By Baba Ly
Like me, I am sure many of my fellow immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa with dark skin have wondered how to define themselves here in the U.S. And because of an experience I first had back in 2020, I am also certain that many of my African American brothers and sisters have questioned my Black identity. The identity question first came up for me when I was running a cultural competency workshop for a group of social workers, which included several people of color. Among them were a few dark-skinned African immigrants, and one light-skinned African American man.
During my presentation, which was about identity, I used as an example my own identity. I always identify myself as Black, immigrant, straight, speaks English with an accent, among other signifiers. The African American man asked me, “Why do you identify yourself as Black?” I was confused and asked him for clarification. He repeated his question, and explained that he believes only indigenous African-Americans – descendants of slaves – can identify as Black. I said, “I immigrated from Africa, and I am Black. I think it’s very obvious from the tone of my skin color.” I could tell he didn’t agree. He looked confused, and the majority of the white audience looked confused as well.
After that I became curious about the difference between the perceptions of Blackness through the lens of African Americans, and that of African immigrants. I realized that the cleavage is deep for many of us. Some African immigrants prefer to identify simply by their country of origin, and clearly distance themselves from African Americans. Many African Americans who claim that they are Black want nothing to do with African identity.
My takeaway is that on the one hand there are Africans who prefer to stick with their specific countries’ identities and so distance themselves from the negative stereotypes wrongly attributed to African-Americans, such as violent, gangsters, fatherless, drug dealers. And on the other hand there are African Americans who want to distance themselves from negative labels associated with Africans, such as living naked in forests, savages, dark-skinned.
All of these perceptions are based on ignorance about Black history before and after the eras of slavery and the colonization of the African continent. The more I research the history of Black people, the better I understand that my most visible identity as an African immigrant is simply Black, just like African American people, who are African descendents of the African diaspora around the world. However, I don’t mean to group all Black people as a monolithic ethnic group. We all have different heritages, sub-identities, and rich cultures deeply rooted in where we live now, lived before, and have settled over time. And these should not divide us, but bring us together – as one united Black Community!