[The Stories of America editors: This article is part of the Black Lives Matter Pairing. To read the other story, click here.]
It was the weekend, and Eyitemi Popo was strolling through the city, relaxing from her classwork at New York University.
She walked into a Conway store and mindlessly browsed through the selection of clothes, not interested in anything in particular. But one T-shirt caught her eye; it seemed nice for the price tag.
Yet as soon as Popo lifted her eyes from the fabric, she saw a long line at the register.
Popo immediately put the shirt down – the wait wasn’t worth it – and turned toward the exit.
That’s when a security guard stopped her at the door.
“I saw you holding a shirt,” he told her. “Where is it?”
“I put it down,” Popo said, opening her bag voluntarily for him. “You can look if you want.”
People started gathering around Popo and the guard, staring.
The guard told Popo he didn’t have permission to look into her purse, which confused her, so he eventually just let her go about her day.
Popo was uncomfortable, but she knew that this happens all the time to people who have the same skin color as she does.
Popo, 26, who grew up partly in Nigeria and partly in the U.S., where she lived for 15 years, said she is lucky in many aspects and she believes she has not truly felt the struggle of black Americans.
As an African woman, Popo said her freedom and opportunities of studying and living in the U.S. were only available because of the blood, sweat and tears of the civil rights advocates that came before her.
“I feel like I and other Africans have a leg up,” Popo said. “If you are an African American and happen to be born in the inner city, and your access to opportunities is so limited.”
Although Popo hasn’t lived through segregation, she has seen the world through a unique lens.
It’s the way a teacher might assume her level of intelligence just by looking at her.
It’s the fear of being seen as rebellious if she let her natural afro hair grow out.
It’s the slightly cautious, attentive stares from retail workers she gets when she shops.
It’s also the occasional “black bitch” blurted out by someone on the train.
“That would just get me confused,” Popo said. “It’s like if you’re gonna call someone a ‘bitch,’ why add black? Is that some sort of special type of bitch?”
Popo, who now lives in Canada, said she feels the Black Lives Matter movement is the movement of her generation and is a response to what is like to be black and live in the U.S. today.
“The greater America needs to agree with those three words: black lives matter,” Popo said. “The fact that there is still this debate over those words, with people dismissing them by replying ‘all lives matter,’ is exactly the point. It’s proof of a large issue in America that still exists.”
Another issue Popo is passionate about is bridging the divide between the African community in America and the African-American community.
“Growing up, I always knew that Africans like me were different from African-Americans,” Popo said.
The divide and tension between the two communities became more evident to Popo during her time at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, when she found out the college had two black organizations: a pan-African club and an African and Caribbean club.
Popo said a lot of African immigrants criticize black communities and focus on their negative aspects without acknowledging the history and baggage of slavery being carried.
“I’ve had so many lasting arguments about this with other Africans,” Popo said. “It’s like yes, we are different. But I don’t know if we went through what black slaves in America went through that we would end up somewhere different.”
Popo aims to bring about a greater understanding of the issues facing black Americans today through creative storytelling. She recently launched a web series about black millennials as part of Ayiba Magazine, which she founded to create content that connects and brings together the African diaspora community.
She hopes her work contributes to the ongoing fight for equal rights and treatment of all people.
“I feel like every generation has its fight,” Popo said, “and Black Lives Matter is ours.”