The Young and Disenchanted

“Black, maybe…” – Thoughts on Race

Posted on: 23 February, 2010

In the past couple of years, I have become increasingly aware of a tense conversation emerging on my campus around February between African and African-American students. This conversation deals with the question of “blackness” and how it relates to identity, and becomes even more fraught during Black Heritage Month. It usually plays out in a meeting attended by members of the African Students Association, Black Students Organisation and Caribbean Student Association (the three biggest black groups on our campus), where two factions stand on opposite side of the issue: the (for lack of a better word) FOBs who don’t necessarily identify with the word black as it is used in the American context, and the Americans who do. I belong to the former group, and as a result have heard everything from “You’re running away from your blackness” to “Maybe the ASA shouldn’t participate in BHM if you guys don’t think you’re black.” Le sigh. Instead of cussing out a motherfucker the people who misunderstand why I feel the way I do about the word black, I’m going to take a minute out to explain my relationship with it and maybe shed some light on the way some people of African descent feel about the concept of race and how it plays into their identity – or at least, this woman’s perspective on the subject.

From what I have observed while studying in the USA for the past 3 and a half years and from talking to African-Americans, the word black here is a highly loaded and politicised term. Not only does it refer to a particular phenotype, but it also speaks to a specific cultural, political and historical identity that has evolved alongside the United States itself and in many ways is shaped by its representation of a numerical minority asserting itself against a hostile majority. It has been a stigma, a badge of pride and is almost always at the forefront of conversations about self- identity.  While I understand and appreciate that, I am not an American and I did not grow up in the same social context most of my fellow students, which means that the word black carries totally different connotations for me.

Nigeria’s population is pretty much 100% black. This means that growing up, race was clearly not at the forefront of my identity formation because everyone – more or less – looked like me. I didn’t go to a primary school where I was the only black kid. There was no need to section out a month dedicated to the achievements of our race. There was no celebration of our first black president because as long as we have been an independent country, they’ve all been black (although I wouldn’t describe the military dictators as “presidents,” per se). This is not to say that I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was black – it just wasn’t that important. Growing up I would never have used the word to describe myself – it was usually applied to people with that extra-midnight-dark-chocolate skin tone (I, being lighter-skinned by virtue of a random Scottish great-grandfather, was called “yellow” or “oyinbo” which is a term in pidgin for “foreigner”). No one in my immediate family would be called “black” as the term is generally understood in Nigeria – as the shade of your skin tone rather than as a denotation of your race or political identity. Other things were more important to my understanding of who I was: my ethnic group (Isoko), the state from which my family originated (Delta), the city I grew up in (Lagos). My parents never failed to remind me that I was an Isoko girl, a point that was reinforced every time I digwe’d for my grandmother when she came to visit. I think this same grandmother best illustrates how differently race is applied in the Nigerian context: she is half Caucasian (and honestly kind of looks like an old white lady), but ask her what she is and she will resolutely reply that she is an Agbor woman. I understand that in the USA ethnicity and race are often used interchangeably but, as my grandmother’s case shows, at least some Nigerians separate these two concepts and, because of our particular social and political dynamics, generally place more emphasis on the former.

Fela said once that he did not know he was African until he left Africa. This quote more than anything explains my relationship with the word black. When my family moved to England, I suddenly became black because I was in a minority and that was the easiest way to mark me out. At that stage of my life, it was never a huge deal – most people accepted it when I said I was Nigerian and used that term instead. I do remember once having to fill out a census form and searching for the “Other” space where I could write “Isoko – Nigerian” instead of ticking the “Black/Afro-Caribbean” box – not because I had a problem with that label, but because I felt phony identifying with a group that had a totally different story to mine. After all, I wasn’t descended from people who had migrated to Britain in the 1960s from Jamaica. Still, I was becoming increasingly aware of a separation between how I saw myself and how people outside Nigeria saw me.

Moving to the USA only further emphasised this disconnect. When I tell people that I don’t necessarily identify with the word black, I get everything from bemused looks, to side-eyes, to hurt glances from African-Americans who think that I’m disowning them and their connection to Africa. Let me categorically state that I do NOT, in any way, shape or form, reject the fact that I am black. My kinky hair and name with more vowels than consonants proclaim that before I even open up my mouth. And I love it. However, I refuse to hang my entire self-identity on my race. Even though it’s important, I shouldn’t have to subjugate other aspects of myself to my race, whether it’s on the basis of being from a third world country, or my love of jazz or the significance I place on being from the African continent. I don’t want to limit the ways in which I form coalitions with other people by always privileging the colour of my skin or my facial features over these things. I understand that in the reality of the United States race is an important tool for alliance building, but in the reality that I grew up in and for the most part still exist in, that simply isn’t the case. Even more problematic for me is this notion that black = Africa. If that is the case, then where does that leave the people of Berber, Arab and South Asian descent who are Africans like me? As a friend astutely said, race is a social construct that was used for many years as a tool of oppression – and, some may argue, is still being used in a similar vein today. I can’t help but be cautious about choosing an aspect of my identity that can be manipulated for sinister purposes – not to say that my ethnic identity cannot be similarly exploited, as is often the case back home, but I am talking specifically about my experiences living in the USA.

Maybe if I end up living here for an extended period of time, my race will begin to be a bigger deal for me than it is now. For right now I’ll say this: growing up black for me was a radically different experience than for those who grew up in the USA. Our different understandings of and relationships with the word black should not lead to contention, but rather to an expansion of our cross-cultural conversations. Black isn’t a monolithic concept – let’s eke out the many shades and hues during this grey ass month of February.

P.S. Gotta love a chill ass Common joint

2 Responses to "“Black, maybe…” – Thoughts on Race"

How is Black Heritage Month acknowledged on your campus? Where I’m from it was called Black History month and only American historical figures were discussed. If you campus covers all of the African diaspora during this month then perhaps the name should be modified to be more inclusive.
Or are the other campus groups participating as allies? In that case I don’t see why it matters if they call themselves black only that they are allies.

In general I try to be supportive of an individual’s right to self identify, it seems silly to argue with someone over what they call themselves.

There’s a BHM Committee that’s formed separately from the black student organisations (but which often draws on their members) that basically handles certain large events like a big opening reception and a culture show, and then coordinates with individual groups in hosting smaller events on campus. Other groups, such as the Muslim Student Association, have also increasingly participated in BHM.

There isn’t always a lot of programming focused on the continent because of a lack of communication between the African student group and the committee – something that members of both have talked about. A lot of the Africans (and students outside of the black community) also don’t know a lot about black history in the context of America, something that needs to be addressed by the programming in BHM.

I don’t think that BHM itself is what’s causing these tensions, it’s just that its name highlights this schism between people’s different relationships with the word black and so the problems seem most obvious during February.

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