Yvonne Orji’s “Momma I Made It”

She did it!

The premier of Yvonne Orji’s first stand-up special which aired on HBO on Saturday was not just a celebration for the Black community, but definitely felt like a personal achievement for me—a whole me. (You will get it once you watch it or if you are familliar with Orji’s podcast with Luvvie Ajayi, Jesus and Joloff).

Listeners of the podcast became more acquainted with Molly‘s Yvonne’s personal journey as she shared about her faith, her career path, and being single–all of which is connected to her identity as a Nigerian-American. While her recent HBO special may have been an introduction for some, those of us who have been stalking following her for the past three years are familiar with her background. She was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, but came to the United States when she was about four years old and grew up in Maryland. “Momma I Made It” is a comedic review of the balance between her ancestral and assimilated culture. Appropriately titled, the special is also an ode to her parents, relaying a crucial aspect of first and second generation American identity. Our success is not our own.

From the onset, the color green (Nigeria’s dominant flag color) is prominent in ts marketing. In the promo pictures, the HBO typography, and the lighting on stage upon her entry, the audience is made aware that this comic’s perspective is coming from another land. The stand-up includes footage from her most recent trip to Nigeria where she engages with her parents and strangers in the community to illustrate many of the points she makes in her routine. The visuals of Lagos, the former capital city, in the first frame is an unabashed presentation of the country. Whereas, Orji could have only predominantly featured shots from the posh areas of the country like Lekki Phase I, Lekki Phase II, or Banana Island, the beautiful, yet rugged image of the mainland and her home in Ihiala Town was an organic and authentic revealing of home, signifying her pride in all things Nigerian.

She opens up with a popular stereotype of “the emails from the Nigerian prince” (If you haven’t heard about it or received one….I guess you’re lucky.) In Nigeria, scams or 419s, while rebuked, are as normal to the culture as eba and egusi. It could be an embarrassment for us, but it’s so commonplace that sometimes laughter is the only response. Even though the scams are indicative of a corrupt system (not a corrupt people), it certainly becomes fodder for shared storytelling at gatherings. In fact, Orji celebrates these tensions within the culture when she describes the country as “beautiful chaos” and its people as joyous. (Cue: Ayuba’s We are Happy People and let your hips follow the drum). In contrast to mainstream presentations of Africa which cultivate pitty empathy for Africans without “resources”, or leaders who refer to African nations as a”shithole countries”, Orji embodies an undeniable pride in her country and celebrates it, flaws and all. While there are shortcomings, there is no shame.

A large part of the special was about Orji’s relationship with her mother. She praises her mother’s hard work-ethic and success as a nurse in Washington D.C. This tribute to her mother serves as a subtle counter to negative narratives regarding immigrants’ value to this country. Under the current administration immigrants have become the scapegoat for the country’s economic and moral failures. According to the American Enterprise Institute, immigrants in the workforce actually boost the economy and create jobs for other US natives. While undocumented immigrants are more likely to take low-paying , low-skilled jobs, immigrants make up a meaningful proportion of professional services and high-skilled jobs.

Throughout the special Orji shares about her parents’ emphasis on education and encouragement of at least three career options. It’s a joke that almost any immigrant group can relate with. She invites us into a candid conversation among other Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans about parental pressure which from an American perspective might seem harmful, but for this group at least, the parental”shaming” and family scoldings were merely motivation. This might explain why children of immigrants are likely to excel above their parents in education, earning power, and asset wealth. According to Pew Research, ” . . .all (93%) of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now [2019]] and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children.” For many immigrants, a child’s success is their crown of glory. Orji captures this communal pride well.

It seems clear that Yvonne Orji has willfully taken up a mantle to rewrite the scripts written not just for Black people, but immigrants and their children. Like many first and second generation Americans, Orji utilizes her unique position to view socio-cultural interactions with a “dual lens.” She craftily engages tensions between Nigerian and American ideologies, American privileges and biases, or Black American and African identity with respect. From the stigmatization of Africans in the US to social comparisons in the African community, Orji comedically unpacks the duality of our cultural affiliations. Her identity as someone In Between, an Insider/Outsider allows her to share stories that makes us laugh at our differences and celebrate our similarities. Such stories also remind us of what makes the United States a land of opportunity. With her platform she is able to introduce a new visual of immigrants–one that we can all be proud of, not just her momma. I look forward to seeing more of her work as she develops her art and her message.

Stay tuned for my review of Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever

Published by Tayo Banjo

We don't give stories enough credit these days Stories make the world go round. Stories make a person. Stories can make a life. I just want to tell my story and share other's stories so that one person who feels like no one understand them can look up, exhale and say "I knew I wasn't alone."

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