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Controversial Matters

Who Is African?

"Black Father" By Kai Streets Visuals

The question of “Who is African?” and what it means to the African Diaspora is a long, complex and powerful question that often makes everyone in the room somewhat uncomfortable, a little perturbed, some even indifferent. However the question has to be answered, because the more one tries to siphon themselves from answering it, the stronger the pressure to answer it becomes. If you steep yourself in the teacups of African Diasporic History, an embittering brew will instantly overwhelm your tongue. For the past six centuries, there has been a constant wave of torment, anguish and destruction as the state-sanctioned devaluation of African bodies is upheld for the world to take heed to. This brew has produced the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the largest forced migration in human history, and the building of slave-based societies in the Americas and the Caribbean as a way of life, using a supposed ‘innate savagery’ of African peoples and African cultures as justification for their dehumanization. This brew yielded the rapid Colonization of the African continent, ransacking economic, social and cultural self-sufficiency under the same rhetoric of ‘innate savagery’. On the side of the African Diaspora, it sought to destroy all traces of “Africa” from the people, to better control them, and did so differently in each colonized piece of Indigenous land.

Many Africans gain their perceptions of the Diaspora through a colonized, White Supremacist lens. I grew up in New York City for most of my life, first Queens and now Brooklyn, and I noticed, when I got older, a certain attitude among African classmates (particularly Nigerians and Ghanaians) who were trying so desperately to emulate pop images of what society deemed was an acceptable representation of “African-American Culture”. A lot of what entails Black American cultural influence on communities outside of Black America isn’t a 100% accurate portrayal of Black American culture at all. In fact, a lot of what I see counts as “Black American influence” on-Black American communities is actually a bunch of rubbish as well as cultural appropriation. I find it very telling that non-Black American people know more about “ghetto culture” and thugs and gangsta rap imagery and all of these other problematic images of Black Americans, but know nothing about Gullah-Geechee culture, Southern Negro folktales, Black American spiritual traditions, the History of Black American music. Africans will come to America with no knowledge of who Black American History whatsoever, and say some of the most horrifying things imaginable against us; classifying us as “uneducated”, “lazy”, “dirty”, “castaways”, despite our glaring, ongoing accomplishments. However, I understand where these sentiments come from. Blacks have forever been the pariahs of American society. All other groups, even Indigenous peoples (with which we have a long and complex history) have, one way or another, sought to elevate themselves above us because they knew that, in the system of White Supremacy, Black peoples were at the bottom. This is called Anti-Blackness, and it exists in Caribbean countries as well, especially those such as Trinidad and the Dominican Republic where a sizeable part of the population is non-African in origin.

When nationality is added to the mix, it becomes anti-Black Americanness. Black Americans, forever the caretakers of this society, have been in competition with other ethnic groups who immigrated here throughout its entire history, such as Italians, the Irish and European Jews, all of which “achieved Whiteness” by participating in the subjugation of Black Americans. Black Africans and Black Caribbeans also participate in this subjugation in various ways, but it’s essentially futile because they are Black peoples and cannot gain the graces and favors of White Society at all. I think it’s incumbent upon Africans to learn about the History of the African Diaspora, holistically, just as it’s incumbent upon the African Diaspora to learn about the History of Africa.

What’s the most ironic is that Africans and the African Diaspora are all oppressed under the same system of White Supremacy, but White Supremacy has forced Africans, Black Americans and Black Caribbeans to compete for a prize they cannot win. The interactions between us all are stratified on what appears to be a much equalized set of opinions. There’s a school of Africans and African Diasporics who proclaim that we are all African, regardless of our birthplace. They typically say so for Pan-Africanist ideals, certain cultural connections that have remained intact throughout African Enslavement, or others such as the growing number of African Diasporics who are practicing African Traditional Religions such as Ifa, Odinani and Vodu. There’s a second school of Africans and African Diasporics who proclaim that African Diasporics are not African whatsoever, usually supported by the argument that there are just too many years of separation and everything has changed completely.

Recently on Tumblr, I was horrified to see a post from an African girl who criticized Black Americans who didn’t consider themselves African, and it’s this attitude that causes the most aggravation for me. A Black American stressing the fact that they are not African is not something that can be so easily argued down. I think the Africans who believe we are all African regardless of birthplace need to consider why a Black American might say what they are saying. For many of my people identifying as “African” brings up mixed emotions. We feel connected to Africa but also disconnected at the same time. On one hand, some of us point to White Supremacists and criticize them for selling our ancestors in the largest forced migration in human history. On another, some of us believe the lie that a bunch of “African kings” got together and sold their people to Europeans all willy-nilly with no political or economic complexity involved.

While Black, yes, we are also American (but not really because America is synonymous with Whiteness, and we have been fighting to maintain our status as voting, fighting people while being treated like non-citizens and non-people since the first Africans were brought here as slaves in the 1500s), and living in America has fed us some very poisonous ideas about Africa that we’ve internalized and thought of as a right way of life. In order to fight White Supremacy we have tried to trample and hide Africa in our proverbial closets. Therefore, popular racist images of Africa we’ve learned from White Society are ingrained in our collective cultural psyche. Yet it is not our fault.

White Society has been forever telling us that, without them, we’d be “lost to African savagery and would have never discovered civilization”, so why would we identify with the very place that has always been (wrongly) portrayed as the bane of our existence? You cannot blame Black Americans for distancing themselves from Africa. Our history is so treacherous and tumultuous, sometimes I’m surprised things like Kwanzaa and Pan-Africanism even exist (problematic as they are, they’re steps in the right direction). Now, of course, not every single Black American feels this way. I’m a Black American who identifies as African because I have the unique experience of being raised in a home that promoted knowledge of my West African heritage. Due to this, in the minds of too many people from the African Diaspora, Africa has become this mythical paradise. In my country, I feel too much of Black American culture holds onto an “idyllic” Africa which never existed. The nostalgia surrounding Africa is expected, though, and I think a mass “going back” (historically-speaking) to the continent and trying your best to trace one’s origins is something every Black American should do, but it should not involve the appropriation of African cultures.

-Jonathan Turner


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