She sat across from me. This young, fiery person who reminded me of a less jaded version of myself. She was an incoming student, hailing from a historically black university. My job was to persuade her to attend our primary white institution. Not sure where our conversation started, but we landed on a minefield when she looked me dead in the eye and said: “You’re not really Black though.” And by Black, she meant “Black American.”
“Please explain. ” I said catching a breath after feeling like I just dodged a bullet. I was 34. I hadn’t heard this argument since I was 15 years old or so, and I had spent the past 18 years accepting that I was indeed, Black. And here I was again, it seemed.
She explained that I wasn’t part of the diaspora which by her definition was Black descendents of the Atlantic Slave trade. From her perspective, I had a language group I could identify even if I couldn’t fluently speak it and a place on the map that I could call home. She contended that I didn’t know what it was like to feel lost and disconnected, to have my language and culture stripped from me, and I couldn’t bask in the glory of her ancestors who suffered in and for this country. My parents had just come 117 years after slavery ended and 20 years after the Civil Rights movement so you know ….I’m not really Black.
Her argument resonates with some of the beliefs of the ADOS movement (the American Descendents of Slaves) who believe that Black immigrants and descendents of Slaves have different pathways and thus different experiences. This group famously protested British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman. There are others who share their sentiments like actor Samuel Jackson who, though backtracked on his statement, complained that British-Ugandan actor Daniel Kaluuya should not have starred in the Black horror film Get Out because he didn’t know what it was to be Black American.
I cannot with a clear conscience say that my experience as a Black person in America is the exact same as my friends who are descendents of slaves. It’s true. I have a language. I have a city, a town on the African continent where I know my parents grew up. There is a cultural perspective I carry which counters and often conflicts with Western ideals (interdependence vs. independence, community vs. autonomy). But as a child born to immigrants in America, I’d say that though having a Nigerian heritage is a significant chunk of my identity, my connection to the “Motherland” or to the “Continent” as some would call it has mostly been cultivated through shared stories, personal investigation and investment.
When I stop by a Hyundai dealership in sweatpants to inquire about buying a car only to wait longer than Sally and Jim who walked in after me to be attended to and then to be told “there’s no one available to help me”. . .When my students at my PWI petition to get me fired because my tests are hard, I talk too much about race in a class about identity, and I come across like I don’t like my job. . . When the shuttle bus driver doesn’t offer to help me carry my bags but rushed down the steps to help the lean White woman with the exact same luggage I have. . .When a storeowner follows me around (in Prague) and tells me to not touch anything because I can’t afford it. . .When a prominent scholar at an affluent university tells me during an interview that I was invited to meet their diversity quota. . .When I think of how hard my mother fought to own her own home so my sister and I could have access to asset wealth given how far ahead White counterparts are in being among the owning class. . . .When a White male during a social event at a professional conference that I earned the right to attend verbalizes he is surprised at how articulate I sound having come from Baltimore, Maryland. . . .I feel pretty Black.
Yes my name is different. And I have experienced my share of discrimination from Black Americans too. As an American, I have experienced discrimination from Nigerians. I do not have the painful legacy of families being ripped apart by “White people”. I do have a legacy of being from a landmass partitioned by a German and named by a British couple so whether by force or willful migration, my heritage is not completely known. I am just learning about the Songhay Empire. Granted my distance between here and Africa is shorter, my connection to a unique culture seems stronger, and regardless of the innumerable migration stories in the history of the world, I still have a more concrete place I can call home when America doesn’t feel like it to me. But as an InBetweener I also know the feeling of not ever really feeling at home.
At 38, I am just making peace with these complexities. As a mother of a child in brown skin with an un-American name, I am eager to equip her with tools she can use to make sense of her InBetweenness. No one dare tell her she isn’t American. She has the birth certificate to prove it. And no one dare tell her she aint Black. Her skin and this country’s interaction with it is evidence enough.