Dear African American, (from a Nigerian in America)
Dear African American,
Please know that Africa is your birthright. Even this tension between Africans and African Americans can not take that away from you. But when you accept your birthright, you must accept it with the good, the bad and the ugly. I can’t pretend to know the pain of not knowing the details of your ancestry, of only being able to trace your lineage back to the height of the Black Holocaust, but I think it’s important that you make an effort to know more. I’ve worked with scores of people from the Diaspora over the last decade, and I have not met one who didn’t experience a wave of absolute peace on their first visit to the Motherland. I haven’t met one Black person whose life wasn’t transformed by the overwhelming feeling of belonging and welcoming that they experienced on the Continent.
It’s important that you go. For your soul, and for the souls of your descendants. But you’ll have to figure out where to start. West Africa is a logical starting point because of what we know about the percentage of captives who came from there. DNA tests have been helpful to many in pinpointing a culture to start with, but I think your gut may be a better compass. Are there African traditions you gravitate towards? People? Music? Food?
You also need some African friends who can expose you to the cultural capital you may not otherwise have access to, and those who can help you when you decide to get immersed, whether physically (by going home) or educationally (films and cultural events). You’ll need friends who speak the languages that you’ll need to connect with, some who might even invite you to their family home in Conakry or Anambra.
These are the friends who will translate for you and minimize the local exploitation of your American passport, and accent. If you wish to learn more about your roots, yet you don’t have African friends who can help you with this, we’ll need to deal with that first. It could be because you simply don’t live in a place with a significant or diverse African population. But if you do, and you’ve come across many Africans, we need to work out why you’re not connecting with them.
In the Blackish pilot, when Anthony Anderson’s character contrives an “African” rites of passage ceremony for his son in order to metaphorically reclaim his African birthright, Laurence Fishburne’s character isn’t having it. He swiftly responds with, “African’s don’t even like us.” It may have been politically incorrect to state this on national TV, but he expressed the sentiments of what is arguably the majority of the Black American population.
A number of scholars have tried to determine why there is so much tension between Africans and African Americans. The majority of African Americans on record seem to feel that Africans generally look down on them, whereas many Africans feel rejected as well by AAs.
The Africans I have interviewed, who hold negative feelings towards African Americans are holding on to the trauma of rejection and taunting they’ve experienced at the hands of African Americans, but certainly have been heavily influenced by stereotypes, so that even when they wish to connect, many have deeply-held negative perceptions. Many of the Africans who were upset at the wearing of dashikis to Black Panther, calling it “cultural appropriation” were still angry about being taunted on the playground with names like “African booty scratcher” or “big lips” or having coffee thrown on them by a group of African American youth while standing at a bus stop. Some have gotten over that trauma through friendships with AAs who treated them well, but many were so traumatized that they reject any possibility of friendship with AAs, even into grown-ass adulthood. I’m still researching this, but the inclination I have from data collected so far is that those taunted in childhood (or upon arrival in America as adults) are most likely to be anti-African American in adulthood. Of course there are those who arrive with negative preconceived notions about AAs. We will need to deal with them in a later post.
For us to begin to break down this cycle of anti-Blackness and anti-Africanness, it’s as important for you as an African American to acknowledge the African’s trauma, as it is for the African to acknowledge their ancestors’ role in slavery. It is through this cycle of acknowledgement, and hopefully forgiveness, that we can begin to see a thorough embracing, each of the other. If you’ve ever disrespected, insulted or looked down on a native-born African, acknowledge it and repent. Then vow to call it out any time you see it happening. Don’t let your family or friends denigrate Africans in front of you.
I am deeply ashamed of my slave-trading ancestors, and having grown up among you, I feel the trauma of genocide as you experience it here in the US. But I ask you to find ways to forgive every African, even those who are not yet intellectually mature enough to acknowledge their evil. This forgiveness will serve you more than them, and it will open the door to the powerful connections you need to the Continent of your origin. Let’s link up again, so that we can move these mountains trying to crush all of us.
This is the second of a few letters I’ll be writing to members of the Diaspora. Read the first one here.
Halter, Marilyn, and Violet S. Johnson. African & American : West Africans in post-civil rights America. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Imoagene, Onoso. 2017. Beyond Expectations Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain. University of California Press.
My Survey of Black Americans on Intra-Racial Rejection
My Survey of Africans on Intra-Racial Rejection