Of African Descent: When Black People from Across the Diaspora Meet in the American Context
For centuries blackness in America has been defined by a continuum of harrowing realities—fighting through to widening possibilities—which in turn are circumscribed by narrowing circumstances.
To be a native Black American is to stand on shaky foundations. Shaky not of their own accord, but shaky by provenance. In a place where, according to the poesy of Attala Zane Giles and the soulful stylings of all praises due her Gladys Knight, “riches determine your worth,” it is relatively easy to see why Blackness in America is considered problematic. When to be poor has always been to be considered a problem—being among the poorest of the poor, the descendants of slaves is uniquely so.
There are those who say that Blackness in America and poverty aren’t mutually exclusive—which to some small degree is true. However, the larger truth is we now have data which prove that being born a Black descendant of slaves is the most important indicator of your wealth position in this country, more important than drive, talent, marriage, college, savings, and financial literacy.
Before 1965, the common experience of Blackness in America had its roots in the South, in the Black Belt of this nation with a sprinkling of the world thrown in for good measure. Black America is a group of people who despite coercion, with the power of love, faith and determination managed to forge an identity for itself.
Never an insular group the Caribbean, South, Central and Latin American cultures as well as others, have always been absorbed and recapitulated into the Great Black American cultural gumbo. From Marcus Garvey to Harry Belafonte, from Arturo Alfonso Schomburg to La La Anthony, from Charlie Mingus to Sidney Poitier, Blackness in America has always been rich and diverse.
To repeat what is obvious, some of the greatest figures in our sojourn here, in the history of Black people in this nation have been people who have not begun their lives here, but who have added their voices and vision to the cause of lifting up Black American life and taken up the struggle to define Blackness in America with dignity.
America in Black and White
For much of the history of this nation otherness was determined by religion, permanent otherness by duskiness of hue. These two group identifiers determined if you were allowed to live here and the circumstances under which you lived, if fortunate enough to enter.
During the colonial period America developed into a racial hierarchy. For most of its history American society organized itself chiefly around the duality of Whiteness and Blackness. This binary was so deeply established that even those who didn’t quite fit the narrative of Black or White were assigned to a category anyway. So much so that other groups, considered non-white during different times in our nation’s history, were made subject to similar proscriptions and discriminations as Black Americans.
For most groups, this second-class status is gradually eased, usually over an extended period. Those who were once outsiders are expediently granted general acceptance and recast as normal actors in society. This assimilation is a recurring pattern for immigrants to the United States. Unfortunately, it hasn’t extended itself to those who were brought to the United States against their will.
In the 1920’s during the heyday of Eugenics, the vast majority of immigration slots were set aside for Northern Europeans only—everyone else was considered genetically less desirable. Needless to say, for most of its history, there have been very few foreign-born Black people admitted to the United States.
All of that changed after the second Reconstruction Era of the 1960’s, when through the blood and effort of Black Americans and their allies, “legal” segregation and apartheid were outlawed. Those battles also created the potential for changing the material prospects of America’s largest and most reliable pool of inexpensive labor prior to 1965–Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves.
Described as a social justice measure, and as an adjunct to the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration, the 1965 Hart/Cellar Act, repealed the racist quota system established by the Johnson/Reed Act of the 1920’s which allotted some 70 percent of all immigration slots to Northern Europeans. Since it’s signing there has been a multiplicity of Black communities growing here and what it means to be Black in America is rapidly changing.
Which Black America are you Addressing?
According to data collected by the Pew Research Foundation in 2016, there were more than 4.2 million foreign-born Black people living in the United States. They hail from nations with their own languages, customs and ways of seeing and being in the world. And in large enough numbers, many wish to and do differentiate and distinguish themselves from native Black Americans.
According to a study by Pew Research Center, close to half, about 45 percent, are new arrivals having only entered the country since 2000. According to the same study, 63 percent of all African-born immigrants have entered the country since 2000.
They tend to think of themselves and use the ethnic and cultural identifications of their or their parents’ home country and they and their children may or may not identify as Black American or as African American at all. They also tend to be better educated than the United States population in general.
Also, depending on their places of origin, tend to be much wealthier than native born Black descendants of slaves. Report: The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles
The Descendants of Slave Traders
A recent article in the New Yorker entitled My Great Grandfather the Nigerian Slave Trader, adds an additional layer of complexity to an already super complex situation. The author, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, speaks about her Nigerian family’s role in the slave trade and while we are told her family’s involvement occurred too late to have participated in slavery in the United States, which officially banned the importation of African Slaves in 1807, it is nevertheless instructive. The article begins with a description of domestic stability which is practically unheard of in native Black American communities:
My parents’ home, in Umujieze, Nigeria, stands on a hilly plot that has been in our family for more than a hundred years.
This small description says more about the difference between Ms. Nwaubani and native Black Americans than can be said in a thousand words. The fact her people have lived on a piece of land they have owned for more than a hundred years makes her experience outside the pale of all but a miniscule group of native Black Americans—we simply have no context.
This difference may be fueled by the differences in wealth position endemic in her background as the descendant of slave traders, as opposed to native Black Americans–the descendants of the traded–is sobering. Nwaubani then goes on to describe the slave trade in Nigeria:
Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war. The practice differed from slavery in the Americas: slaves were permitted to move freely in their communities and to own property, but they were also sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies or buried alive with their masters to serve them in the next life.
When the transatlantic trade began, in the fifteenth century, the demand for slaves spiked. Igbo traders began kidnapping people from distant villages. Sometimes a family would sell off a disgraced relative, a practice that Ijoma Okoro, a professor of Igbo history at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, likens to the shipping of British convicts to the penal colonies in Australia: “People would say, ‘Let them go. I don’t want to see them again.’” Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, nearly one and a half million Igbo slaves were sent across the Middle Passage.
We Meet Again
According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates about 16 percent of Unified States slaves came from Eastern Nigeria, 24 percent from Angola and the Congo. Slaves were also imported from Benin, Togo, Ghana and Sierra Leone, Senegal, the Gambia as well as others. Recent DNA studies can even pinpoint where ethnic groups were concentrated so we know for example that Virginia became America’s Ibo land since so many slaves from Nigeria ended up there, the Carolina’s our own Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia) since so many slaves were enslaved there to grow rice.
Across space-time we meet again, now in a different world and in a different context, the descendants of West and Central African slave traders and the descendants of those sold into bondage encounter one another here in America; and while the social memory of our West and Central African kindred may stretch far back into the distant past, the same cannot be said for the descendants of slaves, since the destruction of social memory is a central pillar of enslavement.
So that here in the United States a West African person and a native-born Black person, a descendant of slaves, may look at one another, but are seeing quite different things when they do. What is striking is that our very struggle—the striving of centuries to free ourselves from the bondage imposed on us by greed is the very thing which kicked the doors open to a more diverse Black population and has created the possibility of meeting a descendant of one who may have sold an ancestor of yours into bondage.
Who Do You Mean When You Say We?
In 2017, the Black actor and descendant of slaves, Samuel Jackson, was asked what he thought about a Black British actor portraying a native Black American character in a hit movie which was being widely spoken about. Jackson was roundly criticized for voicing the opinion that a person whose background was native Black American may have brought an added depth to the role. One of Jackson’s (the respected veteran actor’s loudest critics was the relative newcomer, John Boyega, a Black Brit who stated that “…We don’t have time for that.”
This began a continuing discussion (illustrated most recently by the Aretha Franklin flare-up) across the different Black America’s and across the internet about “who is whom” and “can speak for whom else” and “just who do you mean when you say ‘we’” Kemo Sabe?
Who Are We?
The “new” Black America is creating itself around us while the “old” Black America gathers itself under the weight of stagnant wage growth, home ownership rates lower than any time since the great depression, mass incarceration and the ever- present threat of violence.
All these things can be traced back to our legacy. The problem with coming from that legacy is that it is imbedded with hereditary disadvantage at a time when increasingly what matters most are natal advantages–those with which we are born.
Increasingly, Blackness in America is becoming a plurality, not all those included in the category have the same past nor the same agendas. We who have been here for so long, who’ve called America home for hundreds of years have much to teach those wise enough to recognize its value, but before that can happen we must begin to come to grips with what being Black in America for centuries has cost us.
Nwaubani, Adaobi Tricia. “My Great Grandfather the Nigerian Slave Trader.” The New Yorker. 15 July 2018. The New Yorker. Web. 20 July 2018.
Gates, Henry Louis. “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.” The New York Times. 22 April 2018. The New York Times. Web. 20 July 2018.
Johnson, David. “Uncovering African Roots.” Info Please. 20 July 2018. Info Please. Web. 20 July 2018.