Growing Up Nigerian in America

by Brady Day

One of six children, Enitan Aigbomian (b.1992) grew up in in Lagos, Nigeria, where her mother worked as a pharmacist and her father served in the Nigerian Air Force. After her parents divorced, Enitan lived with her mother during the early years of her childhood. At the age of five she moved in with her father when her mother emigrated to the United States to start a new life. When she was eight, Enitan had the opportunity to join her mother. As she imagined what her new life was going to be like, most of her ideas came from American films, including one of her favorites, Home Alone.

Enitan Aigbomian's First Birthday

Enitan with her mother on her first birthday, Lagos, Nigeria, 1993.

House used in <em>Home Alone</em> movie

Home Alone house, Winnetka, Illinois. Before she arrived in the U.S. Enitan assumed that her mother lived in a house like this.

“You watch all of these movies! You have friends, you watch like even some of the American soap operas. You watch Home Alone. Home Alone was the biggest thing that shaped my view of America. I really believed everyone has a house like this, with the fence and—it snows. I think that is where my idea of snow came from, amongst other movies. I just thought everyone has the house! That is just what it is.”
– Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

Enitan had high hopes about her move to the United States, but the reality was very different from her dreams.

“It was all really new and exciting. I remember, we were living in Jamaica, Queens, and my mom was actually renting out the basement of some people that she knew that went to her church. And so I think that was one thing that I was kind of like ‘Oh, okay’ [laughter]…. Because you think you have the house with the white picket fence.You know, we'd be watching Home Alone in Nigeria and stuff like that. So you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, my mom has a house that's like Home Alone’ and you know, she didn’t. And so I was, ‘Oh, okay.’  But I still was really excited.”
– Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

What shocked Enitan the most was American race relations. As a child in Nigeria, she had no concept of White and Black, but soon learned what it meant to be “Black” in America.

Enitan at Oral History Interview

Enitan Aigbomian, Central Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, March 2019.

"I mean it was another kid, like we were all in the same grade, same age, and it was this girl, but I don't remember her name, but it was the same person who told me I didn't know how to tell time. And so [laughter], I don’t know what it was like, I think, I don’t know if there was a context for it, I think she was just like, 'You’re Black,’ and I remember just kind of being like, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What is it to be Black?’ I don't know, but I just know that in the way she said it seemed like it was something I had to accept. And so I was like ‘Okay. I’m Black, I guess.’” – Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

“Yeah, I think in Jamaica, Queens is when the concept of being Black was introduced…. Everything was introduced forcefully because it was like, ‘Oh, I am Black and I speak English.’ You obviously should understand, the fall in line kind of thing. And so, this information was thrown at me and I kind of had to catch it and absorb it forcefully.” – Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

Enitan Aigbomian at her Brother's Wedding in Lagos

Aigbomian at her brother's wedding in Lagos, Nigeria, 2018.

After a year in Queens, Enitan’s mother moved her family to Cheltenham, in suburban Philadelphia, where her daughters would be safer and the cost of living was less expensive. There, Enitan finished the 5th grade. In 2005, the family then moved into their first house, in nearby Abington. As a teenager, Enitan faced frequent struggles as she navigated between Americanizing and maintaining her Nigerian identity.

“I think it has always been this experience of ‘Okay, what does it mean to be Black?’ but also, having an immigrant mom, because at this point you start to see the difference of ‘My friends get to do this, but my mom won’t let me’ [laughter] and kind of feeling frustrated because I was, ‘I want to do what my American friends want to do.’ And my mom was like, ‘No, you’re not American.’ So that was the other thing. My friends at school being like ‘You’re Black.’ And because I wasn’t really sharing much about being Nigerian, because at this point it's not like now where it's very more accepting and people are more trying to connect, but at that point it was like, ‘Oh, you're an African Booty Scratcher.’ Like stuff that is really rude. And so I really wasn’t sharing much about my culture. I didn't want to have friends over. I didn't want to explain Nigerian food to them.”
– Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

After graduating from high school, Enitan went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Meeting Nigerian students who experienced similar struggles, she began to better understand how she fit in to both Nigerian and American cultures.

“When I left I was one of, I think, three Nigerian families in Abington. And at that point I think I really repelled a lot of Nigerian things. I didn’t really like Nigerian music because I was like, ‘I don’t think it is very avant-garde or good enough.’ …When I went to D.C. it was exciting because there was so many Nigerians. I just remember the first month being so hyper, meeting all these Nigerians. I had never been around so many Nigerian children in one sitting, besides at my mom’s church [laughter]. And so—meeting Nigerians that didn’t fit the mold of the typical Nigerian—There were these Syrian twins who had Nigerian accents and spoke Pidgin English. And I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh. Nigeria is so different now!’ This one girl who was half Thai and half Nigerian. And just meeting all these different people who were Nigerian but looked so different. And even just learning about the newest music and meeting people who enjoyed their Nigerian-ness, it really inspired me because I was just like 'It's okay.’” – Enitan Aigbomian, 2019

Growing Up Nigerian in America