Where Exactly is Oklahoma?
ESSAY BY CRYSTAL KAYIZA
I was four years old when my Mama took my three siblings and me to the Albany Greyhound Station. We were all under the age of six, my youngest sister was 3-months-old, and we were too cranky to realize that our worlds were about to change.
I remember the judgmental stares that followed as she steered us from one bus stop to another. More vividly, I recall the kindness of strangers after the stress of getting four children to sit still started to show.
This wasn’t the first time my Mama took a long journey to meet my Father—she was five months pregnant with my older brother when she left Kampala, Uganda to meet him in Harlem, New York.
This time, my Father was waiting for us in a new place called Oklahoma. I wasn't old enough to understand what would compel two Ugandan immigrants to leave New York; I do remember how the sunlight hit my Father’s brown Nissan Datsun outside of our final stop.
It was 7 a.m. and we were exhausted. His tight hug and hesitant welcome confirmed that this eerily quiet and bright town would be my new home. My Mama feigned a smile—I could tell that she had no idea where we were.
On that day, Oklahoma became a part of our American Dream.
By the time I was literate enough to find the state on a map, I had already been introduced to an age-old debate—where exactly is Oklahoma?
It’s unclear if my parents knew the answer to this question before they uprooted our lives. Many historians will tell you Oklahoma is technically in the South. Most Southerners will tell you Oklahoma is Midwest. I’ve met Midwesterners that claim we’re an annex of Texas—a sentiment I deeply resent.
These arguments are rooted in the state's legacy of exploitation and displacement of Indigenous communities, the violent migration of white folks moving West, tense alignments with the Old Confederacy, and ongoing Bible Belt politics.
Within these contexts it’s clear why Oklahoma goes largely unclaimed—it doesn’t fit neatly into the narratives that shape the identities of these regions. The further you get into the debate about where Oklahoma is, the more it becomes about where Oklahoma belongs—physically, politically and culturally.
I found this tension around belonging to be oddly relatable.
From the moment my family arrived in Green Country, the lush, northeastern corner of Oklahoma, we worked hard to blend in. But we were black and foreign in a very white and conservative state. Our complexion complicated our assimilation.
I quickly learned how the God-fearing white folks in Oklahoma looked at working-class black folks. The prejudiced stares my Mama tried to ignore during our trip south followed us to our new home.
This is a story I’ve heard throughout the African diaspora in the United States: arriving and wanting to belong, only to be misplaced by the racial binaries embedded in the American consciousness.
In school, I was the punchline of racist and xenophobic jokes about my last name, my hair, and my skin. My teachers skimmed over the histories, politics, and cultures of the continent of Africa, but expected me to lead brief lessons on chattel slavery and Jim Crow.
In sixth grade, I cut my arm on a friend's trampoline—thick drops of red blood stuck to my Harlem Globetrotters t-shirt. She rushed over and her big, blue eyes stared down at me. She stood there, puzzled, for too long before asking about my wound—she heard that black girls bled a different color than white girls and she wanted to see for herself.
When my Mama would return from her regular night shift at the nursing home, she would tell us about patients who refused to be touched by a black nurse. They’d deny medicine and food before allowing an African woman—who somehow made time for four children, community college and their rage—tell them what was best for their health. She told us how she still prayed with them on their deathbeds. They always asked for God’s forgiveness—never hers.
Midwest, South, or both, regardless of the brand of racism we encountered in Oklahoma, it became necessary to learn how to endure it.
These incidents led our small, East African community to understand how African-American folks were excluded by the people who pulled the levers of opportunity. My parents learned how race and class determined who got access to the American Dream—a vision that seemed more and more like a mirage in the panhandle state.
So they spun opportunities out of empty pockets. They always found a way to get us into and keep us in good schools. When I concluded that smart kids played in the orchestra, a viola found its way into my home. My parents got us to debate, soccer, dance, youth group and tutors between double shifts.
Belonging became more complicated when I was outside of my parent’s reach. In school, black kids weren’t supposed to be smart. Black kids didn’t play the viola. Black kids weren’t supposed to get tutors when they couldn’t keep up in Algebra. This tension was not exclusive to my relationship to whiteness. I was constantly reminded by my African-American classmates that I was too foreign to be black.
I, a Black girl who spoke like a white girl, was not a part of the tribe. On too many occasions, African immigrants responded to this exclusion by policing our blackness and striving to be seen differently than our African-American peers. These tensions around difference lead us to forget shared struggles, and we created enemies out of kin.
I was black but not black enough; I tried to access opportunities given to white students but I was not white. All of my parents’ sacrifices were to ensure that I could be successful, but when I did succeed I faced the challenge of being an “only”—the only Black student, the only Black girl, the only first-generation kid, the only person of color. I was still conscious of the staring eyes that believed I belonged somewhere else entirely.
The anxiety of being caught code-switching constantly silenced me. Although we never spoke about it, I’m sure I was not alone. African kids exchanged knowing nods in my high school hallway; some of us learned to posture identities that we were never sure belonged to us.
I was in 10th grade, walking with my white classmate during passing period. We always took our time from one Advanced Placement class to another. It was uncool to rush.
We were alone underneath one of the long awnings that stretched between the buildings of my high school campus. We made that walk together many times before, but that day the solitude made them bold. Somehow, we arrived at a topic they rarely discussed outside of a joke.
I was a first-generation Ugandan-American living in the suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was President of the International Club, I used a backpack with wheels for most of 7th grade, and I owned a Death Cab for Cutie t-shirt.
It wasn't the first time someone had something to say about my blackness.
"It’s like you’re not even black, you know? You’re not like the rest of them.”
I had heard renditions of this before. This time the callous way the word “them” settled between us gave me pause. Them. They were talking about my Mama’s hands.
I tried to let these painful experiences roll off but they always stuck to my skin. I thought about how I wanted to storm out of my friend’s backyard that day on the trampoline. I stayed and said nothing—I never wanted to disrupt the comfort of the people I was trying so hard to be. I was left to determine what parts of myself I compromised in order to be seen in Oklahoma, and how the things I valued were tethered to my proximity to whiteness.
It’s a feeling that settled in, and paralyzed my sense of self. Because I attached my feelings of exclusion to home, I became determined to leave Oklahoma.
It was early in the morning the summer after I turned 18. My Mama shook me from my sleep and told me to get dressed. We packed my things into our Honda Odyssey and hugged my Father goodbye before heading to the airport. He would make the long drive on his own and meet us in New York, where I would spend four years at a liberal arts college upstate.
Today, I’m surrounded by people who have never been south of the Mason-Dixon line. Where exactly is Oklahoma, is a question I haven’t stopped answering since I left. Ironically, it’s these moments that make me feel most Oklahoman. Suddenly I’m being looked to as an insider, when I was always an outsider at home.
There’s something poetic about learning how to thrive in the place where my family’s American story began. I thought leaving home would immediately change things for the better, but unlearning is difficult work. I was deeply insecure about where to place myself at this new start, and finally being seen as Oklahoman, as truly a part of my home, was not enough.
Now when I find myself seeking affirmation from others about who and where I should be, I remember the day my Mama left me in New York. When we reached our final destination, she looked at me and smiled.
I had no idea where I belonged, but I knew it was up to me.