African American identity and the impact of the 'New Diaspora'

Msia Kibona Clark (2006-01-12)

Msia Kibona Clark explores the relationship between African Americans and the 'new Diaspora' of African immigrants to the United States. The relationship is not one that is without conflict, she writes, but argues that the two groups can no longer continue to segregate themselves from each other. In the future, the voice of African immigrants is likely to gain ground in areas of both domestic and foreign policy as Africans and African Americans prove to be valuable resources to each other.

Africans and African Americans have always had a delicate and intricate relationship that has been influenced by history and perceptions. Phillipe Wamba, himself bi-cultural, once described the "fascination" Africans and African Americans have for each other as two groups which have been "gazing at each other across the Transatlantic divide like a child seeing itself in the mirror for the first time". Well, today that "Transatlantic divide" is getting narrower. More and more Africans are coming to the United States, and these "distant cousins" are forced to, at the very least, acknowledge each other.

This acknowledgement, however, is not translating into a family reunion. African and African American social relations are dysfunctional at best and hostile at worst. The tensions that exist between Africans and African Americans in the US promise to reach a boiling point. In fact, there have been random cases of conflicts between African and African American students in American middle and high schools, as well as workplace conflicts over the hiring and promotion of one group over the other. While there are bright spots of cooperation and interaction, Africans and African Americans tend to segregate themselves from each other while harboring stereotypes and misconceptions that have prevented wide scale social interactions.

Every year Africans are entering American cities in larger numbers. In 1989, over 25,000 Africans immigrated to America. In 2001 the number of African immigrants doubled to more than 53,000. Over 75% of the African immigrants in the US today, in fact, arrived after 1985. And these numbers don't include the more than 10,000 African students that enter US universities every year. In fact, many historians estimate that more Africans have immigrated to the United States since 1980 than came to the United States during the entire period of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Many of these Africans are moving into metropolitan areas, like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and changing the face of African America, in much the same way West Indians did generations earlier. While there have always been Africans in America, the dramatic increases in African immigration in the last twenty years have made them an important part of the American landscape in general and the African American community in particular. In the past, the majority of African Americans, who did not consider African immigrants a strong presence, and who often did not even know they were here, overlooked the small numbers of Africans in the US. With the current, and rising, number of African immigrants in America, African Americans are encountering Africans on a daily basis, from New York City to rural Alabama to the midwestern cities of Ohio and Minnesota.

This trend is also having an impact on the African American community in the Washington, DC area. With between 80,000 and 93,000 Africans, the area hosts the largest number of African immigrants in the country. African immigrants (80,000-90,000) in the Washington, DC area even outnumber Caribbean immigrants (49,000) in the area. Washington, DC is, in fact, home to a diverse group of pioneer African immigrants who have made up the community's diplomatic core and which have provided foundations for recent African immigrants. Washington, DC, is also home to one of the nation's oldest majority Black metropolitan areas and one of the nations largest historically Black universities (HBCUs), Howard University, all making for an interesting mixture of peoples of African descent.

Africans and African Americans in the Washington, DC, area, like in other parts of the country, come into direct contact with one another at school, at work, and in their neighborhoods. These contacts are shadowed in stereotypes of Africans as either poor and uncivilized or smart and arrogant. African men are also seen as domineering and African women as passive and accepting of the abuse they get at the hands of oppressive African men. African Americans are seen as lazy, obsessed with racism, and lacking a culture. African American women are seen as loose, while the men are seen as violent criminals. The Nigerian slang word "Akata", which Americans were first exposed to in the film "Sugar Hill", is a word used by some West Africans to refer to African Americans. The word, roughly translated, is a derogatory term meaning "savage", "slaves", "captives", or (like in Sugar Hill) "cotton picker". These are some of the images that tend to hover over any contact between Africans and African Americans.

Not wanting to paint a completely hopeless picture of African/African American relations, there are important areas of cooperation between the two groups. Outside of the many friendships that have been formed by members of either group, African immigration to the US has also translated into more marriages between Africans and African Americans. Some research says that there are more Africans married to Americans of African decent than to Americans of European decent. There is also cooperation in the realm of activism. While Africans have yet to become involved in large numbers in domestic issues (police brutality, affirmative action), African Americans have a long history of championing African causes. Organization such as Africa Action, Africare, the African American Institute, IFESH, and TransAfrica are all African American organizations that employ and work with Africans on issues impacting Africa. In the area of pop culture, R&B artist Akon, a Senegalese, has made a name for himself in an African American dominated genre. Also, hip hop artists like Common and Wycleff Jean have collaborated with African musicians, linking hip hop artists in the Diaspora to those in Africa, something unheard of ten years ago.
Overall contacts between Africans and African Americans are often complex and multi-layered. Economic background, level of African-centered consciousness, length of time in America, age, and family influences, all play a part in the interactions between Africans and African Americans.

For example, Africans who have been in the United States longer, tend to have a better understanding of the African American community and the politics of race in America. This is especially true of those Africans who immigrated to the US at a young age. This younger group is more likely to have African American friends and to socialize in circles outside of their immigrant community. Another very important link in African/African American contacts are bi-cultural children. Those born of one African and one African American parent are often the link that ties the two communities together. They often spend much of their lives translating the culture of one group to the other. It is often a mixed blessing to be bi-cultural, to be part of both communities, and to be caught in the middle of the tensions that both communities continue to hold on to. This group, however, also serves as a critical link in any hope of bridging the gap between these communities.

The case of bi-cultural children and young African immigrants brings up another interesting piece to this puzzle: identity. For the African American community, identity has been an important part of African American self-determination. African Americans have always determined who and what constituted an African American identity. African Americans have traditionally been thought of as those whose ancestors came to America via the transatlantic slave trade. African immigration is now challenging that identity in ways West Indians did not. Today's African Americans may not necessarily have a history rooted in the transatlantic slave trade. Second-generation African immigrants and bi-cultural children have a different history and culture, but a number of them identify, at least partly, as being African American. Some of these Africans have never been to Africa, and look, sound, and act (and in some cases, feel) more like African Americans than they do like Africans.

The research, in fact, says that children of African immigrants are African American. While other research refers to this recent wave of African immigrants in the US as the "new Diaspora" and to the Africans who are coming to the US as the "other African Americans". Academia, however, does not necessarily determine real life perceptions. Identity is fluid and multi-layered, and at times conflicts. As more Africans are arriving on American shores, African Americans have to deal with the implications of these "new African Africans". No longer can the two groups continue to segregate themselves. Groups like the NAACP and the Urban League have, in the past few years, begun to at least acknowledge the presence of African immigrants in America. That has to translate into an inclusion of their issues in the African American agenda. African immigrants represent a legitimate voice in this country and have the potential of reaching a similar level of influence that other immigrant groups have in the areas of both domestic and foreign policy. We already see Africans playing an increasingly larger role in lobbying American foreign policy in Africa, a role that was primarily filled by African Americans. Aside from all the wonderful ideas of Pan Africanism, Africans and African Americans would prove to be valuable resources to each other. Likewise, the definitions of who is African American will likely change in the coming generations to make room for the Africans who are continuing to arrive in the United States in record numbers.

* Tanzanian born and American raised, Msia Kibona Clark is half Tanzanian and half African American. She holds a BA in Political Science from Johnson C. Smith University, an MA in Comparative and Regional Studies from American University, and is a current PhD Candidate and Sasakawa Fellow in Howard University's African Studies Department. Her research focuses on African immigrants in the US and their impacts on African/African American interactions and identity. In addition, Msia is the Ugandan Country Specialist with Amnesty International, works as a Book Reviews Editor with, and has done consulting and lecturing with several organizations.