. Follow Okwunne on Linkedin to stay up to date on recent insurance risk management articles and insights.