What does it mean to be an African in America?
I have this conversation all the time with some of my fellow African friends who live in the United States. We talk, laugh, and sometimes cry over the experiences we have lived and observed from our American “cousins” as we like to call them sometimes. Sadly, most of our experiences have been negative, but as we know, the media has a major role to play in that. Growing up African in America, we weren’t considered cool or desirable, especially not in the same way as we are now with more people wanting to travel to Africa, connect with their roots by taking DNA tests, adopting African names, listening to African music, and an overall greater acceptance of the African people unlike before. With this acceptance, there are still people who view Africa negatively and find it to be insulting if you say to them that they look African. In other words, the cultural divide is still very much alive and present, but maybe not as pronounced as it once was…
I have numerous stories about how life was growing up as an African child in the U.S. At no point was it cool to be an African child. We were always looked at as if we were some type of weird specimen.
Are you African?
Yes, I am.
Oh. She’s African. But you don’t look African...
This type of conversation, if you can even call it that, often sounded like the person pitied you as if you were some sort of unwanted child. Trying to convince little kids my age at that time that all of Africa wasn’t like what they saw on television was a near-impossible task. Again, I can’t blame them. It’s what society has socialized them to believe, even at that young age. Thank goodness for the wealth of knowledge that we have access to at our fingertips today. All it takes is a simple Google search and a person who wants to learn more about Africa can easily do so. Social media has helped a lot as well with African print and other types of materials and cultural pieces making a big impact in the fashion industry. African weddings, particularly Nigerian weddings, have also been big on social media. Also, with the help of many social media influencers and celebrities traveling to Africa and showing beautiful parts of their excursions outside of the typical African safari experience shows Africa in a different light. Africa is now desirable.
Black Panther also helped a lot with this newfound love and admiration with Africa. This is something I greatly appreciated. Wakanda forever! That was such a beautiful time. African people had a lot of pride and so did African-Americans. Africans saw themselves in American cinema on the big screen in a positive light, which is a rarity. This film and all of the support surrounding it served as a unifying force, I feel. But... many Africans also felt that Black Americans should have kept that same energy like they did before in the ‘90s and early 2000s when we were growing up because many of us still remember how it felt to be called an African booty scratcher and a number of other ignorant and hurtful comments just because we were looked at as different.
Growing up African in America, we had to explain why we didn’t do certain things, like celebrate Halloween because our parents thought it was witchcraft, or spend a night at friend’s house, or why it seemed we only ate certain foods all the time, or why our parents were so strict. I remember one time I was given a gift at school and my mom told us to never open gifts that we received from people she didn’t know unless she herself looked through it and approved it for our use. Imagine trying to explain this as an elementary schooler to your fellow classmate. You don’t always have the words to defend yourself, and even if you think you do, they wouldn’t understand because they haven’t lived it. They can’t even begin to conceptualize that really as a child, so again, I don’t blame them entirely. The only people I cannot accept this level of miseducation from are the adults who live in this era of information. All it takes is a person being willing to educate themselves. If you still have this terrible misconception of the starving African who lives in huts and has pet tigers and lions, you desperately need to educate yourself. There are no excuses.
Growing up African in America is also being told:
“Wow! You speak really good English!”
As if this is some sort of supernatural accomplishment or something unheard of or heard to believe.
Growing up African in America is constantly battling between two sides - choosing to identify with Africa or America or both and when?
In closing, I would like to say that I am a very proud African woman. I would like to say that I always have been, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve developed this strong sense of who I am and I would like to attribute a lot of that to my beloved dad. He made sure to instill that in my siblings and I growing up - who we were as a people, our connection in the African diaspora, and so much more. Even with that, there were times that I wanted to change my name because everyone thought it was too hard to say or not important enough to say correctly that they had to resort to coming up with their own nicknames for me, oftentimes without my permission. Growing up African in America came with a lot of challenges, to say the very least, but the woman I am today is very proud of my Africa, despite all of her challenges. I’m proud of her resilience, I’m proud of her strength, I’m proud of her people on the Continent, in the Americas, in Europe, or wherever else her diaspora has found themselves - and the great mark they have left in the world despite the odds. I hate to see the divide that exists between her people. I love seeing her people unite because it benefits us all. I once read somewhere that the greatest distance between two people is misunderstanding, and this is very true. We cannot continue to misunderstand one another - we are speaking the same language of hurt, but what we need to do is address it, hear each other out, and figure out ways to move forward. There’s so much we can learn and share with one another if only we give each other the chance.
I love my people, and I hope one day they will learn to love each other, too.