Ezinne Ukoha

Selected as Noteworthy for her fearless honesty, Ezinne reminds us that writing truthfully about the world — especially today’s world — is an act of courage

Medium Staff
May 31, 2017 · 5 min read

Ezinne Ukoha was standing on a crowded bus in Los Angeles. It was hot, standing-room only, and definitely not a place where you’d expect inspiration to strike. But Ezinne was catching feelings, so she tapped out a poem on her phone. It struck a chord, prompted responses, got people talking. In response to one reader, Ezinne wrote: “I am lucky that I have a way to release myself from the mental hijackers that temporarily threaten but are scared away by my words.”

With a defiant sense of curiosity, Ezinne unpacks all the conversations — from race to mental health to That Thing Donald Trump Said Yesterday — in a visceral, honest way. Her words touch everything from media to the Women’s March to the plight of Ryan Lochte. Just as often, they are evergreen and lyrical. Rather than “covering” topics for the sake of being topical, Ezinne does it because she knows it matters. “The key,” Ezinne explains, “is having a vested interest in what you are expressing.”

But freedom of expression is never free. Born in America but raised in Nigeria, Ezinne remembers when Dele Giwa — a journalist covering the Nigerian government — was assassinated. A mail bomb, sent to his home in Lagos. Her mother was also a writer, and it hit home. “I’ll never forget when that happened,” admits Ezinne, who — even then — aspired to one day type truth to power. “I just remembered, as young as I was, thinking I cannot express myself here.”

So she moved to the States — first for college, as one of the only black girls at a school in the Midwest — expecting The Dream. America was supposed to be the land of plenty: streets paved with Twizzlers and Oreo cookies, the Wizard of Oz handing out liberal arts degrees and 401ks. Then the LA riots happened. Ezinne began to notice segregation on campus. The Dream faded into reality. “Black America is under siege here,” Ezinne realized, “this is real — racism is real.”

Fast-forward two soul-draining corporate jobs, and Ezinne now lives in Los Angeles. She pours her opinions into her phone, laptop, or whatever device is within tapping distance. Ezinne notes, “I never wanted to be the race writer,” but she often found herself speaking up for her community. Writing about being a dark-skinned black woman, she waxes lyrical: “When the lights are out — and the white sheets soak our sweat, we shimmer just for the ones who see us glowing in competition with the moon.” Her words hit that rare bubble on the Venn diagram of internet expression — the one where personal, political, and poetic overlap.

Her stories travel quickly, igniting conversation and prompting digital head-nods. After unpacking Post-Obama Stress Disorder — and reflecting on her Nigerian-American Dream — readers reacted with a combination of recognition and gratitude. A story about lost girls of color triggered some much-needed wake-up calls. Ezinne’s words sometimes burn — or indict, or expose, or reveal — and people listen.

What keeps the ideas coming? It all goes back to 1980s Nigeria: “I’m more empowered to say what I have to say because I know what can happen when you live in a country where you can’t do that.” These stories are visceral, without pre-planned angles or hooks. Fueled by memories of censorship, Ezinne avoids anything that looks like a filter: editors, gatekeepers, even her own inner critic. “When it comes to the tone, my voice, what I’m trying to convey,” she admits, “I want it to be as naked as possible.”

Watch our short film for more on what keeps Ezinne hitting publish.

In a world where so many stories feel overproduced or pre-packaged, these words are raw, immediate, and undeniably real. And they’re having an impact. “I am definitely optimistic about the future,” Ezinne reflects. “I think all of it — artists, writers, singers, whatever it is — all of us are banding together and using our skills to enlighten, and it’s making a dent. A good dent. It’s definitely encouraging young voices, and it’s waking people up.”

Check out some of Ezinne’s most Noteworthy stories and series:

Noteworthy

Words change everything.