By Ijeoma Kola, PhD.
After taking a two-year “gap year” after defending my dissertation, I did the damn near impossible and landed a post-doctoral research position at a top 10 R1 research institution. Well, God did it. But still. I got an academic job in a pandemic. In a year when countless universities are not only freezing hires but making major staff cuts. But Black women are in high demand in academic spaces right now, so I shot my over-the-shoulder half-court shot, and it went in.
Despite the fact that COVID-19 is currently ravaging college campuses, the position is not remote and will require me to move to the Midwest. I grew up in northern New Jersey and went to college and graduate school in the Northeast, so I’m admittedly a bit nervous about living in the Midwest. There doesn’t seem like there’s much to do besides go to Target, which of course, now being in my 30s, I don’t really mind.
But even before I told my husband about the job offer, I knew he wouldn’t be excited about it. Well, he would be excited for me, but not excited about what it would mean for him and for our family — a Black man and a Black woman raising a Black son, who so far, has only known a life completely devoid of racism.
My husband is from Kenya and lived in Nairobi until moving first to Norway and then to the US for college. This is where we met, somewhere on Harvard Yard (we think… we can’t actually remember our first meeting). After college, he worked in Lagos for a year and a half, and then returned to the US for grad school, largely because I was clear about the fact that I wasn’t the kind of woman to be in a 5-year long-distance relationship across oceans. In total, he lived in the US for close to 9 years.
We decided that we’d move to Kenya once I finished grad school so that he could be closer to his family. I welcomed the move because I was in a period of transition — I just finished my 24 consecutive years of schooling and was 5 months pregnant with my first child, so might as well throw a cross-continental move in there and have the ultimate adventure!
Before leaving for Kenya, I’d lived in the US for 28 years. My family emigrated from Nigeria when I was a baby thanks to a nursing shortage in the early 90s that my mom and countless other Nigerian nurses helped resolve. Although I identify first and foremost as Nigerian, I’m also American. It’s the only physical home I’ve ever known and before we moved to Kenya, I really did believe my parents’ core ideology that it was the best place in the world to create a better life for your children.
Although it took me some time to adjust to the cultural differences, not so much between life in Kenya and America but more so between my hustle-hard/never finish last Nigerian culture and the easygoing hakuna matata Kenyan mindset, I started to find my groove in Nairobi. Despite the fact that I’ve only experienced the city while pregnant, then as a new mom, then in a pandemic, I’d gotten to the point where I was comfortable with the idea of living here long-term. I’d even picked up a tiny bit of Swahili (kidogo).
I didn’t necessarily want to leave. But I did want to test the waters of academia and was told that it was really hard for women, in particular, to re-enter academic spaces after a few years “on the outside,” so two years post-PhD and in an era where white guilt is at an all-time high, I felt like it was now or never.
The day that I signed the contract for my new job, I could tell my husband was sad. He is much more concerned with how his words affect other people than I am, so I could tell that he had something on his mind but didn’t want to steal my joy by sharing it with me. After putting our son to sleep, he went for an evening run and when he returned, I was relentless about getting him to spill what he was holding back. And then he said one of the most heart wrenching but factually accurate things I’ve ever heard him say:
“I won’t be able to run outside after dark anymore.”
I broke down into an ugly cry I’d been holding in for far too long. He was 1000% correct.
Back in America, he won’t be able to run anymore, at any hour of the day that is most convenient to him, and he surely won’t be able to run wearing his favorite workout hoodie.
He won’t be able to knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for help.
He won’t be able to drive with a broken tail light.
He won’t be able to drive with an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Or an expired registration, which is definitely something that he did for a few weeks here in Kenya.
Regardless of how much moving back to America is the right career move for me at this juncture of my life, it is arguably the worst place in the world for my husband — who until he was 20 years old had never experienced what it meant to be a Black man in America — to live. So although he is fully supportive of our move back and what it means for my career, I can’t fault him one bit for not wanting to go to a place that doesn’t allow him to live a full, free, and unharmed life.