Bridging the Gap: A Conversation on the Black Diaspora in America

Photo by Margarita Corporan
A writer recently accused African-Americans of "appropriating" African culture. What are the factors that contribute to the rift between Blacks in the African diaspora and what can we do to close that gap?

Last year when 18-year-old Ghanaian-American Kwasi Enin gained acceptance to all eight Ivy League schools, USA Today ran an article on his accomplishment. Quoting a college admissions expert, the article read, in part, “He’s not a typical African-American kid.”

Later, the newspaper cut that section of the quote from the piece, but the implication remained clear: Because Enin is African, his work ethic and interest in education must be stronger than that of a Black American kid, hence, his attractiveness to the nation’s top schools.

The debate that occurred on social media afterward highlights the stereotypes and divisive opinions that tend to drive a wedge between us all: African-Americans, Africans and Caribbean-Americans. Just read this article accusing African-Americans of "appropriating" African culture.

Aiming to explore these tensions further, ESSENCE hosted a discussion with six thought leaders, writers, journalists and academics from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Moderator and ESSENCE.com entertainment editor Yolanda Sangweni centered the conversation on this question: What are the factors that contribute to the rift between Blacks in the African diaspora and what can we do to close that gap?

WHAT DIVIDES US

Though sociologists have concluded it can take just one generation for Black immigrants to identify culturally as American, stark distinctions of “us” against “them” persist. ESSENCE began the discussion by asking panelists if the separation between African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and Africans is something they have encountered personally, and why they think such attitudes exist.

LUVVIE AJAYI: I wrote a [popular] blog post about the relationship between Africans and African-Americans, because someone on Twitter asked what I felt about the word akata. It is a Nigerian word, although a lot of West Africans use it to identify African-Americans. It’s so commonplace most people don’t know akata means “wild animal”—most just think it’s a word for African-American.

NATASHA LIGHTFOOT: I’m West Indian, married to someone who’s half West Indian, half African-American, and there’s a lot of that—acknowledging there are differences within the broader Black community in the U.S. There’s also a long history…of building networks together. It’s never hard and fast, the lines of separation between what is African-American, African, West Indian and Afro-Latin American.

SALAMISHAH TILLET: I’m half Trinidadian, half African-American. The story in my family is that my mother wasn’t as welcomed into my father’s family because she is African-American. So I had that tension at the root of my biography. But for me it’s been about finding points of connection politically, intellectually and historically and trying to appreciate differences. So when you think of someone like Audre Lorde, she is both Caribbean and African-American. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s Nigerian, but moves in and out of these identity spaces. Or Edwidge Danticat, who is Haitian-American. But I am also quite conscious of African-Americans who have been here for multiple generations and had unique experiences and struggles.

LIGHTFOOT: I think a lot of Black immigrants arrive in the U.S. not fully aware of the kinds of struggles that African-Americans, who have been here since the days of enslavement, have had to endure. I firmly acknowledge that my ability to be educated at an Ivy League school and now be an educator at an Ivy League school is about the sorts of struggles that were won by people who were here long before me. And when my parents arrived, they arrived at the right time so those kinds of opportunities could be mine to take on.

AJAYI: When I was 9 and showed up in the U.S., I had no idea what slavery was. I wasn’t taught about the Middle Passage in history class in Nigeria. My formative years, in terms of learning about race wand forming my ideas about ethnicity, were in college. If you come here when you’re 35, you don’t get to take 18 Afro classes to get the information you need to know. So you’re carrying around the idea that if I get here and I was a doctor back home and I’m a cabdriver here and I somehow sent my kids to school and they somehow end up being Ph.D.’s, why couldn’t you, and you’ve been here this whole time?

METANOYA Z. WEBB: Coming from a West Indian and Jamaican household, there were these [ideas about] the difference between Africans, African-Americans and Caribbean children. If that’s constantly drilled into you, you have to unlearn those things you were taught.

LOLA OGUNNAIKE: There was an understanding in my house when I was growing up that you weren’t supposed to fraternize with certain types of Black Americans. That if you came home speaking too much slang, or if you weren’t as focused on your studies as you had been before, there was a fear that you were adopting Black American ways. And, if my parents had their choice, all of my friends would have been Asian-American or Indian-American students—other immigrant, model minorities.

WEBB: In Caribbean homes, as well. We’re taught you’re kind of better than certain people.

TILLET: This myth of Black Americans not being academically competitive, or interested in education, is so ridiculous. I mean, the long history of African-Americans establishing schools, seeking education for their kids, despite all intentions of the state and private groups to disenfranchise children through lack of education—it’s just frustrating to me. I know it’s long-standing, people believe it, and Tiger Moms write books about it, but it’s bullsh-t.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: What often gets erased [in discussions about immigration] is that we are literally one generation out of legal apartheid in this country. My dad was born into Jim Crow. We don’t acknowledge that the gains African-Americans have made since the end of legal apartheid, which was 1968, have been tremendous. Look at our graduation rates, our college attendance rates, our foray into middle-class jobs. What’s said is, “You’ve been here forever, and you guys got your freedom, and why aren’t you doing anything with it?”

OGUNNAIKE: I’ve often found myself in the position of having to defend Black Americans to my parents. A lot of our debates centered around the lack of appreciation for the struggle that actually gave them opportunity to come to this country and be successful.

HANNAH-JONES: That immigration policy was changed by the Civil Rights Movement. There was a cap on [the number of people] who could come from Black countries until the movement.

LIGHTFOOT: The cap was started in the 1920’s and didn’t end until 1965, right in the middle of [civil rights] legislation.

HANNAH-JONES: You have, on one hand, people from the continent saying, “We’re not all in the middle of a war, we’re not starving, we’re not all that, don’t judge us.” But then they come to the United States and judge 40 million people as being one way as well. So we’re both doing it, because we both don’t want to be on the bottom.

WHAT BRINGS US TOGETHER

Of the 42 million people who checked “Black” on the last census, a record 3.8 million are foreign-born. Studies predict that by 2060, almost 17 percent of the U.S. Black population will be immigrants (with the majority coming from Jamaica, Haiti, Nigeria and Ethiopia). Our panelists were asked, “Should people of the African diaspora harness their power in numbers and unify? Or is this an unrealistic expectation?”

LIGHTFOOT: There are all these different subgroups that we need to be acknowledging. Within the Caribbean diaspora, there’s the whole “big island versus small island” thing. So there might be Jamaicans, Guyanese and Trinidadians, sort of as a large group of people who outnumber the smaller island folks. I’m coming from a place like Antigua, and the Antiguan community in New York City is small, but I tend to find community with some of the other small islands like St. Kitts or Anguilla or Nevis.

TILLET: We may not always appreciate it as such, but I do think Black people in the U.S., despite all these differences, vote pretty consistently in the same way [Democratic].

SANGWENI: It’s funny; I feel like I became more African in America. I knew nothing about Black South African history, because they didn’t teach it in school. And it was only in coming here that I found out about Nigeria, I found out about Jamaica. So there are times when we feel like we areseparated, but there’s so much unity happening here.

LIGHTFOOT: If we think of the history of Pan-Africanism, I would say some of its earliest iterations happened with the Garvey movement here in the U.S. And that’s something that brought together Africans, African-Americans and West Indians. And all those folks had a language for the ways they could identify, because the structures of colonialism and capitalism threw them into places they normally wouldn’t be in together. It is not just about [living] together in, say, a building or on a block. The active ways that people have historically sought out community are going to be the same ways that people continue to build community. It’s a self-selective process. This moment that we’re in now [is one] where no amount of accent, birthplace [means anything] in the face of police brutality, of extralegal vigilante violence against Black people, Black children. We don’t have the leisure to decide whether we need to get together in this moment.

HANNAH-JONES: You never could come to this country as a Black person and it mattered that you weren’t born here, when it came to violence. There’s never going to be a unified Black community— there have always been Black communities. They’re very different, but you bond over the things that are necessary for you to build community.

TILLET: How do African-Americans engage Africa and the Caribbean today? Is it primarily through tourism? What are those other points of solidarity, because ones around Black/White binaries don’t work everywhere we go?

SANGWENI: Hip-hop culture has done amazing things for solidarity. When you go to certain parts of Africa and you’re African-American, it’s like, “Oh, brother, teach me that hip-hop thing.” There’s a certain thing of wanting to be like African-Americans but not wanting to be African-Americans.

TILLET: For me, it’s about political solidarity. I went to Kenya as a junior in college with a sense of some utopia [about Africa], and I was sexually assaulted there. So it changed from being solidarity only around race to actually thinking about the lives of Kenyan women and their vulnerability. It went from Pan-Africanism to what we would call Third World feminism, or African feminism. I work with women in South Africa around violence against women. These forms of oppression are quite similar to what African-American women are experiencing. There are all these other lines of solidarity that I think we often don’t pursue, because we only think of race. But how do we create solidarity in ending homophobia, ending transphobia, [and the] HIV/AIDS crisis?

HANNAH-JONES: We also need to keep in mind the ongoing struggle domestically. When you think about the two most notorious police brutality cases in New York City—Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo—they were immigrants. In understanding that, when you see Baltimore exploding or Ferguson exploding, solidarity also needs to be with immigrant communities, joined in that struggle that continues here as well. Harry Belafonte (who is Jamaican-American) was flying money in to the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement at the risk of his own life. And the strong Black nationalist presence in Brooklyn came from the Caribbean.

LIGHTFOOT: There is something in this country that is about wanting to silence the retelling of our histories that we need to actively fight against. Some of that is about making sure we’re educating ourselves and those coming up behind us to know our connections are not new. Our tensions are not new. And so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when we’re trying to think of ways to overcome them. 

Ayana D. Byrd is a Brooklyn-based journalist currently writing her first novel.

What can we do to close the gap between Blacks in the diaspora? Sound off below.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine.

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