Friday, February 16, 2007

Who is an African American? Bringing it Down to the Individual

In the current round of discussions about race, culture and education in the U.S., all black people are often referred to as African Americans. There is no classification for non-African American black such as there is for non-Hispanic white. African-American has become synonymous with being black, effectively flattening the rich cultural complexities that distinguish non-American from American black people. I am the first person in my family to be born in the United States. While I am a born citizen of the United States, for all of the generations between me and Africa my family has resided in the Caribbean - Guyana and Barbados. That is an important distinction that is largely covered over by the blanket titles African American or Black American. Black people like me with Caribbean roots do not have the same cultural history that black Americans do. For many of us in the north east, for example, we did not go to Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi for the summers to visit our grandparents when we were growing up. We went farther south, to Antigua or St. Lucia or Trinidad. We do not share the history or contemporary experience that is implied by the term African American. Of course all black people share the historical experience of enduring slavery and colonization in one form or another and surviving the inhumanity of Europeans. In the current context of race, politics and education in the United States; however, that does not make us a monolithic group that can be easily or singularly classified as African American.

One of the most obvious demonstrations of African American racial identity occurs right now, during Black History and Culture Month. While the practice seems to be slowly dying, it is the time when the perceived identity of African Americans is most clearly on display. Typically it is a presentation of famous people and interpretations of their meanings to black people in America. Frederick Douglas, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall are part of a long list of significant African Americans that I have learned about nearly every February of my life. As a person with Caribbean roots I do not relate to these figures with the same degree of intimacy that my black American counterparts might. Michael Manley, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, Bussa and Sir Arthur Lewis, for example, are much more closely related to the actual experience of my family and my ancestors. The artists and athletes of significance are also different. Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards, Sizzla and the Mighty Sparrow, C.L.R. James and Kamau Braithwaite do not mean much, if anything, to my black American friends. Indeed, the psychological memory of and identification with slavery and history itself is different. The black American recognition of self in Alex Haley’s Roots is different than the Caribbean recognition of self in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin.

The implications of being African American as African Americans popularly conceive of themselves do not directly apply to West Indians in America and people like me with Caribbean roots. Indeed, the term African American does not really fit most of the thousands of non-American black people in America. I do not mean to overstate the tension between these communities and suggest a false polarity, but rather to acknowledge it. I am a cultural hybrid. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York but spent considerable time in the West Indies. Since I am born here and am black in America, I am forced to cleave a space of meaning for myself out of this umbrella term - African American. Some might argue that a more courageous alternative would be to declare myself an individual and not worry about whether or how I fit into the box of African Americaness. I argue that as part of any society my individuality is referenced against some larger group. In this case, black people in the United States, called African Americans. This larger group is part of how I know what makes me different and what makes me the same. Declaring myself African American does not diminish my individuality. Rather, because of my individuality I am forced to be critical of the group with which I identify and determine exactly the nature of my relationship to that group.


GopherPT said...


You're thoughts are so well organized and developed that I think you should be working on a manuscript either in addition to or in lieu of this blog.

My $0.02.

Deona said...

As a "true" African American in the sense that you are talking about, I am a bit disappointed that you would want or feel the need to be divided from the African American Identity. I think African American refers to being of African decent in America. But more importantly, AA is part of an American perception. Individual labels aside, in America hispanic people will be called Mexicans, Asian people from a wide variety of countries will be called Chinese, white people called white and so forth. I would prefer that instead of pointing out how the history of the AA is so different, you should make efforts to incorporate your history into the whole unit so that we all may learn. The African disaspora is one unit. A guy at the BLC yesterday said "If a cat has a kitten in an oven is it a muffin? No then, why if an African is born in America does he/she cease to be an African." I really feel that yes there is a very important and valid point to recognizing each individuals special history and culture, but it is just as important to recognize your part of the whole. In sum, I would hate for us to be having the Dave Chappelle's "Race's Draft" and I could no longer claim you to be on my team. You and many others like you are an asset to the AA identity. And as troubled as we are with connecting to our roots, it would be a net benefit to our community to see that our brothers and sisters, fellow AA's, have roots all around the world.

RahDigga said...

It’s interesting that this comment should be posted on this weekend. I just returned from the Africa Business Conference, which is an opportunity for African business people from around the world to come together for networking and discussions about issues relevant to Africans. I attended because I am fascinated by the similarities and differences of all of the definitions of what it means to be Black. I met and interacted with people from the East, West, North and South of the Continent. While they all shared a desire to improve the state of their respective countries and the Continent as a whole, besides residing in the States or the UK, they were culturally quite different. Africa is a continent of immense diversity. Since America has opened its doors to permit immigration from most parts of the world, including Africa and the Caribbean, and since most of that influx occurred post Jim Crow, how can we logically expect the term "African-American" or "Black" to hold the same meaning it held 30 years ago? The fact is that it’s changing. It would behoove those of us that identify with those terms to open ourselves to better understanding Blacks ex US. Based on my experience, this integration doesn't always occur automatically.

I truly love the black diversity afforded by living in NYC and attending events like this conference. However, there is an underlying issue that doesn’t get acknowledged by viewing all Black people as one monolith. At this conference, the mantra being preached to the attendees was to "Come home." Many of the top students of these countries leave for the US and the UK for their education and for work. Granted some people were like, “Yeah right! And do what in ________?” Others were seriously considering and planning to work for 2 more years, and return to their homeland or their parents’ homeland to build its economy. There were many examples of people that had already done it. Here is what concerns me: What happens to the "descendant of American slaves" when, because of past injustices or current cultural shifts, is unable to compete with the best and the brightest from Nigeria or Antigua, for example? And when schools and companies are looking to diversify with people of African descent, will the “descendant of the American slave” be able to compete? These questions ate at me during the entire conference—I wondered if we, as “descendants of American slaves” have missed our window of opportunity fully integrate into the world economy beyond what we can buy. While I harbor no ill will against Black immigrants that come to this country to improve their own situation, this influx may suggest that time has run out for the “descendant of American slaves” to get ourselves together. You may recall this article in the NY Times back in 2004: .

So I think that while we are all Black by appearance, it is imperative that each of us update our impressions of what it means to be Black in America – including our institutions (ie. Black History Month, Kwanzaa, the Church, the HBCU). The monolithic view of Black America is part of Black history. Let’s practice what has been preached for the past 20 odd years and celebrate the complexity of what it means to be Black.

luvlife0702 said...

Because black is dependent on pigment presentation, can't that simply be enough?

You know, i became an 'Afro Caribbean' when I came to North America. Its not an identity owned by most of the people that live in jamaica. My identity in the Caribbean was simply Jamaican as it is for the Chinese and Indians and Syrians etc that live there. As folks from American questioned the legitimacy of a 'Jamaican' Prime Minister whose roots were in Syria, we had no question of his Jamaican identity. I grew up experiencing Duvali and Chinese New Year and when the half Chinese Playmate of the Year kept answering to a Jamaican identity and wondering what people were searching for other than that, I got a real sense of how the hyphenated American is a recent (very recent as in last 40 years for Black folks and probably last 20 for other groups) pheonomenon that needs reexamining, political realities notwithstanding.

If we think being African American (or black) is a complex identity what on earth is an Asian American when you have black folks from Tonga, others from Micronesia and Melanesia along with those from India and China all in one bucket. And never mind the question of why Russia (part of the same land mass) is part of Europe and not Asia. But that's another story.

These are all creations of the Office of Management and Budget who control census categories depending on the political pressure and will at the time. And I agree with Kamau that its time we really start rethinking definitions created out of political necessity to incorporate cultural realities.

I have been (sometimes humorously) accused of not performing my African American hegemony on many occasions. Because to tell the truth, I'm not sure what being African American really means. I just know I got black skin, grew up in 3 countries and live in a 4th and i'ma do what i'ma do and that is Ruthness if not blackness.

What I know is that I didn't grow up with Chinese Jamaican as some kind of ethnic group, nor Indian Jamaican. They were simply Jamaican.

And it was interesting to be in Uganda last summer and read about this Indian family living for many generations in Uganda (who styed through Idi's madness) whose Ugandan identity was questioned and the response of the matriarch of the family was in the indigenous tongue of the ethnic group where she grew up as she explained that she is so long removed from India that she is no longer Indian in her mind. And in fact, when Idi kicked them out they mostly went to London because India was no longer home.

I have spent a lot of time in my race and ethnicity classes discussing the need for hyphenation and to tell the truth, i'm not sure why everyone in america need be some hybrid and why being here is not enough to be simply American (since our blood aint being shed in Baghdad for any other place than the land called America so may as well be called simply 'American'). i dont call myself Afro Canadian but simply Canadian and i wasnt even born there, i simply got naturalized and after 10 years of living there will probably never live there again. My British identity is a matter of birth and 4 years of childhood i dont remember. As for being American, well, politically i'd prefer not, but the green card would be a nice addition to my freedom-to-ride collection of my transglobal workforce identity but for now my TN visa (courtesy of NAFTA and my Canadian citizenship) will have to do.

luvlife0702 said...

Another thought... while we talk about the African Diaspora how comfortable are many folks with including what we would consider to be Arabs in our definition or does their immigrant status to the African continent make their Africanness suspect?

And do white south africans count? (this has been an intersting debate there re: Africanness and whiteness) Is there a cutoff as to the number of generations it takes to be either AA or part of the African Diaspora? i.e. what of the dozens of racial categories in Brazil count as part of the African Diaspora?

Do we claim the Indians from South Africa, the Arabs of North Africa and the white or racially mixed descendants of colonizers?

This ethnic/cultural identity we call 'blackness' can be as simple as skin color. Put the term "African" in front of a geographical term such as America or Diaspora and things get quite a bit more complicated. 'Cuz as any gardener knows, scattering seeds can lead to some very interesting results.

Tjada said...

I am with Deona. One half of my family immigrated from Jamaica and the other half are descendants of American slaves (as far as we know). To me, African American says it perfectly. I am an American of African descent. Now, just because there was a prolonged stay in Jamaica makes me no less of African descent. Furthermore, to me, characterizing myself as African American does not mean I give up any community with Jamaica. I care about West Indian heroes too.

Some of this may be generational. My father who had two Jamaican-born parents was born in the US and came of age during the civil rights movement. No one treated him or his mother any differently because of their Jamaican heritage. He was black and fought right alongside descendants of American slaves for his rights.

I read a great book called, "Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: The impact of West Indians on black radical thought." In the 1700-1800, many slaves that were brought to South Carolina and Virgina came from Barbados. In the early 1900s, a large wave of immigration took place between the West Indies and the US. Many icons of the civil rights struggle have West Indian roots including WEB Dubois, Stokley Carmichael, Malcolm X, etc.

Our experiences as blacks (which is the African descent part--not Arabs or Indians who reside in Africa now) and as Americans are diverse, but we also have many common roots as well. When I celebrate being African American, I am celebrating the contribution of blacks in America and many of those contributions came via the Caribbean as well.