African American Studies
Princess Okieme was born in the Bronx and at the time of interview was a student at Fordham University. She is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants from Lagos who came to the US in the early ‘80’s. Upon first arriving in the US, Okieme’s mother worked odd jobs in fast food service and childcare. Her father made money through credit card scams, and he eventually used the money to open a legitimate business—a deli and small grocery in the Bronx. Princess grew up on Decatur Ave. in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Colombians and Dominicans were the predominant racial groups in the neighborhood, so Princess had only a few black friends growing up. To this day, she identifies with Hispanics more than any other racial group. Her parents frequently spoke negatively of other racial groups, including African-Americans, Jamaicans, and even other Nigerians. This affected Princess’ social life, as she grew up thinking of herself as different from both Africans and African-Americans. Her religious upbringing was very mixed: her parents did not subscribe to one faith, so at different points, Princess was brought up as a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Muslim. Nowadays Princess does not identify with any single organized religion.
At some point, Okieme’s parents separated, and Princess only lived with her mother. Her mother stressed education very highly, and she insisted that her daughter stay in school, avoid drugs, and avoid dating. Because of this strict upbringing, Okieme was able to avoid many of the problems that her friends ran into, including early pregnancy, drugs, abusive relationships, and STDs. Yet her mother also did not impress a sense of African identity upon Princess. Indeed, she tried to “erase the fact that she was from Nigeria.” There was no African art or music in the Okieme home, although there was African food. However, Princess would frequently go to Nigerian parties in Brooklyn, and in this way would keep in touch with a network of New York-based Africans.
Princess began working at the young age of 11. At first she worked in a laundromat, then a supermarket, then at an afterschool program for children, and finally at a gym. During this time, her mother married a Puerto-Rican man, who became Princess’ stepfather. Unfortunately, her stepfather was an abusive alcoholic, and he would frequently take Princess’ money to feed his cocaine habit. Given the background she came from and the hurdles she had to overcome, Princess considers it a major achievement that she reached college. Most of her friends succumbed to drugs, early pregnancies, and abusive relationships, but Princess credits her strict upbringing and her own fortitude with the success she has met with. At the same time, however, Okieme believes that Nigerian, African-American, and Hispanic culture tends to make girls feel as if they must fall in love and marry as soon as possible, so that they might support and be supported by a husband. Of course, things don’t always work out like this, and in more cases than not, young women have to sacrifice their plans for the sake of marrying. Princess is determined to find fulfillment in a career and a life of her own before she marries anyone, and she hopes to make something of the opportunities that have been given her.
Okieme, Princess. April 25, 2007. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
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