Despite protests from my family members and other Nigerians in my community, I consider myself first and foremost African American. Personally, it has taken quite some time for me to embrace this realization. I straddle between two different communities, that of Nigeria, which I fondly refer to as home and the land which I currently pen from, the United States. I am African American in the truest sense of the word – an African living in America. Yes, if we parse it down, I could very well label myself as Nigerian American, Igbo American…Ohuhu American (?). It can get unnecessarily specific. In light of this I still, towards the end of an online job application, proudly place my check next to “Black, African American.”
The African-American experience, I have come to find, is an incredibly diverse one. We include those whose ancestry stems from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, recent Haitian immigrants, black Londoners who now call the US their own.
Even those who find their roots strongly laid in the soils of long-forgotten Southern plantations are themselves brimming with a rich genetic diversity, featuring parentage from Caucasian, Native and other American sources. Though popular news sites and blogs continue to argue about whether to classify President Obama as black, white, or biracial, I still maintain that he is our nation’s first African American president. Heck, if word got out that Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother may have been black, I’m claiming her too.
In light of our differences, I always thought that it would be a difficult task to pin any one cultural experience as that which defines our blackness. However, these days, I stand to be corrected. “…uknowurblackwhen…,” read the title of a recent article from a popular online black magazine. The article sought to explore the story behind a recent Twitter trend in which black twitterers would key the strokes #uknowurblackwhen followed by their perception of shared African American experiences. Being a moderately avid black twitterer myself, I was familiar with this trend before reading the article. Though my familiarity with this phenomenon was merely limited to the only “uknowurblack” tweet I received from a follower, who admitted we both failed to meet several of the standards posed by our fellow African American twitterers.
No, I don’t …drink Koolaid from the pickle jar (old butter tubs, yes).
Nor do I have in my possession…a busted car with a bangin’ sound system (both car and sound system are “busted,” thank you very much).
Later, upon checking out several of the “uknowurblack” tweets, I found I had more in common with those followed by the “uknowurnotblack” tags.
The quest to define what it means to be African American is not a recent phenomenon nor is the discussion limited to playground fights, casual tweets, and heated debates in the media. Many in the social sciences are aware of the African American Acculturation Scale (AAAS) which seeks to assess the extent to which an individual has adopted the culture, attitudes, and behaviors of blacks in America. The scale is based on eight parameters, which include items such as religion and superstitions, disposition towards race relations, and interestingly – “a preference for African American things.” While this scale could undoubtedly be highly predictive health outcomes, voting behaviors and the like, I contend that it is hardly reflective of the actual African American experience, which comprises of a melting pot of different groups and nationalities. The notion of a “traditional” African-American who represents all of us, is one I find problematic. The traditional African American person flies in the face of our everyday realities as a varied group of black females (and males) in the United States.
If there ever were to be a black version of the Statue of Liberty, I imagine that she would daily call out for the black, “huddled masses yearning to be free,” regardless of whether these masses hail from grassy New England suburbs, rural communities in North Carolina, or the cosmopolitan reaches of Lagos, Nigeria. “Send these…to me,” she cries. And she would take us – all of us – just as we are.