“Black in America” is like a fortress that is all at once forbidding and inviting. As an African arriving in America, I took it for granted that I would gain access to that fortress of black belonging by virtue of shared ancestry. How mistaken I was. When I moved from Kenya to New York City, my reception baffled me: The racist ridicule I got was mostly from black people, an experience many Africans in America tell me they have shared.
I was living with relatives in Briarwood, Queens, then a mix of Asians, whites, Latinos and some blacks, while pursuing graduate studies at a college in Manhattan and working as a teaching artist. In these classrooms of mostly-black students, I played a word-association game: I would write the word “Africa” on the board, and the volley of uncensored words the students contributed were all negative.
I was careful not to make the singular examples represent the whole because I could also see black people who embraced their own self-fashioned African identity with fierce pride. But one thing seemed clear to me: We African immigrants and our African identity were troublesome for many blacks. I would also come to learn that the black identity was equally troublesome for many Africans. It seemed to me we reminded blacks of an identity they had been taught to be ashamed of.
Back in Kenya, studying American literature in college and getting to read the works of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, the poetry of Paul Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance greats, never educated me on what it feels like to live as a black person in present-day America. I learned my accomplished book knowledge of the black experience was as worthless as a sack of cowry shells in a bank account.
One day I mentioned to a friend that I was going home to watch “Murphy Brown” since it was one of my favorite shows. I used to watch it in Kenya, I said. “You watch what?!” My friend was a black student. She asked this with a mixture of disdain and confusion. My education into being black in America was just beginning. Why would I watch a show of mostly white people? Yet while growing up in Nairobi and Mombasa, we watched it all. But watching “Murphy Brown,” and even “Good Times” or “The Jeffersons,” could not teach me about the complexities of American race relations. We watched the shows for their entertainment value, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that carried black comedy. The tragedy of race and racism was always there in those American sitcoms I had watched in Kenya, but I was not a black person. I was an African immigrant. And that too was a designation that took some learning.
In Kenya, racism was a concept that existed only in books and never in conversation. Tribalism is what we lived with daily. Our identity was and still is ingrained in ethnicity, not in skin color. It explains why most Africans experience being called “black” or “African” for the first time when they come to America. Neither “black” nor “African” are conscious identity markers for Africans in Africa. One is a Taita, Igbo, Shona, etc. So any jokes or reference to racism in the black-American sitcoms flew right over our heads. The tiny population of Kenyan whites left over from a colonial past are mainly cocooned in their own enclaves and any effects of post-colonial white supremacy remain very different in an African country where black people run their own political affairs.
New York was overwhelming after my home in Taita, a county a few miles from Mombasa. It was the most-densely peopled city I’d ever been to, and the most intensely lonely. The perks that come with African extended family bonds are profusely underrated. I certainly could never have afforded New York rent, which explains why many African immigrants who land in New York leave soon after for more affordable cities. After I moved to Washington, D.C., I began to fit into my African-in-America identity. D.C. is a slower and more deliberate city than New York. You get to pause and attempt real human connections. I felt more at home there. In D.C., I found kindred spirits in the activists and black intellectuals steeped in the smarts and grits of politics and position.
In Washington, I finally felt I might have a better chance at being stitched into the black identity that I was beginning to find rich and alluring. But I soon found that I couldn’t just claim the Sistah identity. I was treated with respect and regarded as a comrade in art and struggle by other blacks, but without expectation that I would, or could, share the conversations that only people with a shared historical and cultural experience understood.
My place has been as one hovering somewhere around the outer rim of the inner sanctum of blackness. I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head.
Many Africans in America find little value in identifying with Blackhood. They resist being identified with blacks once they become aware of the American caste system that puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Africans in America have this false hope that being an immigrant saves them from classification on that totem pole. They check the box “Other.” When they make it, most buy homes outside the city, as if American cities and their inner-city component haunts them with a certain stigma of failure.
This reticence about bonding with blacks has made Continental Africans miss out on some of the most amazing inter-personal relationships possible. This claim will undoubtedly be met with derisive laughter by fellow Africans in the U.S. who say they cannot handle the aggression of black people in relationships. Unfortunately, the angry black person is a stereotype; one as dangerous and misinformed as the ugliest stereotypes about Africans held by black people.
The black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland since most notably, Marcus Garvey. In the ‘60s through ‘90s, Congressional Black Caucus members and TransAfrica Forum (now TransAfrica) were responsible for fighting the American legislative and corporate anchors that propped up an oppressive white supremacist reign in South Africa. Through the Aughts, Friends of the Congo, a black initiative, has been fighting genocidal neo-imperialism in the Democratic Republic of Congo by confronting American corporate greed in Africa.
Clearly, African immigrants have a natural ally in their Black siblings in the US. To ignore this factor is myopic and self-defeating. This has left most African immigrants weak in agency, splintered as a people, and visionless in a foreign country. They either keep to themselves and thrive as individuals or form collectives around ethnicities, not as Africans. They will also form pockets of small professional and investment blocs. These splintered efforts keep them advancing at their lowest potential.
Pew Research statistics estimates Africans in the U.S. at about two million. This is likely a very conservative number in light of the fact that many African immigrants who have multiplied within the U.S. do not participate in the census.
Although a 2018 National American Economy report notes that “African immigrants boast higher levels of education than the overall U.S. population” they remain a population that seems completely uninterested in the incredible possibilities that come with rising as a monolith.
The story in these statistics is that African immigrants are not going anywhere, and they will remain recognized as black people within the socio-economic stratification of American society. Some Africans have fought for Africa Desks in local governments, arguing that socio-culturally and politically, they are unique enough to warrant a separate recognition from African Americans. Forming lobbying power as Africans for African interests is fine but attempting to form separate recognition on the tapestry of black is delusional.
As a resident of Baltimore, exploring black Baltimore has brought me closer to a Nairobi experience than any other city I’ve known. From fighting for healthy communities to promoting black business patronage, capturing fiery post-Freddie Gray activism, and lobbying for a black arts district, that feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity is now coming full circle.
Melanin identity goes beyond skin. It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America. Socially? Love will find a way.
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