the black americans

About a year ago, I was invited to be on my sister’s show the Grapevine. They were filming an episode about the relationships and tensions between Africans and African-Americans, and, knowing that I research contemporary (West) African literature, my sister invited me on the show for what was, in my opinion, a nice and informative conversation about the complexities of life in the United States for people whose bodies are read as Black, yet who experience Blackness in different, nuanced ways particular to their ethnic and national identities. The episode I was on was never aired, mostly because my sister and the showrunner, Ashley Akunna, were worried that it would start a war in the comments, but a recent reshoot of this segment, split across three episodes in order to include West Indian experiences, incurred such great vitriol among Black people from all walks that Ashley turned off the comments on the videos. I will provide links below, but I wanted to take the time to reprise a post I wrote in April of last year which defined African-American as an socio-ethnic marker in order to explore some of the pitfalls of this classification, as well as the great necessity for increased conversation on the merits and complexities of ethnicity in discussions of race in the United States.

1: Ethnicity will not save you

There is this idea, hanging out there in the ether, that African Americans are a lazy, culturally degenerate people. African and West Indian immigrants to the United States often warn their children to stay away from them (African and West Indian immigrants also warn their kids to stay away from each other, too, and to hang out only with other Africans and West Indians, and if possible, other people of the same nation). I have experienced discrimination from Senegalese people during my time in Dakar, pointed primarily at the perception of a lack of motivation which is either rooted in the creolized, racially impure body (neither wholly African, nor Amerindian, nor European), or the Entartete Kunst of African-American cultural production and representation. This infuriated many of the panelists on the show, mostly because they saw it as an insult that someone would want to come to the United States, very much aware of its history of racism and violence against Black people, only to subscribe to the very cultural ideologies which were used to denigrate the Black population because of its African ancestry. Nevertheless, Black immigrants to the United States should not be held accountable for understanding the intricacy of American chattel slavery and its aftermath, for we, as Americans, whose lifeblood is this very institution and its remnants, have yet to really surmount the great ideological frontiers which undoing centuries-old institutional racism poses. It is unfair to expect more of Black people because of a believed shared experience or shared suffering which is not as verisimilar as we may believe. I study colonialism and postcolonialism, sure, and believe that we can use postcolonial thought to better understand African-American cultural politics, but I would never go so far as to say that African-Americans experienced the same or even similar kinds of subjugation as did the Ivoirians or the Jamaicans. To do so is to homogenize, and conversations on Race which homogenize racialized subjects only advance and never destabilize the status quo.[1]

Within the context of violence against the Black body, your ethnicity will not save you. Many African immigrants, for example, enjoy particular economic prosperity. They are some of the most educated immigrant groups in the United States, and many of them stay here after their schooling, integrating into American society and fulfilling the goals etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty in ways which seem to enrage the Black natives of this land. The idea that one’s progress through the American social system can be lauded on one’s exceptionalism (“It’s because I’m Ghanaian and have a culture which pushes me to do better, to shoot higher than African-Americans) is a false ideology which ignores the very ideas of cultural degenerations that many immigrants unfortunately internalize; African immigrants respect white bourgeois cultural values, while African-Americans take these things for granted. However, the deep-seeded roots of inferiority at play in the African-American mentality, the product of centuries of chattel slavery and political policy which vilified and demonized the Black body, primarily the female Black body, through which the system of enslavement became perpetual, has left critical wounds in the cultural psychology the likes of which immigrants coming from majority Black nations may not be able to interpret or perceive. Colonialism looked and operated differently depending on the power (The British in Nigeria, the French in Guinea, the Boers and the British in South Africa, the Euro-Americans in the United States, etc.) and the length and depth of psychic colonization must be understood lest we fall prey to the very traps which sought to categorize and name us as a boundless yet unmistakable other.

Ethnicity will not save you from the violence of the American police state will not save you, nor will it protect you from the violence of quotidian racism which allows state-sanctioned violence to persist. Your foreign status can open certain doors for you, the immigrant-ness seeming to overpower the ethnic otherness from which you can never seek refuge, but the reality which awaits you is that your race is immutable. Your blackness can never be mitigated, can never be undone, regardless of the proximity in which you view yourself in relation to whiteness. To the unknowing third-party, the security guard, the police officer; your blackness is beyond question, and the presence of an accent, foreign passport, transnational ideology, will not protect you. Amadou Diallo was a Guinean man killed by the police in 1999. Akai Gurley was a Saint Thomian man killed in 2014. Erickson Brito was a Dominican man killed by the police in 2016. Alfred Olango was a Ugandan refugee killed by the police in 2016. While the majority of the Black victims of police brutality are in fact African-American, the existence of these cases does not mark exceptions, individuals who were misread as belonging to the degenerate native ethnic group of this country, but that the means by which degeneracy is determined is not so much rooted in ethnic productions (language, music, fashion, cuisine) but in the racial otherness which makes the ethnic cultures legible within an American cultural imaginary.

 

2: Horizontal axes of ethnicity and race

A source of great tension on the Grapevine panel was the question of the inherent privilege of one’s immigrant status. “Outlanders” come to the United States from their designated, all-/mostly-black countries, seeking to blend seamlessly into the population, yet nevertheless being bunged with the Afro-American indigenes who live here, seemingly against their will, belonging neither to the United States nor the Americas nor Africa, born from the mythical Atlantis-like continent of fading cultural memory, a place which seemed to just fade into the mist once the boat drifted too far away to see it. Yet a phrase I love to reference here, in response to this false interpretation of African-American history, is the phrase “The only thing separating you and me is where the boat stopped.” Africans, West Indians, African-Americans; at one time, the heels of slavery had bent us all into submission. Whether it was the enslaved men being stolen from their interior villages in what is now northern Ghana by Asante and Fante warlords to be sold to British and Danish slavers, destined for the coasts of the pale, depopulated islands across the sea, and the infinite misery of the American system (Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing) or the droves of male slaves in Haiti, worked until they collapsed and died in the fields, only to be replaced by a new batch of slaves, or the millions of slaves imported from Angola across the sea to Brazil where they gathered such large numbers that their descendant Black descendants outnumber the populations of several African nations, what distinguishes us as regional, historical beings is this Middle Passage, itself a form of becoming if one had the fortitude and the misfortune to withstand it. The Middle Passage was not just a form of becoming for the Africans unlucky enough to make the journey, but it also greatly changed the ethos of Africans who remained, who maintained their power at the expense of the misfortunate and trafficked. The Middle Passage did not just change the soon-to be African Americans (no hyphen in order to symbolize the America in question as a continental, as opposed to geopolitical, entity; all-encompassing, super-ethnicity stretching from the Black Brazilians to the Afro-Canadians), but creates the means for which race and ethnicity have become and shall become salient in the coming generations.

There is privilege to be addressed on both sides here; African-Americans do not have a homeland to return to.  Growing weary of subjugation and broken promises, we cannot pack up our bags and go back home, cursing ourselves at the idea of finding a better life elsewhere. African-Americans must perpetually endure the reality of America’s unaddressed and unassuaged vendetta towards them as an everyday reality of being an Other, of being a foreigner in their own country. They have no nation, for the United States as a nation was founded on the labor of their invisible, half-devil, half-child ancestors, spirits made into flesh only by the chains which bound them to the earth and to one another. A language sanitized and washed of its creole character, brought into such proximity with Standard American English that it no longer sounds distant and unintelligible, only improper and malformed. A culture which has no legitimate value unless it is visually translated through a white body. A black body whose perceived animality made it apt for leaps and bounds in scientific medicine, for pain was both something to which the black body was accustomed, and suffering a condition the black mind had been trained to endure. How African-Americans can study their history without melting into a red rage or a perpetual state of mourning is a testament to our resolve as a people, a need to forego seemingly unending suffering which is not genetic, which is not a cultural vestige, but something we have been trained to adopt lest we be destroyed under the weight of our ubiquitous, overarching oppression. We cannot leave the United States, for this is all that we know. A history abluted, what have we now but the shores of the country which has and is a prison? There is a form of privilege in knowing that one can go back, that there is a place where one belongs, to which one can retreat once the American experiment has failed.

Yet, for many immigrants, there is nowhere to return to. Whether you are a refugee, fleeing political or natural disasters, or an “economic migrant”[2] seeking a better life, yet lacking the clout of refugee or asylum-seeker status, many immigrants cannot go back. I have rarely met a Haitian or Jamaican person who has ever expressed an interest in moving back home, not because of unrest or violence, but because the lives to which they have become accustomed in the United States seem unredeemable at home. The motherland sinks in their imagination into the point of origination, the blip from which the arrow extends northwards. They may visit home for holidays, weddings, funerals, but it is always a temporary visit, one which seems marked by discomfort, by out-of-placeness, by un-belonging. (Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory; Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go; Dany Laferrière, Je suis fatigue; Fatou Diome, Le Ventre de l’Atlantique; Ken Bugul, Cendres et Braises) To a certain extent, the same can be said for many African immigrants and first-generation Americans of African descent. Many Ghanaian and Senegalese and Ethiopian friends have stated that they are too American, at this point, to go back, that they feel uneasy speaking in Tigrinya or in Wolof at home because of their parents’ reliance on English in order to avoid the attention a foreign accent may bring in American schools. With each generation, the motherland becomes more and more of a chronotope (Hamid Naficy), a time-bound fixture of the now-imagined homeland of one’s ancestors, the likes of which is perpetually reimagined and reoriented to address pressing issues of marginalization and isolation in the host country, but whose reality can never be attained due to one’s belonging neither here nor there. Diasporic communities develop to foster a relationship to one’s people, to one’s identity, as modernity, globalization and homogenization threaten to strip you of it completely.

The symbols of one’s culture (food, language, dress) become stigma. The Nigerian mother does not speak Igbo to her sons out of fear that such a language will further the divide the world seeks to build around them because of their outsider status. The Jamaican grandmother uses her savings to send her grandson to a private Catholic school where he’ll be taught the Queen’s English and be better able to find a government post or work abroad, despite him speaking a perfectly functioning language when he speaks to her and in spite of the difficulty she endures when hearing him speak in this dialect. The Beninese father goes to great lengths to sanitize the developing African French accent in his daughter’s speech, making her speak like the other young Quebecois girls so that one less element is mitigated in the composite image of her alterity, although all three parents cannot save their children from their skin, the biggest stigma of all. Parents and guardians do the work of cultural mitigation and assimilation in order to spare their children the pain and suffering of isolation, itself a form of mental torture, as the days tick by and their ability to “fit” into the mother-culture becomes more and more fraught. And so the African and West Indian immigrant, too, has nowhere to go, oftentimes, feeling isolated at home because of their Americanness, because of their Westernness, non-Africanness, non-Caribbeanness and feeling isolated abroad because of their Africanness, their Caribbeanness, because of their non-African-Americanness, and because of their Blackness.

 

3: The Black Americans

The term Black American is becoming increasingly popular for reasons I did not exactly unpack in my first post on this topic. The term, which I original saw to be an abstraction of a truer, more poignant definition for African-American ethnic identity, which I interpreted to be an attempt to distance African-Americans from the African continent, nevertheless offers nuanced ways of understanding culture as an entity which is not liaised directly to race (and perhaps has never been, save for White culture, which seems to represent a Euro-American / Euro-Western super-culture composed of individual, albeit collectivized national identities) as it exists as a socially generated and vertically imposed category, but ethnicity as the underlying backbone, the photonegative through which the racialized and abstract gains concrete and physical dimension. Black Americans are as the demonym suggests; Americans of varying national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds whose culture nevertheless is synthesized, hybridized and creolized in ways which produce new fluid identities in their wake, their race the glue which seals them together as separate, slowly fusing wholes. The Black American is not just the African-American indigene, but a person who belongs to a supranational collective of Black peoples who have been, by means of institutions of power, place and identity, forced to cohabitate and understand one another, to find common ground and to bond over a shared cultural heritage and a unified quest against vertical and destructive forms of oppression and marginalization.

Black American identity is an assemblage of class, nation, language, religion and ideology. The Black American exists as an entity whose racialization has forced a new kind of cultural and ontological self-determination, whose hybrid identity can never escape the interpolation of one’s ulterior selves. The Black American is simultaneous Senegalese and American, engaging with Wolof or Serer or Fulani culture while also feeling a claim to the African-American culture into which they have been racially baptized. They see a version of themselves in both traditions, and attempt at once to maintain those selves as concrete, albeit coterminous beings. The Black American weeps alongside their African-American friends at the death of another African-American boy or woman killed by state violence, for they seem themselves not only in the deceased insofar that they are forced to transpose their image over that of the corpse because of their shared blackness, but because the suffering of their host culture is theirs as well. They do not simply remain distinct, remain solely Nigerian, Brazilian, Malagasy; they embody Africana as a cultural sites of becoming, as a means of survival.

African-Americanists, it seems, tend to have a hard time discussing issues of ethnicity as they relate to Americanness. This is primarily visible when interacting with our (Anglophone) Caribbean neighbors with whom we may share names (Johnson, Smith, Howard, etc.) yet whose cultural alterity, whose foreigner status, only becomes visible at the moment of the encounter. This may be partly due to the Americentric ways in which we operate, trapped within the local and national contexts which confine us, unable to imagine the possibilities of other organic forms of life, manifestations of Blackness (a word which seems, as far as I’ve searched, to not have made its way into other European languages, such as Spanish [negridad?] or French [noirceur? Négritude?]). Nevertheless, many contemporary cultural figures and icons are the result of African and West Indian immigrants, even if they have been claimed largely by the African-American majorities with which they cultural and demographically identify. Issa Rae (Diop), for example, is the child of a Senegalese father and American mother. Tyler, the Creator’s father is Nigerian, and Vic Mensa’s father is Ghanaian. Audre Lorde was Grenadian. Charles McKay was Jamaican. Stokely Carmichael and Nicki Minaj are Trinidadian. Rihanna is Barbadian. Idris Elba and Naomi Campbell are British. All of these celebrities have enjoyed great cultural esteem as American icons, despite being the results of the transnational movements of Black people to the United States. Each plays an important role in structuring the image of Black Americans on the world stage, be them actually American or not, for we have adopted them as our icons, have stepped beyond the boundaries of Americanness and ethnicity to see ourselves through them, to identify with their work, with their image, as it reflects and embodies our own. Black Americans therefore are not really American insofar that they are political citizens of the United States, but moving across the national, seeing the racial as an inherently nationless entity from which cultural becoming stems and in which identity restructuring is rooted.

 

4: Ethnic xenophobia in the age of Trump

I close with a reference to an interview Samuel L Jackson gave on the actor David Kaluuya’s portrayal of Chris Washington, the African-American protagonist of Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out. Jackson seemed uncomfortable with Kaluuya’s performance, highlighting his Britishness as a mediation of the potential film Get Out could have been had an African-American been cast in Kaluuya’s stead. While I’m not going to say that African-Americans would perhaps be better equipped to play roles to which they have been made aware in their lived experiences, I do find it unsettling that Jackson’s blindness to the reality of African-Americans having historically jumped beyond lines of ethnicity and nationality in the United States quite tone-deaf. The everyday instances of racism and marginalization which coalesce into spectacular violence in Get Out are not necessarily specific to the African-American experience, nor has one’s lived experiences played much of a role in an actor’s ability to “adequately” play a certain character within a horizontal axis of race in American cinema. The issue of cultural embodiment did not seem to stop Forest Whitaker from playing Ugandan warlord Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, a role for which Whitaker won an Academy Award, nor did it stop Morgan Freeman when he portrayed Nelson Mandela in Invictus, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and received an NAACP Image Award. Jackson’s statements speak, nevertheless, to a growing fear among African-Americans that the arriving immigrants seek to displace them in the cultural imagination, portraying African-Americans in ways which both deprives African-American actors of work and also bastardizes African-American cultural experience as it is only understood from outsider perspectives. Nevertheless, the notion of Black Americanness transgresses the fixity of national identity insofar that the Black American understands their identity and their experiences to be intrinsically bound to those of African-Americans, seeing in their consumption and contribution to African-American (soon-to-be Black American) cultural production a nation-state, albeit psychic, which formulates in between the divides of imagined homeland and country of residence. The Black American finds solace in their archipelagic life, knowing that they are accompanied by a heterogenous collective of folks, fam, kin who do not and have never belonged.

Notes

[1] Race does not exist in a vacuum. Bodies are not simply racialized, nor are social attitudes predicated solely by racial detection. When discussing race in a vacuum, devoid of other signifiers through which racial tropes are concretized, such as class, gender, religion and, as I argue in this paper, ethnicity, I tend to refer to it as “race with a capital R” or Race, a sociological and cultural marker which, without additional signifiers, offers very little to critical or theoretical ruminations on its social implications and significance.

[2] I am hesitant to use the term migrant here, mostly because the lack of a prefix (im / em) seems to signal an existence of prolonged flux, of unebbing motion. However, economic migrant has entered popular discourse as a way of studying African and Middle Eastern migrants entering the EU in search of jobs and opportunities. In this case, the term seems to fit, although the ambiguity and connotations of the term migrant unnerve me still.

Photo: A statue honoring Phillis Wheatley, one of the first Black Americans, on display at the Boston Women’s Memorial, Boston, MA

Links

The Grapevine E2S63: The Collective: Africans vs. African-Americans vs. West Indians (Part 1)

The Grapevine E2S63: The Collective: Africans vs. African-Americans vs. West Indians (Part 2)

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