My name, Jemila Adanna, was given to me by my father. The name ‘Jemila’, meaning ‘beautiful’, is of Arabic origin. The name, ‘Adanna’, meaning ‘father’s daughter’, stems from the Ebo. Though neither of my parents hold any of those nationalities in their blood, the name seemed to fit me perfectly. In fact, both of my parents are West-Indian. My mother was born in Guyana, but came to America at the age of seven; while my father was born in Jamaica, and came to the States at age thirteen. I was born the eldest of four children: two younger brothers, Jabari, and Jassim, and a sister, Jahira. The one thing I loved to take pride in (but also despised…) was the fact that all of my siblings and I shared the same initials as my father, ‘JAS’. It was a funny thing, but sorting out the mail to ‘J A Sterling’ was always a hassle. I always wondered what my life would have been like if I was given a different name, and had different parents. Even a different name. I feel that I would not have experienced as much as I have. I most definitely would not be the person that I am today. I am a Black American female, living with multiple sclerosis and bipolar I disorder. I may be expected to seek help from others due to my disabilities, even to be a victim of them, but I know that I am fully capable of taking care of myself: even if it takes me more time than others.
My identity is something that I have always struggled with—mainly because I did not want to identify as anything in particular. I felt that by labeling myself as something, I would be selling myself short. It wasn’t until I reached high school when I began to change this way of thinking. Perhaps this was because of my childhood. I was bullied by all of the kids in my elementary schools, mainly because I was different from them. It wasn’t just a racial difference, in fact, most of the students in my classes were black. I was ridiculed by people whom I thought were the same as me. In any case, however, we were most definitely not the same. I was a black American female born of West Indian descent: a first generation American; while the others were ‘African American’. Because I didn’t speak like the kids in my class (Ebonics), and because I was raised to say “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” all of the time, they thought I was ‘not black enough’; and so they would call me names and make me feel like I did not belong. It was not a very good feeling for me. Because of this, I ended up being very soft spoken and kept to myself a lot. I read a lot, and ended up getting a perfect score on the Terra Nova exams. I was asked to skip the second grade, and was placed in a third grade class at the age of seven years old. I thought that this was a very high achievement, and felt special. That feeling went away quickly when the kids in my class would ridicule me for being younger than them. “Go back to the grade you came from”, they would say. I would go home and cry and not want to go to school. However, when my mother would say that she would confront my teachers about it, my fear of further ridicule would make me tell her “No, please don’t! It’s not that bad!”…when in fact it was.
One day, when I was about eight years old, this girl in my class threatened to stab me, because I was ‘too white” because I was “too smart”. She said that I “needed to learn how to be black”. I really did not understand what this meant, especially because I was eight years old. Innocent. I went home, obviously scared, and asked my mother why I was considered to be that black girl who ‘wanted to be white’. She answered by asking me. “Do you want to be white?” I said, “No”. “Then she’s wrong. You need to realize that she’s bully.” It was funny, because right after that, my mother called the school and notified the principal that there was bullying in the school, and I became very anxious, fearing that the girl would find out that I ‘snitched’, and instead of being thankful, I grew bitter at my mother for getting involved (which I realize now was incredibly stupid).
In my junior year of high school,I attended a diversity camp. At this place, I was exposed to the truths of the world. I realized how incredibly skewed the world was, especially our country. Prior to this experience, I was incredibly sheltered, and thought the world was the way it appeared to the blind eye, and in stories and on television. I was raised to never talk back to my elders, as well as keep my opinions to myself. To add to this, at home, I was always silenced by my father. It was not very apparent until I reached puberty, and would try to voice my opinions by talking back. That quickly stopped, because ‘children never talk back to their parents’. I was not allowed to have a voice when it came to going against my father. It amazed me how after only five days of being at this camp, I was a completely different person. I learned that I was entitled to a voice, and had so much to say to so many people. I never cried so much to leave a place. When I got back home, I cried to my mother, and asked her all of the questions that were rushing throughout my mind. “Mom, why do white people get everything so much easier than other races?” “Why do men feel that they can just have us when they want us? Aren’t we in the 21st century?” Way more mind boggling questions were asked. My mother got quiet, and then answered, “Because we live in America. In this country, you have to work three times as hard as anyone else.” I honestly didn’t know what that meant until she elaborated: “You have three things that others may consider to be ‘handicaps’: 1) You’re a female. 2) You’re a BLACK female. 3) You’re a dark-skinned black female. You’re perfect the way that you are, though. Never think that you’re lesser than anyone. It’s simply in the eyes of the ignorant.” I began to see her words come to pass when I was applying for college.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, I had to deal with a lot of drama and turmoil. My father was not very supportive towards me starting off at a 4-year college. At the time, I didn’t understand why he was being so controlling about MY future. I was a straight-A student, what parent wouldn’t want the best for their child? Because my father is the type who does not like to share what he is doing, none of us, not even my mother, knew that he was messing around in the stock market. He didn’t make the best choices, and because of this, he ended up declaring bankruptcy. (Of course, this was when I was applying to colleges…) Because of HIS mistakes, he expected me to suffer. Thankfully, my mother was NOT going to let this happen. She told me that I was going to go to Rutgers, one way or another. In her mind, because both her and my father graduated from Rutgers (my mother attended Douglass College when it was a separate school), I should have the same privilege; and shouldn’t have to be punished for my father’s mistakes. My father is an interesting character. He was born to very young parents, young to the point that he was raised by his grandmother, who was born in 1909 (You can only IMAGINE what kind of an upbringing he had…).
My mother had to make a lot of sacrifices for me to be able to attend Rutgers University. I may have been a straight-A student, but because of my name, “Jemila”, no scholarships were simply given to me. I had to apply for minority scholarships. When none of those were available, my mother had to take out loans in her name (I was still a minor at the time) so that I could be here. My mother would tell me that once I started college, I would become very aware of the world and just how the people in it operate. She said that I would be reminded of what they saw me as: a dark-skinned black female.
It wasn’t until I reached Rutgers University where I was enrolled in Douglass Residential College, that I began to see just what my mother was talking about. Up until that point, everything that I thought about the world and experienced was based on what I have heard from other people, or saw in overly graphic skits, or even from letters of rejection for scholarships. My freshman year roommate was proof that racism was still VERY alive in our country, let alone in New Jersey. She was my polar opposite: while I would fight to not be a part of the black stereotype, she would bask in her ‘whiteness’. She knew that she would have an easier time with everything that she wanted to do, because of what I learned was ‘white privilege’. Though not many people seemed to make it obvious that white privilege really existed (and it was not an over-dramatized figment of our imaginations), I was made aware that it indeed did exist by living with and watching her. How someone could be so incredibly ignorant and open with her racist ways baffled me. She would always comment on the way I spoke. “Jemila, you’re so articulate”, she would say (As if a Black person was incapable of speaking the standard English language without bursting out into Ebonics). If anything, I spoke “better” than she did, since she couldn’t speak a complete sentence without using the word “like” out of its context. I truly confused her, and it felt amazing. One day, she decided that the reason why I went so incredibly against her definition of ‘Black’ was because she didn’t consider me to be Black. She said (and I QUOTE), “Jemila, I figured it out. You’re not Black. You’re Jamaican. That’s why I like you.” So wait…all of a sudden, she thinks that she can decide what I am because I didn’t fit a stereotype? You have GOT to be kidding me. I told her that her little ‘epiphany’ made absolutely no sense; especially because ‘Jamaican’ is a nationality. “I am American,” I would tell her. “Plus, my mother is Guyanese, so I can’t just claim ONE parent’s nationality.” “That doesn’t matter,” she would say. To be quite honest, I could not stand my freshman year roommate. The differences between us were too great: not because of the racial differences, but because of her ignorance. The saddest thing was that at the end of the semester when grades were given out, she did better than I did. This confused me, because I would help her edit her papers for Expository Writing, because to be quite honest, her writing was rudimentary. She received an A, while I was given a B; and I couldn’t change my grade. Funny, huh?
Aside from the roommate issues, I had to deal with a lot of people who didn’t understand my choice in majors. I took Korean classes when I got to Rutgers, mainly because I was so fascinated with the language, and the culture of South Korea. When I would tell people that I was majoring in East Asian Studies: focus in Korean, and double majoring in Communication, most of the time, I would receive looks of confusion. After all, not many Black women want to study Asian culture, let alone the Korean language. Lots of people, especially Korean Americans (who ironically could not speak Korean) would try to test my ability to speak the language, as if I was incapable of speaking it. When I would speak, jaws would drop, mainly because my accent was almost native. Apparently, I confused a lot of people: not only whites, but Asians, and Blacks. I didn’t understand why people couldn’t appreciate my interests. Instead, they would interrogate, and after awhile, some of them would be understanding.
I was not aware that discrimination existed in places closer than I had hoped: in my own home. It was 2011, and my younger brother was graduating from high school. My father (the same one who did not want me to apply to ANY 4-year colleges) was showering my brother with applications to schools (though no one heard about them). He was still encouraging my brother to go to a 4-year school. He also was not helping to pay for my schooling, so of course this made me very upset. Why was my brother getting support from my father? Why didn’t I have that support? My grades began to slip, and with that, my motivation began to slip with it. It was during my junior year when I was de-registered, and all of my classes were removed, that I began to fall into a state of depression. I asked my father if I could take a summer class, to which he said that “he didn’t have the money” for. Meanwhile, my brother was a freshman here at Rutgers, who did not take full advantage of the opportunity that he had, and was academically dismissed from the University. My father paid for him to take two summer classes, so that he would be able to return to the school. The irony of the situation: none of that money that my father gave to my brother went to his schooling. Instead, he paid a month’s worth of rent for his off-campus house (that he got without permission) and completely blew the rest. After that, I slowly stopped caring about almost everything. “Why should I care about anything when nothing is going my way?” I would think this to myself: THIS was my mentality.
After this, my parents got a divorce (for many other reasons), and I became very depressed. It was not just the divorce, because quite frankly, I did not like how my father would speak to my mother when they were married. He would be very verbally abusive towards her. After the divorce, however, he became sadistic, in my opinion. My mother would tell me what he would do to either manipulate, or get his way in the eyes of the law. This stressed me out and made me very upset and very angry. ‘How dare he?’ I would think to myself. I couldn’t go to my mother with my problems, especially when she was dealing with her own. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to my father. I began to internalize my feelings. I would simply go through the motions of what I had to do, and would sleep when I finished. Since I was a child, I would have migraine headaches, but they began to get a lot worse. It was when I started to forget short term things and events, seeing as my memory was very sharp, that I decided to get an MRI. When the results came back abnormal, I fell into a deep state of depression, again. I even considered changing my name; I didn’t want to be connected to my father at all, and I most definitely did NOT want his initials. Of course, I was being irrational, and completely immature.
This past year made me really realize who I was. In February of 2013, after numerous doctors’ appointments, I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder, as well as Multiple Sclerosis. Though I am still coping with it, I am slowly starting to accept it. I have realized that feeling negative about so many things is not beneficial for me. I decided that I will not be a victim, but will continue to be myself. Who am I? I am beautiful, and I am my father’s daughter. My name is Jemila Adanna Sterling, and I am a 21-year old Black American female. I am the eldest of four children, living with Multiple Sclerosis and Bipolar I disorder. And to be quite honest, I would not have it any other way. These are the cards that have been dealt out to me, and with them, I create my identity.