Aha m bu John Okechukwu Nwosu, Jr.
Ebee ka i si?
This is such a loaded and complex question.
The short answer is…it depends.
Is a tomato a fruit? TomaYto. Tomato.
I was born in Huntsville, AL but we moved to Six Flags Drive in Austell, GA when I was about 4.
My parents are still together and still live down the street from Six Flags over Georgia.
No one has ever received me as racially ambiguous. Ethnic ambiguity, however, is water I wade through regularly.
People often ask about my origins in an effort to place my unfamiliar last name.
Depending on my mood and the closeness of our relationship, I sometimes share that my mom is from Mobile, AL and my dad is from Nigeria.
🇺🇸 + 🇳🇬 = Halfrican-American Me!
I tell most non-Igbo people some arrangement of these stories when they ask where I’m from.
To an Igbo person, however, a different response is required.
Alongside what seemed to five year old me like unnecessarily aggressive attempts to teach me how to properly pronounce my last name, my father taught me early on when Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) ask where I’m from they are in search of a particular pattern of information.
Esi m na Umule-Okpala, Ohuhu, Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria.
I’m telling a story.
In that string of words I’m telling the story of my father and mother because for better and worse our culture is as democratic as it is traditional and patriarchal.
I am communicating the village, town, local government (kind of like a county or parish), state, and country that birthed my father and by extension, my mother and me.
The land of the husband becomes the land of the bride and all offspring according to Igbo custom.
I’m also sharing the —
— of the people who are from the same place as me.
In the past year, I’ve been getting more involved with UIU (Umu Igbo Unite which means Igbo Children Unite).
UIU [Igbo Children Unite] is a cultural promotion group and is dedicated to exporting the norms the value and traditions of the Igbos.
We are inspired by the power of unity in a foreign land. As cultural exchange advocates, we witness the power of diversity and unity of Umu Igbo.
As a member of the Atlanta Chapter of UIU, I am —
Exposed to networking opprotunities
Learning about our cultures
Fundraising for Igboland
Serving my Igbo and black american communities
It’s also been awesome reconnecting with ‘cousins’ that I grew up with. People that filled my childhood almost every weekend at various Nigerian meetings, celebrations, and other community functions.
Groups like UIU bring people together and recreate the strong emphasis of community that exists throughout Nigeria and Africa. And together we are stronger.
In an effort to learn more about who I am and where I’m from, I’ve also been attending Igbo class which has been an awesome experience!
Many first generation Nigerian-Americans don’t speak or understand Igbo.
And there are a number of complex reasons.
- In my case, only one of my parents speaks Igbo fluently.
- Many Igbo parents were worried that we not become fully American (assimilate), so many wanted us to master English (survive).
- American English is similar AND also very different from English in other lands that are still healing from the deep and far-reaching effects of European colonization feat. Christianity. As a result, some Igbo parents used their children as teachers to help them better comprehend and speak American English.
- Some adults believed in the common misconception that learning Igbo would make it more difficult to learn English. — We now know that learning multiple languages improves overall brain function and critical thought.
- Finally, this isn’t discussed often enough, but many ethnic groups experienced forms of racism or ethnic marginalization in the time since British colonization. Part of the reason that some parents were — and still are — hesitant to pass down Igbo language is simply part of the complicated legacy of colonization.
You may be thinking it sounds weird that many of our parents felt like this, but it is what it is. This is part of the territory that comes with merging culture.
Now many of us first-gen Igbo Naija-Americans are finding and creating opportunities to enlighten our cultural blind spots.
Uchenna Osuji has been our primary teacher for the beginner class.
She has developed a curriculum that helps learners understand noun, verb, and sentence structure basics on her YouTube channel. She also teaches Igbo through song.
There are now many people, apps, and resources out there focused on helping people learn Igbo culture and language.
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Lee nụ our wife Mrs. Asomugha better known as @kerrywashington 🙌🏾🙌🏾 . . Nwaanyị ọma anyị na-ekele gị, Come join us in learning this beautiful Igbo Language 💕 @kerrywashington . . Repost from @ogene_igbo Video credit: @hisfabness . . . . #learnigbo #kerrywashington #igbopodcast #kedu #asusuigboamaka
Since Igbo is primarily spoken by very diverse people with many regional dialects, there have also been efforts to standardize our language; one major result is Central Igbo.
And there are also now more opportunities for people read and write Igbo.
In the present, knowing multiple languages makes people more marketable in a way that it simply didn’t when I was younger.
In a world that is still systemically anti-black at all intersections of identity, the internet has provided more opportunities for us to center African cultures in our daily lives.
Things are far from perfect, AND for many of us it is now easier than ever to collaboratively thrive and heal from the legacy of European colonialism with people across the Diaspora.
As a result, a ton of Afrocentric spaces and content online and in real life have emerged from these digital interactions.
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We still underestimate how important language is, especially for learning about ourselves and each other.
Language is a vehicle for the exchange of information, identity, and culture.
The way Igbo people can infer so much about another Igbo person just by their response to a simple question is not that unique.
(How do you say tomato?)
It’s very similar to how other Americans automatically assume I’m from the southeastern region of our country when they detect the term “y’all”.
What comes next, usually unconsciously, is a mental Google search that automatically connects me with whatever info they hold about people from where they think I am. As a result, they may believe my tea should be sweet, our hospitality should be southern, our belts should be Bible-d, our sex education should be abstinence, and our politics should be conservative.
For people who are from the south, even more information is communicated in greater nuance with one or a few words or phrases.
If you hear me say bruh (versus bro, broadie, homie, fam, etc.), you may be able to correctly assume that my identity has been influenced by a brand of Black, male culture that emerged from the West and South West sides of Atlanta (e.g. Outkast, Cee-Lo Green/Goodie M.O.B., T.I.).
As I learn more about what it means to be who I am from various lenses, I’m learning more about Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) and African-American culture and how they flow through me.
I love learning about my Indentity.
And our identity.
The power of who we each are lies in the links that connect us to other people.
If nothing else, this long process of self and group discovery has reinforced the idea that there’s a difference between knowing and understanding.
This process continues to put me in situations where I feel tomato-y.
“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”Brian O’Driscoll
In that quote, salad is context.
Context is the story behind the story.
It influences the story-line, individual and group identities of all the characters.
At its root, this story is one of belonging. To what degree are we fruits or veggies? How does our self-view impact our social groups?
Should I aim to belong, fit in, or stand out…? This is the what drives many of the micro and major decisions that add up and compound over a lifetime and generations.
We are also impacted by the decisions made before us or on our behalf by people like our parents, community and ancestors who also faced the same questions.
Knowledge of self is important.
Wisdom of how to best interact with ourselves and others is super important.
Really though… is it even possible to know who we are as individuals without understanding who we all are as a collective?
A friend (and phrat brother) and I randomly began to explore this topic and many others questions about identity with help from tomatoes a few years back.
We were both S.T.E.M. majors (read: nerds) who ventured into the world of social science via college student affairs.
We agreed that, biologically, tomatoes are fruits because they have seeds.
Even so, we acknowledge that people most often treat them as vegetables.
Again, this may seem like a random and pointless conversation had by two guys bored at work, but tomato identity matters more than you think.
Nix v Hedden – The Supreme Court & Tomato Identity
In the early 19th century, a case about the identity of tomatoes was actually brought before the supreme court.
There was a fruit importer who argued that tomatoes were fruit based on dictionary definitions and expert testimonies.
Why did the importer care to do this?
Well, at the time, Port Authority of New York put tomatoes in the vegetable category which meant that getting them into the country required a 10 percent import tax, paid by who?
You guessed it! Fruit employers.
The Supreme Court ultimately made a decision based on how tomatoes were most commonly used despite the scientific definition of fruit.
They ruled that tomatoes were vegetables because “in everyday life, they decided, vegetables were things ‘usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats … and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.'”
Historically, tomatoes have been able to exist in multiple contexts, which is pretty cool if you think about it.
Tomatoes are arguably the most intersectional and inclusive fruit AND vegetable.
As they travel between lands and cultures with great ease, and they often have a paradoxically bold presence.
They seldom announce their arrival but you know when they are — or aren’t — there.
Let’s keep it a thousand… everybody wants a piece of tomatoes in ways that just aren’t a reality for oranges, brocolli, potatoes, or squash.
Their versatility and high demand has often forced them into positions where they must be things that work best for other people without regard for their consent or well-being.
Today, tomato continue to be embraced in interesting but familiar ways because…tomatoes are saucy. period.
From an early age, we are taught that tomatoes matter most when they’re saucy.
In the U.S.A. and many other countries, kids love
spaghetti busketti. Pizza, lasagna, and other popular Italian inspired dishes center tomatoes. Seriously, what kid doesn’t love busketti and meatballs?
Here’s highly scientific data in the form of a fancy graph to conclusively support my claim.
Additionally, since childhood condiments have been a central part of my diet. In my house ketchup is like Aaron McGruder to The Boondocks: absolutely necessary.
My friends sometimes joke about my relationship with ketchup.
tomato-based sauces are pretty important where I’m from.
According to US Magazine, the tomato-based barbecue sauce Sweet Baby Ray’s is Georgia’s favorite condiment.
The love for tomato sauce is a global experience. According to a Huffington Post, salsa, which is also tomato-based, is ranked as the world’s second favorite condiment after only salt.
And of course, we know how much Americans love salsa with their Mexican food, especially on Cinco de Mayo.
We know a lot of Americans get excited by the idea of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. Here’s another conclusive ‘science’ graph:
As for Nigerians, tomatoes are at the center of our cuisine. 🇳🇬
My favorite dish is a simple helping of rice and stew.
Of course, jollof rice is a West African steeple. Nigerians claim that our jollof is the best, and I’ve yet to experience any acceptable evidence to dismiss this claim.
The Information Age has ushered in a resurgence of Afrocentric culture throughout the diaspora.
We now see jollof festivals popping up in cities with large West-African and Black American populations like Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Houston to name a few.
We continue to embrace and celebrate tomato sauce in its various forms because —
What’s life without tomato sauce?
And what’s tomato sauce without tomatoes? As I explore the intersections of my identity, there are moments where I feel tomato-y —
Like I’m not enough — or too much — of a fruit or a vegetable.
I look for more opportunities to use my discomfort as fuel for learning and growth.
I’m understanding that this whole process called life is, in part, about finding ways to make great sauce in sustainanable ways.
We have to take care of our tomatoes.
While I am making sauce, I’m thinking about how my behavior impacts others.
How do the other tomatoes feel?
I’m talking more with different people to better understand how they make their tomato sauce.
And I’m also acknowledging the access to social networks of privilege that influence the ease with which I can make sauce compared to other people.
Plus, I’m understanding that the ways we make sauce differ when we’re in survival mode versus when we are able to thrive.
When we live in a context that promotes scarcity it impacts our mindset and approach to making great tomato sauce.
When we forget to ask how the other tomatoes feel, we stop identifying the tomato in ourselves.
When we feel like we’re fitting in or standing out, we often feel like we’re not enough. In these moments of emotional scarcity, it’s a lot easier to become obsessed with things that are minor and don’t directly contribute to making the best sauce.
Are you heirloom tomatoes or cherry tomatoes? Easy to get caught up in details that don’t matter.
When we are in positions where we don’t have enough, we are forced to use our creativity to overcome limits before we can even think about making great sauce.
Our context and approaches toward making tomato sauce impact our health.
We all have basic needs that must be sustained for survival — belonging is arguably the most important. Even though we often thing of belonging and inclusion as ‘nice to have’, they are absolute necessities since it’s impossible for humans to be survive without belonging to a group.
We each need the right amount of nutrients to survive, but it’s the seasoning that positions us to thrive.
Food with less seasoning usually doesn’t stimulate our taste buds, but it does reduce the risk for hypertension and heart disease which is the leading cause of death for Americans, especially Black Americans. It also helps us live long healthy lives.
At the same time, seasoning gives food life.
And as you can see, a lot of people enjoy their tomato sauce with some seasoning and spice.
Ultimately, all tomatoes are uniquely similar. Regardless of the tomato, where it comes from, how it’s prepared, its level sauciness, or seasoning, all tomatoes are tomatoes. Where you’r from doesn’t have to cause your sauce to be any less than anyone else’s.
As you find tomato sauce, make your own, and create dishes inspired by tomato sauce, remember to embrace the discomfort that comes with being veggie in a fruit in a salad. After all…
Sometimes the best way to know where we belong is understanding where we don’t.
Deviating from conventional recipes can feel uncomfortable.
Acknowledge that while also giving yourself permission to try new and different things as long as you aren’t hurting other people (or yourself unintentionally).
We should always remember that moderation is key as we search and create.
Reflecting on our actions helps us convert knowledge into wisdom; wisdom is what leads us to recognize that the best recipes respect the relationship between individuals and groups.
Cooking for and with communities can create amazing food that nourishes high quantities of people effectively.