As a young man with multiple identities growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, how does one find an identity that relates to cultural community and simultaneously one with your American peers?
Jessie Karangu was born in America to Kenyan parents. At a young age, Jessie Karangu was told he was not ‘Kenyan enough’ within the community nor was he ‘black enough’ to match his American contemporaries. His daily ritual was a small ignition to finding his eventual path; every day after school Jessie would sit and watch Oprah and would marvel at the audience she could bring in, both black and white. Unabashedly herself, Oprah used her intellect and Christian beliefs to seamlessly blend white and black America; a blending of culture Jessie had not yet found. But instead of drifting through adolescence with a lingering identity crisis, he changed his narrative and found his belonging within the Kenyan diasporic community. From traditional food through learning Kikuyu and a basic understanding of Swahili, Jessie was able to find a sense of self within a ‘mini-Kenya’ homestead nurtured by his parents. Through the securities of home he found a passion for journalism from a young age, and using his experiences of cultural cultivation and research, allowed this passion to become reality.
Pursuing a degree in journalism, Jessie melded his background and studies, with the desire to share the perspective and stories of African immigrants. In his neighborhood growing up, despite knowing the same language and living in the same conditions as other children, he never found a true place as an American, letting him gravitate towards a Kenyan identity. Not only would the education allow him to share stories but it would make him the successful African figure he wished had been seen more in publicity in his youth. The unfortunate Western portrayal of Africa in the media lessened Africans to not only an overgeneralization of culture, but an image of poverty and uncivilized history. Jessie is one of many prominent African figures working to change the standard story to a new and positive rhetoric. His first chance came during a speech he gave during his commencement; his chance to show the successful African man graduating with not only degree but a focused career path. To this day, while perhaps lower in importance on a resume, is one of his greatest achievements seen in how people still approach him, thanking him for his inspiring words.
Recently graduated, Jessie currently works at USAToday as a part of their sports team, where he edits videos and writes on the social aspect of sports. Applying on what seemed to be a certain whim, Jessie was ecstatic to find that his pitch for hire had been accepted. The hour commute from Baltimore to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, was not even a factor as Jessie began work at one of the most respected news sources in the world. Merely step one on his path to achieving everything he hoped, this position is not only an impressive start to a post-graduate resume, but has allowed him more opportunities and public presence than he ever thought to achieve at a young age.
During one assignment, Jessie took the opportunity to visit the White House where he stood within mere feet of Barack Obama. An indescribable moment, Jessie was witness to no greater example of a Kenyan American in a position of power and success. Policies and journalism aside for a brief moment, to see someone who shares your history and culture in the most powerful seat in the world is a profoundly intangible moment of pride. The perseverance Jessie saw in Obama’s journey inspired him to continue to pursue his dreams, and through a strong work ethic, and persist through any adversity.
And this persistence brings him back full circle, back to sitting in his childhood living room, reading upside down newspapers searching to find someone in print who shared his story. While the change in media portrayal of Africa has seen change from his youth, Jessie acknowledges it is only the beginning. Of late, popular media sharing websites have been promoting Africa and African cultures in a better light, something that has not been seen in years past. Buzzfeed recently made a video about what it was like growing up with African parents, a sure sign to Jessie the culture was changing. As African countries have continued to develop and economic gains increased, it has become easier for Africans and elements of African cultures to assimilate into Western society. Idris Elba could be the next James Bond, Lupita Nyongo won an Oscar, and Joel Embiid is one of the NBA’s best players, simply to name a few figures in the public eye, figures finding success across a range of career paths. As an adult it has become easier for Jessie to claim his American identity, a sign it could be easier for younger children beginning to question where they fit in. While no single answer for the greater assimilation of African and Western cultures, Jessie is one of many living in the diaspora who no longer hear as much of the separation of Africans, black Americans, or Africans and Americans as wholes.
What does this mean for Jessie from here? A gifted, young journalist at the start of his career, he has learned one of the most important lessons of journalism; that simply listening is the key to finding the authentic story. Too often in our politicized world we come to the table with a preconceived notion or agenda and before the first words are uttered, it is as if it is already a fight. To silence oneself for long enough to listen to not only the opinion of the opposition but the reasoning behind it lessens the shock often associated with current events. Like so many in in Jessie’s situation, he has come to not only understand but appreciate the fabrics that make up the American people; an understanding that will only continue to enable his journalistic goals and integrity.
Jessie’s upbringing, Christian faith, and sheer determination have allowed him to set a bright future for himself. From the lack of self-identity as a child to growing into a confident and intelligent man, Jessie is an example of the opportunities for Africans living in the diaspora. To know oneself is to realize one’s potential and as Jessie and others like him, the opportunities for so many will continue to grow and paint African cultures in a continually positive and normalized manner.