The Day I Became Black

The Day I Became Black

Tolu Rosanwo


The day I became black I was a 6 year old putting my black lunchbox in my multi-colored butterfly backpack.

The lunchbox was solid black. Unequivocally black, actually.

Not brown.

Not navy blue.

It was most certainly black.


To this day, I do not even remember what spurred this conversation.

But a little black girl in my kindergarten class said to me, “You know you’re black.”

I stopped. Uncertain.

“No, I’m not. I’m brown. Look at my skin. You’re brown.”

This, I pointed to the lunchbox. This is black.

“Yes, you are. You are black,” she restated.


We argued into recess, and when I got home,

I reported this travesty to my older sister who was 11 years old at the time.

“Soton, this girl at school told me I was black today. That’s not right. I’m brown.”

To my complete shock, she lifted her eyes from her fractions worksheet to say, “Tolu, you’re black.”

In my defense, blackness was not something discussed in my Nigerian-immigrant home. I grew up surrounded by black people in our apartment complex on Van Aken road and in my church of Jamaicans (whom I then assumed were Nigerians too). But, this idea of blackness was foreign. I just thought we were all brown so whatever.

Unwilling and confused, I joined the group of people whom I had always been a part of without even realizing.

MLK once said, “Seeing is not always believing.”

My ignorance did not stem from my inability to see color. I could very much see it. My ignorance stemmed from my inability to appreciate what color meant in the United States.

I understood this as I grew. Crises of identity came and left me many times over, but my understanding of blackness evolved as I found my unique place within the diverse black community.

Blackness was not the reason my family has been impacted by sickle cell disease. Malaria and mosquitos are to blame for that.

But blackness was certainly the reason why 100s of thousands of researchers were not interested in the disease impacting my siblings.

It was the reason why millions are invested into genetic diseases impacting white people instead.

It is through this awareness of blackness, I have endeavored to become a physician working towards social justice.  As Dr. King said, I started to truly live after “rising above the narrow confines of my own individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity.”

I understand that we cannot all be black. Someone tell the Dolezal lady from Spokane this. But, this does not mean we cannot believe what we see.

Seeing is not always believing.

Despite the death of 12 year old Tamir Rice, some cannot believe our lives matter less.

Despite that black children in Cuyahoga County more than 2x more likely to die in infancy than their white counterparts, some cannot believe that our lives matter less.

Despite that there are more black men in prison or jail on probation or parole than enslaved in 1850, some cannot believe that our lives matter less.

Man, it took me 6 years to believe I was black. But, to this day I’m still waiting for people to believe I am human.  They see it but do they believe it?

Seeing is not always believing.

I started believing the day I became black.



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