(This piece was originally posted on CNN I Report as part of the ‘African Perspectives on Black America’ assignment. Reactions to the post went from ‘I understand and relate’ to ‘You don’t know wtf you’re talking about’. I thought it’d be interesting to repost it…)
This is so deep and so delicate an issue, I don’t know where to begin.
I started preparing for my ‘big American migration’ as a teen back in French-speaking Benin. I set-up to learn not only English but the history of the people I thought were my African brothers and sisters in America. MLK, Malcolm X, slavery, the Civil War, Frederic Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, and yes, Sidney Poitier and I confess, Denzel were all part of my African-American History personal study curriculum. I’ve learned it all so that I could reach US shores, ready to partake in their continuing journey of assimilation in any capacity I could. Well, little did I know the only element we have in common was… is the color of our skin.
Call me resilient but it took me ten years of interaction to finally understand that Africans and African-Americans have as much in common as white Americans and Europeans do: not much. We are different peoples, each with its own set of customs and values (which sometimes seem to clash). Along these lines, Africans’ struggle for self-governance and decolonization has never been compared with African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights, despite some noted similarities. We think differently, have different aspirations as individuals, families and communities, all of which are shaped by different histories, social and national backgrounds.
The truth of the matter is that the African community in America is still “ethnic unchartered territory” for most Americans, whether Caucasians, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans or else. There is still no specific characteristics (some would call it stereotypes) attached to our community, perhaps due to the fact that our contribution to American society is unpalpable, has yet to be analyzed, categorized, as does the extent of our incorporation into US cultural psyche. Hence us being systematically assimilated to the largest black portion of the US population or to vague concepts spread by a mostly ignorant media.
As an immigrant and a writer for instance, I had to face being typecast by US literary agents. Most would rather support an ‘ethnically’ driven story peppered with the usual ingredients of poverty-striken Africa, genocide, war, women struggling in male dominated societies written by a writer of African descent, than take the risk of representing an African writer delivering stories about non-African or non-African-American characters. It felt as if being of a certain color systematically determines how I will talk, think, dress, the kind of music I listen to, what my moral code (of lack thereof), or my friends will be… And yes, it seems to also determine what I should write. It made me suspect that venturing outside one’s cultural boundaries may not be the norm in America, or if it happens, one is labeled with certain terms I will not bother repeating here.
Despite being culturally self-assured, enough at least to not feel threatened by other cultures, many of us still struggle to find our place in the ethnic patchwork that is the United States. It could be because we are not satisfied with being restricted to a category of individuals with whom most of us don’t necessarily identify. I am no more African-American than I am German, Vietnamese or, say, Australian.
I am African.
I remain so even as an American citizen because it is part of the fabric of my individuality.
This is why when faced with that dreaded ethnicity check list I wish I could just ignore when applying for a job or school, I am forced to choose: “Other” as in “not yet defined”.
That’s because in America, “Other” is what I am. At least, for now.