Athens, Ohio may be a temporary home for a lot of Ohio University students for the four to six years they study. But, for some residents this is where their formative years are spent. Growing up can be hard and confusing for anyone, especially for those whose neighbors do not look like them. Gaza Odunaiya, Charlee Cobb and Simphiwe Shongwe are a few of these students.
As the nation continues to clash about race relations, these three students had a front row seat to being a minority in Appalachia. While similarities among race bring some shared experiences, the unique mixture of being both a racial minority and rural are bring their own stories.
One shared experienced that Odunaiya, Cobb and Shongwe all had was the pilgrimage to Columbus for proper hair care.
“I would drive to Columbus every three or four months… I would get my hair redone,” said Cobb.
Odunaiya and her family went to Columbus more regularly, and she had family that would help with the hair care commute.
“Luckily my sister does hair, so I never had a problem with getting my hair done,” said Odunaiya.
The problem is not just for women, however. Shongwe echoed similar sentiments.
“My mom and two my sisters have dreads, (so) we go to columbus for that. It’s a big plan, like this Saturday we’re going to Columbus because we obviously can get that,” he said.
Hair care is a major adjustment students of color face as well, when arriving at the university. Cleveland native and student Ambrielle Coleman and others did their own research on means to get around that challenge in Athens.
Another shared experience is being able to both be in and out of mainstream culture.
Shongwe tells his own personal stories growing up in an area not as culturally influenced as a bigger city.
With Odunaiya it was also not only finding the balance of just black and white, but also nationality and ethnically as well.
“Most times I felt more comfortable in Athens, just because people were more or less accepting of who I am,” said Odunaiya, ” When I got to Columbus, they would think I was white-washed, basically took on the personality of everyone at my school.”
Navigating a space like Appalachia, being a racial minority in a growing racially tense society was no easy feat. Through the stories of those like the ones mentioned above, it can bring clarity to what Athens brings to more than just those who stop in.
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